The Guide To Survival Abroad (While On A Tight Budget)

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Living abroad can be hard. Living abroad can be even harder depending on your monetary situation. But even so, it’s an experience that will forcedly make you grow on fast forward as a professional and as a human being. It will humble you down and even beat you to your knees if you let it (paraphrasing this amazing Rocky Balboa Speech). It will make you appreciate all the things you previously took for granted (like your grandma’s food, your family’s constant nagging, or even things like fast-connection internet). It will eat you and spit you out, but it’ll spit a better, stronger man (or woman).

If you are contemplating living abroad on a tight budget, it is important to have a grasp of how to bootstrap yourself while you get comfortable. It might be the difference between abroad success or having to pull back before you are able to spread your wings.
 
I know this struggle. Whether you are looking for bootstrapping guidance, or if you just want to live as cheaply as possible anywhere, keep reading. Let’s get right on to it.
 
First things first, you got to set yourself a strategy before going in. See it as a battle plan, if you will. Yoloing your every move will most likely make you regret it (as I’ve learned from other fellows who didn’t follow this advice).

The first step of any battle plan should be Intel, if you have the chance:

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” 
― 
Sun TzuThe Art of War

Remember when people say Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” can be applied to almost any aspect of life? Here’s one example.

Before making any steps forward, you got to know your destination first. Heck, you got to know the road in the first place. So this is your first task:

Gather Information about Your Destination, As Detailed As You Can

Make a list of every relevant questions that could come to mind regarding your destination and then take time to respond every one of them, for example, ask yourself:

  • Where is your destination located? How far is it from home?
  • How is the weather like?
  • How much is the general cost of living?
  • How much does it cost to rent an apartment there?
  • How difficult / costly it is to obtain legal residency there? What are the requisites?
  • Is the country expat-friendly?
  • How good is the country’s Job market? And/or how entrepreneur-friendly?
  • What is the country’s political and economic situation?
  • Is it a safe country?
  • What’s the country’s or city’s infrastructure?
  • How’s the country’s healthcare?

Honestly, it can be any question that comes to mind that might appear relevant to you. The better prepared you are, the better.

Gather Information about Yourself

Like Sun-Tzu wrote, you have not to only know the enemy, but yourself. Know your “why” in the first place and let it be your north. Lauded general Von Clausewitz stated this as one of the basics for victory in battle: “Pursue one great decisive aim with force and determination.”

If you need a number of requisites in order to live in a determined place, then know what requisites you already meet, know the ones you don’t, and the one you won’t, if you get what I mean. For example:

  • How big is your budget?
  • How healthy are you? Do you need any special treatments/assistance?
  • What is your goal in this new destination?
  • What do you care about the most? Good infrastructure? Working opportunities? Studying opportunities? Entertainment?
  • How many visa requirements do you meet and which are missing?
  • Will you need to learn a new language?

In order to gather this info, you got to do your research. The first logical option is Google. There are lots of relatively consistent sources around the web, constantly being updated and improved so you can get the most out of them; like blogs, forums, overseas living websites, and official government websites of the country you are considering. If all else fails, a reliable, updated book on living overseas can help you analyze in more depth about specific destinations and requirements that you may have bypassed.

After you are set with gathering Intel, you will be ready to move on to the next stage: Recon.

Traveling To The Destination

In the best of cases, you should at least go once to your country of destination for a test run as a tourist before living there first, in order to get a hang of things. It is advised to know first-hand what kind of “territory” you’ll encounter before taking any commitments. Note that this is highly advisable, but not completely necessary.

When approaching this matter on a tight budget, analyze how you can get to your destination the cheapest way. It is on your side how you balance your budget with unnecessary conveniences like next-day business flights.

You could go to your destination by air, by boat, or even by car, depending on where you are going. Personally, I prefer hunting for the best flight. You might have another means to buy tickets cheaply, but my personal cheapskate strategy goes as follows:

  1. Use a site like Expedia.com. These kind of sites are search engines that gather automatically the best flights to most destinations around the world. You should use at least two sites like this to get the best results.
  2. Don’t buy the ticket through the service. Duh, these sites will add their bite to the final cost of the ticket, and most likely will not add the airport charges to make them look nicer to the eye. You’ll find yourself at the airline’s check-in paying that extra later.
  3. Instead, go directly to the airline’s site. Now that you know which airlines are better priced, go directly to their websites in order to buy. Take the best 2 or 3 airline results and buy there. No service fees, and no hidden fees.
  4. Try to buy the ticket(s) months in advance, and out of high-demand dates, if possible.

Finding Shelter

This is a matter that should be taken care of even before buying the tickets.

The go to strategy for the cheapskate overseas is to crash on one of your family or friends homes if you have any in your country of destination. If this fails, then you have to balance your options. You can (in order of personal preference):

  • Rent a room in a shared apartment
  • Rent an apartment, house, or a long-stay hotel room for a month or two
  • Rent in a hostel
  • Rent a “cheap” hotel room

You can find them on internet classifieds for rent on the internet easily these days. Just please, stay away from places like Ebay and Kijiji, at least for international travels. You’ll get ripped off as fast as a recently shaven Michael Phelps. Instead, look for the national alternatives. For example, Panama has classified list sites like Encuentra24, and compreyalquile.com. Some of these sites can be translated to English, but it is advised that you at least defend yourself in their mother tongue so you avoid falling for “gringo prices”. Pro tip: most browsers now come with the ability of translating pages based on online translation services that might make it easier to navigate these kind of websites.

After you are accommodated, your first objective then should be to scout for a more permanent and better deal as fast as you can. The best way to get the best deals is to research on site. Most of them are not classified on the internet.

Grocery Shopping

Grocery shopping as well as general shopping are not that complicated to manage while living on a budget. You just have to bear in mind that imported goods are always going to be more expensive than national products, that the “people’s” super market is going to be cheaper than higher-end super markets, and that for that extra bang for buck, you should try to hunt for street markets, which have even lower prices in comparison to super markets, especially for vegetable and fruit produce.

Applying For Residency

Depending on the country you are in, this should be your second-to-none concern, since most countries ask for a visa and a work permit even before letting you in the country.

Other countries, like for example Panama and Dominican Republic (most Latin American countries, really), are more lax with their residency policies, which let you start your life abroad while filing for residency at the same time.

Countries with retirement visas are a plus for seniors as they shower them with benefits like tax exemptions, discounts in many services like hotels, movie theaters, healthcare, and products like medicines. Good examples of these type of visas include Belize, Panama, and Malaysia. Costa Rica used to have one of the best retirement visas in the world, but their benefits have diminished over time.

Always be aware of visa and residency policies of the destinations you will be considering so you are not caught off-guard. The last thing you need is a fine (Or a deportation order) with your name on it.

Looking For Work Opportunities

Again, depending on where you are pointing on the map, this could be a first concern. Some countries outright won’t let you have residency unless you have yourself a contract with a national company, or that you have proof that you are going to invest in a business there. And this should be the best scenario for going to another nation, but if you are going to a place where you can start creating a business career on site, this can be a good plan to follow:

  • Set up a national resume.
  • Browse national work classifieds and post your resume there (for example in Panama: encuentra24.com, estascontratado.com, computrabajo.com, and konzerta.com).
  • Take a day trip or two (or whichever are necessary) to hunt for working opportunities.

As I am assuming you are short on money, so it is important to become flexible while you set up yourself in the country. Accepting jobs you know are not worthy of you might sound like a drag, but they will help you stay afloat until you find your real opportunity. Meanwhile, you can focus on creating or expanding your professional network overseas. P.S.: Here you can learn how to do it from zero!

Other considerations

It is also important to point that in order to keep expenses to a minimum, having at least a partner to accompany you on your journey can be one of the best decisions you can take. You can share expenses, boost morale for each other, and just have someone to come home to after a long day of work. Having someone that helps you maintain your spirit and hopes up is important. As B.H. Liddell Hart wrote, “Loss of hope rather than loss of life is what decides the issues of war.” And believe me, going lone wolf is a lot tougher than going in company. It is all a matter of preference, though. Put this consideration carefully on your balance.

After setting up a proper plan based on your Intel, Recon efforts, and this brief guide, you’ll be ready to develop your strategy, and deploy. Remember:

Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.” – Sun Tzu.

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About Author

Alfredo Capella

Alfredo is a Venezuelan born Business Communications Major, specialized in digital marketing. He is internationally experienced in US and Latin America in TV, journalism, and marketing. While currently taking up roots in Panama, he likes to spend his free time discovering the world on his skateboard, and playing the guitar.