On one hand, the decision to teach English in Spain was easy to make. You get to live in a beautiful country that’s steeped in history. You get to travel Europe. You get to enjoy high-quality delicious foods and drink top-notch wines. Vacation all the time – right??
Except for that small fact that it also meant taking a 75 percent pay cut.
It’s not that I was raking it in as a marketing editor in Boston, but I had a REAL adult salary. My income was enough to pay for a tiny apartment downtown and buy my friends’ beers and pay for a CSA (community supported agriculture) service and still put cash away for savings.
As a language assistant in the Auxiliares de Conversacion program, you’re given a stipend of 700 euro a month. Most reviews I read said it was enough to live on in Spain. But even so, the prospect of returning to my college-era earnings, where I hovered just above the poverty line all the time, gave me a lot of anxiety.
Some of that anxiety has served me well. It convinces me not to buy that pair of boots I’ve been eyeing for the past three months because I know it will eat up my disposable income.
“We ate well and cheaply and drank well and cheaply and slept well and warm together and loved each other.” – Hemingway
One of my favorite parts about living in Spain so far is that the basics are affordable. For example, you can go to the grocery store and buy milk, cereal, a baguette, cheese, chorizo, a box of noodles, tomato sauce, a head of broccoli and a wine for a little over $10.
That’s a couple of breakfasts, lunches and dinners for about what you’d spend on a single bottle of wine in Boston. And it’s all good quality and produced within Spain.
It’s not the fanciest lifestyle. In fact, it’s pretty basic. But it’s not a bad one.
When everything isn’t so complicated, you start to appreciate the small subtle things that are great. A salty jamón y queso bocadillo. Hints of plum in a 2 euro bottle of wine. A warm afternoon sun to dry clothes hanging on the line before dark.
Spain is best known for its paellas, sangria and tapas, but in the North, you know what they’re most proud of? Their tortillas con patatas. It’s essentially a Spanish omelette with potatoes in it. That’s it – eggs and potatoes. They’ve taken very common ingredients and turned them into something notable, something boast-worthy.
I hope to do the same thing. I hope to make something special out of simple ingredients.
“If you desire many things, many things will seem few.” – Franklin
Perspective changes everything. When I was packing my suitcases to move to Spain, I panicked because I had too much to bring and there wasn’t room for any of it. And as I was moving into my apartment and had to drag bags across the city, their cumbersome weight annoyed me. If only I had fewer things! I lamented.
Then in the weeks after I arrived, the feeling of not having enough started to sink in. Every morning, I opened my closet to face the same:
- 10 shirts
- 3 sweaters
- 4 pairs of pants, half of which become unflattering after one wear because skinny jeans turn into sweatpants when you don’t have hot water to renew the ‘stretch’
And combine my selection with one of the same two pairs of boots and a single jacket that I wear every day (and I’m a little worried might be starting to smell).
There’s the voice in the back of my head that says I should buy new things to spice it up, so the students don’t think I’m some povo diva who’s super out of fashion.
But the problem is not that I have too few belongings. I have plenty.
The problem is that we’re trained to want more. We’re taught that you should always be the best-dressed person in the room. And that you can compensate for other short-comings by at least looking rich – Titanic, anyone? Pretty woman. She’s All That.
I met some people in Boston who looked down on others with less cash to throw around. It was important to them to have the newest, the best. They were happy to spare no expense. To them, it seemed ridiculous for someone to choose less, if they could have more.
And even when you have more, you want more still.
It’s hard to see things and not imagine your life would be better, more fulfilling, easier with them. But the reality is that it will probably be the same. You will be no prettier with expensive makeup or more fashionable shoes. You will be no happier in a bigger apartment with fancier finishes. You will be no more interesting for ordering an expensive drink at a bar.
The lucky thing for me is that it’s easier to let it go – to want less without thinking less of yourself – when your disposable income is laughable.
The less you need, the more flexible you can be.
Traveling around Europe isn’t necessarily easy on a shoestring budget. You have to be pretty willing to do whatever it takes to get to where you want to go. In that past three months, that has meant:
- Taking overnight buses
- Opting for less convenient travel options (bus vs. train, train vs. flight)
- Staying in co-ed dormitory rooms at inexpensive hostels
- Booking just a room in AirBNBs and chumming it up with the owners
- Packing food for our travels, so we don’t always have to eat out
- Searching for activities that are free
- Skipping some attractions if they exceed our budget
I know that time is money, so it’s not always worth it to take the longer, less expensive route. But, I do think that if you don’t require first-class travel and accommodations, you can do a lot more.
Perhaps this is just a product of my childhood.
My mom and aunt took our families on (what felt like extended) summer vacations to National Parks across the Southwest – Rocky Mountain, Great Sand Dunes, Mesa Verde, Arches, Grand Canyon. It was the best. We would pack up two cars and caravan across the states with laundry baskets filled to the brim with camping foods. At each destination, we pitched tents and cooked s’mores over an open campfire, drank water out of giant jugs and earned Junior Park Ranger badges. It probably didn’t compare to a tropical vacation or European tour in terms of cost, but it felt like that to us kids.
As an adult, I’m still just as happy to stay at a campsite and pitch a tent as I am to stay in a nice hotel – so long as it means I get to have the experience.
Now that I’m working with a much smaller travel budget, with a lot more places to visit, it’s important to cut corners and forgo some luxuries if you want to see new cities, visit foreign countries and witness world-famous sites in person.
You get used to it.
Humans are incredible creatures because we can adapt to almost anything, when so compelled.
You think you can’t live without coffee, but then you find out that it’s causing you to have health problems – and bam – you’re functioning without it. You think your life will never be the same when someone breaks up with you, but you get over it and move on with your life. (You probably even find someone you like better!)
It’s a little depressing that everything is so fleeting, when it comes down to it. But it’s true. And that same goes for money.
Just as easy as it is to get used to having more, you can get used to having less.
You grow accustomed to budgeting. You acclimate to saying ‘no’ to yourself when you want all those extras. You just might even get used to the horrible 80s furniture in your super affordable apartment. :/
Living on 75 percent less money isn’t awesome. There are times when I wish I could go out for a night without worrying about how it’s going to impact my bank account. It would be nice to buy some things, like a coffee pot so we can finally relinquish the instant powder, that would make life abroad more comfortable. Or, that I could actively be putting money away for plane tickets home, trips with my family when they come to visit, etc.
But truth be told, it’s not as difficult as I thought it would be. I am living a good life on a lot less.