How NOT Going to University or Buying a House Saved my Life

Sharing is Caring!

This post was originally published in 2012. It has since been updated for accuracy of links and content. 

Not going to university….was one of the best life decisions I made.

With my being a Professional Hobo and all, you probably would suspect that I don’t have a University degree, nor have I ever owned a house.

But I wasn’t always a Professional Hobo. For over 10 years I ran with the ranks of the working Canadian population’s median, earning a good income and spending it as society dictated was acceptable. However somehow in the mix I still managed to escape the holds of both University and home-ownership – by the skin of my teeth.

And honestly, if either the University or the house had transpired, I’m not sure I would be sitting on a Caribbean island today, living a financially sustainable life of full-time travel.

And that. That would be a shame.

Escaping University

When I graduated high school, my parents – as any good parents would – encouraged me to go to University. By this point I was very involved in the arts; stage managing large theatre shows, acting in Fringe festivals and short films, and dipping my toes into the world of television with a show I was producing and hosting.

Although this was already a career of sorts, it wasn’t the kind that actually paid the rent, so I knew I had to find a career that would support me in the long run (or turn acting into a paying career, which I knew was a statistic oxymoron).

But I simply didn’t know what I wanted to do with the chasm that represented the rest of my life as a “grown up”.

At the tender age of 18, does anybody?

So I cut a deal with my parents. I gallantly offered to save them the money of supporting me through University getting a general degree in something useless like underwater basket weaving for lack of my having any other solid direction. In University’s stead, I’d responsibly garner life experience, take courses, and when I was ready to commit to a higher education, I’d pay for it myself to squeeze all the value of it that I could.

My parents raised me to be strong and independent; they couldn’t exactly object to this decision which I’d already made, so they quietly conceded.

Over the years, I acquired skills from a number of careers: administrative services, television production, property management, musical theatre performance, various entrepreneurial ventures, and eventually financial planning. I took courses in each of these fields to further my knowledge, and eventually committed to the Certified Financial Planner designation: an internationally recognized designation that takes years to complete.

See also: How to Change Your Career in a Changing World

Success without a Degree

Meanwhile, a high-school friend of mine with strictly traditional parents went the University route. Her parents thought I had thrown my life away. Every time my name came up in conversation, they’d bow their heads and shake them sorrowfully, since I’d effectively ruined my life by not going to University.

Over the years I struggled – and prospered – and eventually made waves through various careers and businesses, being interviewed for newspapers and television shows and doing large public speaking engagements about financial planning; my friend’s parents almost winced with each success.

My friend relished sharing my accomplishments with her parents, delighting in reminding them each time that I never went to University.

Depending on your career of choice, a University education may help, but it’s not a necessity.

The Necessity of University

Some careers (like medicine, education, engineering, and law) of course require a University education. And if you’ve chosen these careers, power to you – you know what you’ve got to do.

But if you – like me, and so many others out there – are still trying to define yourself, a degree isn’t necessarily going to provide that definition or direction. It will help you think in new ways, expand your mind and knowledge, and you’ll learn how to please professors. But University isn’t the only place to acquire these life skills.

Escaping Home Ownership

In the last years of my marriage, something wasn’t right but we weren’t sure how to fix it. What to do? Follow society’s roadmap to life of course: buy a house! (Because 25 years of debt makes everything better, didn’t you know?)

It’s a blessing that house prices in Toronto were outrageous at the time, and the one house we found appealing enough to make an offer on fell through. In fact it was only a short while afterwards that we realized our discontent wasn’t in “throwing our money away on rent” – it was in the life we had built together that no longer served us. The change we needed wasn’t a move of home; it was a much deeper change.

Simultaneous to my own home ownership tribulations, my friend had just bought a house with her new husband. With rocketing house prices and low interest rates, they bought more house than they could afford (but which the bank seemed to think they could), and they joined the ranks of being house-rich and cash-poor.

The years of misery that ensued for her may or may not have had to do with the restrictions and unrealistic expectations of first-time home ownership, but I’m pretty sure it didn’t help. She was trapped by her own wealth of assets; forced to maintain the status quo just to make mortgage payments.

It was this life-long commitment to debt in the form of bricks and mortar that effectively eliminated my friend’s ability to make new life choices.

(And her ensuing divorce was made even uglier by their inability to sell the house when the time came.)

It’s Not All Bad

Far be it for me to suggest that a University education and home ownership are bad things. They won’t ruin your life (at least, not in and of themselves).

What I’m challenging is the popular notion that in order to be successful in life, you must have a degree and own property.

A degree does not equate to employability.

And monthly rent payments rarely – if ever – equate to the full cost of home ownership (when you account for taxes, repairs, fees, and the myriad of other expenses above and beyond a mortgage). You are not “throwing your money away” if you rent.

(Along those lines, here’s an excellent article by a colleague of mine about the reality of renting versus buying a home. He goes so far as to cite renting as the “New American Dream”).

Business, Life Choices, and Non-Conformity

Chris Guillebeau coined and popularized the concept of The Art of Non-Conformity, having written a best-selling book on the topic already.

(As you know, I’m a big fan of Chris’s website and books, having read and reviewed many of them myself. He’s the brainchild behind the Travel Hacking Cartel, which was the catalyst for my interest in travel hacking and my ability to fly long-haul in business class for less than the price of economy tickets.)

In The Art of Non-Conformity, Chris deconstructs many of the societal norms that we tend to blindly accept, and challenges us to go beyond our comfort zones to chase our true passions and turn them into lifestyles and careers.

On University

Chris is a man of many University degrees, and yet in The Art of Non-Conformity he challenges the necessity of a degree, and instead outlines a specific course of action you can take to further your knowledge and gain the essence of life skills a degree is supposed to impart – all for a fraction of the cost of tuition.

His list of alternative University “courses” includes items like:

  • Subscribe to the Economist
  • Memorize the names of every country, world capital, and current president or prime minister in the world
  • Buy a RTW plane ticket
  • Read basic texts of the major world religions
  • Subscribe to language-learning podcasts
  • Loan money to an entrepreneur
  • Acquire at least three new skills each year
  • Read at least 30 nonfiction books and 20 classic novels
  • Join a gym or health club to keep fit
  • Become comfortable with basic presentation and public speaking skills
  • Start a blog

On Home Ownership

Like me, Chris is not a fan of home ownership, citing even good debt as being restrictive from a lifestyle design perspective. With a nice dose of balance between future-planning and current-living, he summarizes his view on debt here (page 157):

Even the so-called good debt locks people into decisions that they may not be comfortable with for all the years they hold the debt.

And although some would argue that you can sell your home before paying it off if it no longer serves you, there are a lot of people who are stuck with undervalued houses who wish they could do just that. A friend of mine recently sold his home in the aftermath of a divorce, and was left with nothing – nothing – but $30,000 in debt to show for it. Ouch.

There are Many Paths

I’ve led a non-conventional life for as long as I can remember. So it was in my nature to challenge conventional norms like going to University and buying a house, and my non-conventional approach has served me exceptionally well.

I know I’m a bit of an exception to the norm.

But I also know I’m far from being alone.

Don’t drop out of University or cancel that bid on a house because you’re reading this (in fact I flatter myself to think you actually might). They aren’t bad in and of themselves. But don’t accept the template lifestyle if it doesn’t resonate with you.

I believe our societal landscape is changing, and we have the ability to re-write the book of life right now. In the meantime there doesn’t have to be any rules. Just passion, creativity, and commitment.

What do you think? What are your own experiences with University education and home ownership?

Note: Chris recently published his second book: The $100 Startup: Reinvent the Way You Make a Living, Do What You Love, and Create a New Future.

Sharing is Caring!

Get the Inside Scoop
Receive a FREE 2-week e-course on Financially Sustainable Travel 
Featured Image

43 thoughts on “How NOT Going to University or Buying a House Saved my Life”

  1. Hi Nora,

    very smart article!!

    As far as University, if soon after high school, you don’t know what to make in your life, getting any degree is just a waste of money and time!!

    If you are motivated, determined and if within the subject you’re going to study, there is a good job market, then it’s ok to spend money on that degree!

    But even in this case, the due diligence should be made very carefully: worst scenario, average scenario and best scenario!!

    Because if something goes bad, you know in advance how to sort it out!!

    As far as Ownership, you are right 100% and having been a CFP, you have made a logic choice because from a financial point of view, Ownership is very often a really bad investment!!

    In some cases, a total financial disaster in the mid long term!!

    All the best!


    1PS in another post I’ll explain the two main reasons for which Ownership is very often a bad investment from a financial point of view!!

    2PS I have a degree in economics taken in Italy and I worked ( among others ) as an independent online trader and freelance for an independent financial advisory firm.

    • @Fab – I think home ownership is one of those things that can be a good or bad financial investment, but that is considered more than just an investment, since it’s a home. So emotions can often cloud our better judgement in determining if it’s really a financially viable purchase.

  2. As far as MBA’s, there is a big problem with them and it is explained very well in this book:

    Click “Click to look inside” and you’ll find it out!!

    Apart from that, it is a good book for having an overviw of how the business world works!!

    A bit overvalued but it’s worth buying it!!

  3. My husband and I both took traditional university routes, medicine (him) and law (me). Both our sons were quite adamant that neither would consider either of our career paths: “You work all the time and you’re stressed out.” We understood where they were coming from.

    Both got undergraduate degrees, one a BS in Hotel and Restaurant Management; the other a BS in Exercise Physiology. We didn’t have to go into debt to send them to college, so I’m not sorry they did that, but I also realize that one size does not fit all. The #1 son ended up as a project manager for clinical trials at a university medical center. His management training was transferable beyond the hospitality industry. He would not have been able to get the job he did without a college degree in something, so he needed to get his “ticket punched”. He’s engaged and he and his fiance bought a house.

    #2 son is what I would call a “slasher”. He realized that he didn’t want to work for someone else and has pieced together a self-supporting life as a promotional marketer/web SEO/content writer/travel blogger. He works from wherever. At the moment, Cambodia.

    They are very different people. If I had not given birth to both of them, I would be surprised to find they were related. So, if I might borrow from the Bard, I think the key is, “To thine own self be true.” I also think that choices do not have to be static. At different times in our lives, different things are important. i.e. I’m a recovering lawyer (still write briefs part-time), but I’m also a travel blogger, changes facilitated by my husband and I never having lived up to our income.

    • “To thine own self be true” – and I believe that now more than ever, we have the freedom to chase down whatever that means when it comes to lifestyle design. The increasing numbers of people rejecting the societal norms that have previously been laid out in front of us are a function of shifting priorities overall.

  4. Very well said Nora. I spent thousands on my Uni degree just because it was what we’re “supposed to do”, part of the “routine” of school, career, marry, have kids, die. I wish I knew then what I know now, that university is not necessary. It’s a business like every thing else that teaches you to conform with the other cogs in the wheel. And I found university courses and programs are still VERY much out-dated in what they teach. I learned it’s important to think for yourself, lead don’t follow.

    • Somebody once told me that University isn’t necessarily about higher learning in and of itself – in fact, it’s about learning how to please professors. This is (or could be?) a valuable skill in itself, but it’s not exactly what they list on the brochure, is it? 🙂

  5. I am a non-conformist. I always have been, though i did go to University. Because i felt i had to go. University was my escape, somewhere where i could go to expand my mind and learn something different. Because I come from somewhere where the life plan goes something like this:

    #Go to school,
    #Get pregnant by 16, so you can get a council house and leave school.
    #pop out a few more kids
    # get job in factory
    #buy your council house
    #spend the rest of your life, paying for that house, doing mindless factory job

    Then again in the UK our education system was pretty cheap. I used my grants and loan money to study in the UK/USA, and is money that i will never have to pay back unless i happen to get rich (not-likely to happen). But i agree the best education is learning something new for yourself and travelling a-lot.

    • @Rosemary – It’s interesting how different countries subsidize higher education. In Sweden if I’m not mistaken, university is free – for life. You can get as many degrees as you wish!
      And for you in the UK, if attending university doesn’t break the bank, it’s a much easier nut to swallow.

  6. Rosemary’s comment could be transferred to lots of places around the world unfortunately. However, here in Australia, there is a major reluctance to get funds for anything including a better car or for overseas travel without owning something. (The banks need to sell whatever that something is in case you default.)

    Otherwise, yes, I would have had the lifestyle you have Nora if the internet had existed back in the 70s. Now I am just waiting for the kids to grow up and leave so my on-hold lifestyle can be kickstarted.

  7. Excellent post and good for you! I think this is sage advice for young people today, with the education business often offering few or negative returns on investment. I think you (the collective you) have to take what your parents say with a grain of salt because their information on these things is often 10+ years out of date. Things change. While getting a university degree and a corporate job used to be the road to “success,” it is no sure thing in 2012.

  8. Interesting read. I actually went to university AFTER I had done a 16-month escape-the-rat-race backpacking trip. I was 28 by that time and I did it so that I could start a new career as an English language teacher and live abroad.

    I’m really glad I didn’t go straight to uni after school. By going as a mature student, and paying for it myself, I felt that I got more from my studies. I also had more life experience which helped me to relate the concepts to my knowledge of the world. Before I gave up my bank job to go travelling, I had been promoted four times with no need for a degree so I would definitely recommend waiting to see if you really need one before spending all that time and money on a college education.

    When I decided to go travelling, I had some money saved, that I had been planning to use as a deposit for a house. I had to choose between a house and travel and picked travel. I have never regretted travelling but by the time I returned, house prices had exploded and I was out of the market for good. If I had bought a house and rented it out so that my tenants covered the mortgage, I’d now have the best of both worlds.

  9. I forgot to add that the degree has enabled me to continue travelling and working abroad for over 10 years.

    • I really like the idea of pursuing higher education after gaining some travel and work experience, as you did yourself and suggest. The time away from school helped you to clarify what you want to do with your life and get the most out of your degree!

      And yes, the ever-present 20/20 hindsight as to real estate. It could just as easily have gone the other way, and your travels would have been curtailed or stopped. Not that I’m against real estate – trust me – but it’s not as reliable an investment as we are led to believe.
      Big financial benefits to real estate are the accumulation of equity through leverage. But if you don’t have the cushion to weather hard markets and/or rising interest rates, it can be more constricting than liberating.

  10. Nice website revamp. Here’s my two cents about the interesting points you’re making.
    The way I see it, (formal) education, like money, offers options and in general, I’m a sucker for options;
    I would never be able to do the job I do and be respected in my industry without my Masters degree. Yes, it was costly, but it’s given me the options I needed to make the changes I wanted in my life.
    For every talented individual (like yourself) who’s made it in life without attending university, one can name hundreds of other people whose life was transforned thanks to education, especially in way less privileged parts of the world than Canada.
    Some of the best and most determined fellow students i’ve encountered were older people who despite the fact that they had families and steady jobs, still felt the thirst for knowledge and the need to pursue a degree on a subject area they loved.
    I have nothing but respect for such people. I’m not saying that University is the only way of going about things. It is just a way I trust and prefer.

    Now, I don’t really have an opinion about whether it is worth owing property (spending a lifetime paying for mortgages, brick walls and wooden doors does not really fit in my way of life at the moment), but as far as formal education goes, I see it as an investment in the future.
    Roaming the world is the sweet, red cherry on top of course, noone can deny that ;))
    Btw. there are several good educational institutions (like the Open university in Europe) that can accommodate people with a flexible, location independent lifestyle like yours, in case you’re interested to ever take that path…
    Have a good weekend

    • @despina – You said it; you wouldn’t be able to work in your career as you do without a Master’s degree. And sometimes it’s very necessary – and of course not a bad thing.

      What I object to is the idea that people go to University at a very young age with no idea what to study, whey they want to do, or how the degree will help them.
      This is solved in the cases of the mature students who are there because they truly want to learn, and not because it’s “just what you do”.

  11. Hi Nora,

    One of the best articles you ever wrote….if not The best. I shudder to think of all the waste and hardship societal pressure has caused. And will cause I’m afraid.

    P.S. Like you new website by the way. !

    • Thanks, Dick! Society’s values and pressures change and evolve….slowly. I think we’re in the midst of such an evolution right now. Let’s see where it leads!

  12. Hi Nora,

    I was speaking about it from only a financial point of view!!

    Anyway, as I promised, here is the first main reason because Ownership is very often a bad investment from a financial point of view!!

    “Always remember that an Investment is the deferral of present consumption for future consumption, and if anything qualifies as present consumption, it is a residence.

    A home or condominium’s price should increase over time. How much? The best data on house prices suggest that, after taking inflation into account, the answer is slim to none.

    Home ownership is not an investment; it is exactly the opposite, a consumption item. After taking into consideration maintenance costs and taxes, you are often better off renting.

    A vacation home makes little financial sense unless you are leasing it out for most of the year. So if you must have a place in the mountains or on the beach, rent, do not buy.

    When you spend your own money to buy your house, you are using your financial capital which could be invested in something else more profitable.

    A good “Rule of Thumb” is never paying more than 15-year rent for any type of house for residential use. Why 15 years? Because a gross rent yield must give 6.7% per annum (annual rent / purchase cost house), net of taxes and maintenance costs is approximately 4% annually, which is in turn equal to the average return on net ( over 15 years ) a portfolio with a 50/50 mix of equity index funds and government bonds with a maximum rating over .”

    Source: by William J. Bernstein.

  13. Could not agree more 🙂

    I did go the university route and, although I enjoyed it, I don’t think having a BA degree has helped me one jot in my career.

    I did not, however, buy a house and never will. I hate to be tied down and would die if I had huge mortgage payments.

    I currently pay $300 a month for a very nice apartment in Bangkok, Thailand. I moved here when I left the US and, in 10 years, my rent has never gone up. I can only imagine how much money I would have wasted on a mortgage during all that time.

    And, no, of course my parents don’t understand my choices 🙂

    • @Rachel – So you’ve lived in Thailand for the last 10 years – cool! Yes, the cost of living can be dramatically less in certain parts of the world, as long as you have the desire and disposition to enjoy life abroad.
      Have your parents ever visited you in Thailand? Did it help (or hinder??) them to understand your choices a little better?

  14. Great post, and I can really relate to your words and thoughts. I too am happy that I took the road less traveled. I came so very close to the kids and the mortgage lifestyle, and thank goodness, did not go down that route. My life would have been so much more different now, and with far less experiences. Owning a home and getting a degree can work for some, but its not the lifestyle for me. The world is way to big to stay in one corner!

    • @Elle – I’m glad this post resonated with you! I don’t want to poo-poo the University and Home Ownership route too much, because one or both can work very well for people. But doesn’t it also feel great to know there are other options? 🙂

  15. Before you spend four years in college, devote four hours to hearing what Blake has to say.
    –Seth Godin

    Book Description
    Publication Date: June 7, 2012
    Do you need college in order to be taken seriously and earn a real living?
    Conventional wisdom says yes. But true success relies upon self-knowledge and entrepreneurship: two qualities that you can obtain effectively and inexpensively without traditional college.

    “Better Than College: How to Build a Successful Life Without a Four-Year Degree”

    All the best!


  16. Hey Hobo,

    Just found your blog. Great work!

    I agree with the main points that are raised by this article, but for both of these cases severe exceptions do apply. I believe that the point isn’t to do or to not do a degree, but simply make the most of everything and abuse all the opportunities possible, whatever you do. It worked for you, and worked for me although we both took very different paths.

    In my personal case, I was on a full scholarship during my undergrad. I simply abused all the opportunities of the university life. I took two semesters abroad in Spain, during all the summer holidays I went to Africa, Asia, Middle East and Europe to work with non-governmental organisations. Then having built a strong resume, I won a full scholarship do a master’s in international development at a top university. I already work for a consultancy and will go to international development consultancy path, which will make me travel the world, help people, and earn a more than decent money for a lifetime. And if I have enough money to invest in a house at some point with my earnings, why not? I wouldn’t change a single thing about my past. And I’m sure you wouldn’t either.

    Best wishes,

    • Hi Dita – Thanks for sharing your experience! You’ve done an amazing job of harnessing your schooling to enable your dreams, and it has worked very well for you.
      There are many ways to skin a cat – and lots of grey areas in between all extremes.
      Thank you!

  17. Wow – can’t tell you how exhilarating it is to read this, Nora. I’ve wandered in an out of your posts and writings for the last couple of years but after reading this post, I’m hooked.

    I also took the alternative route – never got married (still hoping he’s out there, though!), never finished university (only 1st year). I did own a home and all other trappings corporate life afforded, but at the age of 39 I sold it and threw everything in storage (you’re right – way, way, way too much stuff), and left with a backpack. The money I had put aside for a down payment on a new home when/if I returned ended up instead going towards a little chunk of land on a tiny island paradise named Gili Air, in Indonesia.

    I came home to Montreal, ditched a lot of stuff, got an apartment, started my own business as a freelance writer, and travel as often as I can now (easier since I can work from anywhere).

    I spent years lamenting that I’d never met “the one”, never had children, etc. but finally realize (at the age of 44) that I’d likely not be able to live the life I’m living had those “normal” things become my reality.

    Yay for everything!!!!!!!! Thank you for this post.

    • Hi Cara – AWESOME story! Thanks for sharing. And your little piece of Indonesian paradise sounds idyllic (how often do you visit there?). To have accomplished all that in five years is impressive! Happy travels!

      • Thanks for the kind reply! As for Surga Cara (Cara’s Paradise), I get there about every 18 months on average. It’s a bit far for a weekend jaunt 🙂 I look forward to following you and learning from you more regularly now! Who knows, maybe we’ll cross paths out there somewhere 🙂

        • Thanks, Cara – it’s a small world…you never know when/where we might bump into one another… 🙂

    • Hi Jessy,
      Congrats on your decision! I think non-traditional schooling – as you outline in your post – is a great way to go.

  18. Nora!!! I totally agree with your position. I have been advocating the exact same thing for quite some time now. I have spent the past 2 hours reading several of your posts (I landed on your blog earlier tonight by mistake). I am very impressed by your talent as a blogger, your life journey but, most importantly, your dedication to living a full life. I recently gave up a very prestigious and lucrative executive job in marketing in order to turn my life around. Although it is still not clear how I am going to live the rest of my life (I am 48), I know for sure that I am done with “the standard narrative” most have embraced in North America (like you, I am Canadian – a Montrealer in fact). I will make sure to drop by your blog often as I found that it lifted my spirit (transforming yourself brings some moments of insecurity, angst, etc.). I will also make sure that my two pre-teen nephews read it so as to inspire them. Keep your amazing good work Nora. You are an inspiration my Dear!

    • Hi Nancy,
      WOW – Thank you! And how exciting for you on the brink of a new life yourself! Just embrace all the angst and fear as part of the process…..I personally generally know I’m doing something good when I’m terrified! Ha ha!

Comments are closed.