Living Abroad in a Tiny Spanish Apartment Taught Me 5 Money Lessons

  • I lived in Rota, Spain, for a while on assignment with the Navy. My tiny apartment taught me a lot.
  • I grew up in Texas and was used to driving everywhere and cranking the AC, but that changed in Spain.
  • I walked, biked, and carpooled to save money, ate locally, and learned to keep cool on the cheap.

I wish I could say it didn’t take moving to another continent on an overseas Navy assignment in my early 20s to get right with my money mindset. But: It did.

Now that I’m back Stateside I’ve taken the lessons I learned while deployed in Rota, Spain, and used them to save thousands by employing a few simple lifestyle tweaks.

1. I started spending less on food

In Rota, I spent significantly less money on food than I did in the US. This was partly because I lived on the southern coast of the peninsula where there is plenty of reasonably priced fresh fish, olives, olive oil, and other staples that are typically pricier Stateside.

Many common southern Spanish dishes, like gazpacho and tortilla de patata, are made of inexpensive ingredients that are on the verge of spoiling (eg, tomatoes for gazpacho are best once they are overripe, soft, and have nearly gone bad).

Gazpacho isn’t for everyone, but anyone can benefit from buying local, in-season foods and meal planning around recipes that make grocery hauls last as long as possible. I save hundreds of dollars a month this way.

2. I discovered cheap alternatives to AC

I lived in Texas most of my life, so I kept my AC cranked to max power almost 24/7 in the summer. When I moved to Spain, I had a tiny AC unit in my apartment that stopped working a month after my first night there.

Central AC is a rare luxury in southern Spain, and it was August, so I improvised by leaving the windows of my third-floor apartment open during the day to let the breeze in and keeping chilled towels and water in the fridge for especially hot days .

I spent very little on my energy bill there, and now I am much more conscious of my energy use in the US despite living in Florida. These days, the AC is only on in the afternoons when I’m home, which saves me around $37 a month.

3. I switched to walking, biking, and carpooling

In the US, I was used to having my own car and the freedom to go anywhere, anytime, without pause. This led to me burning a ton of unnecessary cash on gas. In Rota, I used a variety of methods to get around, since there is very little in the way of public transportation there. I biked, carpooled, and walked as much as possible.

After I met my husband, we drove his 2000 Honda CRV “beater” infrequently because we were accustomed to walking and biking everywhere. Now that we’re back in the States, we are much more conservative with gas usage and carpool to work as often as possible, which saves anywhere from $116 to $230 a week.

4. I learned to drive standard

My husband’s Honda was a standard transmission. I had no idea how to drive standard, but I had to learn if I wanted to pay less for rental cars when we went on trips, since automatic cars are not the norm in Europe. Once I learned, we were able to rent cars for much less and saved hundreds of dollars on travel.

Now I love driving stick, and in the US, I saved more than $1,000 by buying the standard version of my car. In the long run, it paid to take the time to learn that relatively simple skill and it has driven me (pun intended) to be more resourceful when it comes to managing my finances.

5. I stopped spending on things and chose experiences instead

In that tiny Spanish apartment, I had very little room for things. I had very few clothes, a few books, my uniforms, and my bike. I was constantly at work on the ship, so I didn’t have time to accumulate stuff even if I wanted to cram it into that small space.

I also realized that the experience of being on assignment overseas cultivated the feeling of being “unsettled” or un-attached to one place. I didn’t buy things I wanted simply because I knew I would have to move them back to the US in a matter of time. Instead, I chose to spend my money on travel, which was (in my experience) more fulfilling than harboring a collection of things.

Though I only lived abroad for a short time, the experience changed my approach to money and still influences my spending and saving habits. I learned that saving a ton of money doesn’t have to be complicated: sometimes it’s as easy as incorporating a bit of frugality and resourcefulness into the budget plan.

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