How to Live Abroad on a Shoestring Budget

Greetings from Tokyo. I’m here visiting my good mate Matt.

A couple of years ago, Matt decided to embark on an extended work holiday giving up a blue-eyed blonde and a back yard to live in a shoebox and eat sushi.

It’s a fascinating place: the Marlboro Man still flogs fags (well maybe it’s the cancerous cowboy’s son who’s yet to kick the ashtray), Brad Pitt and a host of other Hollywood celebrities sell their artistic souls advertising everything from mobile phones to whisky, and then there’s the toilets which have more buttons than my mobile phone.

Each time I come here I have so much fun, I kick myself for not doing this when I first got out of school. Although, to be fair, I graduated from university a decade ago when the debt binge was but a baby. So instead of seeing the world, I worked hard and made some good wedge, so that now I’m able to afford to come over and visit (albeit on an ultra-tightwad Jetstar Asia special).

University debt

Yet if I were graduating today I would do it differently.

The next few years promise to deliver the toughest employment conditions we’ve seen in decades. Many companies have put a freeze on hiring, which will cause a backlog of graduates applying for the same positions next year. Then you have the mass influx of young Aussie professionals returning home from a recession-ravaged London to raid the boomer bank and, hopefully, score a job.

So it’s not surprising that over the past year or so I’ve received emails from uni students who are worried about graduating with a huge HECS debt and few immediate job prospects that don’t involve wearing a paper hat – it’s almost like being an arts student.

Addressing the issue

If I were graduating into this situation here’s what I’d do:

I wouldn’t go out and get another alphabet after my name. Unless you’re a doctor, an aspiring academic or an exotic dancer, getting more qualifications will tend to hamper rather than help your job prospects. In order to set yourself apart you have to go out and do something extraordinary.

I’d scrounge together $6000 made up of savings, uncle Kev’s cash, and perhaps a payoff from corporate Australia (rumour has it that PWC and many other Aussie corporates are paying the graduates they recruited in better times up to $4000 to delay starting until 2010). For those of you without the corporate connections, start flipping burgers. It will be worth it.

What are your options?


With the world economy in the toilet, it should come as no surprise that it’s going to be tough getting a job in your chosen profession on your travels. Yet an overseas working holiday shouldn’t be all about the bucks, but rather should be thought of as an investment, both in your career and yourself.

This is where Matt’s got it made. He bypassed the urge to take a Contiki trip and spew on the steps of the Eiffel Tower, and instead chose to take an extended working holiday (his main gig is teaching English at Google’s Japanese digs). Yet it’s the skills he’s learned and applied that will stand him in good stead wherever he goes.

Trust me. The morning commute can wait. There are few times in your life that you can enjoy the freedom, adventure and excitement of living in a foreign land (unless you move to Canberra).

You may be thinking that $6000 won’t get you very far. But sometimes the best things in life are (almost) free.


The tragedy of the Victorian fires has underscored just how important the work of volunteers is in times of disaster.

Around the world there are untold tragedies happening right now and thankfully there are organisations that you can register with to donate your time, in exchange for food and lodging.

Hands On Disaster Response is one such organisation. This international non-profit relief organisation co-ordinates volunteers to help countries that are suffering disasters, from Hurricane Katrina in the US, to landslides in the Philippines, to helping the people of Peru rebuild after their earthquakes.

HODR’s motto is “maximum impact, minimum bureaucracy”. Unlike other organisations, there are no application fees and no interviews just show up and go to work. If you can afford the travel costs to an HODR project, then all your costs are covered bar your beer money. Payment is made by allowing you to immerse yourself in a foreign culture and forge new friendships, and in the cosmic karma of helping people in their darkest hour.

Whatever you decide, an extended work-slash-volunteering holiday will provide you with a handy response the next time you find yourself sitting in an interview and they ask the “tell me the last time you faced a difficult situation” question. You can respond with:
“I graduated in the face of a slowing economy and had incurred a large HECS debt. While my mates decided that they’d spend the next 12 months working for Cougar cans and swapping spit in suburban nightclubs, I went off and worked, lived and ultimately changed a little part of the world.”

Benefit and live abroad

“What skills did I learn? Networking. Hard work. Self-reliance. Life skills. And an understanding of what hard work and sacrifice actually means.”

Whether you’re about to graduate, or you’re wanting to graduate to something a little different, the combination of cheap travel, a nicely timed government handout, the ability to speak English, and the current economic woes may serve to stimulate the idea of embarking on an opportunity that in 40 years you’ll be proud to bore your grandkids with.

There’s a whole world out there to discover. The cubicle can wait a year or two. While everyone is talking economic doom and gloom, why not think about making the ultimate investment?

Tread your own path!