What Study Abroad and Backpacking Taught Me About Money

My granddad is a master saver, and he passed down his financial savvy to my mom.  I myself have been able to keep my money from burning a hole in my pocket since some of that mentality has trickled down to me.  When I was little, finances were tight in my family; my parents had a relatively low income, and even with that, we lived below our means to build up savings.  Little me didn’t know that.  All I knew was that it was a treat to even go out to Dairy Queen, we didn’t have brand-name foods and expensive snacks like my friends had, all my clothes came from secondhand stores, and most of my books came from the library because goodness knows it would have been way expensive to buy all of them.  I grew up living simply, and I never really saw a reason to start splurging once I started to become more financially independent.

However, it wasn’t until I studied abroad that I consciously paid attention to my money.  Once I got over the craziness of paying the big lump sum that included my tuition, housing, food, program services and excursions, and other included expenses, I realized that any additional money I paid–other than my flight–was pure luxury.  I had all my necessities of life paid for.  If I didn’t want to spend any more money, I didn’t have to.

In the first few weeks, I worked out a budgeting system where I only paid in cash, and every time I went to the ATM, I pulled out the equivalent of around $55.  That way, I could see how long it lasted me.  Sometimes I would go weeks without visiting the ATM since I didn’t eat out or buy anything.  My main expenditures were when I went to the beach or rainforest for the weekend, and I quickly learned what was a reasonable budget for bus/hostel/food and the occasional activity, so I would withdraw that much and stick with it.

In this way, I learned to measure what was really worth spending the money on, and what was frivolous.  It helped that I was in a culture that’s not so spend-happy as the U.S.  My longer stretches of backpacking–a month in January and 10 days after the second semester ended–put me in a different kind of thrifty culture.

Since backpackers have to fit everything in 50 liters of space on average, materialistic expenditures aren’t really an option.  In addition, everyone tries to make each dollar stretch as much as possible because the longer the money lasts, the longer they can travel.  One of the hostels I went to in Nicaragua gave me the option to stay in a dorm with air conditioning for $9, or one without for $8.  I chose option #2 and it saved me  dollars total.  Somehow two dollars are worth more on the road.

I also quickly learned how to use things I considered trash in the U.S.  If the t-shirt I bought for my sister was put in a grocery bag, I used that grocery bag until it shredded to put muddy shoes in or to waterproof my books and notebook.  Bonus points if the bag was the kind with pink and white stripes.  So pretty.  I refilled disposable plastic water bottles for weeks and wore worn-out t-shirts.  Losing my ponytail holder or bobby pins was devastating because I didn’t bring many replacements, and blonde bobby pins aren’t exactly available everywhere in Latin America.  I produced less trash in a month than I do in a couple of days at home.

One of my main reverse culture shock issues was the spending and waste that goes on on a daily basis without a second thought.  We buy things we don’t need on a whim, and it’s harder to track expenditures when they’re on a card or online purchases.  Budgeting is exhausting.  It’s like the system is set up to make us forget we’re spending real money.

However.

I’ve become more practical since returning home.  If I don’t have a specific need for something, I don’t buy it.  I pay attention to each thing I buy and consider alternatives.  My bed sheets cost fifty cents each at a thrift store, most of my clothes are secondhand, and I buy the off-brand for all my food.  This is sort of the definition of college living, but I’m amazed how people claim to be broke while spending more than they have to on things they don’t need.  Not that I’m not sometimes guilty of the same thing, of course, I just tend to be more conscious of it.

Whatever the case, the thought, planning, and effort it takes to withdraw cash and not run out in a town without an ATM that accepts your card, to convert foreign currencies, and to let go of those satisfyingly solid coins or pretty pieces of paper with colorful pictures on them is something we should all go through, if only to shake us out of our routine.

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