When I was seven, my family spent a year traveling around the world. Instead of attending second grade, I was homeschooled for a year. By the time I returned home, I promised myself that I would take a similar trip at my next opportunity — a gap year after high school. For the next 10 years, I saved every dollar I earned from odd jobs and birthday checks. I asked for cash at Christmas instead of presents. By the time I graduated high school, I had saved enough money to spend as much of my gap year backpacking as I wanted.
My gap year changed my life. I made lifelong friends, experienced living in other countries, learned languages, and had adventures almost every day. I also learned to be an independent adult and take care of myself without support from my parents.
In addition to having one of the most fun years of my life, I was better prepared to choose a major by the time I started college.
Traveling isn’t cheap, but neither is college. It was a lot less expensive to learn that I wanted to study creative writing by writing a bunch of travel essays than it would have been to waste a bunch of credits on irrelevant classes.
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If you plan to study Spanish in college, spend a few months in Guatemala or Buenos Aires taking language classes. You’ll be more prepared for college classes, and you may even be able to earn transfer credits for a whole lot less than the cost of a typical American tuition.
I know from experience that there’s a lot of pressure to go to college straight out of high school. Adults — parents, teachers, college counselors — may not understand the value of taking some time off. But college will be there when you get back. A gap year doesn’t have to be a financial drain, either. Here's my advice for how to take a gap year on a budget:
Affordable Gap Year Ideas
A gap year just means taking a year off between graduating high school and starting college. What you do with that year is entirely up to you. There are many options to pick from.
If you graduate without any gap year savings, spending the first half of your year working and saving is a great option. But if you want to hit the road ASAP, consider taking advantage of resources like WWOOF (Willing Workers on Organic Farms), Workaway, and HelpX, through which you trade work for accommodations and/or food. Other programs, like TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) and Oyster, list jobs that pay cash in exchange for work. Some countries — like Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand — have working holiday visas that make it easier to find jobs without the complication of a long-term visa.
Plus, many hostels allow you to work at the front desk in exchange for free accommodations.
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2. Participate in a Gap Year Program
Some of these can get expensive, but with a little digging, you’ll find plenty of options for your budget. Programs like these tend to be very safe, structured, and perfect if you’d rather put somebody else in charge of the planning. A few options: Global Citizen Year, Outward Bound, UnCollege, Rustic Pathways, Where There Be Dragons, and City Year. The U.S. State Department offers programs all over the world, too!
3. Choose a Cheap Travel Destination
Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, and most of South America will cost you a lot less than Western Europe, Australia, or New Zealand.
How to Prepare for a Gap Year
It’s never too early to start saving for your gap year. Start with your budget. This may include:
- An emergency fund to avoid running out of money at a critical moment
- Travel expenses, such as plane, train, or bus tickets to get to your destination(s)
- Local transportation
- Fun! If you’re exploring a new city or country, you won’t want to miss out on local attractions or once-in-a-lifetime experiences
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How to Fund the Gap Year
There are three ways to approach paying for a gap year:
- Save the whole budget before you go
- Work while you’re abroad
- Have a (slightly) shorter adventure
Whichever approach you take, you’ll need at least some savings before you go. So open a savings account and start filling it up.
When I saved up for my gap year, I deposited nearly every penny I made from after-school gigs, birthday checks, and part-time jobs into a travel savings account.
You don’t need a full-time, adult job to save up for a gap year. Tutor, babysit, walk dogs, get a part-time job, or find seasonal gigs. If you earn and save $50 every week during your final two years of high school, you’ll graduate with over $5,000 saved.
Ask your college if they offer grants for students who choose to take gap years. Your high school, local Rotary Club chapter, or even your city or county may have a fund set aside for young people to travel, volunteer, or take a gap year.
Depending on your specific plans, loved ones might be willing to pitch in to make your gap year a reality. But don’t forget to send them a thank you card of you paragliding in Phuket!