5 Things I Wish I'd Been Told About Money Before Joining Remote Year
DISCLAIMER: The following post is based off of my personal experiences as a participant in the Remote Year program and intends only to address specific questions I've received about the financial side of things. These are my opinions, and my opinions only, based solely off of my personal experience and personal financial situation. You may feel differently, and that's okay.
Oh, Remote Year. Entering into my fourth month, you've become my favorite barnacle. I was just a lonely whale wandering aimlessly in Manhattan, and you were some shell-less larvae looking to build your mollusk upon. Somehow, we found each other in the vast oceanic interweb, and now we're existing in this obligate commensalism, a symbiotic relationship in which one of us benefits and the other one doesn't care much either way. We're not sure which is which. Mostly, you're just there, like a constant old friend who also likes to suck away at my finances.
And suck you have. Each month, I watch as my savings dwindle away like global sea ice. It started slowly — predictably — at first, and then all of a sudden it was like HOLY SHIT WE JUST REALIZED THAT THIS IS NOT SUSTAINABLE. EVERYBODY PANIC AND MAKE A DOCUMENTARY. AND LEARN TO SWIM. IMMEDIATELY. Of course, much of that is my fault, since I decided to make a practical decision and quit my job in order to find "happiness" or my "passion" or whatever. I could have kept the job, not bled out through my financial jugular, and instead let my winning New York City resentment and charm carry me through a year of career frustration.
Or I could practice trust, indulge in the projects I actually want to explore, and hope that something longer term materializes. If not, I figured I'd just go live with my mom and get a job at Starbucks. I'd make more money (with benefits!) doing that than I ever did running a small business in New York. As it turns out, inventing boozy cupcakes does not make you a millionaire (buy my book!) It just makes you the most popular person at parties and a borderline diabetic/alcoholic.
So, let's talk about money. This is going to be awkward. Based on the emails and questions I'm getting about the program, money is the primary concern...which is totally legitimate because Remote Year is a huge financial commitment. Here are five things I wish I'd known about money (and money's worth) before traveling the world with Remote Year:
1. Cheap countries aren't actually that cheap.
Yes, you're traveling to locations where the cost of living is probably lower than wherever you're coming from. If you were actually living in these places long term, your expenses would go down, But, you're not living there. You're a glorified tourist. More importantly, you're a glorified Western tourist, which means you're going frequent establishments where you know the ice is factory made and that the food isn't prepared over an open sewer. These businesses aren't dumb, and they're often run by expats. They know you'll pay, so they'll charge you more than the actual local places (which aren't ever in guidebooks or on Trip Advisor.) A cappuccino in Phnom Penh, Cambodia will cost $2.50. A clean, healthy meal in Koh Phangan, Thailand will cost 250 baht ($7). A cocktail could put you back 48 ringgit ($10.70) in Kuala Lumpur.
Even if your day to day is cheaper than in your regular life, all the fun stuff comes at a cost. Getting your scuba certification in Thailand will run you $350. Blowing up a keg with a bazooka in Cambodia will cost you $400, plus the cost of the keg. Taking a weekend trip to Bali from Malaysia will run you $400 with last minute flights, hotels, and beach cocktails. Sure, you could tell yourself you won't do these things, but realistically, you're probably never going to have the opportunity to shoot a bazooka again. You're going to shoot a bazooka. I didn't shoot the bazooka and now have serious regrets about that choice.
2. Googling accommodation prices is like looking up that weird rash on WebMD.
Remote Year costs $27,000 dollars. That's a god damned year of college. Your spot is reserved with a $3K "non-refundable deposit" (those two words don't belong together) and another $2k that goes toward your 12th month of the program. So, if you make it to the end, you've already paid for your last month. If you quit the program, you lose that $2k. If you don't want to be part of the program for a month, because you have other obligations or because you just don't want to go to a particular location, you still have to pay $1000 to remain on the roster (and you have to let them know 60 days ahead of time, otherwise you're SOL.)
In New York City, $2k would basically fall out of my pocket every time I walked out the door. When I rationalized this program in my head, I figured I'd be paying that money anyway, so I may as well be somewhere awesome. Technically, this is still true, but it becomes a lot harder to swallow when you realize you can get a studio apartment in Phnom Penh, Cambodia for $250/month and a flat in Split, Croatia for 400 Euro. Our specific accommodation in Koh Phangan — a high end resort — is currently running at $25/night, or $750/month.
The second you start looking into how much things really cost, that $2k becomes a giant question mark. Even though you know there are tangible perks to traveling with this program and that your money is also paying your Program Leaders' and City Team's salaries, it's still exceptionally hard to rationalize when you're low on cash, jobless, or simply a financially efficient person. In order to make it worth it, the people and community around you need to be more important to you than your budget, and you can't make that call until you give the program a shot.
3. Remote Year is a business and you are not that special.
This is the part I didn't understand when I signed on with the program — you make your financial decisions for the year based on the Western life you live before you leave your home, but then your entire life changes the second you get off that plane and Remote Year becomes the big brother involved in your financial future. You realize you don't need as much structure, but there's no way to test out a month on your own and see how it goes. If you fall in love with a place, you can't extend your time there. Maybe you lose your job. Perhaps a loved one at home passes away, or an unexpected health problem comes up. Remote Year has policies in place to deal with these kind of situations, but they're the ones who get to analyze your situation decide whether or not you can opt out of a month and to what extent you will or will not have to pay.
For example, I encountered a mental heath problem in Kuala Lumpur and Thailand, and I knew it would continue to be an issue in Cambodia. I inquired about opting out of Cambodia, even though it was past the 60 day requirement (in order to opt out of Month Three I would have had to make that call before I left the States...but I didn't know the problem existed until the program began.) They didn't allow me to opt out, and ultimately, I only spent about five nights in my RY apartment and ended up making other arrangements that didn't compromise my mental health.
Had I been physically dying, I'm sure this situation would have been different. But that's the thing...they get to decide the severity of your emergency and that directly impacts your finances. All of this was clear to me before I signed up. I knew what I signed up for, and what the program was designed to do. I'm also a business owner, and honestly, I'd probably make a lot of the same decisions because at some point, you have to draw the line. But, in practice, when things change quickly and it's your actual life, it is a much harder thing to come to terms with...especially when you can't predict when life will slap you in the face.
4. Your "Oh shit" fund and your "I fucked up" fund will be substantial.
Life lessons are expensive. In the real world, when you screw something up and end up spending extra money, you usually have the rest of your life to not make that same mistake again. Did you take a taxi to the airport instead of the Airport Shuttle and spend $80 instead of $12? You do that once and never do it again. When you're traveling, you usually don't get a do over, and every place has different rules so you're constantly making mistakes. Did you send $400 worth of stuff to Croatia without realizing there would be an additional 50% VAT tax upon pickup? Well, I imagine you're only shipping a box of stuff to Croatia once in your life, so that's $600 you'll never get back. Did you book a plane ticket six weeks ago, but now things have changed and you can't go? There's a $200 ticket you can't change. Did a rogue wave engulf your computer? Maybe some DEET killed your phone? Or perhaps, you spilled soup on your computer and then had to fly back to your home country for your job to replace it. All of these things have happened either to me (dead phone due to DEET) or to others on the trip. Something will happen to you, too, and it will be expensive.
5. Just because Remote Year organizes it doesn't mean Remote Year pays for it.
Remote Year offers a lot of organized activities, from welcome dinners to city tours to hikes to day trips. Most of this, though, still comes at your expense. I incorrectly assumed that most of these sorts of activities would be included in my monthly $2k, especially the more low key activities like welcome dinners (just an organized dinner to welcome you to a new city) and walking tours. Split's welcome dinner and walking tour cost $17.80 and $11 respectively. Meanwhile, we had dinner provided for us up on arriving in Cambodia, and the walking tour in Kuala Lumpur was free. So sometimes they pay for things, and other times they don't, and then you get really confused when they pay for lunch during a 7 hour layover in Bangkok but don't pay for breakfast during a 5 hour layover in Frankfurt and so you just scratch your head and make a mental note to expect nothing and hope to be surprised.
So why do it? Well, you're paying for friends, the City Teams (they're fantastic), and some people who can think for you, basically. And for someone to contact your mother if you are actually dying. There's value in these services. Your mom thinks so, too. But more on that in another post.
As always, feel free to contact me if you have any more questions or if there's a specific topic you'd like me to cover for my Things I Wish I Was Told Before Traveling Around the World series!