Debt-free Detour through Madrid

It was just under two years ago when my husband and I made the decision to move abroad to Madrid, Spain. If you were to hazard a guess as to why, most likely the answer would fall along the lines of having a serious case of wanderlust, being disillusioned with life in the U.S., or fulfilling a lifelong dream of moving to the country. But the reason wasn’t nearly as glamorous. In fact, it was more practicality than adventure that led us abroad for a short time. Most of my friends don’t even know this, but we left because it was the quickest way to pay off graduate school loans and reach our goal of being debt-free.


Coming to that conclusion wasn’t easy. It required leaving behind certain things like a full-time job that I loved and getting rid of the majority of our belongings – including a condo, 2 cars, and a really good bed set. (Never underestimate the value of a really good bed set.) I left the comfort of a good community in a city where I knew my way around and could easily communicate with everyone. Instead, we chose a life where half the time I felt like an insecure 6-year-old attempting to speak a new language and make new friends. But, after weighing the options and adding up all the numbers, it made more sense to follow this “promotion” abroad than both of us working full-time and staying in the States.

You may be wondering, “How are you saving money moving to Europe?”. Most people think living in Europe would cost more than the U.S. And it’s not necessarily wrong if we were being transferred to a city like London where cost of living is indeed high! But a typical monthly expense in Madrid was even less than half of what we spend now that we’re back in the States, living in the shadow of the great (and pricey) New York City!  For example – one-bedroom apartment for two in a great neighborhood near the city center = 725€, treating a few friends to a couple of rounds of beer and wine = 20€, three-course lunch menu with drink of choice = 12€.

For all other things that weren’t quite as cheap, I either bought it when visiting the States or grit my teeth and do without. (The latter felt like a chore until I adapted more to the Madrid lifestyle.) There were times it was as if we were college students instead of seasoned professionals. We spent the least amount possible and on a selfish note, did very little traveling than I had hoped. There were also moments when I wasn’t so sure my ego could stand not having a full-time job and spending my days instead with social and volunteer projects. I couldn’t have made it though without my awesome partner who helped keep things in perspective and reminded me to focus on the greater goal instead of the temporary challenges and discomforts.

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In the end, it was all worth it. With less money being spent, most was squirreled away to the loans. After 1.5 years of chipping off at that gigantic iceberg, I am so happy to say that the day has finally arrived when I am completely debt-free again! The only downside is that we’ve since left that wonderfully affordable city, following yet another practicality, and are now trying to save money in a very expensive part of the U.S. Wish us luck!

P.S. I know everyone’s journey is different, depending on necessity as well as preference. I acknowledge how incredibly fortunate it was that mine happen to include a stint out of the country when others have given a far larger sacrifice. Where has your path to a debt-free life taken you?


Sidewalks aren’t just for pedestrians

To pedestrians, the sidewalk is a safe little bubble, especially when exploring the charming little streets of Madrid. Maybe you pass an occasion skateboarder or roller skater. But there is something else lurking near by that may catch you by surprise.

Watch out for mopeds on the sidewalk!

I live right by a busy eatery that makes plenty of deliveries. More than once, I’d turn my head and find myself face to face to a moped driver just a few feet away! What is especially amusing to watch is when a moped hits a one-way street coming in the wrong direction. The driver will climb onto sidewalk and go the other way. Guess it’s more efficient than going around the block.

So, walkers, beware! Whether innocuously stepping out from your apartment building or navigating through a busy sidewalk on your way for a cup of coffee, keep your eyes peeled for mopeds! 🙂

Madrid quirks that I wish I knew before coming

Countdown: 17 days until the arrival of my first official visitor to my Madrid apartment. I am excited to welcome my sister for 2 whole weeks! The best part is that I have extra motivation to clean and make this humble pre-furnished, one-bedroom look like a cosy home.

While preparing for her visit, I began to wonder about what sort of things she may want or need to know in order to have a comfortable visit. There are the usual tips such as knowing how to say a few things in Spanish (hola, gracias, quiero un vino tinto, por favor etc.) or trying Spanish delicacies like tortillas and paella. But you can find those tips on any Madrid article on the web. So, I am listing a few things that I wish others had warned me about before I came to this lovely city. Over the last few months, there were several more that I thought of. However, for the sake of brevity and my aging memory, I will give you five:

1)  Lights automatically shut-off almost anywhere.


Electricity is an expensive commodity. To be more budget-conscious and eco-friendly, most public places – restaurant bathrooms, apartment lobbies and hallways – will have a switch to turn on the light. However, after a minute or so, it shuts off. Some lights may automatically turn on with motion-sensor. But the automatic shut-off is the thing to be watch out. It is NOT FUN if you are fumbling for keys to your apartment door and suddenly, you are in complete darkness. It is even worse if you are in a bathroom and the same thing happens. Personally, I try to immediately locate the light source upon entering the room and (in case it’s a motion-sensor) it helps to flail your arms so that the sensor knows you are there! It may seem silly, but this technique has helped me more than once.

2) If you can’t figure out how to open/close the door – it might be a sliding door.

Speaking of important bathroom info… before my move to Madrid, encounters with sliding doors were limited to ones that lead to a balcony or patio. Here in Madrid, where space can be at a premium, many cafes, bars and restaurants ditch the typical push and pull for its sliding relative. This tip may seem like a “no, duh”, but, I’ve had enough encounters where I stood like a dummy in front of one until some kind-hearted camarera took pity and enlightened me.

3) Don’t step on the dog poo!

pooMadrid is a city of dog-lovers, or so it seems to me. I see many adorable barking creatures coming out of apartment buildings, being walked around the block or tied on a bike rack in front of a store awaiting its human. Therefore, when wandering the lovely neighborhood barrios, it is likely that you will find these ubiquitous staples. Sometimes they are in an easy-to-spot pile. Other times, it looks like they were stepped on and stamped down a line on the sidewalks. Whatever it’s form, it would be wise to keep your eyes on the pavement to ensure that your next step remains pleasant and clean. (Can’t help much with the smell though.) Thankfully for most sightseers, it’s rarely seen in the crowded tourist areas. But, better safe than sorry.

4) Pedestrians make their own rules as they go.

Growing up near New York City has taught me certain rules to follow as a pedestrian: a) Walk fast. b) Follow the flow of the traffic by staying on the right side and don’t stop (unless absolutely impossible). c) Don’t make eye contact. However, these rules don’t exactly work on the streets of Madrid. If you try to walk straight and fast, you will likely run over grandma en route to buy bread or the dad picking up the kids from school. Instead you have to either a) slow your roll – you don’t have anywhere to be right? (Even if you do, it’s okay to be a few minutes late.) or b) learn to slalom – swerve around slow-moving pedestrians and ones that decide to abruptly stop to look inside a store. Do this as safely as possible on the narrow sidewalk without pushing those in the opposite direction onto incoming traffic. It doesn’t matter which side of the sidewalk you decide to walk on… really. As long as you don’t run into people, you’re fine. And, if a friendly passerby may want to say “hola”, it should be safe enough to make eye contact, share a quick smile and say “hola” as you walk past.

5) Doorknobs are perfectly acceptable in the middle of the door.

doorTo be honest, this isn’t a very useful tip. I wanted to add it to this because it’s something that fascinates and perplexes me. Hey, I like symmetry as much as the next gal! However, doorknobs that are dead center do not provide much leverage to open a door. You have to push a little more than if it were on the side furthest from the hinge. But, anyway. It is what it is.

Does anyone else have other tips or quirks to share with Madrid first-timers?

A Madrileño Dining Experience

Madrileños are masters in the art of relaxation. These past few weeks, lunch and dinners out are never less than a 2 hour affair. It begins with a drink, typically my new obsession – tinto de verano con casera. Then, I while away the time chatting and casually perusing the menu. It is usually another 30 minutes before a meal is ordered, probably around the same time I order another beverage. In places that serve in the authentic tapas-style, you get a plate of food with each drink order. So, you wait to eat until another plate arrives with your next drink order. It’s all very relaxed and casual. In comparison to my usual hyper and hurried self, it was a refreshing change.

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As pleasant as it sounds, this “relaxed” atmosphere comes at a price. The camareros are all very relaxed as well. Depending on your hunger levels or schedule, this price can be steep. There were many times when I am sitting with my first drink empty (ice melted and consumed as water) and basket of “patatas chips” crumbs, and the camarero comes out to clean the table to my left then returns directly inside without a glance my way. Coming from the US where service staff work on tips, I’m accustomed to either over-zealous attention or being pushed out and replaced by another paying customer. But that’s not how it’s done in Madrid. You linger as long as you like with your first round of drink and you are likely not to be bothered unless you catch the attention of the wait staff.

Pidgeon eats crumbs from vacated table after the patrons went inside for the bill.

For the most part, trying to be noticed by the camareros can be an amusing endeavor. Since I had no pressing appointments after lunch, it did not affect my schedule. Usually, lunch or dinner was a game of “catch the waiter”. When I want to order, I glance around to catch someone’s attention only to see him disappearing indoors. Sometimes, there’s someone waiting on the table beside me and I think I make eye contact, but when I look again, the server is gone. Other times, there is no one coming out to the terrace for long stretches of time. Although I could prepare my big voice and shout “Oiga!”, the relaxed atmosphere is contagious and I simply wait til the next opportunity. After all, there’s no reason to hurry.

There were two exceptions to this experience. The first was a late 4pm lunch at a café managed by immigrants from China. The waiter was still relaxed, but managed to be easily available when needed. We were one of 2 customers at the time. However, being the only customers does not guarantee more attention. The second time was at a busy tapas bar when I was with another girl. Two ladies sharing tapas seemed to catch more attention for than I’ve ever received from previous waiters. Seems there are perks that come with being a girl in this city.

Overall, I have grown more accustomed to this strange, slow and relaxed lifestyle. The only thing with which I have to learn patience is customer service in other businesses. When the apartment hunter takes an extra 2 days to respond to an inquiry or the airline counter can’t manage to rebook a connecting flight, that’s a whole other story!

Which pace would you prefer for your dining out service?