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Couple scrimp, save, scrounge to fund yearlong trip around world

Newly married Nate and Jessica Baumgart plan to leave their possessions behind to trek the globe. | Mitch Dudek/Sun-Times

Nate and Jessica Baumgart figured they needed $75,000 to slip out of their lives in Chicago and travel the world for a year.

At their wedding in July at an old firehouse on the North Side, they asked for no presents. Just cash, please.

They boarded humans and dogs for extra scratch at their apartment in Noble Square.

They rescued abandoned alley furniture and sold it on Craigslist.

In fact, nearly everything they own has been sold online.

Jessica looked around her kitchen on a recent Sunday morning. She was holding a cup of coffee that was lukewarm — and would have to stay that way.

“Oh, yeah,” she said. “I don’t have a microwave.”

They leave Jan. 8 for Cartagena, Colombia.

The magnitude of their endeavor hits in waves.

Like the wave of near-nausea that Jessica, 28, endured while telling her boss at Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University — where she worked in marketing — that she was quitting.

“I was just terrified to do that. And most mornings I wake and I’m just like, ‘What are we doing?’ But then I drink coffee and I feel better,” Jessica said.

Nate and Jessica Baumgart have plotted their journey — but the exact ending appears to be flexible. | Mitch Dudek/Sun-Times

Her many spreadsheets and notes and travel books are a calming presence. Food also helps. She runs an on-the-side business, teaching tipsy bachelorette parties how to make pasta from scratch.

Nate’s mostly unruffled demeanor in the face of uncertainty is a fitting counterbalance.

He mutinied from 9-to-5 life years ago.

A stint in the Peace Corps landed him in Kenya in 2008. When his mission was cut short by political strife, he was offered a plane ticket home or its equivalent in cash. He took the money and traveled Africa for three months.

“When I was 21 and graduated college I got the a job with the 401(k) and have always done the next traditional thing,” his wife said, noting that excitement usually trumps anxiety.

About a year ago, the couple decided to live on Jessica’s wages and save Nate’s earnings, which came largely from voice-over work on TV and radio ads. His pipes may have endeared you to McDonald’s chorizo burritos or Alka-Seltzer fruit juice. The tummy-relief pitch ran nationally and hauled in tens of thousands of dollars. But gigs are infrequent and often bring in only a few hundred bucks — and when the couple began saving, Nate was in debt.

More steady is his work as a hired gun for companies who need an actor to pitch their products at convention booths. Nate has a background in improv and is comfortable on stage.

The pair reached their financial goal in early December. Part of the money, about $20,000, will be set aside to help settle back into their lives upon return.

But filling getaway coffers wasn’t the biggest hurdle.

“The hardest thing is choosing a point at which to make a break, which we conveniently had,” said Nate, 33.

The duo — Jessica is from Atlanta, Nate is from Evanston — had already decided to move to a smaller, warmer but as-yet-not-chosen city to start a family. So why not globe-trek before settling down?

“I’ve always wanted to do this, but I didn’t think I’d get to do it until I’m 60 or so,” Nate said.

“Yeah — I’m not going to want to backpack through India when I’m 60,” Jessica said. “I feel like by the time you get to that stage in life you might have the money and the time but you don’t have the willpower anymore. . . . And I work in cancer so I am actively working with people who are dying all the time, and so it definitely put things in perspective for me. We’re not promised time and we’ve got to do things now — because, what if something happened to us later?”

Simply telling other people about their plans has been an experience.

“I almost feel bad now telling people about it,” Nate said, because some people feel the need to defend their lifestyle.

“In some ways people are like, ‘My choices are OK,’ and I’m like, ‘I know,” he added.

“Others become super-animated and open up and share deeply personal things, I think as a result of us kind of being vulnerable and telling people we’re doing this personal thing,” Jessica said.

“One of my coworkers told me she always regretted not moving to California when she was 22. Another co-worker told me about this big trek he’d done to the Grand Canyon. It elicits a lot of stories in people about following your dreams and doing what’s important to you,” she added.

“We’re very privileged and very fortunate and we’re very grateful for it,” Nate noted. “I just have to say that out loud a lot sometimes.”

Gaming the travel industry has helped. Nate opened nearly two dozen credit cards, earning about 800,000 airline reward miles, to whittle total airfare per person for the entire trip down to about $3,500.

The couple will work at several hostels along the way — probably bartending — in exchange for lodging.

And the couple will soon email nearly everyone they know, the gist being: “Hey, if you know jobs, people, places of interest to us on our journey, let us know. Or, if you want to come visit us, we’d love to share this experience with you.”

Their dog, Lily, is staying in Atlanta with Jessica’s mom — who, while happy for her daughter, also has raised the subject of grandkids.

After South America, the couple heads to Africa, then Europe, India and Southeast Asia. They will document their progress on their own travel blog:

Nate already is dreaming of another adventure. It involves sailing around the world and homeschooling the couple’s as-yet-unborn children along the way.

“I get wildly seasick,” Jessica said, shaking her head. “This is a horrible idea. I throw up so much.”