Photo: The Preiser Project
I’VE LONG BEEN A TRAVELER. Before setting out to see the world, I went to every Canadian province (with the exception of Manitoba), and a few US states. In November 2013, I left North America for the first time on what I hoped would be a year-long backpacking trip.
Six months and nearly $10,000 later, I was back home—but my wanderlust hadn’t been cured. I wanted more, but how? I couldn’t spend another year or two working just to take off for six months, then start the cycle over again. I needed to find a better solution.
That’s when it came to me: if I was going to be working a short-term, shitty minimum-wage job just to save up money for travel, why not do it abroad?
New Zealand or Australia?
I settled back into my boring old life and got a near-minimum wage job ($10.25 per hour plus a small commission). I was too broke to consider leaving right away—the last week of my trip had been paid for on my credit card and I had to ask my mother for a loan of $400 as soon as I got back—but at least I had the makings of a plan.
Over the next few months, I started doing research about working holiday visas, which allow young people to work in a number of countries for a limited period of time without any special skills. I narrowed my options to Australia or New Zealand, but then I had some trouble.
Both are great countries, which is why the decision was really hard. I was originally leaning toward New Zealand because the Lord of the Rings films had been shot there, but eventually I changed my mind. I was worried I would feel too isolated in New Zealand, and not only were wages higher in Australia, but I was particularly drawn by Melbourne’s reputation as a cultural hub.
Budgeting to travel
I set off for Australia in July 2015. I’d worked for over a year to save about $8,000, which was only possible because I lived with my parents and didn’t have to pay rent. I figured that would be enough to travel through the United States for a couple of weeks and allow me to support myself in Melbourne while I looked for a job, and I was right.
My route took me from St. John’s on the east coast of Canada to New York, Los Angeles, Honolulu, and finally to Melbourne. Since I had some loyalty points, my flights cost $1,083, which I thought was pretty good to fly halfway around the world with stops in some of my favorite cities.
I’m generally the kind of traveler who stays in hostels—which I continued during this trip—but because I decided to attend VidCon, I had to book a few nights in a hotel, which nearly doubled my accommodation costs to $1,390. By the time I’d arrived in Australia, I’d spent nearly $3,500.
Cost of Living in Melbourne
I arrived in Melbourne on August 1, 2015. Despite all the restrictions listed on the visa, including proof of $4,200 in support funds, I scanned my passport on one of the SmartGates and was admitted to the country without even talking to a border agent. Easy!
Finding a job wasn’t my top concern once I’d arrived. I wanted to get a feel for the city first. I wandered the streets of the central business district (what the Aussies call a downtown core), gazed at the skyline from across the Yarra river, and tried to decided what I wanted to do.
Once I did start looking for work, it wasn’t very difficult. I quickly got a job at a call center, and even though I knew Australian wages were high, it still quite shocking when I realized how much better they’re paid than North Americans.
The minimum wage in Australia when I arrived was $17.29 an hour (it’s now increased to $17.70), but I started at around $23, which increased to more than $26 after my six-week probation period. After putting in some overtime—paid at time and a half for the first three hours of the pay period, and double time after that—I was taking home around $2,000 every two weeks—more than double what I was getting paid in Canada.
I paid between $160–200 each week for my hostel bed (it increased as we moved from low- to high-season), rarely more than $100 for food, and a little more for whatever I got up to in my free time. All said, I was usually able to save at least $800 from each paycheck, often even more, and after four months of working I’d saved $8,000, prompting the travel bug to return.
This point is crucial. In Australia, paying for all my own expenses, I was able to save the same amount of money in four months that it had taken me more than a year to save in Canada while living with my parents. Anyone arguing that a higher minimum wage will be bad for the economy either doesn’t know what they’re talking about or is purposely trying to deceive people. It’s working just fine in Australia!
Wage Shock on Return to Canada
After six months in Melbourne, I was getting anxious to get back on the road, and with a healthy savings account, there was little stopping me. I loved Melbourne—indeed, I still do—and sometimes I wish I’d stayed there a little longer.
My time in Australia taught me that it was pointless to be scared of going abroad—it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made—but it also opened my eyes to how workers in North America are being exploited and sold a lie.
Seven months after leaving Australia I found myself settled back in Canada to finish the final year of my bachelor’s degree. While debating whether I would get a job, I started looking at what was on offer and found that little had changed. The minimum wage had increased by a mere 25 cents while I’d been away.
Seeing such low wages again, I felt a deep sense of injustice. People working those jobs were barely getting paid enough to survive—maybe they weren’t. The government had just brought in a range of tax and fee increases but hadn’t touched the minimum wage.
Having been taught in Australia that my labor was worth more than $10.50 an hour, I simply couldn’t fathom selling my time and labor for such low pay, and instead found some freelance writing work to supplement my student loans. I know this isn’t an option for most people, but it’s all the more reason to fight for fair pay and a living wage.
I’ve already decided that once I finish my degree in April 2017 I’ll be leaving again. Since the minimum wage is so low, skilled workers also get paid less than they might in other countries. Maybe it will finally be time to see how New Zealand compares, and whether they’ll pay me fairly for my time and labor.
*All amounts are in Canadian or Australian dollars, which are almost identical in value. 1 of either CAD or AUD is equal to about 0.76 US dollars, but they were closer to 0.8 while I was in Australia.
This article was originally published on The Billfold, and is reprinted here with permission.