From the ages of 17 to 22, I had no money. I’m from a pretty standard middle-class background, but functionally speaking, I didn’t have money at my disposal. I was irresponsible and constantly accruing all manner of ticket and fine. A small credit card debt accrued at 18 years old — 500 dollars with Bank of America — took until 24 to fully pay off because I defaulted on it for so long. For some time, I was driving a 600 dollar truck with non-functioning brakes because I wrecked my own and had no money for a second. Sometimes it would just turn off and turn on again while I was rolling down the street. Because of my enormous irresponsibility, my parents (rightfully) refused to sign on college loans until I had my affairs in order. I went to a community college and slept on a mattress in a cheap room I rented, a prisoner to my own inability to be serious. For a long time, I imagined that finishing college with a nebulous degree in International Relations would be the key to my eventual success. I would get serious, get that degree, and everything would work itself out.
As my friends began to graduate, though, it became clear that a degree — particularly in something as liberal and vague as I was interested in — did not guarantee anything other than, in many cases, an enormous amount of debt. At the time, I hadn’t had the opportunity to sign myself into any great financial obligations, and the pipe dream of putting myself in 100k of debt to finish at a posh private school in DC seemed less and less like a solution to anything. That summer, instead of continuing my internship, I scraped together the little bit of money that I had and got myself a plane ticket to Paris. I would sleep on couches, I would stick to only the least expensive happy hours, but I would go.
The reaction to this decision back home was, much like the decision to attend a community college, less than pleased. Many people, particularly concerned friends-of-parents and parents-of-friends, told me in some variation that traveling when I didn’t yet have my degree was a mistake. It was unserious, and it was a luxury that should have waited until I had graduated (or could at least go through a pricey study abroad program). But I went, determined not only to broaden my admittedly narrow horizons, but to find out if there was an alternative to the pathways that I had been so sure were my only real options at home.
In two weeks, I changed more than I had in the three years I had been floundering in my hometown. Not only did my French gain a level of nuance and cultural reference that a Francophone family member and 10 years of schooling could not provide, I became suddenly aware of all the various opportunities there were to live and work in a new country. Did you know that full universities in much of Europe are less expensive than American community colleges? Did you know that there are nearly a dozen different kinds of visas for all the various work and school combinations you can engage in? Did you know that simply being a native English speaker offers you a host of employment opportunities that don’t exist to you in America? I certainly didn’t. Before my plane even touched the ground back home, I was determined to come back as quickly as possible, for the long term.
In the six months between my arrival home and my plane ride back to live there, nothing was fun. I quickly moved back in with my parents, commuted 45 minutes to work (often by bus) that started at 6 AM, saved every penny of my earnings, and generally lived a pretty lame life. It was six months of work to get that plane ticket, and secure that job, and register in school.
Planning for any kind of serious travel is a serious undertaking financially, and makes you immediately realize how many things you spend your money on that could be put towards your next trip. Going to the bar is not as important as having plane fare. Buying that new top is not worth the money you could be spending for food in your new home. Eating out could be used to pay for your lodging. It’s all a question of priorities, and traveling is a choice that is easy to prioritize, if you are willing to forgo many of the comforts you’ve come to take for granted. That being said, it can often be done with little to no debt, unlike many of the degrees we seem so certain in investing in. I managed to scrape together a few thousand dollars in a short span of time, but it’s nothing in comparison to the tens of thousands I would have been signing away if I had chosen to stay where I was.
Traveling is often viewed as a luxury, something that we engage in lightly if we’ve checked off every other item on our list. But we spend money on so many other things, and put ourselves into massive debt on the gamble that the increasingly business-like college system will work for us. We feel that a few hundred bucks for a plane ticket is a frivolous expense, but 50k of debt is normal. And you could argue that college expands your horizons — and it definitely does — but it also puts a price tag on many things that shouldn’t have them. We shouldn’t pay to learn a language anymore. We shouldn’t pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for a Bachelor’s degree. We shouldn’t pay for the novelty of dorms and football games and state-of-the-art theaters when these things exist for free or cheap, all over the world, in hundreds of different cultures. Travel is one of the few real ways we have to break ourselves out of the idea that there is a right and a wrong way to go about things, or that happiness and stability only come at the end of a very high check.
If I could go back and talk to myself at 20, I would tell myself to be more responsible. I would tell myself to stop driving, because I am just not the kind of person who should be driving (or, frankly, parking) a car. I would tell myself to stay away from credit cards and flashy nightclubs. But I would also tell myself that the pressure I felt to be like everyone else, the desire I had to simply rack up my debt, get my degree, and be like all of my friends was a misguided one. I would tell myself that my home and my future were waiting for me, but that I would have to find it on my own. Because who you are, and the happiness you deserve, might be anywhere in the world, but the only way you’ll ever know for sure is if you go out there and look for it.