We were poor when I was growing up, to be blunt about it. My parents immigrated to the US in the late 1980s as grad students (immigrants and grad students: talk about a double financial whammy), and worked a number of minimum-wage jobs — including waitress and convenience store clerk in NYC* — before finally settling down in Pennsylvania.
By my teens we were much better off, but by then the frugal mentality instilled in me in childhood was firmly ingrained.
As soon as I turned 15, I started looking for jobs to start earning my own money to be less of a burden on my parents…and, let’s be honest, so that I could buy whatever I wanted without judgment or approval.
I didn’t realize that my ‘stingy’ approaches to money would also lay the foundation for what would eventually become my travel fund. Even in college**, while everyone else was buying the latest Abercrombie & Fitch hoodie, I was traveling to Ireland, China, and around the US.
Here are 13 things I did as a teenager that helped me kick start a life of full-time travel and living abroad.
*Apparently the story goes that my dad got fired from the convenience store because he convinced a regular customer to stop buying his daily lotto tickets! Dad simply couldn’t bear to see the guy waste so much money every day.
**I started college at 17 and graduated at 20, so for the most part, still a teenager.
1. Not working hard, working smart
At my own insistence, I got my first job when I was 15. But I made sure I wasn’t working hard — I was working smart. Here’s what I mean:
1a. I found a job in the food industry
My first four years of employment were almost all in food: at the mall food court at 15, waitressing at a BBQ joint at 16, and joining Starbucks at 17.
At first, I did it because it’s one of the only industries willing to hire such young staff.
But in hindsight it was also a brilliant move. Do you know what my number one expense is? FOOD. (Have you seen how much I eat?)
This photo was taken in 2006. Not much has changed.
Those jobs saved me so much money on food because I was given free meals each shift.
I especially loved working at Starbucks: they treat their employees well, it’s a fun environment — and you get free drinks while on shift. So I used to keep a box of cereal at work and use the milk to make breakfast.
If that sounds like being a cheapskate to you, let’s not forget that milk is actually kind of expensive, guys — especially to a teen making $7 an hour.
1b. I got paid to do what I already enjoyed
My ‘office’ in college
In college, at my dad’s insistence, I applied for a job at the college library. I’m so glad I did: I was basically paid to do things I would do in my free time anyway.
I worked the night shift until 1 am (AKA when everyone else was out partying and the library was empty), usually spending one hour shelving books, and using the rest of the time to do homework, read books, watch movies, etc. I killed so many birds at that job with one stone — and I got paid to do it.
I had classmates who worked in the gym and basically got paid to work out; swim teammates who worked as lifeguards. See if there’s a way you can monetize something you already enjoy doing.
1c. I taught English while studying abroad
Dalian, China. 18 years old, teaching kindergarteners
In China, I made $29 an hour teaching English. Tutoring jobs were two hours minimum; my teaching gig was 6 hours a day, 2x a week.
You can do the math.
At 18, I was basically making $400 every weekend under the table. While also going to classes five days a week.
Take a skill you already have — language, music, art, whatever — and see if you can’t make money from teaching or selling it.
A note: Substitute teachers make more than contracted teachers. I was able to ask a higher rate because I was constantly on call as a substitute; they even covered my taxi fares, since I was doing them a favor. No taxes + no transportation costs = pure profit.
Remember: You’re only 17 once
When you’re young, your body can handle a beating. Take advantage of it.
At 17, I requested morning shifts at Starbucks and night shifts at the library. So I’d wake up at 5 am, work 8 hours at the Bux, drive straight to classes, then work until 1 am at the library.
Thankfully those shifts didn’t overlap often, and I didn’t have too many papers to write, but as a teenager I could handle the sleep deprivation.
2 // Choosing a school based on $$, not desire
Night before graduation, 2010. Feakes was visiting from Australia and my senior class set a COUCH on fire.
I didn’t enjoy college. I wasn’t unhappy, but it definitely wasn’t “the best years of my life”. I never felt accepted on campus and had very few friends.
So why did I choose that school over my first choice? Because they offered me pretty much a full ride. Choosing this school — and NOT the one I really wanted — meant choosing to save over $100,000 in tuition.
(And here I have to also express gratitude that my parents covered the rest of my education costs.)
In the end, all you need is a piece of paper that says you have a degree.
If you’re looking at colleges, and you’re stuck between two drastically different price points, think to yourself: is going to Choice #1 really worth all that extra money?
Sure, I think it would’ve been nice to experience life at First Choice University — but not 100 grand nice.
3 // Learning to use credit cards early
Yes, I’ve pretty much looked the same since I was 14.
When I was 14 or so I started receiving an allowance for the first time. Every month my parents would put a small amount of money on my Visa Buxx, which acted like a credit card for teenagers (though it was technically a debit card).
It gave me practice using credit cards responsibly, and prepared me for the real deal. Once I turned 18 I applied for and maintained a handful of cards– one real Visa, and a couple shopping-related ones (oh American Eagle, how I used to love you).
Of course, I used them responsibly and always paid them off on time. I built a crazy high credit score and credit limit, from which I was able to open more cards, gaining mileage points from the card signups (one of those would later cover my move to Paris from Australia!).
And now I pay for everything with my cards, gaining airline miles each time. And my credit score remains in the top 97th percentile.
4 // Joining a credit union
In another financial matter, I’m so glad I keep my money with the credit union I joined when I was 17, and not a big bank.
My Central Pennsylvania credit union, though small, has always given me excellent rates on withdrawing money from ATMs abroad, has never charged foreign exchange fees, and has THE best customer service of any organization I’ve called in the US.
On top of that, because credit unions are community-oriented, when mine does well, they give back and share profits with members at the end of the year.
5 // Going abroad earlier than later
Being on crutches in a foreign country will definitely give you perspective…
I left for China my sophomore year of college, when I was 18.
Most people I know did study abroad their abroad junior year, but I’m so glad I went early: exposure to a nomadic life, and one outside a first-world country at that, gave me major insight into what I do and don’t need in life.
That year was a complete paradigm shift for me: I came back to the U.S. a far less materialistic person. While my classmates were buying new bags and boots, I was saving up, downsizing, and preparing to live out a suitcase after graduation. I’m thankful for that perspective early on.
6 // Rarely buying or replacing
The Ireland obsession has been going strong for years.
My dorm room was bare almost all of college. Finally, senior year, I decided to add at least a splash of color — so I took an old calendar of Ireland and covered my walls with the photos.
(A calendar I had waited to buy until after the holidays, by the way, when it was 75% off.)
I kept the same bed set throughout college and had the same swimsuit for five years. I still wear shirts I bought in 2006. Like the saying goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it — and save yourself the dough.
7 // Looking for educational or unusual discounts
(But it’s not just students or teachers, it’s anyone in education — including faculty and parents buying for students.)
It never helps to ask for a discount when you’re looking at a big purchase. Just earlier this year I jokingly asked my Apple friends if they could buy a computer for me — and they responded by telling me they get a Friends & Family discount!
Next thing I knew I was buying a new Air with upgraded memory for less than I paid for my first MacBook.
8 // Driving the speed limit and carpooling, even though I looked super uncool
Then again, I always look uncool in cars.
You know that every 5 miles you drive above 50 mph is equivalent to paying an extra $0.20 per gallon of gas? Going 75 MPH is therefore like paying an extra dollar per gallon of gas.
I rarely went above 65 mph in my car. I didn’t care that I was that Asian female driver in the slow lane. I was saving money — and my car’s health too.
And whenever I made plans with friends, we always tried to pick each other up if we lived in the same area. Why take two cars to meet at the same mall when we could take one?
I also took the bus far longer than anyone else did. (Everyone stopped riding the bus as soon as they got their driver’s license.) I may have been the only senior on a bus full of freshmen and sophomores, but I just put in my headphones and pretended they didn’t exist.
Who cares if you look uncool? I more than made up for it once I was on my travels.
9 // Not buying alcohol
Senior Week 2010. The only senior at the bar who wasn’t allowed to drink.
(Fun fact: that classmate is now a Pennsylvania State representative, while I sit here blogging about things that happened 10 years ago. Priorities.)
Even though I started college at 17, I can count on two hands the number of times I drank in the US before I was 21.
Sure, it might not have been totally by choice. It might have been because no one deemed me ‘cool’ enough to invite to parties.
But hey: it worked for me in the long run.
Every $7 I didn’t spend on Franzia was another $7 that went into what would eventually become my travel fund.
President’s Picnic, days before graduation. Still not 21, but my classmates might have snuck me a glass anyway.
“But Edna,” you say, “You drink like a fish! Who are you to tell anyone not to buy booze?”
Fair point. Are you my sister?
But I’m so glad I took those years to spend on my studies and myself and NOT on drinking. I didn’t know how to appreciate good alcohol until I was 23! It would have just been money wasted.
10 // Swim team economics
Photo courtesy of my charming roommate from sophomore year.
I started swimming in high school, and in college it became beneficial in so many ways: swimming gave me much-needed discipline, kept me extremely fit (3 hours a day, 5 days a week!), and going to competitions hours away prepared me for surviving long bus rides later on in life.
It also surprisingly made me a tiny profit.
Whenever we had away meets, we were given $7 for dinner at Wendy’s. While the rest of my teammates would spend it all, I would only buy one item off the Dollar Menu.
Sometimes I’d save a granola bar or banana from the meet and not order anything at all — thus pocketing 6 or 7 bucks every away meet.
Obviously this is a very specific example, but the takeaway here is to see where you can save even just a little bit. Got birthday money? Save it. Found $3 in change in your couch? Save it. It adds up.
11 // Developing tricks to fight impulse buys
My prom dress, which cost me a whole weekend of waiting tables. I’ve never worn it again. Was it worth it? Probably not.
We couldn’t afford fads when I was young (no gel pens for me), so by the time I was a teenager I’d gotten used to not being cool or popular.
From that, I learned how to resist wanting a lot of things. Later, when I started making money on my own, I’d apply a few tests before buying non-necessities.
One of the most effective was the hourly wage test: was this worth X hours of work? For example, if a dress was $20, and I made $7 an hour, was it worth serving coffee for three hours to afford it?
These days, I also have the Amazon basket test: I stick books I’m eyeing on my Wishlist, and check back on it periodically. So far I’ve only purchased a couple books on the list; the rest still sit there — honestly, I’ll probably never buy them.
Which brings me to my next point:
12 // Borrowing, not buying entertainment
Growing up poor, I was taught the value of education but wasn’t allowed to buy books.
Instead, my Dad got me a cardboard box and a library card.
I lived at the public library. Every Saturday we would walk in and fill the cardboard box to the brim with books — sometimes we’d bring and fill up additional plastic bags.
Every following Saturday we would walk back in, dump all the now-read books in the return bin, and fill ‘er up again.
Any books I wanted to read but didn’t have, I would request from the librarians. The Interlibrary Loan is a beautiful thing.
*Fun fact: the ILL is also how I saved a TON of money on books in college. I didn’t buy textbooks, and instead would request all my class reading material through the Interlibrary Loan.
13 // What I didn’t do but wish I had:
My beloved aging, gas-guzzling, repair-needing Saturn station wagon.
I wish I’d lived somewhere with established public transportation.
A good chunk of my paychecks in high school and college went to my beloved but ailing 1996 Saturn station wagon, which constantly needed repairs and had terrible gas mileage. Not to mention insurance costs, inspection fees, etc.
At least buses were cheap: thank goodness for Megabus and Bolt Bus to help make my trips to Philly/DC/NYC that much more affordable.
Since graduating college I’ve lived in big cities with fabulous subway networks — Singapore, Paris, Shanghai — and I can’t ever imagine putting so much money into a vehicle again.
Ultimately, affording travel comes down to priorities.
Some teenagers prefer to spend their money on clothes, others on entertainment, or alcohol, or technology. But if you know early that you want to make travel a priority, it’s totally possible to enter your 20s with a healthy amount of money in your travel fund.
Did you save money for travel when you were younger? Do you have any tips to add?