You’ve probably seen the Cosmopolitan story about the Yale graduate who left her nearly six-figure job and moved to St. John to scoop ice cream.
Or if not, maybe you’ve seen the Huffington Post article from one of my favorite bloggers, Budget Blonde, on how she paid off her debt by moving to a Caribbean island (the same one where I am, to be exact).
Something about living in this part of the world grants you revelations on how you should spend your time and money. When my husband got accepted to medical school in Grenada and I made the decision to enter grad school, we tried to ignore the fact that we would be drowning in debt while living in the Caribbean. We got our loan disbursements on time, and didn’t pay much attention to our budget even though many of our perceived necessities, like imported food from America or really cold air conditioning, cost so much more than they do at home. We were used to a certain standard of living that just wasn’t sustainable here.
As months progressed and we realized that we would run out of money if we kept shopping online or buying frozen pizzas, we were forced to reconsider the concepts of value and necessity. We joke about “when we’re rich” with multiple graduate degrees under our belts, but the reality is that we perceive wealth so much differently than we used to. Here are a few lessons we’ve learned in a year and a half of living here:
1. You can probably get it for cheap or free—or at least haggle for it
People don’t have much money here, so they’re always looking for a bargain. Students have created Facebook groups where we can sell used items to each other or give away old things that we don’t need anymore. In some places, you can haggle with vendors to pay less for your goods. If you don’t want to pay ridiculous shipping costs, get used to the idea of not buying things shiny and new.
2. You can lower your standards (really)
When you come from America, you’re used to using certain products, wearing nicer clothes, and keeping up appearances. I don’t know if it’s the fact that I sweat through all my nice clothes here or I just don’t want to pay for fancy shampoo, but my ideas of beauty and style have morphed. The bargain soap will still clean you, and your workout clothes are suitable enough for errands. Heck, your workout clothes are suitable enough for almost anything when you’re sweating all the time.
3. It costs less to treat yourself well
Don’t get me wrong, medical care is dirt cheap here compared to the United States. But in other respects, it’s more affordable and fulfilling to eat whole foods (which are definitely cheaper than your imported breakfast cereals or microwave dinners), spend time outside, and watch a less TV (the one that came with our apartment is gathering dust in the closet). We rarely get sick, we appreciate the labor of doing our own cooking, and our mental health is much stronger.
4. Poverty will keep your gratitude in check
In Grenada, a shocking one-third of the population is unemployed. Drive anywhere in town and you’ll see people selling everything from watermelon slices to used clothing to make a living; drive anywhere on the outskirts, and you’ll see people in tattered clothes living in shacks made of cinder blocks or sheets of tin. My material problems are trivial compared to theirs—so why should I spend time complaining about them? I am lucky to live in a safe neighborhood, sleep in a warm bed, eat three meals a day, and have my family by my side. Not everyone here can say the same.
5. We find happiness in each other
I love the sense of community on the island. Bus drivers stop to chat with their friends, police cars pick up hitchhikers (who are maybe also friends?), and neighbors know one another by name. People help one another, and the relationships you already had get stronger when you live here. Which is more important: having a comfortable life, or having someone there to help you when things get uncomfortable?
Maybe these aren’t shocking lessons—and hopefully you don’t have to move to another country to figure them out. But I wouldn’t trade my experiences here for anything, and can only hope that the habits I’ve built will remain intact when we get home.