Before leaving the states one year ago, my plan was to travel around Europe for a few months, then go back home and save up for the next summer like I had done many times. But something was different this time. After a bit of soul searching, a few weeks into my trip I decided to stay in Spain permanently. I quickly converted my 6 month go-for-broke partying budget into a long term survival budget.
Being a saver by nature, I decided to put 90% of my money away, and attempt to live on 10%. If the 10% ran out before I landed a job, then I would continue on my previous budget then return to the states.
I took out 10% of my money from my American bank account, and loaded it into a local Spanish account for easy use and began my adventure.
Here’s how I made it work:
I lived in a Squat House
Thats right… free rent!
Squat houses – or Ocupas – are houses that are not currently occupied by their owners. In the United States, I would never think of living in a squat house because it is rarely tolerated, and very illegal. However in some places like London, Amsterdam and many cities in Spain, there are actual laws that benefit the squatter.
The common misconception of squats is that they are dirty, boarded up, run down, without water or power and full of sketchy people. Au contraire!
Our house was a brand new villa that didn’t pass the zoning codes, so the owners just left it and built a new one. It would be illegal for the owners to rent it to anyone, but it wasn’t illegal for us to squat in it. The neighbors welcomed us with open arms, because we were a young lively good-natured bunch and we kept the house in great shape. If you want to know more about my life in a squat, click here.
Growing my own food on the land saved a ton of money and it was a great learning experience. Beside sprawling cactus and vibrant African violets grew strawberries, lettuce, potatoes, onions, tomatoes, watermelon, pumpkins and raspberries. Two lemon trees flanked the massive walkway towards the house and – my favorite – an avocado tree produced many ripe fruits in season.
If we were ever low on any crops, many of our friends and neighbors had their own gardens so we would barter, share food and gardening tips.
Self-sufficiency is ideal for living a travel based life. Being physically tied to a place to make a living can cut back on leisure time to move around the world freely. Before I left Los Angeles, a good friend showed me the basics about web design. After a 6 weeks of intensive lessons, I was able to develop websites using WordPress. I created a few websites for various friends and companies around Ibiza, which came in very handy money-wise.
One of my roommates at the squat had a 1980 Mercedes Benz van that ran on recycled vegetable oil instead of gas. All it took was a running start, and we were off! Whenever we needed a refill, the local grocery store gave us kilos and kilos of recycled oil for free. Every week we pilled in the van and drove all around the island. The van was fitted to sleep 6 comfortably – so we would go on week long excursions, bathing in the ocean and sleeping in the van.
While in Spain, I put myself on a very strict budget of €5-10 euros a day. Most days I spent about €7, but many days I didn’t spend anything at all.
A Usual Summer Day:
Wake up – go to the beach = 0€
Snacks for the beach = 5€
Outdoor festival = 0€
Beer for full moon party = 3€
Dancing all night long in a cave of cala conta = priceless.
Total = 8€
Rent = 0€
Gas money = 0€
Food – cheese, pasta, pasta sauces etc = 15-20 €
Entertainment = 40€
Drinks = 16€
Toiletries = 20€
Total = 96€
Forget about your bank account
The proverb “Out of sight, out of mind” applies to this situation greatly. Once you forget that you have something, it won’t nag you in the back of your mind. I conditioned my mind to forget about the money in my savings account, and it did me worlds of good. Also, not constantly thinking about money frees up your mind to think about more important things – like enjoying the experiences of a new country!
From one on one English classes to a translation consultant, a native English speaker can create many jobs in a foreign land. While I didn’t go the official TEFL Certificate route, it was possible to come across people who want to practice and speak English regularly. I taught English lessons I charged 8€ an hour for one person and 10€ an hour for 2 or more people
I also took a job dancing in costumes once a week that paid €100 each night. It wasn’t the most glamorous job in the world, as you can see above, I was stuffed in over sized costumes maneuvering my way between drunk people all night. But it was lots of fun, and the weekly money came in handy.
Shop & eat like a local
Living in a place that generates a lot of money from tourism, it is imperative to adapt to the local customs. Seasoned merchants and outlet owners know that a tourist will pay 2-3x the amount for the same item that a resident buys for a fraction of the price. To it is very important to make local friends and shop where they shop. For example, the delicious paella dish runs about €20 per person in a restaurant, or you could make it yourself for less than €9.
My first time visiting Europe, I was homesick for my family and painfully addicted to the internet. I would spend lots of money (and time) at internet cafes daily to reconnect with people from back home and visit my favorite sites and forums. Thankfully, years later I have tamed the addiction and I love to disconnect from the internet for lengthy periods of time. At the squat house there was no Wi-Fi – so whenever I needed internet, I would go to a restaurant, order a few drinks and fulfill all of my internet needs in 2-3 hours. Or I would go to a friend’s house with internet.
I Didn’t Buy Anything
This was the most drastic and most effective part for me. Back in the states I was a careless shopper. I would buy anything and everything that I wanted from jewelry to clothes to electronics. Since I had no steady paycheck in Spain, my mind shifted over into “don’t spend a dime” mode. At the beginning it was difficult. I would go inside a store and see a nice dress or shirt for €20 and think “wow only 20€! I need that! Oh, and the shoes to go with it!” Then I would remind myself that I don’t need these things, I just wanted them.
I used popular budget airline Ryan Air to get around Europe. I booked a round trip ticket to Barcelona for under 30€ , and tickets to Berlin for under 40€. Instead of booking hotels I either Couchsurfed for free room and board, or stayed with a friend with extra room. While traveling, I relaxed my budget a bit to around 20€ per day, and I spent most of it on food and entertainment.
So there you have it! This has been the best year of my life. I survived on only 10% of my money, used the money from odd jobs and learned so much about actual living in the process. A year later I have a better paying job and I no longer live in a squat house, but living frugally has taught me that the best things in life are free (or close to it!)
If you implement some of these frugal living tips, it can stretch your time living abroad.
This post was originally published on October 4, 2014.
Jelisa Moné is the personification of a free spirit. She is a passionate traveler who is motivated to see the world through various points of view. After finishing her degree in Marketing at Johnson & Wales University, she embarked upon Europe and fell in love with Spain. At her leisure, she dances the night away at well known hot spots on the magical island of Ibiza where she also enjoys yoga, hiking and scuba diving. Her next year will be spent on the island soaking up the sun and learning Spanish.