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Money on the Road: Things to Consider About Working Abroad

5 years ago I left the US with a handful of cash and a backpack full of question marks. Ditching the office, car and apartment to pursue an adventure halfway across the world, my story is hardly unique. And that’s a good thing. We all have have plenty to learn about ourselves and others by stepping out of our comfort zone and pursing things that make people go “huh?”

So as a finance guy who often finds himself offering the self help equivalent of dad jeans, here’s my two cents after four years of striking it out on my own.

| You can’t just quit your job to travel. You can with a plan quit your job to travel

There’s a lot of floating crap out there about how easy it is to ditch your cubicle and write your own Robinson Crusoe adventure. There was one specific man on my Facebook newsfeed with a particularly punchable face. Most advice on “creating your nomadic life” is utter and complete bullshit. The problem with selling dreams (aside from padding the bank accounts of these travel hucksters) is that it turns people’s attention away for more common and realistic issues.

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Without a detailed plan about what you want to do and where you’d like to be, you’re only setting yourself up for a long and lonely trip down a road that leads nowhere. So you want to teach English in Thailand or backpack in Peru? Great, now ask yourself the important questions or risk moping around like Linus after losing his blanket.

  • What is the job market?
  • Will I be able to keep up with credit payments and student loans?
  • What is a realistic monthly budget?
  • Do I have a chance with the girls in ________?

These are just the basics, but some great starting points to make sure one month after your departure flight you’re not left weeping in the shower. Or more likely, calling Mom for a plane ticket home.

Don’t micromanage your own adventure, but do ask fundamental questions that build a framework for success. Just like you wouldn’t walk into a job interview and tell the recruiter, “well you know Jim, I’d just like to do something exciting with the company” you shouldn’t approach a new adventure with the same attitude.

When I first left my office position to start a new chapter in New Zealand, hundreds of questions were racing through my head. What if I ran out of money? Does New Zealand have good beer? I had an answer to all of them.

BKKTemple_blogLet me be clear – there’s nothing wrong with taking time off, moving to a new continent, and a fulfilling a lifelong desire to step outside your comfort zone. Many people, hell even all people, can benefit from dramatic, challenging change. But embarking on some new adventure without a budget, without market research, without an clear understanding of what is required in a new environment is nothing short of negligent.

| Travel is hella expensive

The standard rule about renovating your home is to take your budget and add 50%. The same rule applies to travel.

Let me step into my ivory tower for a moment.

I’m good at self control. I can pass on the big nights out, forgo the sky diving trips and expensive day trips to elephant camps that make all your friends jealous on Facebook. Despite my personal restraint however, I still have a hard time, sometimes a crazy hard time, meeting budget. For anyone more enthusiastic about running off and chasing their travel dream, finding a way to keep it all the under control is extraordinarily difficult. Just plan to spend a lot of money.

Without access to cash you will miss out on most of the opportunities you set out to accomplish in the first place. The backbone of international travel is engaging with new cultures, burning into your memory the amazing/foul/bizarre tastes of new food, ear-to-ear grins, and doing dumb drunk stuff with a group of new friends. All of that costs lots more money than you probably think. Nobody wants to be that guy in the hostel dorm room on a Thursday night afraid to spend money exploring the town.

Sure, some people can busk in town squares, eat out of dumpsters and get their travel jollies living off of food scraps. But for 99% of people you want to be sure you can afford it when the cute girl invites you on that buggy trip across the desert. A healthy savings account takes time. Creating and sticking budgets takes dedication. Know what things cost and be prepared to pay.

Jump over to Country Cost tab for a look my country budget looks like.

| Work is hard man

Some people have the luxury of taking a backpacking trip with the money in their savings account. Others know that their long-term travel plans will inevitably involve selling their soul time for a paycheck.

There’s no real way around it. Work is quite simply, work. Sometimes your days will be a lot more difficult than you imagine.

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One thing I didn’t anticipate as a working holiday maker was learning to be comfortable with service and manual labor positions. Without trying to sound like some privileged “holier than thou” brat, transitioning from a 9-5 professional to a guy hacking his way through the New Zealand vineyards was a dramatic change. I did my job, got compliments from the boss, and always showed up on time in the morning. But if it wasn’t for the excitement of a new country carrying me through most days, it would have been easy to dismiss the work as something for the plebs. I’d like to think that each position built a little more character. After the vineyards came the vegetable factory, seafood factory, apple farm, moving company, and finally a warehousing position. I have some of the best character available. Just kidding.

It’s not just a manual labor thing either. As an English teacher in South Korea, there were days where I would gladly exchange screaming Asians for a day at the spinach factory. Regardless of what you’re doing, each role brings on a new set and challenges complicated by the fact that you’re thousands of miles from home.

Working abroad is one of the most beautiful and fulfilling adventures you’ll ever take on, but don’t for a second think it will always be easy.

| You can make and save money

The other side of discovering the…joy?..of manual labor was realizing that I could actually save money. So much money, in fact, that not only was I able to continue traveling into other countries, but I was also able to contribute to savings and retirement accounts. See mom look! I can delay life, take world trips and still act like an adult!

In New Zealand for example, I ground my way through six months as a mussel opener. Kind of like that episode where Lucile Ball gets a job at the chocolate factory. Except exchange Lucy’s lack of coordination for my own awesome. And a slightly worse smelling atmosphere. In Australia, three months of hustle on an apple farm built up enough savings to move to Melbourne, Australia with enough savings to network my way into a lucrative warehousing position. Taking advantage of the education obsessed culture in South Korea, in tandem with some grueling hours, let me save enough over the course of one year for a six month backpacking trip through Asia and South America.

It’s not the most glamorous life eating local dishes, and creating your own wine tours because you can’t shell out the benjamins, but when it comes to ballin’ on a budget I’ve got the mechanics down solid.

Like anything in life, working your way around the world takes time, dedication, and a carefully thought out plan. A few months of labor will never defeat and intrepid spirit, and with so much to about the world around us the gains are surely worth the effort.

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