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Traveling with Debt: Nurse Practitioner to Digital Nomad with US$160,000 in Student Loans

Traveling with Debt. It’s a topic that is mostly ignored in the Digital Nomad and travel communities. We’re bombarded with blog posts urging us to “quit our jobs, it’s easy!”. Yet, when you have a big fat student loan payment to make every month, it’s not that simple. No amount of Couchsurfing, hitchhiking, or budgeting will eliminate the fact that you have to pay it. Still, many are criticized for not taking enough risks. Certainly, if you could just summon the courage to quit your job and move abroad, it will work out, right?

Will it, though?

I speak often to my friends from home about traveling, and one of the biggest reasons they tell me for why they can’t travel or move abroad is student loan payments. While, for the purpose of full disclosure, I am lucky enough to not have student loans myself, I’d say 80% of my friend circle does. However, I also have loads of expat friends I’ve met in Berlin, Prague, and traveling around, who DO have student loans. Through various methods, they’ve managed to see the world while paying them off.

So, when I put out a call on Facebook for people to tell me their stories, I was bombarded with messages. I plan for this to be a series, as everyone’s story and background is quite different.

In this post, we’ll meet American digital nomad Samantha Alvarez. Samantha and I met in Berlin via the Digital Nomad Girls community last summer. We spent the evening chatting over drinks with some other nomad girls, and went on a trip to the lake with my friends, chatting travel and life. Since then I’ve been watching her travels and language-learning challenges from afar. When Samantha offered to tell her story, I had to take her up on it! Funnily enough, I’ve actually found myself quoting this interview to my friends already, so I hope you’ll find it useful too! And thanks, Samantha, for taking the time to tell me your story, you are certainly an inspiration!

My name is Samantha Alvarez and I am a nurse practitioner. I have had 63 paying jobs in my adult life. 

I am a hobby polyglot, and I speak 8 languages.  The four things that are most important to me are relationships, language, music and education. That is what I focus my professional life on as well as my personal life. I’ve been a digital nomad for three years, and I travel the world doing different types of work.

I currently work as a career advisor for a startup in Germany and I really enjoy it because I get to talk to people about their hopes and dreams, passions and fears. At this job, I help people make the decision to jump into a coding or UX bootcamp and change their life or start their new career.

My travel style is straight up nomad. I have had about 3 years of changing locations every 4-6 weeks. I have been in 26 countries and lived in 11. 

For six months, I lived in Okinawa, Japan. I’ve also lived in Taiwan off and on for about a year, and in Thailand for two months in both the north and south. Costa Rica for three months, Germany for 3 months, Budapest for 2 months. For these past 5 months, I’ve been living in Tucson, Arizona. Oh! I’ve also lived a couple different places in Brazil.

The most memorable trip for me was Ankor Wat, Cambodia.

Photo from Samantha’s trip to Ankot Wat. You can read more on her blog here.

I was living in Chiang Mai, Thailand at the time and took a trip, and it was just unbelievable. Another of my most memorable trips was when I went to Fortaleza, Brazil and stayed there for about a month. After that I traveled to Jericoacoara, Brazil, which is a beach town in the middle of nowhere with no roads. It’s just sand, and dune buggies all over the sand. I lived there about a month and a half. That was really neat; we’d wake up at 5am every morning with the sun, go for a walk along the dunes and then swim in the ocean. Come back, take a shower and then meditate, study languages and go to work for 4-6 hours. Kick butt on career advising for my position and working on my own stuff as well.

I’m actually going back to Brazil in two days! This time to Sao Paulo, not the beach.

My experience with education itself has been quite positive. I have a master’s degree in nursing, and I am a family nurse practitioner by trade and by education.

I love, love, love education. I always have. I did 5 1/2 years of college, and then I went to grad school. I actually went to Cuba for medical school. After I finished nursing school, I went straight to Cuba to go to medical school for six months, and then dropped out to come back. Medical school in Cuba was completely free by the way, and hosted. All I had to do was get myself there. Then I came back to the US to go to nurse practitioner school in Portland, OR.

In particular, I loved my first BA, which was just a Liberal Arts degree. It was a Bachelor of Science; I studied Psychology and Spanish, then Computer Information Systems. When I finished that, I went to a different university for a nursing degree, which was out-of-state, and that’s where I racked up a lot of loans. I then did the MA, which was also quite high in loans. I think my loans after my original BA were only US$30-40,000. The other US$100,000 was 2 years of out-of-state nursing school and then 3 years of out-of-state tuition as a nurse practitioner student.

I have been working online for 3 years; none of it has had anything to do with my nurse practitioner job or education and my master’s degree. I got my masters degree because that’s what I wanted to do. I also will get a doctorate some day. I don’t know what in, it may be in Linguistics, it may be in nursing, it may be in something totally different, but I will do it some day.

I started with US$160,000 in student loans.

I worked as a nurse practitioner for four years to pay off some of the loans before I could travel. I knew I wanted to leave for at least two of those years, but couldn’t afford to do it with my student loans. It was actually a national program, the National Health Scholarship Core (NHSC) that paid off my loans. Here I earned US$25,000 per year for 3 years of committing to work in an under-served area, which is where I wanted to work anyway. This allowed me to pay off some of my loans with my salary.

When I left to travel, I had paid off US$100,000 of my student loans because I simply couldn’t afford the payments while traveling. This was during the two years I was working and making a good income. So the first two years of travel I didn’t have to worry about student loans, but after the two years I started having to make payments again and that was of course much more difficult.

My goal at the moment is to pay off all my student loans with entrepreneurial income before I go back to a doctorate program. At this point I’d be paying for the doctorate program with my entrepreneurial income instead of going further into debt.

The first 2 years of working online I just barely made ends meet. I deferred my loans, or paid in advance. Now I’m at a point where I do have to pay my loans off.

It’s about US$1000 per month on the standard plan. I’ve managed to secure an income-based repayment where it’s only about US$400, I think, but they change that a lot.

It’s a weight that I always have on my shoulders, and something I always have on my mind. At the moment I’ve actually paid ahead on my monthly payments because I’m doing well financially, so I’m always making a payment this month and also getting ahead if possible. During my first two years where I paid my loans ahead, I just told myself to get experience. I made probably US$1300 per month total for my first two years, and that was barely enough to meet living expenses and travel. It certainly wasn’t enough to make any student loan payments. As soon as my student loan payments came due, I told myself I had to start adulting and get a job where I made enough money to pay off my student loans. So that’s the job that I have now, and it’s working really well.

I paid everything in advance for two years because I knew I could not deal with that. If I were constantly afraid about how I was going to make my loan payment, I wouldn’t have the safety and security to leap.

“I told myself, ‘I have two years to play. I have two years to just figure this whole online work, location independent lifestyle out, and then I have to be prepared to make student loan payments of US$1000 per month.'”

The majority of digital nomads make US$500 per month or less, and many of them live in Chiang Mai, or Bali, or somewhere they can live dirt cheap and live off their savings. I know I’m in a position where I need to be making US$3000-4000 per month simply to make my business payments as well as my loan payments.

Photo from Samantha’s time in the Philippines

Dealing with Student Loan Bureaucracy and Paperwork from Cuba

Oh my god. So when I was in Cuba, the US Department of Education refused to acknowledge my medical school. They refused to allow me to defer my loans, and I had to apply for an economic hardship that would involve me paying extra interest. Of course I also couldn’t do any of this from Cuba because we didn’t have a reliable Internet connection. The US government also didn’t want to see anything with the word “Cuba” on it. It was a royal, royal pain. There were three of us students in this position, and I was leading the group of people who were trying to get this done. It was a nightmare. It really did not end up working. I think they gave me a 3-month economic hardship and after that told me I just had to start paying. However, I wasn’t receiving mail, I couldn’t even check my email in Cuba, as there was no Internet connection. So I just didn’t pay, and then when I came back after 6 months I begged for forgiveness and said, “Hey, here’s my situation”.

Now the paperwork is pretty reasonable. I am doing the income-based repayment. I was on the income continent repayment for some time, but I didn’t really understand the difference. I just wanted one where I didn’t have to pay US$1000 per month, where I could just pay that ahead.

Advice for others planning to travel with student loans

I really, really appreciate the fact that I planned this for two years before I did it. I saved up money, I figured out where I wanted to go, I did a bunch of research on what kind of jobs were available. If you have a paying job in the US or anywhere in the world where you’re doing well and are comfortable, I highly recommend starting your journey to digital nomadism or remote location independent work before you leave.

At least six months before you start giving away your stuff, you start working on minimalism, you start learning what kind of work is out there, and talking to people who are doing it. That really helped me have the trust and faith to make the leap.

It’s really tough to get a foothold in the location independent lifestyle. You really need some experience, but no one wants to pay you to give you that experience. So I had those 2 years where I had some money in the bank and I could just play and not worry about not making enough income to survive. When crunch time came for me, which was about 1 year ago, I was already established enough and had a big enough network that I could do it.

Current struggles and the instability of online work

Online work is inherently unstable. I work for a startup, and I love the work I do and the people I work for, but I’m constantly aware that at any point I could just be out of a job. The majority of my income (90%) comes from one client and one day they could just decide, “No, you don’t have a job”. It’s much easier for employees and employers to ghost each other in the Internet world than in the physical realm. I’ve had that happen on several occasions. One day I just wake up and I’m like “Yesterday I had a job and now I don’t.”

In the US when you leave a job there’s things they have to do, things that have to happen: They have to offer you insurance, etc. None of that applies in most positions that are location independent. Many are small or medium sized startups doing their own thing and trying to figure out how to make things work. They decide they don’t want to work with you, they just don’t pay you, or they just don’t work with you anymore and cut your contract after this month. It feels very unstable. There’s part of me that likes that, like “Hey, I’m scrappy and I have to do the things,” but it also makes it difficult to plan financially for your loans, etc.

There’s a lot of “college is for losers” talk going on in the digital nomad scene. Thoughts on that as a person holding an advanced degree.

College is not a place to go to get a job. That is not the purpose of college. I work for a for-profit education center that helps people get a job. You can do our course in 3 months; pay us US$4000-5000, by the end of which you can make US$60,000-80,000 per year. That’s getting a job. That’s not what college is for.

“College is for learning how to learn, learning how to be with other people, and how to network with other people. You can get all the stuff you get in college through other ways. However, college is a valuable immersion in how the world works with respect to how you learn things, what you are most interested in. It forces you to learn things that you would not necessarily learn on your own, and to interact with people, places and things you would not necessarily be interested in.”

You end up with a network of people who are also interested in learning how to learn, in bettering themselves. You can get this at a mastermind, or you can get this in a college degree.

I love my college degree. I actually have 4, technically. I have 3 BAs and an MA. It’s complicated, but I do. I loved every minute of it, and I would not give up any of it, even though I am using almost none of it in my current position. What I’m using from it is the understanding I developed to go after what I care about, and how to get things done.

My first major was Spanish because I thought I wanted to be a Spanish teacher. I didn’t, I just wanted to speak Spanish.

So then I added a double major in Psychology, which was incredible knowledge for life. I would recommend studying Psychology or Sociology to anyone who wants to live, pretty much. I’ve used that degree and the things I learned there throughout life. I thought I wanted to be a psychologist, but it turned out I was wrong. In my last semester, I took my first therapy class and I hated it. So I decided to go back for a second degree in CIS (Computer Information Systems). I studied CIS and thought I was going to be a programmer or some kind of network person like my Dad, and it turns out that wasn’t a good fit for me either. I wanted to work more with people than computers, and where I was doing this in Wisconsin there just wasn’t a good fit for that. This led me to go back to a different college in a different state. That was the out-of-state tuition to go to nursing school.

“That was another BA, my third BA degree. I studied nursing because I wanted something that I could do anywhere in the world, that would always be relevant and at the interface of people and information. That was what I was looking for with the computers degree but I couldn’t really get it. They wanted me to be a help desk person or a programmer, and I didn’t want to be either of those things. “

The whole screw the 9-5 thing is another thing that bothers me.

I can’t disagree with it because I know where they’re coming from, but I find it’s disrespectful to people who are really happy in their “boring” 9-5. Some people that I know, my Dad and my Mom, for example, both work jobs that would be considered 9-5 and they adore them. They’re still jobs, they have days that suck, they have stuff that sucks, but they really like their jobs. I find it disingenuous to trash all 9-5 jobs.

“It’s like anyone who leaves the digital nomad community and wants to get a 9-5 job is ridiculed and satirized, and it’s like you failed. I find that really hurtful.”

I get where it’s coming from, because there’s a lot of power behind the 9-5 mindset. If it is done consciously, and you are doing what you want to do, and you’re happy, then why are we arguing? We should not be arguing, making people feel bad, any of those things.

Samantha with a new friend in Bali

To sum up, what’s the weirdest thing you pack with you?

At this point I’d probably have to say…zipper pulls. I pack zipper pulls. Not the zipper itself, but the little thing you pull on the zipper because those tend to break. I’ve had them break on my backpack; I’ve had them break on my coats, and on my sweaters. So I carry half a dozen. I got a pack of 10 of them at one point and I have 5-6 left. I carry them with because when stuff breaks it’s always a pain in the butt. I don’t know if I’m going to speak the language of the place where when it happens or how I’m going to fix this, so I carry them with me.

Besides that, I adore my Minaal bag. My Mac Book Pro is the bomb, I absolutely adore it. That’s probably a boring answer though, and I’m sure you get it a billion times. Oh! This. I have two different headphones that are noise canceling. They’re not a headset; they’re the actual in ear earbuds. This is the wireless version for Mac, also the one I’m using right now. They were like US$300 bucks each, but it’s noise canceling so I use it on airplanes, I won’t even plug it into anything. I just put them in my ear and turn on the noise canceling and I end up being much better rested at the end of flights. I put them in even if I’m not listening to music at a co-working space. They are phenomenal and I love them.

Thanks Samantha for sharing your story! If you’ve made it this far, dear readers, I’d love to hear from you, too! Has this post been helpful to you? Do you manage to see the world with debt, too? If so, I’d love to hear from you! If you liked this post, don’t forget to sign up to receive updates of new posts and other news.

15 comments

  1. Tess says:

    This was a great read and so inspiring! I’m kinda on the same path as Samantha, only without student loans (thanks Belgium for making studying super cheap!) but the same ‘all over the place’ mentality 😀

    • Nicole says:

      Thanks Belgium indeed! I’m currently living in Germany where studying is a lot more affordable as well. I totally get you on the all over the place mentality though, that is definitely me right now! Just riding out the wave though and seeing where it takes me. You can do it!

  2. Ketki says:

    This is so inspiring as well as so real. If i was in debt i wouldn’t have starting travelling. Honestly i can’t even think about being a digital nomad. I need a space even though a small one which i can call home and come back to my husband. But hat’s off to Samantha for doing it bravely. Lovely read.

  3. Nicole says:

    This is such an amazing post. I’m lucky enough to not have a student loan but I’m on the fence when it comes to going full in with the digital nomad lifestyle. This post is so real and it has given me so much to think about. Thanks for such an honest take on the location independent life.

  4. Kristin says:

    I have never considered the nomad life even though I love travelling, but this is all really interesting and important stuff for people to consider. I never thought about how difficult it might be to pay loans while living abroad! And I think I need to take your packing advice and get some noise-cancelling headphones already!
    -Kristin

  5. This is a really inspiring piece from a lady who clearly knows what she wants and is in control of her life, even though I’m not sure she thinks she is! I can only imagine coming out of college with the sorts of debts US students have to contend with. Serious respect to the people who manage to stay on top of repayments and live their dreams at the same time!

  6. You are so right, it’s not that easy as just “quitting everything and go travel”. I’ve always had a regular job and traveled when ever I could, and I can only imagine what it’s like for a student with a loan. You have some very nice insights here people can find useful, thanks for sharing! 🙂

  7. Ana says:

    Love this story and it proves that everything is possible when you have the determination and right mindset. It is so inspiring that this lady managed to travel so much while working, studying so many things and learning so many different languages. Bravo Samantha, you rock girl!

  8. Love her honesty and it’s good help for many of us. I have to say that college wasn’t exactly for me what it was for her, but it helped me hone my love for Traveling as I did a semester abroad in Spain, where I currently live.

  9. Eleonore says:

    Loving the honesty of this post! I don’t have debt but I find that a lot of people use it as an ‘excuse’ for why they can’t travel – this is proof that it can be done! <3 Xx, Eleonore

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