In 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 29-year-old Arizona native shares how she and her husband manage to live and travel internationally—all while paying down his student loans and planning for their future abroad.
It's hard to imagine that in the past two years, I've gotten married to my husband, helped him through the grad school process, traveled thousands of miles, moved abroad to two completely new countries and did all this without being buried in massive amounts of debt.
Before we get into all that, let's go back to 2014. At the time, I was living in Tucson, Arizona, working full-time as a cartographer and making about $45,000 before taxes. While I wasn’t making as much as I would have liked, I was spending like I did. Going out with friends, dropping cash on food and drinks, buying expensive cars … it’s safe to say I was living beyond my means. While I didn’t have any debt, I also didn’t have any savings.
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When my then-fiancé, Aaron, got the idea to go grad school for performance psychology, we sat down and compared costs of schools in the States versus abroad. Surprisingly, we found that tuition was actually cheaper outside of the U.S. by about $10,000 to $15,000 for a year-long program. Thinking the move was both academically and financially sound, he applied to some programs abroad.
About a month before our wedding, we found out he had been accepted to a program in Scotland—which just so happened to be where we were getting married—and jumped at the chance to live in such an exciting country. I had previously spent time in Edinburgh and completely fell in love with the city. That, coupled with the university there having the program Aaron was looking for, cemented our decision.
We only had about two months from when he received his acceptance letter to when we had to move ourselves and our two cats (and, of course, with a wedding in between), so we had to get serious about building a financial cushion quickly.
Moving Internationally on a Budget
We decided to sell both of our cars—his 2005 Nissan and my 2009 Audi—which gave us about $15,000 to work with. Plus, our furniture, spare computers, clothes and anything else we were willing to part with yielded roughly another $10,000, bumping our total to about $25,000. We used everything from sites like Craigslist, Autotrader, eBay and Tradesy, as well as good old-fashioned yard sales, to sell everything as quickly as possible.
The tuition for Aaron’s one-year Master’s program was about $25,000, and since he would be going to school full-time, we would be living off just my salary (luckily, my job transferred to the UK).
In order to make ends meet, plus start paying down his tuition costs, we spent as little as possible on non-essentials once we got to Scotland: We rented a tiny, 400-square-foot apartment for about $900 a month, took public transportation everywhere, went without cellphones, cooked at home every night and bought clothes only when it was absolutely necessary.
The minimalist lifestyle was definitely a shock and sacrificing time making new friends was by far the hardest part. The UK overall is a very social country; everyone wants to drink and go out and spend money. And if your friends make more money than you and want to do all that, it can be tough. Fortunately, several of our friends were in similar financial situations, so when we wanted to see them, we would either invite them to our place or go to theirs. The rare occasions we did go to the pub, we limited ourselves to one drink each.
The one splurge we did allow ourselves was travel. During the year we were in Scotland, we visited Amsterdam, Morocco and the French Riviera. But even on these trips, we chose the cheapest ways possible: budget airlines, traveling by train or ferry when it was cost-effective and never checking luggage. With this method and our super-strict budget, we were also able to pay off about $8,000 of Aaron’s tuition within the year.
Next Stop, New Zealand
About three months before his Master’s graduation, Aaron applied for a Ph.D. program in New Zealand to continue his studies in strength and conditioning. However, by the time we were set to leave Scotland, we still hadn’t heard whether he was accepted. Unsure what our next steps would be, we moved back to the States, only to find out once we got there that he had been accepted.
While Aaron flew out to get settled and start his next academic chapter, I stayed in Arizona for about six months to save up some extra money. I was able to live with my grandmother and took on an additional part-time job, saving enough to cover my plane ticket to New Zealand, the cost to ship our two cats and a used car once I got there.
Something we didn’t originally account for when moving to the UK was how expensive it is to ship animals to another country, not to mention the amount of planning that’s involved. Because the UK doesn't allow you to bring in animals on a plane, that first move involved flying to Belgium with our cats under our seats, hopping a train to the Netherlands and then taking them on a ferry to Scotland—all to the tune of over $2,000. Getting the permits to ship them to New Zealand took nearly six months and cost about $8,000.
Unlike his Master’s, Aaron’s Ph.D. program isn’t costing us anything, and he actually receives a yearly stipend of about $25,000 New Zealand dollars that covers our rent and utilities entirely. His tuition fees were waived for the first year and will likely be waived for the next two years, as well, so we pretty much live off his stipend. My paycheck goes toward food, and the remaining $1,200 to $1,400 per month goes to our savings (including a travel fund) and his loans—we still have about $16,000 in loans left to pay. But with the additional income, we’ve been able to up our savings and 401(k) contributions significantly.
Saving Up to See the World
Surprisingly, even with our extra income in New Zealand, our spending habits really haven’t changed. I definitely thought our minimalist lifestyle in Scotland was just something we would get through and then would go back to living how we did before the move, with all those dinners out and shopping trips I thought I'd missed. But after the year was over, we were used to our new lifestyle. Plus, we really like the benefits of spending less on everyday buys and using the money elsewhere, like traveling and paying down his loans—that’s really gratifying.
It can still be tough to stick to a tight budget, but I’ve realized you have to forget about keeping up with the Joneses. It’s hard looking at your friends’ Instagram accounts and seeing others getting lattes every day without wanting to run out to Starbucks yourself, but you just have to weigh your options and figure out what you want more. Obviously for us, we would rather live abroad and travel.
We do allow ourselves some small comforts that we didn’t have in Scotland, like cellphones and a used car—unlike the UK, you definitely need a car to get around in New Zealand. But after living in Europe, I now appreciate walking more and try to walk as much as possible, even if I could drive. Another difference from the UK: People are more likely to socialize outdoors, whether at the beach or on a hike, instead of at the pub, which has been very beneficial for our budget.
While I’ve only been in New Zealand for about 10 months, we’re already saving up for our future travels: trips to South Korea for the middle of 2017 and Saint Petersburg for the Fall of 2017. To bump up our savings, I try to log as much overtime as possible at work, and those extra earnings go straight to our travel fund. And since we don’t plan on returning to the States after our three years in New Zealand—at least not immediately—we try not to buy anything unless it’s essential. We don’t want to get attached to anything because we know we won’t be able to keep it. We’re just preparing for the next place we’ll go, wherever that may be.