Recently, a reader contacted me and told me about how her and her husband paid off around $58,000 of student loan debt in 2 years, all while traveling. Below is their story. Enjoy!
I always knew I wanted to travel. Ever since I was a little girl watching enviously as my older sister went abroad for the first time, I knew traveling was going to be in my future.
However, I was still unsure how I was actually going to make it happen. As I inched closer to my graduation date from Boston College in 2014, I became increasingly concerned because I had no real career path in mind (or even a trail or a gap in the woods to be honest). My husband (though we were only dating at the time) and I had 58k of student loans between us but all we wanted to do was travel.
So, how did we combine our dream of international adventures with the reality of crushing student loan debt? These are the exact steps we used to make it happen, along with some advice for anyone who is interested in following in our footsteps!
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Step 1: Explore Teaching Opportunities Abroad
Working abroad is a great way to see more of the world while also making money. Daniel and I applied for and landed positions teaching at an International School in the United Arab Emirates.
There are a lot of countries where you can teach abroad without a teaching degree and some of the most popular are South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, Thailand, Spain, and the countries in the Arab Gulf. Each school and package is different, so vet them carefully.
Although teachers make more money in places like Hong Kong and South Korea, they often only have a couple weeks of paid vacation. I wanted to travel more, so we crossed these off the list.
Although places like Thailand and Spain are fun and exotic, the salaries usually aren’t high enough to save much money. I needed to pay off my student loans, so we crossed these off the list as well.
Finally, we decided on the Arab Gulf. Why? During our two years of teaching in Abu Dhabi, we got 7 months of paid vacation to travel the world and had a high enough salary with bonuses, free flights, a free apartment, and even a tax-free income to make it possible to pay our loans aggressively.
I found the job listing in the career portal at Boston College, but a simple Google search will also turn up a lot of websites where you can find open positions.
My husband and I applied in the fall for the following school year. We had phone interviews and I even traveled from Boston to New York for an optional in-person interview as well. We found out we received the job and signed our contract in March.
Afterward, there was a scramble to get all the paperwork completed that they needed, but a representative at our school walked us through the process. Finally, we told them our preferred airport to fly out of, and they bought the flight tickets for us. In mid-August, we boarded a plane to Abu Dhabi to start our adventure!
If you’re interested in getting a job teaching in Abu Dhabi or Dubai, you can find more details about the process, finances, and lifestyle here.
Step 2: Create a Budget and Stick to It
The first thing we did when we arrived at our new apartments in the UAE was create a strict budget. This meant that even though Abu Dhabi and Dubai are filled with flashy shops, luxury resorts, and fine dining we had to implement some serious self-control.
Every time we got a paycheck, we immediately paid half of it to our student loans. We saved one-quarter of it for our vacation budget and kept one quarter to spend on food and fun for the month. Sometimes this meant money was tight and we had to spend a weekend in, but it was worth it to create a comfortable budget for our vacations and watch our student loan balance go down.
Some ways we saved money was by cooking in instead of eating out, scouring Groupon regularly for good deals, and visiting Ladies Nights, where women drink for free, to save a few bucks.
Step 3: Look for Sources of Extra Income
Another way we were able to visit eight new countries while also paying off 58k in student debt was by searching for extra sources of income. When you’re a teacher, what better way to make money than through tutoring?
In the UAE, tutors are in high demand and Daniel and I were both able to make around $50 per hour working with students outside of the classroom. Even though cracking the books was usually the last thing I wanted to do after a long day at work, going once or twice a week helped us add some serious money to our budget. During exams, hours would increase and it was a great money-making opportunity.
Step 4: Prioritize Travel
The biggest way we were able to visit eight new countries while also paying our student loans was by prioritizing travel. This meant skipping out when our friends were going to the $145 brunch at Atlantis on The Palm in Dubai, budget shopping for our clothes instead of splashing out at the brand name stores that filled the malls, keeping older generation phones instead of upgrading, and just generally watching our money and sticking to our budget every single weekend, no matter what.
Because of this, we were able to pay off our debt while also exploring the UAE, going camping in Oman, getting SCUBA ba certified in Thailand, visiting the ruins of Sri Lanka, experiencing the Christmas Markets in Germany, spending New Years Eve in Spain, seeing the UNESCO sites in Portugal and hiking in the Himalayas to see Mount Everest in Nepal.
Many people in the US dream of traveling the world but what they don’t realize is that it’s actually possible with less money than they may think. Prioritizing travel meant making a shift in budget and lifestyle but once we started saving money towards the goal of our next vacation, it was easy to say no to a new TV or a nice watch that caught my eye.
Prioritizing travel and keeping and keeping an open mind about our next destination meant that I could snap up good flight deals right when I saw them and we explored much of Asia and Europe during our two-year teaching stint in the Middle East.
Related content: Here’s How To Save Thousands For Your Next Vacation
Step 5: Complete Your Student Loan Payments (and Keep Traveling!)
Daniel and I were able to see eight new countries: the UAE, Nepal, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Germany, Portugal, Spain, and Oman by following these steps. It sounds pretty simple and to be honest, it is. The hard part comes in the daily little decisions that make it easy to derail you from your goals. But actively choosing every day to make small but smart financial choices, like cooking instead of eating out, definitely adds up in the long run.
At the end of our two-year stay, our contracts came to a close with a bonus from both the UAE government and our school. Along with our final three months of pay (school ended in June but we still got paid for July and August as well), that check came out to around $16,000 each. We paid the last of our student loans and even had more to put into savings to start the next chapter of our lives on a strong financial footing.
So, what did we do to keep traveling?
For me, two years was more than enough teaching for one lifetime and I was ready to move on. The problem was that I had no idea where to go next! I knew I didn’t want a 9 to 5 office job in the US, but that was it.
Daniel and I moved in with our parents in Ohio for a few months while we put the finishing touches on our wedding and got married in November 2016. In January 2017, we set out on our next adventure.
Because we had savings from our two years of teaching and the stability of living at home for a few months, we were both able to jump into freelance work with little risk. I started with digital marketing and then eventually settled into freelance writing as a long-term position.
It was tough at first and our income was unstable, but with conservative budgeting and careful spending we were able to keep traveling.
In 2017 we spent 10.5 months traveling in Colombia and Peru, and in 2018 we set off for round two. First, we spent two months living in Mexico, and now we’re in the midst of a 7-month trip through the Balkans and Eastern Europe, including Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Albania, Serbia, Croatia, and Hungary.
Again, it all comes down to prioritizing travel above all else to make it happen even on a budget. Daniel took a lower paying job that offered a 100% remote work opportunity, and we both gave up a comfortable home, a car, and the ability to have a dog. But for us, it’s worth it. We choose countries with low costs of living to help stretch the budget and after two years of freelance work, steady clients, and stellar reviews, life is comfortable.
Some Tips for Traveling on a Budget
Contrary to popular belief, traveling can actually be as cheap as or even cheaper than day to day life in the US. Long-term travel is much different from vacation and much more budget friendly as well.
I detailed some of the different ways we cut costs in my Long-Term Travel FAQ for Digital Nomads and I’ll share a few here as well. One good idea is to keep an open mind about your next destination and make plans based on cheap flight options that are available. We also live out of backpacks that are carry-on sized so we can avoid baggage fees.
Flights add up, so another money-saving measure we take is to plan a route that’s bus friendly, like working our way through the Balkans with international bus rides from one country to the next, instead of buying flights to hop between far-flung destinations.
Finally, staying long-term in Airbnbs helps us travel for less. Many offer discounts for booking one month or more, and with a full kitchen and comfortable place to chill we can cook at home and spend weeknights in instead of blowing money at bars and restaurants.
None of this ever would have been possible without paying off our student loans. At the beginning of our freelance careers, money fluctuated a lot and it would have been impossible to reliably count on making a large loan payment every month.
Teaching abroad was a perfect first step for us for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it helped me learn what to expect when it comes to living abroad and taught me how to adjust to culture shock, manage homesickness, and more. This gave me the confidence to pursue a career that included full-time travel.
Second, the reliable monthly income was ideal for student loan payments. Unlike starting out with a freelance career, there was no guesswork or stress or scrambling for extra clients to make ends meet. We knew exactly how much money we would make every month, exactly how much we would pay to our loans, and exactly how long we had left before they were complete. This timeline motivated me and helped me feel in control of the challenge that loan repayment presented, rather than hopeless in the face of the large debt.
The third and final reason why teaching abroad was an ideal way to pay off our student loans was because I didn’t have to put my life on hold. Yes, I skipped out on some expensive events and purchases but I still was able to thoroughly enjoy those two years. I got to see Mount Everest in Nepal and the pristine beaches in Thailand and the wild elephants in Sri Lanka among so much more.
My husband and I got to explore eight new countries together and still pay off $58,000 in student loans. It was hard work at times but it also inspired an even greater love for traveling and gave us the financial freedom to pursue freelance careers. Now I move to a new city almost every month and that dream of full-time travel that I had as a child has become a reality.
Is it possible to travel the world while still paying off your student loans? Yes! Daniel and I tackled our debt in two years and laid the groundwork to build a life of full-time travel that we love. If this is your dream as well, it’s possible.
As countries become more and more interconnected and flight costs continue to drop there are many different ways to make money and travel the world. The two goals are no longer mutually exclusive so get out there and go see it all!
Dianne and Daniel share travel tips, destination inspiration, and step-by-step guides to making money abroad on their travel blog Slight North. You can also get the free ebook “A Guide to Remote Work” delivered straight to your inbox!
Are you interested in traveling more? Is your debt holding you back?
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