The costs of my reverse culture shock set in before I even touched down on U.S. soil. Hungover and exhausted from having stayed out at a club in Madrid until 5 in the morning, I arrived at the Madrid-Barajas airport feeling as disheveled as I looked.
I was in denial. I’d spent the previous six months traveling through Europe and living in the south of Spain, and I did not want to go home. My reluctance to leave the country made me linger for so long on my last morning that I was the very last person to board my flight. Neglecting my usual travel routine (read: buying lots of supermarket snacks) meant that I handed over an absurdly large amount of my remaining euros to a flight attendant in exchange for a sad vegetable sandwich. And so my reverse culture shock spending began.
Many of us are familiar with the concept of culture shock, or the feeling of disorientation at moving to a new country or cultural environment, but reverse culture shock tends to receive less attention. This is likely due to many of the misconceptions that exacerbate reverse culture shock to begin with, such as the assumption that our home country or culture has not changed since we left it. The State Department advises that thinking about reverse culture shock in the same terms as culture shock, emphasizing that re-entry to one’s home country can create similar stressors to what we experience when we move abroad. In fact, reverse culture shock can sometimes be even more challenging because we don’t expect to feel lost in what used to be a familiar environment.
When I boarded my plane in Madrid, I was coming back to Washington, D.C. after six months spent traveling solo and living in Córdoba, a sleepy, charming city in Andalucía that tourists often skip in favor of the flashier southern cities of Sevilla and Granada. I’d felt the need to get off the workaholic treadmill that is life in America’s capital, and to say I slowed down in Córdoba was an understatement. I did a work exchange at a hostel for most of my time there, spending 20 to 30 hours a week changing bed linens and serving cheap “sangria” from a plastic bottle to backpackers who were blissfully unaware that no self-respecting Spaniard would ever drink the stuff. The clarity I found in a gentler pace of life created the space for me to decide that I want to get my master’s degree abroad, and with that goal in mind, I made arrangements to come back to the U.S. to work, save, and prepare.
In a stroke of luck that felt like divine intervention, both my former job and my old room in my former shared house opened up at the same time. I seized the opportunity and bought my plane ticket home. Unlike my move from D.C. to Spain, which I meticulously planned and saved for, my move back to D.C. was chaotic and haphazard. Readjustment to life in the States turned out to be as messy as my physical and emotional state on my return flight, and unfortunately, I have the tracked spending to show for it.
Here are a few of the most surprising ways in which reverse culture shock took a toll on my wallet:
1. Wishful Thinking
Within 24 hours of flashing my passport at customs to re-enter the country, I was already daydreaming about leaving the U.S. again. I spent hours diving down Internet rabbit holes about digital nomadism and teaching abroad, trying to find a financially feasible way to move back to Spain before grad school. The friends I’d left behind in Córdoba, while lovely, didn’t exactly help, reminding me that I still had five months left on my residency visa and naively encouraging me to buy another one-way plane ticket and just “figure it out” once I got back to Andalucía.
My reasons for moving back to the States were clear and well-considered, however, and it was a sound practical choice. I’d re-committed to a great job with decent pay and amazing benefits that would allow me to grow in my career while I worked towards saving and applying for master’s programs and, hopefully, a more permanent move abroad. I was making a short-term sacrifice of five more months in Spain in service of my more important long-term goals. That didn’t stop me from entertaining fantasies of picking up and leaving again, though, and I wasted more money than I care to remember on application fees for a few different teach and work abroad programs. My desire to move back immediately dissipated within the first few weeks as I got settled and started focusing on my goals. The blow to my bank account didn’t vanish so quickly, and I wish I’d been more forward-thinking at the time.
2. Unhealthy Habits
Despite the lack of structure in my life abroad, I managed to maintain a number of healthy habits after years spent cultivating them in my “normal” life. I ran and practiced yoga three to five times a week, rarely ate out, and tried to get seven to eight hours of sleep on at least a semi-regular basis. But I also picked up a few less-than-ideal routines, which caught up with me when I returned home.
Most were relatively harmless, but I’m ashamed to admit that the one was the classically European vice of cigarettes. All of my friends in Spain smoked, and I do mean all of them, which meant that the opportunity to light up presented itself to me multiple times in an hour, let alone a day. I resisted temptation until my last week in Spain, when my scorched-earth mentality took over. I indulged in a packet of loose tobacco and told myself that it was fine because I was going to leave the habit behind in Córdoba. I did not, of course, stop smoking once I returned stateside, because a stressful and emotionally draining life transition is exactly the time when we are not well-equipped to give up unhealthy habits. I missed my life in Spain and, though I knew cigarettes were one of the worst possible decisions I could make for my health, the act of smoking made me feel a tiny bit like I was back in Córdoba. I bought a pack my first day back in D.C., and even after quitting had a few relapses over the course of the fall during particularly stressful moments. Looking back now, I cringe thinking about the money that literally vanished into thin air as a result of my smoking habit.
The United States in general and Washington, D.C. in particular have a strong restaurant culture. I still remember being shocked at the nightly routine of happy hours during my first summer in the District, recognizing that even the most reasonable $5 margarita quickly becomes a significant expense when you’re ordering it multiple nights a week. I love nothing more than a glass of wine and a home-cooked meal in my living room, and happen to live in one of the top-three most expensive cities in the country, so I usually exercise restraint when it comes to eating and drinking out.
When I returned home from Spain, though, I threw caution to the wind, and my spending ballooned as a result. It seemed like every friend I caught up with after my months away wanted to do so over dinner and/or drinks. Rather than make my usual suggestions of free or low-cost activities like having a potluck or reconnecting over coffee, I said yes to every invitation out. My struggle to readjust to life here made me willing to do anything that seemed like a good time, regardless of the impact on my finances. If I’m being honest, I was also afraid that my time abroad had weakened my relationships in D.C., and so I was more inclined to simply say yes rather than risk the rejection if my friend didn’t like my budget-friendly alternative. It pains me to say that I spent nearly a thousand (yes, you read that right) dollars on eating and drinking out in the first two months after I returned from Spain, meaning I was spending close to triple what my usual monthly budget is for those activities.
After living out of a backpack for six months, I relished settling back into my cozy shoebox of a room when I moved back into my D.C. rowhouse. I found a color named “Afternoon Siesta” at my local hardware store and repainted my walls a cheery yellow. I bought a secondhand Ikea bookshelf for the downstairs living room, where my Spanish novels made friends with my housemate’s copy of Rick Steves’ Europe Through the Back Door. I bought a houseplant that only needs watering once a month, since the succulents I’d left to my housemates when I went to Spain were long dead. I dumped the remainder of my water bottle unceremoniously into the soil on the same day I made my first rent payment, dusted my hands, and sighed happily at my newfound domesticity.
There’s no doubt in my mind that making a few small efforts to feel at home again in my physical space here eased my reverse culture shock, and I’d say this is doubly true given that I was moving back into a house where I had already lived once before. The familiarity of returning to an employer and home I already knew did make for a smoother landing back in the States logistically speaking, but this familiarity also had the unexpectedly bizarre effect of making my time in Spain feel like a fever dream. I found that changing my bedroom helped to demarcate the time before and after Spain, serving as a visual reminder that time had passed, I had grown, and that I was starting a new chapter back in the U.S.
All that being said, I found myself burning through the “home” category of my budget rather quickly, a spending pattern that I noticed seemed to match the emotional valleys I experienced while navigating reverse culture shock. The modest mood boost I got from redecorating snowballed into justifications for any home-related purchase. The result was $350 in expenses over my first two months back on a lot of items that I probably didn’t need. I’m glad I bought that yellow paint, along with a desk that allows me to write uninterrupted in my bedroom, but I honestly can’t remember some of the other purchases that went into that unusually high number. A little nesting can be good for reverse culture shock, but I learned that it’s easy to overdo it.
5. Lifestyle Inflation
Given that I couldn’t legally work in Spain on my visa, I had very little income while abroad (only what I could make from freelancing here and there) and was primarily living off the savings I’d accumulated in preparation for my travels. I lived pretty frugally in Córdoba as a result, cooking almost all my meals in the hostel kitchen or at a friend’s, choosing wine in the park over the bars, and camping for free rather than booking pricey weekend getaways. The cost of living in the city was also quite low, which was one of the reasons I chose to stay in Córdoba rather than move to Madrid as I’d originally planned. Small luxuries like a night out or a restaurant meal therefore cost me a fraction of what I paid back home.
Once I came back to the U.S. and had steady work again, I reveled just a little too much in the direct deposits hitting my account every two weeks. Despondent over everything I missed about Spain and chafing at the constraints of once again working a nine-to-five, I allowed myself to spend on all the things I’d denied myself when I was on a strict traveler’s budget. Fancy gym membership? Exercise will boost my mood! That new novel everyone’s talking about? Hell yeah, I have a bookshelf now! Yet another round of drinks I don’t need? You had me at “Rioja.” And because these delights were coming in at D.C. prices rather than Andalucían ones, they added up fast.
This category of reverse culture shock spending encompasses many of the others, but what it boils down to is that any major move associated with an increase in income (or, for those moving abroad, a decrease in cost of living) can result in rapid lifestyle inflation. Especially since I was moving back to the U.S. specifically to work and save for my future, I should have maintained the thriftiness that served me so well abroad. Instead, I caved to the familiar seduction of emotional spending in order to distract myself from the sadness and isolation I felt when I first returned home.
But don’t worry — I’ve gotten my spending under control:
Though my budget spreadsheet hides none of the spending sins I committed as a result of my reverse culture shock, it also shows how quickly I was able to bounce back. I got my spending under control within a few months of re-entry, and more than a year later, I’m well on my way to my savings goals. Emotional spending happens to even the most money-savvy of us, and the most important action is to recognize it and adjust accordingly. If you’re coming home soon, perhaps use my hard-earned lessons as a template to plan your financial landing, and if you’re going abroad — buen viaje.