I began December 2014 fading out of consciousness on an operating table while the human resource officer at my job sent me several emails to ensure that my surgery was in fact serious enough to merit taking time off work.
At the time, not only did I had a demanding international development job in a work environment that could only be described as toxic, but they put so many bureaucratic hurdles in place before I could take any sick leave that it made my recovery keenly stressful. My colleagues were petty, management was vindictive, and the hours were long with a demanding traveling schedule. By the end of that year, I decided I was going to quit my job. Nothing about what I was doing–my salary or the trajectory of my career–was worth my health or general happiness. I was tired of living only to work.
[Tweet “I was tired of living only to work.”]
I’d been to Panama City for the first time on a work trip in 2012 and immediately felt at home. With it’s booming economy, beautiful coastline and thriving diversity, Panama City reminded me of the Miami of my childhood. After a few trips, though, I realized that I wasn’t immediately ready for the daily bustle of city life so soon after leaving the dark rooms and dark suits of Washington, D.C. I also needed to improve my Spanish before being thrust into the busy streets of Panama City. Instead, I chose Bocas Del Toro, a series of sparsely populated islands on the Caribbean coast with more jungle and beaches than people, as my initial entry point into Panama.
Since moving to Panama, a lot of people have asked me exactly how I did it. It was a huge leap, but I’m glad to be able to share my experience in hopes of helping others to escape jobs and environments that don’t fulfill them.
Here are a few tips on how to quit your job, pack up your life, and move abroad to live the life you’ve always dreamed about!
1. Pick a place that fits your needs
There are many places in the world that you can go; the opportunities are endless. However, it’s important to pick a place that fits your needs as well as the lifestyle you want to lead. Almost a decade after my first trip abroad, I now value being close enough to home that I can see my family when I’d like to, leaving winter behind as a distant memory, the ability to integrate in the local culture rather than the party scene, and freedom of mobility. I was certain that I wanted to be in a place that I could learn Spanish, make local friends, and safely walk to the beach whenever I pleased. I also wanted to be in a country with a thriving economy and opportunities for me to pursue a serious career if I choose to stay. Oh, and cute guys…
Did I mention cute guys already? If not, move that reason to the top of the list.
Ultimately, it’s necessary to be honest with yourself about the standard of living you expect and have a sense of what you’re getting into before you arrive. Date the place(s) before you commit: take a few extended trips to the place(s) you’re considering moving to before making that leap. Having lived abroad before, there were things I was willing to compromise on in terms of standard of living: now constant access to wifi and 24 hour electricity–even hot showers–are no longer essential for me. However, I can distinctly remember how long I waited for the water heater to kick in and the water to get hot in my first Cairo apartment before realizing it was never going to happen. Not that day or the next, or a year later.
After much research, I picked Bocas because it fit my most important requirement: being able to learn Spanish at one of best Spanish schools in Central America located near the beach, Habla Ya Spanish Schools. Even after over a year of Spanish classes in Washington, D.C., I would have been too timid to even engage in a conversation in Spanish with a native speaker a month ago; however, I’ve learned more in a month at Habla Ya than I did in over a year of Spanish classes twice a week in D.C. Learning the language provides me with the basis for being able to fully integrate into Panama as well as build a career here.
2. Pick A Date
Once I’d chosen where I wanted to go, I had to choose a date that allowed me enough time to prepare for the move. The wisdom of picking a date comes down to the fact that it gives you something to look forward to. At work, I kept a post it with “November :)” stuck to my computer monitor as a reminder that this was just a “Poe sort of misery with a Frost sort of hope.”
I began informing my close friends and family about my plans to move and the expected date months in advance. This might seem superfluous, but I realized that few people actually believed I was leaving. I’d remind them that I intended to move to Panama and my friends would simply smile and nod indulgently before continuing to make plans as if I would still be around! The unspoken expectation is that there will always be something holding hold you back–a cause too great or a relationship too important–and that is only true if you treat it as such. Since the night of my going away party and even now, people are still a bit surprised that I actually walked away from it all and moved.
3. Get your finances in order
The perception is that people who choose to move abroad make that decision brashly, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. My life experiences have made me a firm believer in the financial independence of women, especially women of color. Before I moved abroad, I diversified my portfolio: I invested some of my money in stocks, bought rental property to generate some passive income, and then kept some money in my savings as a cushion for my move. It’s a misconception that you have to wait until you make a certain amount of money to invest, save, or buy property. Depending on your state or lender, there are a multitude of resources available to help first time homeowners buy a home with nothing down or only a small percentage down payment.
[Tweet “You don’t have to wait until you make a certain amount of money to invest, save, or buy property.”]
Websites like WiseBanyan help you make strategic investments based on your needs. Ultimately, what type of financial planning works for you depends entirely on your needs, your income, and how risk adverse you are. However, one thing that I would strongly recommend is setting up a separate bank account just to save for the move. Having a percentage of my salary automatically deposited into a separate account each month prevented me from spending that money elsewhere and allowed me to set goals and monitor my progress via Mint.
4. Do what you want to do
Decide how you want to use your education, skills, and interests abroad. Certain people have jobs that they can do anywhere or skills that are globally in demand. Despite the idea that living abroad is something only for the wealthy or retirees, there are a variety of way to go abroad for an extended period of time and have the cost either completely or partially covered, or make a living doing that something that interests you. Some examples are the Peace Corps, Boren Fellowship, Jobattical, U.N. Jobs, U.N. Volunteers, Help Stay, and Help Exchange. There are also many opportunities to teach English abroad in places like Vietnam, Spain, South Korea, and Chile. Additionally, if there is a particular organization you are interested in working for, contact them personally to see if your background matches their needs. It’s important to do the legwork to get your plans in order months in advance so that you have an opportunity to meet deadlines, and change your plans if necessary.
After having such a grueling work schedule for so many years, I knew that I wanted to define my professional success in my own terms in this new chapter. For me, this meant placing more value on the impact of what I’m doing, the joy it brings me, opportunities to grow, and the flexibility of my schedule rather than how much I make and the title on my business cards. Rather, I wanted to focus on learning Spanish, and invest time in improving my writing and photography skills. With that in mind, I chose to not immediately “get a job” in the traditional sense. I saved up enough to live frugally for at least three months, but wanted to make my savings last for as long as possible. I began looking for opportunities to volunteer my time in exchange for Spanish classes months before I intended to move. Luckily, my skills matched the current needs of Habla Ya and we were able to work out a deal for me to assist them with marketing and social media for three months in exchange for Spanish lessons and living accommodations. Once I get my Spanish to at least a conversational level, I’ll feel more comfortable job hunting in Panama City or elsewhere.
5. Make new friends
A big part of moving abroad is making a fresh start, which often means leaving your old friends behind. Many people worry about not being able to make new friends abroad and expend a lot of energy in reaching into their social circles to find out if their sister’s neighbor’s best friend from sixth grade knows anyone who lives in the country they’re interested in.
While I did have a few people put me in touch with their friends in Panama City, I didn’t know a soul when I landed in Bocas. Because learning Spanish is important to me, I wanted to avoid the cliquish “expat bubble” of English speakers that is often an inevitable consequence of being connected with friends of friends beforehand. Instead, I’ve stepped outside my comfort zone and joined in on group activities and taken classes at Bocas Fight Club to meet local people. I regularly stop and make conversation with shop owners or people around my neighborhood in order to get to know my new community. I also asked the administrative staff at Habla Ya to recommend someone to be my language exchange partner. Immediately, a staffer paired me up with his sister, Kimmy. Realizing that we have some of the same interests, she and I now spend some nights conversing in Spanish then in English about music, dating, life, and our respective families. Interestingly enough, I doubt I would have met her if I didn’t take make the conscious decision to prioritize fostering relationships with local people. However, I still spend some time with expats for the ease of speaking English occasionally without making them my primary social network.
6. Pack light
Some people get rid of everything. I, on the other hand, was happy to give my couch to a guy from Vermont who’d just moved to D.C., but I wasn’t willing to part with my shoe collection, artwork, or a hand painted dresser I once made an ex-boyfriend drive three hours into Virginia to buy for me. I decided what to pack and what to keep based on whether or not I’d be happy to pay for this item to be shipped to me internationally one day. Based on this criteria, I gave away certain things immediately and sold others. MakeSpace dropped off storage bins for me to pack up the rest and conveniently came to pick them up and store them for me. No hassle. I left D.C. with just two suitcases (and, unfortunately, not enough sunscreen).
7. Finally, just go
Why are you still reading this?! Go out there and make it happen!
France Francois is a writer and world traveler currently learning Spanish at Habla Ya in Panama. Read about her travels and adventures redefining what it means to be black and abroad on her blog or follow her on Twitter: @frenchieglobal