I moved abroad.
And never in a million years did I think that would be a possibility for me.
I started working at age 14. Not because I wanted to, but because I had to. There were lots of single-parent homes in my neighborhood, and my family was no exception. We knew all too well about food stamps or having the lights cut off because there just wasn't enough money to go around. So, from a young age, I knew that if I wanted certain things in life I was going to have to work for them, so I did.
Struggling Is Not Living
The same was true for college. I knew that if I wanted a good education, I'd be forced to take out loans, so I did. What I was left with, besides a few degrees, was a mountain of debt that only grew as I attempted to have the American Dream, own my own home, and break the cycle of poverty. Pretty soon, all I did was work to live. Just about every cent I had went towards paying off debt or towards some living expense. And to be honest, I didn't really live modestly.
I drove a new car. I bought clothes I didn't need. I had a brand new flat screen TV and a well-furnished condo that I had just purchased, despite being in debt. I hadn't yet learned that although you could buy property with little to no money down that it wasn't a great idea. These were the things I thought were essential or that I had to have to be happy. These were the things I didn't have growing up so I thought they were necessary to tell everyone I had arrived. But really, the thing I loved to do most and that made me the happiest, travel, was either put on the backburner or scaled back dramatically.
Eat, sleep, work, pay bills became my routine. And I was barely getting by or scratching the surface of my debt.
It didn't take long for that to get old. I've always been a big believer in the idea that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is insanity, so I decided to do something different. I decided to find a job that, at the very least, allowed me to live abroad, experience a new culture and another part of the world. But there was a hiccup. I also needed it to pay me enough to keep making payments on my substantial debt at home in the United States.
Moving Forward And Moving On
Believe it or not, getting the courage to leave was the hardest part. I was 28, and while many of my friends were starting to get married and settle down, I was trying to do the opposite. Most people couldn't fathom why I would leave a great job or a cute car and condo for the unknown. But deep down I knew that I couldn't keep slaving away, putting my dream of seeing the world on the backburner, or trying to fit into someone else's definition of success.
Once I had my mind set on leaving, things began to open up for me.
I had taught before, so I decided to renew my license and teach abroad. I found a hiring agency where I was able to create a profile and have access to a large database of schools abroad that were hiring. The hiring agency also had a job fair that I attended and within the course of a weekend, I had four job offers on two continents. The offers came with benefits that I figured were too good to be true: free housing, health care, a travel allowance, a tax-free salary, three months off per year. Were they serious? Well there was only one way to find out. Hey, if it's that bad I'll just come home, right? So, I followed my heart and took the opportunity that resonated most with me and never looked back.
Now, as I reflect on that decision seven years later, I couldn't be happier with the outcome.
What started as a two-year contract to work in the Philippines turned into three. From there, I moved to Singapore, where I've been ever since. I met my fiancé and started a life here that I'm beyond grateful for.
Freedom Means A Life Without Debt
During this time, I've paid off roughly $290,000 worth of debt. As it turns out, the benefits I thought were too good to be true were what I had hoped and then some. Suddenly, I had way more disposable income. Without the nagging costs of a car, rent, or United States taxes, I was able to put so much more money towards my debt. Each paycheck, I was able to breathe easier and now looked forward to paying bills. I started a budget and limited my spending significantly.
Each paycheck, I took as much money as I could and put it towards my debt with the highest interest first.
Once that was paid, I moved to the next highest interest rate. I also tracked every dollar coming in and every dollar going out. Knowing exactly how I was spending money curbed the spending alone. Around that time, I also started reading more on personal finance. When I lived in the United States, I received a 401k that was selected for me, but abroad I was forced to manage my retirement by myself. Keeping my long-term financial goals in mind and constantly striving to understand growing my wealth helped me to see what was really important and what wasn't. I traveled at my leisure but kept other unnecessary expenses, such as eating out or getting my nails done, to a minimum.
I also found it tremendously helpful to share my goals. I started blogging and decided to share my lofty financial goals. Even though it was embarrassing to reveal how much debt I had accumulated, it was freeing to put it down in writing and actually acknowledge it. It was also motivating to see the overall balance fall. What started as smaller payments quickly snowballed into bigger payments. Whereas before I was paying tons of money in interest alone, I was now seeing the principal decrease dramatically.
I had an extra spring in my step every time I made an extra payment. I've also always been very goal-oriented and competitive, so now that I had set and shared my goal, there was no way I was going to fail.
As of February, I am completely debt-free. And I'm proud to say that I've done it all while also visiting 34 new countries in the process, for a grand total of 41. Student loans are a thing of the past, I own my property in the United States free and clear, and I've not only started to save for retirement now that the debt is gone, but I've also learned how to successfully navigate the stock market as a result of the people I've met along this journey. It's been a whole mindset change really.
I pay closer attention to where my money goes and although I do treat myself at times, I don't need “things" anymore to feel fulfilled. Instead, I put much more value into the experiences I've had and the people I've shared those experiences with.
Maya McCoy is a Los Angeles native turned expat. She has been living and working in Asia for the past 7 years and traveling every spare moment she gets. In addition to blogging about travel, she also uses her blog as a platform to teach others that travel is possible no matter your circumstances. Check out her blog for tips on travel, personal finance, and becoming an expat.