'The Life and Money Lessons I Learned Playing Pro Volleyball in a Foreign Country'

'The Life and Money Lessons I Learned Playing Pro Volleyball in a Foreign Country'

joseph smalzer and kory honel pose together in copenhagen denmarkIn the LearnVest Personal Stories series, everyday people share the details of their money lives, discussing the individual choices they’ve made and how it’s impacted their financial journey.

Today, one 25-year-old from Chicago shares how he’s leveraging his experience living abroad as a professional athlete to build a career for himself—and a future for two—back in the States.


Playing professional volleyball was always something I wanted to do after college. I had been playing at the NCAA Division 1 level for five years at Loyola University Chicago while getting my undergraduate degree and MBA in international business.

I liked the idea of playing pro for a year or two so I could travel and not necessarily have to pay for it. Everyone—my parents included—thought it was a good opportunity to get some international experience before hitting the traditional career path.

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As graduation neared and my dream was on its way to becoming a reality, one of the first things that worried me about an overseas athletic career was how—and even if —I would be paid. I'm not sure how other professional sports are abroad, but I’ve had friends who played volleyball in countries where they weren’t paid at all.

Luckily, my agent found me a contract in Rovaniemi, Finland, at a club with a history of paying their players. But, like with any first job out of college, I still had to anticipate the possibility of not having much of a salary just starting out.

On the bright side, Finland would be the first country I'd visit outside the U.S. I was finally getting out of the American bubble!

First Stop, Finland

While an exciting change, that first year overseas was challenging. When I arrived in August 2014, my girlfriend at the time, Kory, stayed behind in Chicago as we put our long-distance relationship to the test. However, being on my own also meant I had more flexibility with my personal budget. I ended up being paid €13,200 a year in Finland and had a €100-per-month groceries budget worked into my contract. I would have been OK eating pasta twice a day to save money. Sure, this wasn’t necessarily healthy, but I was seeing what I could afford on my own and trying to stay flexible.

Not only was I really paying attention to my budget for the first time, but I was doing so with foreign currency and having to factor in fluctuating exchange rates. This made things especially hard for tracking my plans to pay off student loans, which I set in U.S. dollars at just under $500 per month. In the beginning, the exchange rate for €1 was about $1.20 or $1.30 USD. Each paycheck, I transferred a part of my earnings in euros to a bank back home, so a strong U.S. dollar worked in my favor. Not long after my arrival, the value of the U.S. dollar dropped to almost below $1 for €1. That threw my savings off, and I had to completely change my everyday spending budget to stay on track.

As for any travel plans, unfortunately Rovaniemi is really far north—literally in the Arctic Circle—and leaving the area was both time-consuming and expensive. While I didn’t travel too much that fall, I did visit Italy over Christmas using money I had saved from the first few months of playing.

Kory was also able to come visit me just after the holidays. She's a volleyball player as well, so before she arrived I organized for her to play with the women’s team to stay active during her visit. To our surprise, after seeing her play with the team, they offered her a contract for the remainder of the season! So instead of being there for two weeks, she ended up staying with me in Finland for three or four months. Timing was on our side, as she had just finished her Master of Management program and had a job in Chicago that was OK with her taking the season off.

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Vive la France! Planning for Two in Cambrai

For my second season, I secured a contract in Cambrai, France, for about €23,200—double what my salary was in Finland. Kory and I decided from the start that she would come with me for the season, so I negotiated this into my contract to ensure she’d be on the same round-trip flights as us, that we’d have enough space for ourselves, and that we wouldn’t be sharing a room with another teammate.

We hoped Kory could find a job in France, but didn’t realize how hard it was for even French residents to find work here. Instead, she’s a volunteer coach for the club and has been preparing for a career in higher education once we’re back in the States this spring.

In any case, it’s been a good start to the year for the both of us. We’ve set a lot of personal, financial, career and relationship goals for ourselves that we’re really working on. I also proposed to Kory last December, and we’re eagerly planning our wedding for the end of next year.

Financially, the euro has been more secure, and the dollar’s been working its way back up. I continue to watch it to adjust my budget every month based on the exchange rate.

One thing about playing professionally overseas for six- to eight-month stints is that, unlike someone who works abroad for a full year and might receive certain tax benefits, I’ll have to pay taxes as usual on my income when I get home. So right now, my first financial priority is making sure I save enough money to cover taxes owed once I’m back in the U.S. After that’s settled, Kory and I can get back on track working toward our other financial goals, like contributing $200 to our emergency fund each month. We opened up and are funding a Roth IRA with $100 contributions per month, so retirement is on our mind as well.

We’ve also set up a wedding fund, and Kory’s been doing a lot of research on how to budget for the big day. One resource that’s helped her a lot is the Save the Date Wedding Podcast. We have our location picked (a nice chapel and venue back at Loyola Chicago, where we’re receiving an alumni discount!) and have some price estimates already, so we know how much we need to save by the time the event rolls around. Right now, we're putting away $417 per month and will increase our contributions every six months until we reach our $20,000 wedding budget goal.

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And being in Cambrai—which is about an hour and a half northeast of Paris, and an hour from Belgium—means we’ve been able to do more traveling. We've been to a lot of different cities, which we're pretty grateful for, and we're even planning a trip to Japan at the end of the season before we go home.

Lessons Gleaned From a Life Overseas

I think going into it, no matter your location, income or money goals, you just have to have the mind-set that your happiness is more important than anything. For Kory and me, that means being flexible to spend the time and money on things that matter to us most.

For example, one thing we’ve learned about our groceries budget is that it was initially way too low! While we originally planned to spend $200 to $300 on groceries a month between two people, I’d often check my finance apps and realize we spent $150 or $200 over budget. We weren’t exactly buying steak dinners every night—instead, we were buying fruits and veggies and nutritious foods to stay healthy. We were also enjoying learning to cook together and improving new skills, so in the end our groceries are one budget item we’re OK with having a little higher.

Another example: The occasional splurge for a nice dinner with your fiancée or your friends is OK, as long as it’s not five times a week—otherwise it's not considered a splurge. For us, it’s understanding that planning your spending and being able to make some splurges is OK because mental health is really important. After all, we don't want to go about life, saying, “Oh, I regret doing this,” or “I regret not doing that.”

So a big lesson I’ve learned is to start from a place of understanding what makes you happy, and being smart about how you use your money and other resources to make it happen. One area that especially applies to is travel; I think people would be really surprised at how much they can cut on costs by doing a little research. A lot of people assume it’s really expensive—especially for international journeys—but you can save so much doing little things like booking a flight on a Wednesday instead of on a weekend, or staying with friends instead of in hotels. There are so many resources online. It’s as simple as typing a search term into Google.

Other than searching for money-saving travel tips during my free time, I also spend a lot of time researching personal finance topics. In doing so, I decided to put together a new blog, The Purgatory Between College and Career, to help kids who have just graduated or are about to graduate find direction—including in money management.

Not everyone takes personal finance classes in school, and a lot of people just aren’t getting the knowledge needed for the real world anywhere else. Even little things like downloading apps to track your spending and saving can help you take control of your finances. That alone can give you so much more freedom—and a lot less stress.

By the way, “purgatory” is the perfect word for the project—it's kind of what I've been in while playing overseas and building up my résumé and international portfolio. This will be my last season playing professionally, so I’m constantly thinking about how I can further my career when I get back to Chicago and put my MBA to the test.

In Finland, one thing I tried to focus on was community outreach and getting more people out to matches—similar to brand building. Meanwhile, in France, I’ve been trying to interact more with our sponsors. For example, I'm working on a marketing analysis for one of them, not only as a way of saying thank you but also to increase support for the team from the sponsor and the community as a whole.

These clubs aren't just for fun and playing volleyball—they're businesses. Hopefully the international experience I've gained will help my CV, so when Kory and I get back to the States in May, we'll be able to hit the ground running.

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