How to Move Abroad When You’re Young and Broke
One morning in September 2015, I packed my belongings into a giant suitcase and said goodbye to California. I moved to Madrid, Spain, fulfilling a long-held dream. With just about $1,000 to live on, I was worried about making ends meet. Despite that, I was determined to make it work because I had amazing memories from studying abroad in the Spanish Basque Country. I was 23 and didn’t have kids or a mortgage so what better time to explore.
With some careful planning, I was able to live in Spain for 11 months, become nearly fluent in Spanish, travel to dozens of countries, and make friends from around the world. I’m not writing this to brag; I just want to show you that you don’t have to be rich to travel long-term. This post is for if you’re considering moving abroad (to Europe particularly) but aren’t sure how to go about it or don’t think you can afford it. I’m going to break down the steps I took to move to Spain and live comfortably with little money. I want to show you how to move abroad when you’re broke. It’s possible!
Step 1: Get a Job as an English Teacher
Teaching English is probably the fastest and easiest way to get a long-term visa to many countries, including Spain. Japan and Korea have some of the must lucrative teaching programs for English teachers, called JET and EPIK, respectively. I was interested in Spain so I applied and was accepted to The North American Language and Culture Assistant Program, a cultural exchange program organized by the Spanish Ministry of Education. The program allows American and Canadian Citizens who have a college degree to teach English at a primary or secondary school in Spain for one academic year. Teachers are known as Auxiliares de Conversación or simply language assistants. At the end of the academic year, they have the option to renew their contract and can do so up to three times.
Language assistants are paid between 700-1000 euros per month, depending on where they are placed. Those in the Community of Madrid are paid 1000 euros because the cost of living is higher there. On the other hand, those in Andalucia, which is cheaper, are paid 700 euros. Language assistants typically work 16 hours a week and get one weekday off. They don’t actually teach a class; they support the English teachers by helping students improve their pronunciation and prepare for standardized tests.
There are several other English-teaching programs in Spain, such as BEDA and Activa. The pay for those programs is lower and they have different work requirements. I compared the programs and chose the North American Language and Culture Assistant Program, which places about 3,000 language assistants every year. I was assigned to C.E.I.P Doctor Severo Ochoa, an elementary school in Madrid. I’m going to go over how to apply to the program in Spain, but you can also learn how to apply to 20 programs around the world.
The procedure for applying to the program is as follows.
Submit an application
You have to submit your application through their online application portal called Profex. It will walk you through each stage of the process. The application opens in January and closes in April. I HIGHLY RECOMMEND you apply the day the application opens to increase your chances of getting your first choice location. You get to rank your top three autonomous communities in Spain, not cities. That means if you choose the Community of Madrid, you may get placed in a town outside the city of Madrid.
Completing the application is straightforward. You need to fill out biographical information, write an essay, and obtain one letter of recommendation. I got my letter of recommendation from my former Spanish teacher in college. You may encounter potential headaches in the next step.
Get a visa
You will receive a notification of acceptance sometime between June and August. Once accepted, you can apply for a long-term student visa. The process varies depending on where you live. I had to go through the Spanish Consulate in Los Angeles, and it was a nightmare! I ran around for weeks trying to assemble the long list of requirements, including a notarized translation of my medical history. If I had a question, no one at the consulate seemed to know the answer. It was just so disorganized. Other language assistants that I’ve talked to had a much more pleasant experience.
Prepare for the move
Once you have a visa, you’re almost set. You’ll need to do some research. First, research your assigned location: the neighborhoods, transportation, weather, social etiquette, and so on. From your research, you’ll figure out the neighborhoods where you want to live. Then you can start searching for apartments. There are two websites that Spanish people, as well as language assistants, typically recommend: www.pisocompartido.com and www.easypiso.com. You can browse those sites by city and also by neighborhood. For me, I loved the Retiro neighborhood in Madrid so I focused my search on that area, making a list of apartments that would be available in September or October 2015.
Fly off to Spain
Once you arrive in Spain, you will need to stay in a hostel or Airbnb for the first week or so. Then you can email the owners of the apartments on your list and ask to come for a tour. It really helps to speak at least some basic Spanish. Most of the landlords do not speak English. I toured three apartments in the Retiro neighborhood and chose the second. It was one of the best decisions I made while in Madrid! My landlady, Pilar, treated me like her own daughter. Some of my friends, on the other hand, had landlords from hell. One landlord wanted to install cameras in the apartment! Moral of the story: make sure you meet with the landlord and get a sense of what they’re like before you sign the lease.
2. Create and Stick to a Budget.
My 1000 euro per month salary was enough for me to live comfortably. Groceries and living expenses in Madrid are super affordable. You can buy a gallon of water for 30 euro cents! To travel frequently though, I had to find a way to save more. One popular option among language assistants is the offer private English lessons to kids. These are often arranged through referrals from other language assistants and on expat Facebook groups. You can expect to earn 15-20 euros per hour per child. I considered that option but didn’t like the idea of teaching more kids after work (I don’t enjoy teaching kids.) I also wanted to take advantage of my free time. My solution was to manage my money like a pro. My monthly budget looked something like this:
Rent: 360 euros
Groceries: 80 euros
Metro Card: 20 euros
Entertainment/Miscellaneous: 100 euros
Total: 560 euros
Money left for travel: 440 euros
3. Take Advantage of Ridesharing, Group Trips, and Travel Deals
The great thing about Europe is that there are many budget airlines, such as Ryanair, Wow Air, and Easyjet, which offer flights for as low as 10 euros. I would go on Skyscanner regularly, search for flights to anywhere, and look at the best deals. I once found a flight from London to Milan for 14 euros! Hunting for bargain flights became a fun game for me. I set alerts to be notified about price drops.
For travel within and near Spain, I used Alsa, a popular bus service that can take you from Madrid to Lisbon for as low as 5 euros each way! Yes, 5 euros! You have to start your search early and be flexible with dates to snag those deals. There is also Bla Bla Car, a ride-sharing service that can take you from Madrid to Barcelona for just 25 euros. The name is beyond ridiculous, but the prices are unbeatable. Taking Spain’s national train system, Renfe, from Madrid to Barcelona will cost you somewhere around 100 euros round trip. Learn more about 15 easy tips to save money while traveling.
I normally stayed at an Airbnb, hostel, bed and breakfast, or boutique hotel. The highest I ever paid for a place to stay was 65 euros/night. I would start my research about a month in advance because, with hostels especially, prices increase fast the longer you wait.
I’ll use my trip to Budapest to give you an example:
Flight: Ryanair – 85 euros round trip
Accommodation: Wombats City Hostel Budapest – 31 euros for two nights
Activities and Food: 70 euros
Total: 186 euros
When I didn’t want to do any planning, I would join a group tour organized by travel companies like BeMadrid. These trips cater to study abroad students and young expats. They range from day trips to 2-week Euro trips. Most trips are less than 100 euros, but longer trips may cost as much as 450 euros.
You see: long-term travel doesn’t have to be expensive. You have to sacrifice some comfort to stretch your money, but you still get to see the world! If you don’t have kids or a mortgage, long-term travel is one of the best gifts you can give to yourself. A mentor once told me ‘Your 20s are for learning and your 30s are for earning.’ I wholeheartedly agree! After college, there’s so much pressure on us to get a ‘real job’ and climb the corporate ladder. Screw that! There’s so much more to life than sitting a cubicle. Living abroad will help develop independence, make friends from around the world, and gain a perspective that you can’t get any other way. And the memories will last a lifetime.