Lacy Elam is proof that you don't have to make big bucks to dream big — including traveling the country and the globe.
And her strategy for making sure travel funds are available is pretty simple.
"Just a lot of self control, really," the 32-year-old Colorado Springs woman says with a smile. "I don't shop on Amazon in the middle of the night. I don't buy anything that I don't need. My fridge is never full. I've had the same hiking boots for 12 years. It's a very minimalist lifestyle."
Elam, who works as a portrait photographer and also does some freelance webpage design, doesn't have an eye-popping income that allows for lavish vacations at top-tier resorts. Even so, she's still managed road trips this past year to both the east and west coasts of the United States along with several national parks along the way.
Meanwhile, she recently retired the pair of waterproof Merrill hiking boots that she bought 12 years ago, right before she left for Europe to escape what she looks back on as a dead-end job.
Ready for a change
More than 10 years ago, Elman was making a living styling women's hair and had regular customers who came into her Richmond, Va., store.
She sold products. She cut hair. She got people ready for photo shoots. She would use a lot of the products she was pushing.
And she loathed all of it.
"Oh my God," Elam said. "I did that for several years in Richmond and just hated it. I used to straighten my hair or curl it every single day. I used to get my nails done all the time, I'd go to spas every day and use all these products. It turns out I'm allergic to a lot of that stuff, but I'd use them anyway. We had to. It was part of the job."
The "eureka" moment for Elam came when she realized how much money she was spending on these services. Makeup, hair products, nail services and pedicures, even 10 years ago, could run as much as $500 monthly, she said. Plus, she said that job was taking a toll in other places.
"You're serving as the stylist and the therapist for people," Elam said. "It's super draining."
So she said farewell to that life — and adopted that minimalist mentality to free up cash she could use to travel the world.
Planting the travel seed
Elam said the experience at the hair salon prompted her to want to leave the place she grew up and figure a few things out as a young adult. She caught on with an organization called workaway.com, which finds and offers jobs to overseas travelers.
Some of the jobs she took on included a horse farm in Germany where she "shoveled horse manure, took care of the animals and cooked for the owners." She eventually moved on to Spain, where she said she ran a bed and breakfast. She scored big with her next gig in Portugal, where she was supposed to work in a family's butcher shop but, instead, became a travel companion for the family while they were out hiking and adventuring around Europe.
All total, she was able to see most of the continent on a visa that was extended to two years. It also afforded her the opportunities to have multiple experiences that included snowboarding in the Alps and a week-long stay in Amsterdam.
She eventually came back to the United States to live in North Carolina, then moved around the country before she and her boyfriend, Jim Shields, moved from a small town in New Mexico to Colorado Springs in March 2020, when traveling became an even higher priority.
"I'm just not someone who can sit around and stare at a computer screen all day, even though that's what most of us do for a living," Elam says.
Staying on budget
Ironically, much of what she does to earn money involves staring at a computer screen much of the day. That comes when she's editing photos for portraits she's taken or some landscape photography she's come across during her travels. She also helps people design websites and has her own website, adventurelacephotography.com, to put her work on display. It's somewhat similar to a 9-to-5 web design job she had when she got back from Europe, but she opted for the freelance route to avoid what she considers unnecessary office-work drama.
She also has her boyfriend to share expenses and travel with along with a pair of Siberian huskies, Storm and Athena, who often make cameos in the photos she posts on her Instagram feed (@advanturelace).
"If you don't have a partner or a roommate, its hard to afford just to live on your own in this in this day and age, much less travel," Elam said.
Then, of course, there's her car, a 2007 Honda CRV that has racked up close to 247,000 miles. She took it to Europe with her and has never had to make major repairs.
When Elam is traveling, she keeps hotel stays to a minimum and often finds places to camp. She also uses gas apps on her smartphone like AAA to look ahead at what gas stations are charging. Fuel for her CRV, she said, is often the biggest expense on her trip, so looking ahead is vital or "gas stations will screw you," she said.
She also has a cooler she packs food into for longer trips — a drive to North Carolina can take up to 30 hours one way, she said — and she rarely gets fast food since "it's terrible for you." At home, if she and her boyfriend ever eat out, it's "very rare. Like, once a month."
Then there's the hair and cosmetics thing. Elam has gone from spending up to $300 per month on hair products alone to using maybe four beauty products every few months. She no longer gets her nails done — it's a counterproductive service when she spends a lot of time outdoors and hiking — and almost never wears makeup anymore. And she cuts her own hair.
In the end, it's added up enough for her to have enough of a cash flow to make it to North Carolina, Zion National Park in Utah, the Grand Canyon and Yosemite National Park just this year. Elam said she has more trips planned this winter — mostly around snowboarding — and doesn't plan on stopping anytime soon.
"If you want a steady 401(k) or good health insurance, don't do what I'm doing," she said. "I made a decision that I was going to work for myself and not for someone else, and it's worked enough for me to be able to be able to do these things. I'm looking forward to being kind of low key for a while, but there's some big things on the horizon."