The Major Mistake Most 20-Somethings Make

Photographed by Winnie Au.
Recently, Elite Daily posted an article imploring twentysomethings to drain their life savings and travel. As a millennial who spent a significant amount of wandering the world without a permanent address, I implore you: Don’t do this.

When I got laid off from an editorial job at 30, I put my stuff in storage, sublet my apartment, and began wandering. In addition to my day job, I’d spent the previous decade writing 13 young adult novels. I was burned out and wanted to experience a different existence than the work-work-work one I’d been living.

I started by driving down to Savannah, GA, a city where I knew no one, and spent a few months exploring the South. I frequently traveled to California, dog-sitting for families and friends, spending mornings at the beach. I spent one winter in Prague and Vienna and a spring in Paris. I perfected my surfing in Costa Rica. I backpacked through the Balkans, spending evenings drinking wine with locals I met on Tinder. I settled in Dublin for a few months, living with three amazing Irish girls and doing research on an idea for a novel.

But what I hadn’t realized when I set off was just how much I’d miss by leaving the corporate grind. While my friends were climbing the ladder, my career had stagnated. I was making enough money freelancing to pay for my day-to-day expenses, but I wasn’t putting away any money. The work I was doing wasn’t necessarily growing my career in the way I would have liked.

I hadn’t realized just how much I’d miss by leaving the corporate grind.

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When I finally came back, my résumé was locked at the place I’d been two years earlier. It had been more stressful than I’d anticipated not having a permanent address and I found it tricky to begin replenishing my savings account at a time when many of my peers were buying their first homes.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t regret my trip. But these “drop everything and travel” articles never speak to the downsides that come with putting your “real” life on pause. Because, as burned out as I was, I genuinely loved my work. I wish now that I’d addressed the burnout with the help of a career coach or therapist, rather than assuming it was the corporate job that was my problem. The self-doubt and anxiety I felt in the office still cropped up on the road. When I look back at my Instagram photos of an amazing sunset, I also remember that I was watching it while my stomach was churning, feeling guilty for blowing off a freelance deadline or freaking out about the rapidly rising balance on my credit card.

It’s not like unlimited travel unlocked any potential in my life. After all, travel already had been part of my life. Prior to getting laid off from my job, I made sure any expendable income went to travel. I used a certain amount of money from every book contract for a trip. This way, I spent a week in Spain, attended a surf camp in Costa Rica, and spent a long weekend exploring Ireland’s Aran Islands. I also volunteered every summer at an oncology camp in Seattle, something my employers let me do without using my vacation days. I don’t think the time limits on these experiences made them any less valuable than the months I spent aimlessly traveling. In fact, I feel being in one place for only a few days allowed me to maximize my experience without losing out on the “real” life I loved. In the end, I think my long-term travel plans actually closed a few doors for me.

It’s not like unlimited travel unlocked any potential in my life.

Case in point: Two years ago, I spent a month in Costa Rica with another freelancer friend. When the month was up, she came back to New York City while I booked a one-way ticket to Croatia. She ended up landing a full-time job at a travel website, getting gratis trips all around the world while I was frantically trying to earn enough to pay for hostels. She was able to combine her passion for travel with a “real” job, but she had only been able to do so because she was in one place long enough to make the connections to get the gig.

I have another backpacker friend I met in Montenegro who realized she wasn’t cut out for office life and started searching for jobs as part of a yacht crew. She got the gig and was able to enhance her résumé, earn money, and see the world. If I could do things all over again, I would have at least tried to find a permanent or contract position with a company that would allow for a stable income while I explored. Constantly stressing and cobbling together money may work for some people, but it didn’t work well for me and really hindered my ability to enjoy my trip.

Bottom line: Passport stamps aren’t the path to enlightenment. If you’re feeling antsy in your everyday life, you’re likely to take those feelings on the road. Absolutely adventure within your budget, but don’t throw away all your savings in search of an experience. Because, a year and a half back from traveling, I’ve found that life can be just as exciting close to home with a permanent address and a positive bank account.
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