I always wanted to play professional volleyball after college. I had played for five years at Loyola University Chicago while getting my undergraduate degree and MBA in international business.

As graduation neared and my dream of playing pro was becoming a reality, I worried about how — and even if I would be paid.

Luckily, my agent found me a contract in Rovaniemi, Finland, at a club with a history of paying their players. But, like with any first job out of college, I still had to anticipate the possibility of not having much of a salary.

First Stop, Finland

While an exciting change, that first year overseas was challenging. When I arrived in August 2014, my girlfriend at the time, Kory, stayed behind in Chicago. Being on my own meant I had more flexibility with my personal budget. I ended up being paid €13,200 a year in Finland and had a €100-per-month groceries budget worked into my contract.

Not only was I really paying attention to my budget for the first time, but I was doing so with foreign currency and having to factor in fluctuating exchange rates. This made things especially hard for tracking my plans to pay off student loans, which I set in U.S. dollars at just under $500 per month. In the beginning, the exchange rate for €1 was about $1.20 or $1.30 USD. Each paycheck, I transferred a part of my earnings in euros to a bank back home, so a strong U.S. dollar worked in my favor. Not long after my arrival, the value of the U.S. dollar dropped to almost below $1 for €1. That threw my savings off, and I had to completely change my everyday spending budget to stay on track.

Kory was also able to come visit me just after the holidays. She's a volleyball player as well, and after she played with the women's team on her visit, they offered her a contract for the remainder of the season! So instead of being there for two weeks, she ended up staying with me in Finland for three or four months. She had just finished her Master of Management program and had a job in Chicago that was OK with her taking the season off.

Planning for Two in Cambrai

For my second season, I secured a contract in Cambrai, France, for about €23,200 — double my salary in Finland. Kory and I decided from the start that she would come with me for the season, so I negotiated this into my contract.

We hoped Kory could find a job in France, but didn’t realize how hard it was for even French residents to find work here. So she’s a volunteer coach for the club and has been preparing for a career in higher education once we’re back in the States.

I proposed to Kory last December, and we’re planning our wedding for the end of next year.

Financially, the euro has been more secure, and the dollar’s been working its way back up. I adjust my budget every month based on the exchange rate.

Unlike someone who works abroad for a full year and might receive certain tax benefits, I’ll have to pay taxes as usual on my income when I get home. So right now, my first financial priority is saving for that. Kory and I will get back to working toward our other financial goals, like contributing $200 a month to our emergency fund. We opened up and are funding a Roth IRA with $100 contributions per month, so retirement is on our mind as well.

We’ve also set up a wedding fund, and Kory’s been budgeting for the big day. Right now, we're putting away $417 per month and will increase our contributions every six months until we reach $20,000.

Lessons Gleaned From a Life Overseas

Your happiness is more important than anything. For Kory and me, that means spending the time and money on things that matter to us most.

For example, our groceries budget was initially way too low. While we originally planned to spend $200 to $300 on groceries a month between two people, I’d often check my finance apps and realize we spent $150 or $200 over budget. We weren’t exactly having steak dinners every night — we were buying nutritious foods to stay healthy. We were also enjoying learning to cook together, so our groceries are one budget item we’re OK with raising.

A big lesson I’ve learned is to start from a place of understanding what makes you happy, and being smart about how you use your money and other resources to make it happen.

Not everyone takes personal finance classes in school, and a lot of people aren’t getting the knowledge needed for the real world. Even little things like downloading apps to track your spending and saving can help you take control of your finances. That alone can give you so much more freedom — and a lot less stress.