When money does buy happiness
Before I came to Europe for the semester, I used to think it was silly when people said they couldn’t study abroad because it was too expensive. In my head, I compared it to living off Grounds at U.Va. After all, tuition and housing are all roughly the same in Charlottesville and abroad. I thought living expenses would be too. The money lost in the dollar-euro conversion of a weekly grocery trip, an occasional movie, a new sweater, a pair of boots and some alcohol couldn’t be enough of a difference to make you not want to live, study and party in another country. Besides the price of your flight to Europe and back, you could expect about the same budget.
Boy, was I wrong.
Roughly 17 weeks, 12 countries, 15 cities, 11 plane rides, and 14 bus/train rides later — some of which may not have been legitimate — I can finally accept that the loss of my formerly plentiful life savings is in sight. With just enough cash to get me frugally through three weeks and one more trip — my flight home — part of me remains angry and anxious that I have let my account balance reach rock bottom for the first time since I started earning my own money five years ago. I remember the endless hours serving artificially warm steaks from a smelly kitchen to cranky, cheap customers, cleaning tables and sweeping underneath booths until midnight, and then I think of how the monetary rewards reaped from the dark days are almost dry. Nothing is left to comfort my suppressed memories.
I’m currently sitting on my last train ride, traveling from Valencia to Barcelona, where I will catch a plane tonight back to Lyon, thinking about ways I could have saved money this semester. First, I could have traveled less — the aforementioned plane and train rides were the red-handed culprits. I could have eaten the cheap meals given at the hostels, instead of going out with friends to find out what a city’s cuisine is really like. Other costs provide a snapshot of giddy European bliss: the 15-euro cost to climb to the top of the Eiffel Tower, the 4.5-euro crêpes, the 3.5-euro glass of mulled wine after a rainy evening of window shopping, the 15-euro taxi ride to get to the train station at 7 a.m. to save an extra 35 minutes of precious sleep after being out until 4 a.m. Then there was my 20-euro cooking class, in which I learned how to create a meal of baked figs, quenelle and fondant — a classic Lyonnais meal — and the 22-euro train ride to the airport to surprise my best friend after I’d gone months without a comforting face from home.
My parents have helped me out financially, but that went to tuition and housing. It was my own decision to live this semester the way I have. I wouldn’t say I’m particularly thrifty in the United States, but my former self wouldn’t be able to fathom the amount of money I’ve spent this semester. But I don’t regret a single bit of it. I wanted this trip to be about experience, and it was worth it. I’ve relished the auditory experience of going to a techno music festival in Paris, tasting authentic tapas and sangria in Barcelona, touching the joker boy statue’s foot in Budapest for good luck, smelling the aromas of the spice markets in Marrakech and seeing the endless red rooftops of Prague from the view at the top of the astronomical clock tower. I’ve never found the adage, “Travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer,” to be truer. I’ll never get these four months, the amazing sights, the happy friends, the spontaneous trips and the delicious French meals back, but the money I can.
I can’t speak for everyone, because everybody has his or her own outlook on money and spending habits. To some, their form of money is their time, and they can’t afford to experience certain things because of a lack of time. But remember we’re in college, and these four years are short. Next time you find yourself turning something down you know you’ll enjoy, take a minute to reconsider. In the end, what will you remember more? The money, time or energy lost that can be made up in the future? Or the impromptu trip to D.C. for a concert with your friends, the tailgate in a friend’s Lawn room, the 3 a.m. trip to IHOP after a group project or the weekend trip to another state to visit a friend from high school?
I’ve realized money is for spending. Especially at this point in my life, when my income is so low because I have the full-time job of being a student, I’m going to use the money I do make to help these four years become as memorable as possible. Put your guard down, go with the flow, pay your dues and work your ass off when you have time to, and you’ll be surprised at how many wind-in-face, flabbergasting, deer-in-headlights, head-shaking, embarrassing, irresponsible, yet incredibly memorable moments you’ll have.
Valerie’s column runs biweekly Tuesdays. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.