It was my dream gig: I was getting flown to Iceland to photograph a wedding. In the years leading up to this moment, I’d seen photos of glaciers and steaming hot springs, Icelandic horses and waterfalls galore, otherworldly landscapes and the northern lights. I had also heard how expensive a trip to Iceland could be.
I grew up with a single immigrant mother who regularly struggled to provide for our family. We always had what we needed, but I remember the moments when we weren’t sure if we would even have that. My brother and I were always the first to arrive at and last to leave government-subsidized child care because my mother worked such long hours. By the time I turned 18, we’d moved 18 times—with crippling debt following us the entire time.
Growing up this way has made me more cost-conscious than most of my peers, to the extent that I can only describe this mindset as financial anxiety. I immediately exclude myself from activities if they sound like they cost money. I can spend 15 minutes in front of the dairy section at the market, trying to justify spending the extra seven cents per ounce for a yogurt that tastes better—and still leave with the cheaper of the two. My biggest shame is judging friends for the “expensive” purchases they make, because I could never fathom treating myself in such a way, regardless of whether or not I can afford it.
So you can imagine my mental state when I found out that entry to the famed Blue Lagoon started at $58, that the cheapest Airbnb I could find was $150 per night, and that eating out was so expensive, all budget travel guides suggested eating exclusively from grocery stores. I didn’t understand the extent to which food could jump in price. Having traveled to other expensive countries, I figured I’d mostly eat grocery store meals and find an affordable option to splurge on for my last night there. I later met up with friends who mentioned a detour to the mall where they thought they’d grab something easy from the food court. Their two burgers, two fries, and two drinks rung up to the equivalent of $75, and I knew it was yogurt and peanut butter toast for the rest of my stay.
I had a bucket list of things I wanted to see and do in Iceland, but suddenly I became paralyzed with the instinct that I would not be able to afford any of it. I wanted to ride Icelandic horses along the Reynisfjara black sand beaches, wade in geothermal hot springs in the desolate outdoors, chase the northern lights on a clear night—I wanted to experience and take my own postcard photos. But even getting to these locations felt unfeasible, with the cost of rental cars averaging upwards of $60 per day, not including fuel. It didn’t matter that my job was sending me or that this might be the least I’d ever pay to get to the country. No amount of saved money could justify the costs for me.
And then I arrived with three days and nothing planned because of my fear of cost. It was too late to book a trip to the Glacier Lagoon, and I was stuck in Reykjavik without a car to hunt for the northern lights. And there was no way in hell I was going to pay for the expensive tour buses that would take me to see either at the last minute.
I sat in my room after eating yogurt for dinner and knew that, somewhere within driving distance, the northern lights were dancing and I was missing them. I knew that every financial decision I’d ever made was subtly nudged by the voice of my struggling mother or my late grandmother in my head. These are the women who survived war, deportation, abusive partners, poverty, and heartbreak. How dare I indulge myself in frivolous luxuries when they never had the opportunity to?
Then I realized I only had the choice because of them.
Managing my financial anxiety as a traveler, especially in an expensive country like Iceland, was only feasible when I identified the root of it. I had to reconcile two major parts of myself—one seeking adventure and the other surviving the trauma of my upbringing. In my mind, they couldn’t coexist because one was inherently carefree and indulgent, while the other was constantly panicked and preparing for survival. I couldn’t fully understand this until I was sitting alone in my room, when I felt like I should be out making the most of my visit. I let my financial anxiety keep me from pursuing the experiences and photos I’d dreamed of.
But the next day, I tagged along for a hike in the Reykjadalur Valley. After an hour of hills and steaming geysers, we reached a hot springs stream that snaked along the base of the valley. I’d been so focused on missing out on the Blue Lagoon, I forgot that Iceland is home to hundreds of hot springs, many free and accessible to the public. I peeled off my layers of jackets and sweaters and sank into the warm water. The sky grew darker as rain drizzled, but I was warm and content. I’d found my way to my own postcard moment while still managing the financial anxiety, and my conflicting emotions could finally coexist.
I still struggle to pay for things that I know are a privilege, but I’ve begun making lists to prioritize costs and pare down what’s important to me when I visit a new place. Magnets are always at the top of my list. My mother keeps a collection—they’re touristy and probably overpriced, but when I bring them home, her face lights up and she proudly places them on the refrigerator door, beaming as the collection grows bigger and bigger. “My sweetheart, the world traveler,” she says. I’ve begun to think of these travel opportunities as investments in myself and homages to the women who made them possible.