I got another email today about an American buried in college debt with no job and hating their life and wondering where in the world they could go to run away from all their problems.
I wasn’t surprised. I get this email a lot.
Should I go to college?
I have so much student debt.
I’m going to be paying this off for 10 years!
In fact, I met with a reader from the US a few weeks back who was already $100,000 in college debt, and expected to rack up $100,000 more before graduation. I didn’t really have any good advice for him at the time, but I spent a few days wondering if there were a better way for him. Surely ‘the greatest nation on earth’ can offer their youth a better start in life than this?
Even as a non-American, I know this is far from an American Dream come true. It’s not a New Zealand Dream either, or an Australian Dream, or a Chinese one. It’s a shitty nightmare.
So here’s a thought experiment.
After seeing more of the world, if I was leaving high school and going up against this dilemma today, what would I do, or what would I advise my kids to do? In a country like the US, how would I maximise my freedom without sacrificing my career or education?
Ages 18-21: Work a 9-5
Straight out of high school. I think everyone should experience this lifestyle. I think it’s good for you.
Doesn’t matter what the job is and if it pays well – all that matters is that you must wake up early and do a morning commute, sit in an office and wear a tie. You must experience the pain of a Monday, the glee of a Friday and the depression of a Sunday night. You must iron shirts. You must see office politics in action. You must experience running to a cafe, ordering lunch, waiting for it be cooked, eating, paying the bill, and running back to your desk within one hour.
This all needs to be experienced because the truth is, this is life for most people. You want to experience it, you want to be able to relate to the world. Who knows, you may end up liking it.
The second reason: Money. You need money. You need to earn money. You need to learn to manage and save money, for what comes next. The one awesome thing about a regular job is the regular paycheck. By 21 or 22, some of your friends may have degrees, but they’ll be tied down in debt. You, on the other hand, should have three years of work experience and a good chunk of money in the bank.
The third reason: You earn your freedom. When you’ve worked for something, it carries a certain value. You want that sense of accomplishment when you head off on your journey. You didn’t just win lotto and move to the Maldives. You earned this, and that keeps your head straight and your heart grateful.
Ages 21-25: Go To University in Europe
Most people wonder, should I go to college? Do I need a degree?
I think so. It’s a part of adulthood. And most people want a degree. Lots of people look for alternatives to college, but sometimes it’s not even about education, it’s just about proving you’re not stupid. But like working a 9-5, it’s also a life experience. It’s about sharing in an experience that everyone else in the world has. And, for the large minority of us, we get to learn about something we’re passionate about.
In America, they pay up to six figures for a university education. In New Zealand, we pay between $3,000-$4,000 USD per year, but a foreigner will pay five times that. This causes many of us to take on big student loans, or try to find ways to pay for college without loans, like working three jobs during weekends and summers.
In parts of Europe however, people go to university for free. No, that’s not a joke. Even foreigners. They don’t want their country to be stupid, so they give people free education (I know, crazy right). In Denmark they take it a step further – if you’re enrolled in university, your tuition is free and you also receive a monthly allowance. Yes, students in Denmark are paid $900 a month to go to college.
Currently Finland, Norway, Austria, Germany and Sweden offer free or very cheap tuition at their public universities, foreign students included. I know Finland is set to end this in 2017, but courses offered in Finnish will still be free, if by any chance you know the language.
Even in France, Spain and Switzerland, international students pay as low as a few hundred Euro to a couple thousand Euro per year. Compared to other western countries, this is practically free.
While tuition is free, you still need to pay for living costs such as food and rent. As a student, that might cost you between 500-1,000 Euro ($550-$1,100 USD) per month, depending on the city you choose. But that’s just called life.
During The Holidays: Travel The World (For Free?)
Don’t forget when you’re a student, you get massive holidays. For most students it’s between 3-4 months per year. You’ll also be in Europe which is, without question, the easiest continent in the world to travel in.
I believe travel is an engine of learning. It is vital to our education. It promotes understanding instead of hostility, and compassion instead of hate. The world needs this more than ever.
Being away from home will already have shocked your culture senses, so keep going. You probably won’t have money to throw around so use my guide on travelling for free. Couchsurfing in Europe is unparalleled, and there are so many amazing opportunities on Workaway and HelpX. Go spend your holidays in the Polish mountains, a forest in Finland, a horse ranch in Italy or a beach resort in France. It won’t cost you anything, except the bus or train ticket to get there.
Also, make time to go home and see your friends and family. That’s important too.
Ages 25-28: Make Some Money, Keep Travelling
You’ve graduated and now what do you want to do? See more of the world. You’ve seen every corner of Europe, but what’s life like in Asia, Africa, Latin America!? This is your quarter life crisis.
So go for it. Keep travelling if you wish to. My budget travel advice works everywhere in the world.
If you want to go back to university, maybe go for a China scholarship like I did. It’s pretty awesome.
But you’re also getting older now. And you’re a graduate. It might be time to make some dosh.
One of the most popular ways people get on their feet is teaching English in a place like Singapore, Japan, Korea or the Middle East. The cost of living is low, the salary isn’t terrible, and you get to live in some of the coolest countries in the world. You don’t need teaching experience, but you’ll need a university degree in some places (no problem, you’ve got one!)
New Zealand and Australia are waiting down south. Their Working Holiday programmes are among the most popular in the world, and the visa is relatively easy to get if you’re under 30. NZ and Aussie also have some of the highest minimum wages in the world. In New Zealand the visa is available to about forty countries, including the USA. In Australia there are two visas available to about 35 countries, including the USA.
The options here are really endless. Despite what you’ve been told, there are jobs everywhere in the world. Do some homework and find them. Sites like Escape The City can be a good starting point.
You can also go at it alone by freelancing, starting a blog, launching that surf school you always dreamed of. Without buckets of debt you shouldn’t be chained to anything in particular. Go where your heart goes.
For a full guide to these options and more, complete with resources and real-life examples, check out my post The Practical Guide To Making Money While Travelling.
Ages 28 and up: Do whatever the hell you want and live your dream
A few more years and you’re thirty. But you’ve travelled the world, you have a degree and you’re debt free.
Do whatever you want. Go home if you want. Stay abroad if you want. Write a screenplay. Get married to a nice New Zealand girl and make some rugby players. I don’t know.
The point of this exercise was not to create your life plan or solve all your life problems. I’m not a guidance counsellor. My goal was to get you to think outside the box you’ve been given. Most of us live in a very narrow hallway of life and just keep chugging along to the finish line. We never take the time to pause and look left and right, up, down, even behind us.
The world is big. If there is something you don’t like the sound of, stop. Think. Look before you leap into that massive pile of shit. There is almost certainly a better option out there somewhere. Search for it and you will find it. Good luck.
To open eyes, ears, hearts and minds,