How to Make the Most of a Low-Budget Move Abroad
These lifestyle tips gave me a rich overseas experience
At age 28, I flew on a one-way ticket to China. I arrived without a job, just booked a few nights at a hostel, and winged it from there. By the end of about two years, I’d experienced some of the most challenging times in my life — but also some of the most magical. Would I do it again in a heartbeat, just as low-budget and haphazardly? Hands down, yes.
…So I did the same thing in Germany sometime later — and I’m happy to live in Berlin still today.
When you plunk down in another country poor, unemployed, and alone, it’s a major uphill slog. Coming from a blue-collar background, I’ve sometimes found that only a paltry few hundred dollars stand — impossibly — between me and any given life-changing opportunity I just can’t reach. Arriving without jobs pre-arranged has, moreover, meant that things like income, friends, apartment offers, and visa resources don’t just float lazily down a pipeline. And never having had the luxury of living with a partner in a foreign city, either, has meant that absolutely ALL my house-hunting and settling-in had to happen on a (very low) one-person budget, with no “other half” to divide-and-conquer the tasks of life: anything from grocery shopping to document-gathering and housing inquiries must be commandeered by no one but me — 100% of the time.
But living abroad was my dream ever since elementary school. So I could either wait for conditions to be “perfect” — plenty of money and someone to share the adventure with — or I could just start living my life. I knew I’d regret it tremendously if I waited for the perfect conditions and they never came. Thus, I commenced my adventures right from my “imperfect” starting point.
The following things helped me make a happy life for myself each time, despite my limited means. Here’s how you can do the same.
Create your own sense of purpose
One of the first and best decisions I made when I moved to Shanghai years ago was to join a volunteer group. This happened serendipitously; I literally found out about the group from some ladies I met at random one day when I went to a wellness spa looking for an ametrine crystal I’d seen in a dream — no joke. Joining this organization so early on enriched my Shanghai experience immensely. In fact, making friends in the training course, having a pleasant office to check into for shifts a few times a month, and connecting with a large web of likeminded people gave me a sense not just of purpose but also community. And some of those people extended heart-warming gifts I’ll remember forever.
In any city I’ve inhabited, I also got serious about my own creative projects. For instance, for a few years, I ran a relationship-advice blog, which — just like the volunteer work — helped to reassure me that I had value to offer the world despite my ongoing struggles to find validation through meaningful, conventional jobs.
My point? It’s impossible to get bored when you have healthy, low-cost hobbies. There will be many empty hours when you’re alone and adrift someplace new. You can either fill them with consumption (e.g., substance binges, media binges, etc.) or with compassion and creativity (e.g., finding ways to give back, or working on projects that light up your heart). The latter is way more fulfilling, and way more likely to yield opportunities for you down the line. Prioritize accordingly.
Emigrating alone and becoming a social, cultural, linguistic, and maybe even racial island unto your own overnight forces you to reach deep within yourself. That’s always wonderful for personal growth… but life requires balance. Too much isolation is good for no one. That said, not all forms of socializing are equally valuable, and if you’re poor, not all forms of socializing are even accessible.
For me, what worked was to find a group in each city that was doing cool things with minimal financial demand. Volunteering in Shanghai was one such activity. Fitness classes and meditation groups could fit the bill here, but I couldn’t afford those. (If you can’t either, I feel you.) Alternatively, there are always generic mixers — like burger tours or bar crawls — although my advice, if you have a tricky work schedule or a tight budget, is to choose something that aligns with your passions.
After some time in Berlin, for instance, I learned of a writing group that met every couple weeks in a café; all you had to pay for was a mug of tea. Since it wasn’t networking-focused — nobody trying to compete, just writers glad to be inspired by each other’s work — the environment fostered authentic camaraderie. Our shared interest in writing gave us all something of substance to talk about, and I would even argue that the intimate nature of creative work helped us connect more deeply than would, say, some small talk on a bar crawl. I’ll spare you a blow-by-blow of how my connections to these people enriched my life, but suffice it to say, there’s tons of value in seeking low-budget, low-stress activities with strangers who share your interests.
So find them.
Embrace the value of temporary housing
It blows my mind whenever I reflect on this, but I actually found tremendous value in not securing long-term housing contracts right away in Shanghai or Berlin. Instead, I lived in hostel dorms and temporary sublets, or even couch-surfed at friends’ places. Aren’t there drawbacks to lacking a space of your own? Yes, 1000%. But the advantages of rootlessness can be many.
Since it’s hard to imagine how sharing a dorm with half a dozen (and a bathroom with dozens of) other people can possibly be a good thing, hostels deserve a special explanation. Make no mistake: they are goldmines. Often, the front desk staff are working there because they genuinely like the idea of making people feel at home in that city, so they will help with everything from basic translations and setting up a local phone number, to telling you which cafés are best for working in, where you can buy groceries and personal care items, which parts of town to avoid, etc. They might even organize social events on site — which brings us to the other reason why hostels are fantastic: many of the “backpackers” there are, in fact, migrants. Just like you. So it can be easy to make friends and exchange tips on your respective searches for stability. (Hostels offer even MORE than this… but you get the idea.)
As for temporary sublets and crashing with friends, yes, it’s exhausting to be technically homeless, but I’m so grateful to have had the chance to try such a diversity of neighborhoods in Shanghai and Berlin. Moving around so much gave me a deep sense of what each district could offer and, thus, which ones I’d really want to commit to (or not) for the long haul. Not to mention that learning the lay of the land — seeing how the streets connect to each other or honing your auto-pilot on many different transit routes — is a skill you’ll be thankful for down the line.
… plus, of course, the more people you end up living with overall, the larger your network. Friends I made in my housing odyssey became gems in my experience, in ways both personal and logistical. If it takes you ages to find a long-term home, you definitely have my sympathies — but look to the bright side: now the whole city belongs to you, and you have friends everywhere!
Cultivate a habit of small splurges
We’ve talked about investing in the social fabric of your new home — but it’s equally important to invest in you. So make small splurges, because otherwise it’s too easy to get swallowed by your sense of isolation and struggle, and the beauty of the experience can pass you by entirely.
Focus on things that feel especially meaningful or exciting to you. Are you super-interested in the local history? Buy a museum ticket or pay for a special walking tour. Similarly, make a point of taking even just a day trip to the suburbs every so often, so that you can experience something more than just the place where you landed. Food’s another great splurge because it’s an enormous part of any culture, so even if you’re on a budget, make a few dates with yourself to try local delicacies, or find good deals that allow you to dine out more often. Hell, some of my happiest food memories abroad just involve me buying a cheap pastry, street-cart sandwich, “exotic” beverage, or new item at the supermarket — and then enjoying it while I wandered around town. Finally consider small mementos. One of my most treasured souvenirs is a simple wooden tree ornament I bought at a Christmas market in Berlin. Keepsakes don’t have to be large or pricy to be meaningful.
If you must put frivolous stuff on a credit card once in a while along the months — a single train ticket, a single meal, etc. — don’t beat yourself up for this. You’re not going to break the bank on an occasional splurge if it’s priced within reason. Small splurges are important though, because, quite simply, your experience offers no guarantees. If you spend all your time strictly focused on the grind of being a new arrival in a new place, maybe things will work out — but maybe they won’t… and then you’d go home and regret not exploring more while you had the chance. You’ll regret realizing you did nothing to make yourself feel like you were actually there.
So eat the cake. Take the trip. Buy the tiny keepsake. If you make a point of doing this every so often, you’ll be less likely to look back in the future at all your months of struggle and feel you have nothing to show for them; instead, you’ll have made warm memories all along the way.
Let’s be frank: nothing can make a migrant’s life easier than money can. While it’s possible to move abroad on low funds, money saves tons of headaches and time. If cash were no object, for instance, you could bypass the competition on the housing market. And when it comes to bureaucratic hurdles, financially-secure people can just hire interpreters/translators, attorneys, and consultants for all manner of issues. In a thousand ways, money frees you to just get on with the business of settling down and enjoying your new surroundings on your own terms much quicker.
But even if you lack financial flexibility, moving abroad all alone without a network, a home, an employer, or a big cash-cushion is still doable. It just takes compromise, resourcefulness… and luck. There’s no substitute for money — you will absolutely need that for housing, food, insurance, and visa fees. But if you spend your time with purpose, build a healthy network, embrace uncertainty’s silver linings, and permit yourself some simple pleasures, then even amidst the struggle, you can still find fulfillment in the day-to-day and forge meaningful relationships that help you create your new home away from home.