The year was 2013, and by all outward appearances, my husband, William, and I were living the good life in St. Louis.
He was finishing up his MBA and had an internship at a well-known consumer-products company that was sure to put him on the corporate fast track—all while running his own successful tutoring and test-prep business on the side.
I was juggling getting my Ph.D. in reproductive epidemiology while also being a mom to our pride and joy, Desmond, then 2.
But during William’s last semester in the MBA program, our family took a life-altering trip to Spain as part of his study abroad offering. What was just supposed to be a three-month trip overseas turned into two years … and counting.
Since then, we’ve lived and worked in five different countries, from Hungary to Peru—and have even added to our brood along the way.
Our nomadic lifestyle may seem a bit unorthodox to some—family and friends were shocked when we told them we were selling all of our belongings to pack up and ship out—but we wouldn’t have it any other way.
The best part? It’s done wonders for our finances.
Truth be told, the career and life paths we’d always envisioned for ourselves weren’t quite panning out.
Despite the fact that most business students would have killed to have William’s internship, he was disillusioned by corporate life.
The monotony of his day-to-day routine coupled with having to work for someone else, just didn’t feel natural to him. He wanted something more.
I was feeling a similar dissatisfaction. I’d been working on my Ph.D. for almost five years, and continuing my research while caring for a little one left me struggling to maintain motivation. I was gradually falling out of love with academia.
All of this prompted William to pose a question before we embarked for Spain for his study abroad program: What if we didn’t come back to the states at semester’s end?
What if we stayed in Europe for a few more months—one last hurrah before putting down roots?
I thought he was crazy.
We had a toddler and a mountain of debt—more than $100,000 in student loans between us, a $25,000 business loan, and about $6,000 of credit card debt. We couldn’t go gallivanting around Europe like carefree college students.
But when I saw he was dead serious, it stirred something in me. I couldn’t help but feel like maybe this could be an amazing adventure for our little family.
So we got out of our lease, moved our stuff into storage, and found an apartment in Barcelona through Airbnb for $1,200 a month—not supercheap, but still less than the $1,500 we were spending to rent a home in St. Louis.
Once we settled in Spain, William had yet another crazy idea: What if we never went back and instead built out his tutoring business overseas?
We had both been employees of the company back when we lived in Salt Lake City, and when the opportunity arose, the entrepreneur in him decided to take out a business loan to buy the company from its previous owners.
When we moved to St. Louis for his MBA program, William continued to manage the business remotely, hiring two codirectors to oversee the roughly 15 tutors we employed back in Salt Lake City. He drew a salary of about $35,000—but being abroad made us realize there was an even greater opportunity to make money.
William could meet with international schools throughout Europe and pitch them our services, in which one of our tutors would spend a few weeks doing SAT/ACT prep at their schools to help students who wanted to attend college in the U.S.
I believed in the plan, but the thought of living in—not just visiting—so many different countries terrified me. But if we were going to try this, it was now or never.
So I put my Ph.D. on hold and became our family’s Chief Travel Officer.
5 Countries, $300 Rent, $0 Credit Card Debt
We stayed in Barcelona for about five months, taking in the culture, loving every minute—and mapping out our next destinations based on whether there were international schools close by, our interest in the region, and the cost of living.
Our next, three-month stop was Budapest, Hungary, which was a much cheaper place to live. By avoiding renting in a tourist area, we were able to get a great apartment for just $300 a month.
It was then that I realized how living abroad could actually be good for our finances because, if we planned well, life could be so much cheaper.
When the holidays rolled around, we headed back to St. Louis to sell all of our personal belongings and officially leave our U.S. life behind. But, first, we made a pit stop in Rome—which is when we discovered that our second baby was on the way!
Giving birth in a safe place where I felt comfortable, was important to me, which is why we chose to live next in Colombia. I was born there and still had family there, so it was comforting to know we’d have some support.
After finding a fully furnished apartment in Bogota for $900, we headed out there in February 2014—and welcomed our second son (named Roman, in a nod to Italy) in the spring.
We didn’t have international health insurance at the time, so we paid out of pocket for the birth, which only added up to $1,800, including all of my prenatal visits. Since then, we’ve gotten family coverage for just $200 a month.
In the eight months that we were in Bogota, William took countless meetings, nabbing new contracts and growing the business even more. He gradually increased his salary to about $45,000 a year, and the company helps subsidize such expenses as flights for business meetings, as well as our rent. I also brought in occasional income by doing some freelance research and public-health data analysis on the side.
While we don’t get a tax break from living abroad—we still have to file U.S. income taxes—we do get some tax write-offs for any business-travel-related expenses we have to cover.
This new life has allowed us to get our $6,000 credit card balance down to zero last year—and pay off our $25,000 business loan.
And while chipping away at our student loans will be a slower endeavor, we’ve been able to contribute to a 529 college savings account for Desmond, open a trust account for Roman, and maintain an emergency savings fund of about $2,000.
Our next goal will be to resume contributions to a Roth IRA, which we’d put on hold during graduate school.
Living frugally, of course, helps a lot. For starters, we always opt for cheap housing, even if it means choosing less-prime neighborhoods. Our rent abroad—including furnishings, WiFi and utilities—has averaged $1,000, which is about $500 less than what we were paying in St. Louis.
But, without a doubt, our biggest savings has come from no longer having to pay for gas, insurance and repairs for two cars—we quickly familiarize ourselves with public transportation in every new city. I also do a lot of cooking at home, using seasonal and local ingredients as much as I can, to save money.
In cities where the cost of living is higher, we keep stricter tabs on our expenses, so we know when we’re close to going beyond our budget. Plus, living out of suitcases means we can’t accumulate much stuff—so no extravagant shopping sprees for us!
These frugal habits have accompanied us in the five countries we’ve lived in—Spain, Hungary, Colombia, Peru and Mexico—and the dozens of places we’ve visited. We’re currently back in Bogota, but it’s off to Japan next to build an East Asian client base.
The Intangible Perks of Our International Life
One of my initial concerns with living abroad was how the kids would adjust, but they’ve taken to the nomadic life with ease.
Desmond has attended four different preschools, and in just a few short months, we’ll enroll him in an all-Japanese kindergarten. Once he gets to first or second grade, we plan to home-school because we know international schools can get very pricey.
In our opinion, these experiences have helped shape Desmond into an outgoing, fearless kid—not to mention that he now speaks Spanish fluently!
People ask how long we plan to keep up our gypsy lifestyle. The honest answer: I’m not sure. There are times when I think I’d love to own a permanent home, but then I look around and realize that we’re living most people’s once-in-a-lifetimes.
We’ve spent the past few years marveling at Machu Picchu, taking overnight train rides through Transylvania, and braving the outdoor markets of Santiago.
We may not be millionaires, but we also aren’t struggling. When we started this journey, the company had one international class. We have 11 classes starting this fall, and even more in the works for the spring semester—which has more than doubled our profits.
Over the last few years, my most fulfilling memories have been watching my children play with kids who speak different languages and hold different beliefs. I’ve also come to realize that the best memories happen when you’re willing to surrender a little control and embrace the unexpected.
At the very least, what our nomadic life has taught us is that when we finally do settle down, we won’t need a great, big house with a fancy car to be happy. I’ve learned that you don’t need to have a permanent address to feel like you have a home.
–As told to Maryanne Hayes
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