Just Say No to Constant Travel: Defeating the Lifestyle Creep of Expat Life

Obligatory airplane photo.

There are a lot of great things about being a teacher, especially abroad. For many of us, housing, round-trip flights and transportation to and from work are included. We have the same general amount of vacation as States-based teachers, though they might be scattered about the year differently. And of course, the travel.

Right?

As a 29-year-old my first time working abroad, I was euphoric just to fulfill my lifelong dream of living in China. GETTING there was the goal, so once that was done, the rest seemed like icing.

Me, fulfilling a lifelong dream, from the back of a scooter.

Except…it wasn’t, to my coworkers. While I was still carrying around debt from earlier in my twenties and wanted to stay in Beijing and pay it down, my colleagues seemed as obsessed with leaving China as they were with getting there. Even the ones who stayed in-country thought it was weird that I’d just stay in Beijing, the capital city, and get to know it a bit at a time.

Despite peer pressure, I stayed put. I made it to the Great Wall and to other local tourist spots as the opportunity arose–say, via a friend whose work provided a driver to take us to the Wall, or through a work gig that got us into the Temple of Heaven for free. But I had no desire to run around like a chicken with my head cut off and to “see the sights” like a tourist. I was there to pay down debt, dammit, and I wasn’t going to do that by jetting off to Thailand every other weekend. I also intended to stay there for years, maybe even forever, so I figured I would get to the rest of the country eventually.

And I didn’t even pay to get there.

As the months wore on, I realized that my peers weren’t all rolling in dough. Several of them spoke casually of how they’d just stopped paying student loans, or decided to ignore credit card statements to avoid the horror. None of this jived with my personal ethos, but it did explain how they were able to travel so much.

Then family brought me to Florida, and I never even made it to Shanghai or Hong Kong (alas! Alack! The tragedy!). While I was embarrassed to not have explored more before leaving, I was glad to be near family, and it was good I hadn’t added more to my debt. Unfortunately, missteps and poor pay in Duval County meant that I ended up in a worse position than before.

I am, however, forever a fan of Jacksonville’s green, rivers, and beaches.

Ta-da! I chose to move abroad again, this time, exclusively to pay down debt.

When I moved to Kuwait, at first, I had similar goals. I knew going in that Kuwait’s sights were limited, so I had no desire to check out the Towers the first week I was there, or to jet off to Bahrain in the first month.

I did get to the Towers eventually. (Autumn 2017.)
View from the top.

But something was different: namely, I didn’t really like my new, uber-convenient home.

Now, I did find a lot to enjoy in the day-to-day (like some great friends, and my view of the Arabian Gulf), but the country itself didn’t thrill me like China did, and my reasons for moving there were strictly financial. While nothing I found around me in Kuwait surprised me, I hadn’t counted on discovering this about myself: I didn’t function well making choices just based on the money.

I did like kissing that camel in Bahrain, though.

None of this may have mattered if money was really flowing from the font of the Middle East like milk and honey, but the high cost of food and transportation seriously hampered my attempts to make headway. I was back to living on ramen, a move seriously less fun at 32 than it was in college, although I mixed it up occasionally with rice, cheap pasta and Taco Bell, the cheapest food available via Talabat, the glorious and evil food delivery behemoth of the Middle East.

I ended up in a feast-or-famine kind of life where I’d send the majority of my paycheck home to pay my bills, eat out a few times a paycheck, and then suffer for the following 2-3 weeks. Not the best system, or life, despite the places I traveled along the way.

In other words, I discovered that making moves strictly for financial gains was not a good look on me. It wasn’t in line with my values, and even worse, the cost of living ensured that I couldn’t reach my goals any better there than I could have in Las Vegas, where I had started teaching. Without some external, cost-efficient world to enjoy, I didn’t do so great.

My unhappiness with my present location led me to go with friends to Bahrain, Abu Dhabi and Dubai, and while I enjoyed sharing those experiences, it didn’t help me pay down debt, and it led to more of the feast-and-famine kind of lifestyle.

Expat Panda was a great tour guide & photographer in Abu Dhabi, however.

The good news is that this year got me off the ground financially enough to move to China, where the initial benefits weren’t quite as good, but the far better cost of living, long-term salary and other perks made it worth it, in the end. And so, I returned to a country I enjoyed, where benefits available had grown considerably since I worked there in 2015.

While I knew what I was getting into in terms of country, I still had to pick between bigger cities like Shanghai and Beijing, and smaller ones like Suzhou and Fuyang. Knowing what I valued more this time, I purposely chose a smaller town with fewer Western perks. I knew the slower pace of life and cheap local fare would keep me on track, which was exactly what I needed.

I will never stop posting pictures of this view.

Unfortunately, to some of my peers, it’s what Kuwait was to me: boring, not a lot to do, and a place to escape. Some didn’t research much before coming, while others like it for during the week and the actual school, but leave every weekend.

When I first arrived, I took several trips like them, to nearby cities like Hangzhou and Shanghai. Everyone was so excited about the access, coupled with the day-to-day advantages of living in our town during the week, that it seemed de rigueur. But within a few weeks of traveling back and forth to Hangzhou and Shanghai, I came to a startling realization:

I was tired … of traveling.

I didn’t like having to take a bus for over an hour just to get somewhere with a Gap, or even for the lovely West Lake. Having to take a train from there to get to Shanghai–a truly wonderful place, mind you–and then slogging through the streets to find my AirBnB down an alley–got old after the second or third time that I did it.

I needed a break.

I wasn’t tired of living abroad; I love it here, in Fuyang. In fact, I enjoy my little home, my students, the pace of life at my job, and the general peace of mind. It fits, in a way that life in Kuwait, and even Florida–where I was near my beloved family, but struggled financially–never did.

Thankfully, none of this necessitates leaving town.

Still, everyone around me seems to think it is important. The first week of October, for the National Holiday–which offers us a week off work–everybody left. I followed suit, spending a few days in Shanghai, and going to a couple of nice restaurants and bars. I made a new friend. But I had to admit, after returning the following weekend, that it wasn’t worth the time and effort I’d expended.

I mean, how would the Internet survive without proof of Taco Bell’s margaritas in Shanghai?

Still, I felt guilty to contemplate staying in one place. Everyone talks constantly about their next trip when you work abroad, and it seemed terribly, impossibly boring to just stay in my new home. I honestly cared about seeming dumb, or thought something was wrong with me, when I thought about the stress and anxiety that my recent travel had caused.

Then life changed things. First, I spoke to a few coworkers who had stayed in one place, “even” in our “tiny” town, and survived. One had paid off nearly $50,000 in debt over the course of an austere 18 months, which was hugely encouraging. I started to think that maybe I could do this frugal thing, and stop traveling for awhile. Perhaps.

Then, on Halloween, I was hit by a motorcycle. A woman going the wrong way on the wrong side of the street after dark with no headlight plowed into me, and we both hurtled to the ground at breakneck speed.

Me, dressed up for students, with no idea what would literally hit me a few hours later.

While my injuries thankfully weren’t serious, I had to spend evenings at home for the next month to fully heal.

And I loved it.

I loved the hours to read, write and explore new ideas. I loved the chance to write up my debt in spreadsheets and to budget out in my money planning app all the way to 2021 and beyond. I adored the calm that came with ceasing the frenetic pace that had defined my life for years.

If I hadn’t been hit, and I hadn’t been forced to sit and contemplate my debt and what had brought me to that place, I may not have changed. But I was, and I did, and I am now happy to embrace my own style of travel.

If it isn’t obvious yet, my style is … slow. And for now, nonexistent.

Slow travel” is a trending thing, but it’s always been my style. I just didn’t realize it until I stopped and reflected. On the surface, many times, the reason I’ve stayed put has simply been due to a lack of cash. Yet if I were honest, saving money was often an excuse.

A few blocks from my home.

I have a fascination with truly getting to know the world where I am, like the walk I keep referencing from a few weeks ago here, before it snowed. I do genuinely enjoy exploring the places I live, whether that’s Florida, Las Vegas, Beijing, or now, Fuyang. And while the big test will be this coming January and February, when we have five (paid) weeks off work–what an incredible, luxurious “test” to have!

I was once more extroverted than I am now, and that no doubt contributes to my newfound love for quiet downtime. But that’s okay, especially if it leads to meeting my debt paydown goals for the year in a way that’s satisfying to me.

Last summer, I went on a massive road trip, and I don’t regret the friends with whom I met up. But it undoubtedly contributed to my current travel fatigue, since it was less “hang out in one place for awhile” and more “stop and stay in this one place for like two days.” In fact, during the trip itself, I canceled some parts of it, in no small part due to the need to save money–but also because it was a little too much, even for me. My favorite parts were longer stays in St. Louis and New Orleans, in addition to the time with family in Florida.

Speaking of: my greatest temptation over the long break in early 2019 will be to fly home and surprise family, which is kind of a thing I love to do (and something else that has contributed to debt). I have a lot of young, adorable nieces and nephews, and it’s hard to stay away. But for these next precious few months, I have the chance to actually right myself financially for the first time in four years. While I did all right for most of my year in Beijing and Kuwait, when I left Vegas in 2014, I had never been late on a payment. The years since then have been more complicated, and if I do not embrace my “love of the local,” I will never get a true leg up–the kind of advantaged existence where I am not just current on bills, but paying down debt, and accruing savings for the first time in awhile. (My frequent flyer miles will provide a ticket home in the summer.)

Nieces like this kid (July 2017). Thank God for SkyMiles.

My long-term goal is not to just pay off my credit cards, but to finish paying for a car that I love, to pay off my student loans and (within six years) to have $100,000 saved. And such a “BHAG” will give me more time in the long run to be with family, as well as to slow travel the right way, without being controlled by what I can or can’t afford within one month.

My new ethos is thus: Don’t travel just because the people in my workplace abroad think it’s normal. Just like FI-ers back home, don’t be afraid to do the unusual, even weird, thing. And if I’m financing my trips with debt, it’s not worth it.

Do the hard thing. Stay in place, get rid of debt millstones, and THEN: travel without fear, guilt or anxiety.

Don’t I owe it to my future self to treat her well?

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