How Long-Term Travelers With Loans Do Money
by Rachel Sales
The first time I solo-traveled internationally was during the summer before college. I was a volunteer on a kibbutz in the north of Israel, where I scrubbed toilets and mopped floors for food, board and — as it turned out — tons of gin-and-tonics. With no credit card to my name, I brought $800 in cash with me. I spent my free time hitchhiking around the country and partying in the local bomb-shelter-turned-pub. So not only did I save most of my $70 monthly stipend, but I also returned with a nice amount of money.
I realized that if you want to explore the world on a budget, it’s important to have extremely low expenses. But what if you’re a college graduate with massive loans? Then I met Hana LaRock, a recent graduate from the University of Hartford, who decided not to let her loans stop her from seeing the world. She has spent the past two years traveling from South Korea to Mexico, and isn’t stopping anytime soon. How does she do it? Hana took some time from her freelance writing work to share her experiences.
Rachel Sales: How did you first start traveling?
Hana LaRock: After graduation, I started looking for a job in New York or Connecticut. But I was having so much trouble that I told my boyfriend, Max, “If I don’t find a job by the first week of August, I’m going to go to South Korea to teach English. If you want to come with me, what the heck!” He was down for it, and we didn’t find any other jobs, so there wasn’t a good reason not to go. Three months after graduation, we took off. How did you save money before you left?
I had a summer job, but I didn’t save much from it. Luckily, when you’re teaching in Korea, the school pays for your flight, which is the biggest financial burden. At the time, I didn’t have a credit card, and my family said that I needed to get one so that I’d have a way of coming home. I was approved for a card with a $500 maximum before I left, which wouldn’t even have been enough for a return ticket. But it was enough to buy food, and Max had a credit card with a higher limit. My grandparents also gave me a little bit of money, and Max’s parents gave him $100, so we went to Korea with $800 between the two of us.
How much was your monthly paycheck in Korea, and what did you spend it on?
We got paid about $2,000 a month, which was great. You can’t find any other English teaching jobs abroad like that. The school also paid for our housing, so we took home the whole paycheck each month. Even after paying $1,000 in student loans, we were still able to save a lot.
Still, the work schedule was really demanding so we couldn’t travel whenever we wanted. We needed to beg our boss for time off, so at the last minute in January, we got four days off to travel to Beijing. At that point, we were paying more towards our student loans than the minimum, because we could, but then we needed money for this trip, as well as the big trip we were planning for the end of the school year. We spent $700 on flights and then we brought $400 of spending money to China. We actually came home with money, which was amazing.
Tell me about your big trip after you finished teaching in Korea. How much did you budget for it?
We spent a month traveling in Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore. We didn’t really start saving for that trip until February and we left in May. We took seven flights, including one from Singapore to New York, which came to $3,000 all together, and we paid for those by credit card. We also had to put away money for the months when we weren’t working, in order to pay our bills and student loans. Before we left, we decided which big activities we would do — ziplining and things like that — and we paid for whatever we could online so that we could get those payments out of the way. We also booked hotels in advance, which were only about $10 a night. Then, whatever we had leftover became our budget for eating, buying things, and doing more minor activities.
Our daily budget was $60 a day, not including the flights. At the end of the day, my boyfriend and I would sit together and review our budget. I kept track of our spending in my phone or in a little notebook.
That’s really impressive. This summer, my husband and I went to Italy and we got really cheap accommodations — or as cheap as you can get in Italy — but once we started eating, we never said no. We always ordered a bottle of wine, an appetizer, two pastas, and a dessert. We totally threw our budget out the window.
I can imagine! Southeast Asia is so cheap. There was one day when we each had three meals, snacks, smoothies, and coffee, and we took a four-hour train ride, and we only spent $15. There’s nowhere else in the world where you can do that. Singapore, of course, was different but we were only there for two days. We wanted to give ourselves enough time to see it without spending a lot of money.
I also understand that you did a bunch of freelance work on the side?
I didn’t actually want to do writing while I was traveling because I just wanted to enjoy it, but finding jobs through Odesk and Elance definitely helped give me some extra money. But I didn’t touch that money until I returned to the US because it was part of my emergency fund.
Once you flew home to New York, when did you leave for Mexico? And how much money did you take with you?
We came back to New York on July 13 and we left to teach in Mexico on August 4. Before our trip to Southeast Asia, we had put enough money on the side to pay our school loans, and we arrived in Mexico with $1,000. We also had to book our own flights to Mexico, which we did on our credit cards. So, we started racking up our credit card bills.
Why did you specifically use your credit cards to pay for flights?
We used a credit card both for security reasons and because you can make $25 payments a month, instead of paying the fees all at once.
What was your living situation like in Mexico?
Well, our schools reimbursed us $300 each for flights, which cost $470 each. The salary was half of what it was in Korea — $1,000 each per month. We knew this going in and we were okay with it because we thought we’d have enough money to pay our bills. We just wanted enough money to enjoy ourselves while we were there. But the cost of living is not cheap in Mexico, and we were only able to save about $100 each month. Part of the reason we couldn’t stay in Mexico was because we were getting into more and more debt and we weren’t able to make up for it. So, we left in December and luckily, we already had our flights booked. The worst part was that we had adopted a dog while we were there and we needed to get the dog back home, which cost almost $800. Mexico has crazy rules for bringing pets over the border.
Now you guys are planning to do your graduate degrees in Germany, right? So, what are you doing until then and how are you saving up?
Right now we’re working full-time and saving up as much as we can by living with our parents, and hopefully we’ll be off in the fall. I’m working as a secretary at an eyeglasses store four days a week, and I also have a writing job for a website called Carbonated.tv, which pays me per article. If I keep working like this until the fall, I’ll have enough for Germany.
How much are you hoping to save?
In order to get your visa for Germany, we need at least 8,000 euro each. Tuition is free for foreign students, which is why we’ve decided to go there. The only thing we have to pay is a semester fee of 200 euro for transportation, which gives you a ticket for any public transportation within the country.
Once you’re there, what are you going to do about money?
The great thing about Germany is that foreigners can work while studying. So, all the money that we save this summer will help us get on our feet, and then we’re hoping that we’ll have jobs and that I’ll get a scholarship.
I know that a lot of other people with big loans would feel like they couldn’t travel. What would you say to other people in that position?
Don’t let them control you. Yes, you need to have enough money to pay your bills. But live your life the way you want to live it. Sure, you can make a lot of money and pay your loans off quicker, but you’ll be sacrificing so much of your twenties doing it.
Rachel Sales is a co-founder of Pink Pangea, the community for women who love to travel.
Support The Billfold on Patreon
The Billfold continues to exist thanks to support from our readers. Help us continue to do our work by supporting us on Patreon.