How A Year Abroad Wrecked Me Financially

Photographed by Rachel Cabitt.
I hit one of the lowest points of my life last August. I was back home in Canada after a year living abroad left me broke. I remember sitting on the floor of my pantry, taking stock of my food inventory: two oranges, a can of tomato soup, a loaf of moldy bread, and a box of macaroni. It wasn’t even my pantry; I had been house-sitting for two months. I wasn’t paying rent, and yet I still couldn’t afford to buy groceries. But somehow, I had to make this paltry amount of food stretch for several days. At this point, I had almost no income.
I had been a freelance writer for seven years, so I knew how to live on little. Freedom had always been more important to me than security, so I never made making money a priority. And that worked well for me — that is, until I moved abroad.
When I first left Canada for Berlin, I had minimal debt — small amounts spread across two credit cards, plus my student loans. Those things seemed manageable at the time, though, and I had been handling my payments for years.
But it turned out I was completely unprepared for all the unexpected costs of relocating. I had saved $2,000 (the amount required for my Youth Mobility visa application) for my move to Berlin, but I hadn’t expected the amounts I’d need to shell out before I even left Canada. For one thing, despite a revolving door of roommates over four years, I had to pay the entire damage deposit on my apartment myself. Plus, I had thought that my lease was up at the end of July, but it was actually the end of August; there went another month of rent. Those two bills set me back thousands.

Freedom had always been more important to me than security, so I never made making money a priority.

Then, just before I left Canada, I had an abnormal pap smear. My doctor told me I’d need a colposcopy — an invasive procedure to test for precancerous cells. So, once I finally got to Berlin, I found a private clinic with an English-speaking doctor who would perform the procedure. Of course my insurance wouldn’t cover it; I had to foot the entire bill. There went another $1,000.
I did not have an emergency fund in place, and my savings could only cover so much. I thought I could easily find a job in Berlin with my working holiday visa, but to my naive surprise, not too many places wanted to hire someone who didn’t speak a word of German.
Berlin is an incredibly cheap city by North American standards. My monthly rent for a beautiful, spacious room in trendy Prenzlauer Berg was just 400 EUR — about 420 USD. But the Canadian dollar had dropped so far, I was forking out close to $700 a month.
Still, I didn’t adjust my lifestyle. In fact, I treated my year abroad like it was my last year on the planet. I went sailing in Croatia, visited friends in Ireland, traveled around Italy for three weeks, and walked the Camino de Santiago in Spain. I partied at notorious Berlin nightclubs and gorged myself on ethnic foods that were unavailable in my part of Canada. I won’t lie: It was the best year of my life. But almost everything I bought went on my Mastercard, and oh boy, it did not take long to max that Mastercard out.
This was one very fundamental lesson I learned abroad: Europeans rarely even own a credit card. My German friends thought it was downright weird that I had two.
I don’t regret my time in Berlin. Living abroad endowed me with a confidence I never expected. I remember climbing the four flights of stairs to my little apartment and thinking, I can make a life for myself anywhere. I can arrive in a city not knowing anyone, and I can make wonderful new friends and learn a new language and become familiar with a city 30 times bigger than my hometown. Still, I had no choice but to return to Canada once my visa expired — I was broke beyond belief.

Europeans rarely even own a credit card. My German friends thought it was downright weird that I had two.

Back in Canada, I called my father one evening to discuss my going back to the 9-5 work life. I whined about how hard I had worked for seven years to set up a lifestyle of freedom — how all I wanted to do was travel. My patient, ever-loving, generous father was exasperated with me for the first time in my life.
“Candice, when I was 12 years old, I worked for hours at a sawmill every day after school so I could buy a green bicycle,” he told me. “I was so damned proud of that bicycle, but I worked my ass off to get it.” Point taken, Dad. Quit whining, and get to work.
So I did. I picked up a role as a communications officer at a local film festival, and I loved it. I didn’t dread getting out of bed every morning, and I could afford groceries. My paycheck arrived on time. I was treated with respect and dignity.
A year ago, I never imagined I’d be living back in my old town, working a desk job. But in a weird twist of fate, I’ve found myself falling for my home city all over again; I’ve made new friends, I’m more active in the community, and I have more time to devote to writing that I care about. I don’t have the stress I once felt about just making it through the month.
For me, it’s important to know that I can live a little while still paying down my debt. I can enjoy a meal out with friends; I can treat myself to a new dress. I meticulously track every expenditure in a spreadsheet, I've plumped up my savings so that I’ll never have to go hungry again, and I’ve set up a separate account for future travel savings. I’m slowly chipping away at my debt — and I’ve already destroyed one of those credit cards.
I’ve still got a long ways to go, but I’ve already paid off thousands of dollars. And yes, I do still ache for those wide Berlin sidewalks and days lounging in Volkspark Friedrichshain. Then there’s the additional ache — the yearning for a new adventure, in a place where winter doesn’t even exist.
Sometimes the end goal is the inspiration. And for me, that means in a few years I’ll be gallivanting around Southeast Asia — I’m absolutely sure of it.

More from Work & Money

R29 Original Series