Everywhere you look, there are signs telling you to take chances and “do the thing.” It’s not as common to see the small print that says “but the thing is very difficult — in many ways — and it will probably work out and you will look back coated in feelings of triumph and success, but it can be so frustratingly difficult for so long.” That line is less inspirational and doesn’t sound so pretty, so we leave it out. But, generally speaking, making life-altering changes and starting anew are incredibly difficult processes to go through with. Often, these changes lead to leaving people, jobs, and places that we love behind. They sometimes lead to months of loneliness and stumbling through a new language, frustrated that you forgot the word for “bag” again. They sometimes mean crying on the train on the way home (or in the supermarket, or the bathroom of a restaurant), wondering if it’s worth it or whether it is time to go back. Seeing posts of your friends and old life “back home” and asking why, why, why while filling up with a feeling of loss.
It can also be a struggle financially. In fact, I would even go out on a limb and say that it is usually a struggle financially. Even if you follow all of the rules and save up the recommended amount of money, it can still be a struggle and you can end up sitting alone in your one-room apartment asking yourself what happened. For many others, it may not be possible to save up the “correct” amount, depending on timing and your work or living situation. The point is that, either way, it could still be an uphill battle for a long time.
These struggles are often what make the view from the top that much more beautiful, and can remind you of all of the strength that you have and all that you can achieve. This is, of course, not always the case, but I know that the successes after the months of struggle are the ones that keep me going when those crying-on-the-train-wanting-to-give-up moments happen.
I recently went through this process when I moved to Germany. I debated months for whether I wanted to go through with the move, but, in the end, I decided that it was what would be best for my development and personal life. I saved up several thousand dollars to get me through the first few months, and settled into a part-time job where I am now making about $800 USD per month. $800. My student loan payment alone is about $725. The job was also one that I was not crazy about, but I knew it would not be forever and would help me make this change while I tried to find full-time employment. While I am working on that, however, here is how I am surviving living on a salary that barely covers my debt.
(Side note: I do not live off of familial support, nor have I ever. I am not saying there is anything wrong when people do, but I wanted that context to be clear. I do, however, have the privilege of an incredibly affordable living situation, which allows me to focus on my loans and other necessities and not as much on rent.)
1. Side hustles
Whenever I would read articles on side hustles, they would repeat the same hustles over and over: survey websites, Airbnb, and other specific hustles that not everyone has the skills for. I would end up exiting out, feeling let down and misled. While I do some of the “sitting at home in my pajamas” hustles, those do not pay my loans for me. And no matter how many times I read a side hustle article, I will not develop the skills needed to open an Etsy store that anyone would purchase anything from. I did eventually realize that there really are side hustles for almost everyone, though, if you know what you are looking for. I am very outdoorsy, and eventually found an organization with which I could give hiking tours each week, and I was dumbfounded. Finally, the whole “side hustle” thing made sense to me! I had always had some type of side-hustle, but this one is an actual position from which I receive semi-regular pay. Between this and one or two tutoring clients, I have my spending money each week. This goes for gas, very occasional dinners out, and random other things that pop up. So, if you also are frustrated by repetitive side hustle advice, think of something that you enjoy doing, and begin asking around about work in that area. We don’t all have to open Etsy shops.
I know that every article tells you to cook, but wait! This is (somewhat) different. The trick here is determining what you like and what the very basic ingredients are to make it. I firmly believe that the reason many people don’t cook is because recipes are so intimidating. I agree! I used to look at them and think, “Huh. I don’t have three of these ingredients, I guess I can’t make it.” No, (usually) not true. Figure out what you love to eat and what basic ingredients you need and make sure to always have those at home. I am at the point where my 10-minute homemade nachos or yellow Thai curry are always more tempting than takeout, even after 14-hour days when I get home at 10 PM. Try to determine which ingredients are necessary, and then look at recipes only for reference. I have not used an exact recipe in years, and my guests are continuously amazed that I make something new, delicious, and not completely complicated every time they visit. This is paired with (on average) one restaurant meal per month, and my weekly food costs don’t exceed 20€.
3. Taking steps forward
I made it a goal to invest in myself and move one step forward in my career every day, through preparing for my (hopefully) eventual interviews and sharpening the skills that I could be losing while not working directly in my chosen field. This allows me to look toward a future where this will no longer be my life, so that I remain motivated during the moments when I want to pack my suitcase and give up.
Even during the tightest months, I put away at least a few dollars in savings. If necessary, I find one-day gigs during holidays to make it happen, but I managed to always put at least something away for the future. This gives me the comfort of knowing that, if anything does happen, I will make it through to the next month (thankfully the current euro-dollar conversion is quite strong, which makes it easier to fit this in my budget).
5. Not working for free
In addition to being at a job where I was underpaid, they expected us to work for free to an unacceptable extent; as in, nearly as many hours unpaid as paid. I quickly realized that the reason that they expected this is because nobody had ever really said no to them, and they always continued on with this process when the next person came along. I was in a unique situation where I was aware that they would not be able to continue operating without me, and I used this knowledge that they could not fire me to begin saying no to unpaid opportunities. I informed them that every unpaid day I spent with them was a day that I could not be paid at one of my side hustles, and I stopped attending the unpaid events. My decision to put my foot down motivated some others as well, and I hope that the lack of support at these events will encourage them to change their policies on expecting employees to work for free.
6. Timely treats
Lives are meant to be lived and, if possible, not spent working to survive. I knew that I needed little points of excitement to get me through until I am again living the luxury of being salaried. I work in a country where we have vacation time approximately every eight weeks, and I use these times to have my largest treats (usually a 20€ Groupon massage). I plan something free or nearly free every week in between, in order to continuously have something to look forward to (like a 2€ package of eight chai tea latte mixes).
I know that my situation is not at all the worst that I could be in, that I have many privileges and that I am lucky to still be employed, but there are times in which I have considered un-”doing the thing” and going back to the U.S. to work my salaried job that I also loved. But I remember how happy I am every morning to wake up where I do, and I take the necessary steps to both make my loan payment for the month and have a few extra dollars to put toward my future. I may not stay forever and could return to my old job eventually, but I know that I would have regretted it had I not bought that plane ticket and flown out of my comfort zone.
Mary is a teacher currently living in Europe.
Image via Unsplash