Tax Considerations for Digital Nomads

In September, I was honoured to be part of the awesome Nomad City conference in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria.

It was a great event and a wonderful experience, and it was my first time speaking to such a diverse group of digital nomads. Typically I’d be speaking to US-specific tax issues, but for this talk, I had to keep it relevant to everyone, and above all, brief! I was asked to keep it well under 20 minutes, which isn’t much time at all when you’re talking something as complex as digital nomad tax.

The fabulous folks at Nomad City provided me with a video recording of it, so I thought I’d share it with you here.

Let me know what you think! And any US expats or digital nomads out there, feel free to contact me or just schedule a consultation to discuss your specific situation!

Airbnb strategies – Part 1: Hosting

I’ve been a longtime Airbnb user. Recently on Facebook, a memory popped up from 2011, when I posted about this “cool site I was trying out.” Yes, it was a simpler time. I don’t even know if the phrase “sharing economy” existed yet. Fast forward a few years, and there are probably relatively few seasoned travellers out there who haven’t given that “cool site” a try.

 

While Airbnb isn’t all sunshine and roses (check out Part 2 for a few recent experiences I’ve had to prove that point!), I think it has some key advantages that can support both your pursuit of financial independence, and your location independence, if you so choose. If you keep a few simple strategies in mind, it could speed up your progress to both, and expand your horizons once you get there.

 

As this is a chunky enough topic, I’m splitting it into two parts, for both hosts and guests (primarily guests of the semi-nomadic variety). First up, hosting, to get your side hustle income stream flowing:

 

PART 1

HOSTING

 

Airbnb can be an easy way to add a little side hustle income stream to your roster. There has been much written and said about renting out a spare bedroom on Airbnb, or using Airbnb instead of longer term rentals in an investment property (if you didn’t already know, Paula Pant of Afford Anything is an amazing resource for all things investment-property related).

 

What I don’t see discussed as often, and perhaps with good reason, is the potential of making a place that you yourself rent, available as an occasional Airbnb rental. I personally was too scared to try this while I lived in the US. It just felt like there were too many legal/regulatory risks.

Whether or not that fear was justified, for whatever reason it didn’t seem as risky in Dublin, and thus I began my hosting career almost exactly 1 year ago.

 

Tips for hosting in a rental

 

First, I’d say you should determine how annoyed your neighbours and landlord are likely to get, if at all. And obviously have a read through your lease to see if there’s anything explicitly prohibiting it.

 

I took the view that I’d have no qualms about having an out of town friend stay in my place while I was away, which wasn’t so different from what I’d be doing, since I was only going to rent it out when I was out of town travelling. And my building was a pretty relaxed place in general, with people mostly minding their own business. It seemed ideal.

 

*I’m aware that many cities, probably primarily in North America, but possibly increasingly around the world, local authorities are getting a bit tetchy about Airbnb. It’s a complex topic, and often an emotional one, so make your best assessment of both the legal and ethical implications, and proceed accordingly.

 

In Dublin, there’s a full blown housing crisis, and that has knock-on effects into the short term and hotel markets as well. I’ve been told it’s often difficult for visitors to find a hotel room for less than €200 a night, which is far beyond the budgets of many travellers. I’m generally in favour of increasing choice for both residents of a city, as well as visitors. So I was and am satisfied that making my otherwise-unused apartment available while I was away (at far, far less than €200/night, let me assure you!) was a net positive for everyone involved.

 

So, if the stars align and you decide to take the plunge, what are some tips for would-be Airbnb hosts?

 

  • Make check-in/out easy and low-touch for you and your guests

 

Checking in should not require an in-person meetup, if it’s at all possible to avoid it. For me this was essential because I was almost always going to be on a plane heading out of the country whenever my guests were arriving. As a guest, I knew how much I valued being able to check in and out at my leisure, without having to text and coordinate with someone and cater to their schedule.

 

My solution to this was to buy a key-safe lockbox, which I attach to a railing near my building’s front door. I always inform my guests of this in advance, and I send them pictures of its location in case they are checking in after dark, and just to allay any potential worries that they might have.

The one I use is here:

 

Overall, I’m delighted with that solution. I’ve very rarely had anyone who had any difficulty with locating or using the lock box, and I’ve never received any negative feedback because of it. Possible alternatives could be a local business that doesn’t mind giving a key to your guests, especially if you’re a regular customer or if you have some relationship with them. Or an obliging friend or neighbour who you don’t impose upon too heavily. I’ve stayed in places as a guest that did both, with varying degrees of success. I’d still suggest going for the fully remote solution where possible.

 

  • Set expectations

 

This is so important for both your sanity, and that of your guests. I try to emphasise that my place is small, and in an older building, and is also my main dwelling place, so people know what they’re getting. This doesn’t mean I’ve never had a complaint that the place is small, but at least I’d caveated that emptor, so I didn’t feel too badly about it.

 

I’d also let guests know in advance the situation regarding parking, wifi, how heat/hot water/garbage worked, and what they could expect in terms of linens and bathroom basics. I’d still sometimes get questions on all of those things, and more, but to the extent possible I made an effort to be very explicit about all the quirks and features of my place.

 

  • Anticipate questions

 

This ties in closely with the above, but I made sure to make a house manual on Airbnb for specific things that I knew were unique about my place, such as the switch for the hot water, or the highly sensitive smoke alarm that will go off if you leave the door open while taking a shower.

 

Another thing I did that I think worked well was to preemptively send a link to the exact coordinates of the location on Google Maps. I actually don’t know why more hosts don’t do this! Addresses are funny and are so different from one place to the next. And it’s so blindingly easy to drop a pin on Google Maps that Airbnb should actually make it mandatory.

 

  • Bonus: prepare for tax time!

 

One of the things people sometimes worry about related to becoming an Airbnb host is what to do in terms of taxes. Generally, income is income is income, and whatever jurisdiction you live in would like for you to report that income, please and thank you very much. But how exactly that looks will vary widely from place to place.

 

In Ireland, at least, Airbnb very helpfully reminded their hosts that our income had been reported to Irish Revenue, just in case it might’ve slipped some people’s minds. How thoughtful of them! Here’s the email I received:

To Airbnb’s credit, as you can see, they did provide some links to resources in case people had questions. And when it comes to taxes, I know firsthand that people always do. And that it’s almost never an especially easy or user-friendly process.

 

If you’re a new Airbnb host and wondering what to do about taxes, here are some first steps to consider:

  1. Keep record of your related expenses

    From supplies like sheets and towels for guest use only, to getting that second set of keys cut, to the lockbox itself, it helps to keep track of all these small expenses as you go. I stuck mine all in a simple spreadsheet.

  2. Determine how and when you’ll report it

    Be especially mindful in case there are any pre-filing registrations you need. For example, in Ireland, I needed to register for MyAccount, which I discovered entailed Revenue sending me a code in the post. So I was glad I didn’t wait until the last minute, as the Irish tax filing deadline is coming up on 31 October!

  3. What are your expenses when you don’t own the place yourself?

    This will vary depending what jurisdiction you’re in, but one approach that makes sense from an accounting perspective is to take a ratable portion of your monthly rent as a rental expense. 

    For example: My monthly rent was €850, so if I rented my place for 5 days in a month, I’d figure my expense for that month as follows

(850/30)*5= €141.67

You could reasonably treat your monthly wifi, heating/electricity, and even bin charges, in a similar fashion.

Be aware that if there is no specific guidance from Revenue where you live, you should have a sound basis for why you claimed the expenses you did.

 

  1. Seek out a professional

My general, and very high-level tips aside, if you haven’t reported rental income before, and if you have any doubts at all, you should definitely seek out a qualified professional. It’s almost always worth the expense, both in terms of peace of mind, and in the cost of your valuable time. Getting your reporting right the first time, and avoiding time consuming and potentially costly questions or corrections with the tax authorities in your location, is definitely the way to go.

If you have questions from a US perspective, I’d be happy to assist you. In my experience, US reporting is likely to be one of the trickiest, and adding rental income when you’ve previously been a simple W-2-only kinda gal or guy, might mean you’d benefit from a little initial guidance.

 

PITFALLS

 

Becoming an Airbnb host is a great way to generate a little side income, to fund your travels, and to help utilise a resource that might otherwise go unused. These are all good things, but there are some potential pitfalls. In my experience as a host, these are actually pretty minor and most importantly, rare.

 

  • Cleanliness/potential damage

 

The main concerns of most hosts would be the condition that guests leave their place in. I have to say, my expectations have been wildly exceeded in this regard. Of the 17 different bookings I’ve had, ranging from solo travellers, to couples, to, in one case, a young family with a 1 year old, no one has done more damage than a broken plate (which they kindly left a euro to compensate for!). And the extent of any “mess” to clean up has been a few stray crumbs.

 

Have I just been preternaturally lucky? Well, it’s possible, and it wouldn’t be the first time. But being an Airbnb host has actually cemented my belief in the general soundness of people. I feel like this concern shouldn’t be a dealbreaker for most would-be hosts.

 

  • Unexpected guest needs

 

This one might be a bit more of a wildcard. Again, my guests have been lovely. But I could certainly see a guest who had a lot of demands being difficult to manage from afar.

 

I have had people who had questions about things that I wasn’t always able to respond to immediately (usually due to being mid-flight), and my terrific guests have either figured it out themselves, or been wonderfully patient.

 

And then there was the time that, thankfully, I was in town, and I almost had to go assist a guest with the keysafe at 3 am, which I definitely would have done. In fact, I was somewhat tipsily attempting to hail a taxi when they rang to inform me they’d figured it out! So hosts should be prepared for that to happen on occasion.

 

  • Last minute cancellations

 

There’s not much you can do there, besides set a stricter cancellation policy and hope for the best. Airbnb do a good job of managing this on both sides.

 

So should you consider becoming an Airbnb host? I say yes, with some caveats:

 

  • Be aware of the impact on those around you, including any landlords, neighbours, housemates, etc

 

  • Educate yourself on the tax and legal implications

 

  • Be ready to be flexible and adaptable to guest needs

 

Opening your home to a traveller in need can be a wonderful experience. In Part 2, I’ll talk about the guest side of the equation, particularly the potential utility for digital nomads.

 

What do you think? Would you try hosting on Airbnb? If you do, please consider using this link to sign up as a host, and I’ll get a small referral credit!

 

Goodbye, corporate job

Today was my last day in my corporate job.

It felt as freeing as I’d expected to turn in the clunky old laptop and walk away, sans security badge, sans security blanket (but with a happy goodbye to the nice security guard). I ran into a colleague on my way out, and he said he envied me. I knew exactly what he meant. I’ve felt that way countless times, watching other colleagues move on. There’s obviously a lot to be said for what the big employers can offer, and I’m very grateful for the time I’ve spent at mine. But it’s exciting to be on the precipice of something new, and I think that’s what we all tend to vicariously feel when we see our friends and colleagues making moves.

My intention now is to be so tuned in and present that I don’t feel that twinge of envy when I see other people making big, bold moves. Because I’ll be making my own, and I won’t have any reason or excuse as to why I can’t. My time, my energy, my focus, my results, are all my own now. It could be terrifying, but we’re made for this. Smarter people than me have said, repeatedly, that safety is an illusion, but I like the way Helen Keller said it:

It can feel like a big risk, venturing out into previously uncharted territory. Both the potential upside and downside are much greater, and both are entirely possible. And will both be felt by the risk-taker alone. I’m OK with that. I’ve done the math and the equation balances, especially when freedom is given such a heavily weighted average, as it is in my calculations.

So farewell to the illusory security of my old job. I’m excited for all that lies ahead.

 

 

Planning an international move: a checklist for minimalists

Making your move as a minimalist

When you’re getting ready to make a big move, the to-do list can start to feel overwhelming.
You can get caught up in minutiae that isn’t worth your time, and that can distract you from
fully being in the moment and really living those last few weeks or months before you start
the next chapter.

In my most recent international move, from the US to Ireland, I had fortunately been in the
process of decluttering and moving towards minimalism for about a year prior, so it was
about as stress-free as an international move can be. I realise not everyone making an
international move will have such a spartan amount of personal possessions. But I think anyone can encourage a shift of focus off of the physical possessions that can loom so large, and
onto some of the less obvious things that future-you will really thank you for getting figured
out.

Plus it’s just fun being a minimalist and making lists.

Various types of stuff and what to do With it:

Physical stuff:

General rule: Decide what you’re bringing, and then bring less. This is a good
time to get rid of old stuff: donate/give away most, sell some if you have time,
store an absolute minimum. I stored a box of sentimental stuff with my parents,
and got rid of the rest. Any clothes you have that you’re not bringing, you
probably don’t need. Donate, donate, donate. (Bonus tip for future-you: remember those trips to the charity shop before your re-accumulate more stuff.)

Kitchen stuff: I love to cook, and even as a minimalist, I briefly considered
whether I should try to bring some of my kitchen stuff with me to Ireland. NO! I
happened to mention this insane notion to my cousin who’s much smarter than
me, and her response was: “Um, no. Definitely don’t do that. I thought you’d done
this before?” Touche. Kitchen stuff was donated and zero fucks were given that
day.

Furniture: This is one of the worst categories of stuff. It’s big and heavy and hard
to get rid of. Get rid of as much as you can, ideally by selling it. I’ve had good luck
with Craigslist in Canada and the US, other countries have similar sites.

Clothing/personal effects: Keep these to one or two suitcases, max. Yes,
including shoes and accessories. You’ll replace a good bit of it once you settle
into your new location, anyways. I try to keep only what I’m currently using, plus
what I’ll definitely use in the next 3-6 months. Even doing this, and even with an already minimal wardrobe, I still got rid of yet more stuff within a few months of arriving in Ireland. Bring less than you think.

Tom Bihn Aeronaut 30, my ride or die

Bring like this amount of stuff, if you can

Money stuff:

Banking: This comes up surprisingly often on various expat subreddits etc., especially
given how simple the best approach is: Keep your bank account in your home
country, and open a new one in your new country. Done and done. There’s usually no downside to this and it will make your day to day life so much easier.

  • Americans will need to remember file an FBAR to report any non-US bank
    accounts, to the extent their total foreign accounts exceed $10,000 USD in a given
    year. Talk to an expat tax pro (such as yours truly!) about this if you don’t
    know how to file it!

Credit cards: If you have a credit card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction
fees, and has a low (or no) annual fee, keep it. I’ve learned the hard way that
credit cards are expensive and sucky in some countries (hi, Ireland!), so I like having my
US credit card as a fallback for any time I’m in a country with a currency I don’t
normally deal with.

Retirement/savings: Consider what you’ll do with your retirement/long term
savings accounts in both your departure and destination locations. I rolled my old
401k into an IRA, and I’m planning on maintaining that for the time being. I have
some specific ideas on what to do with US retirement accounts when leaving the
US, both as a US citizen, and as someone who will become a US non-resident,
but that’s for a future tax-nerdy post.

Transferring money: I like Transferwise for quickly moving money between
currencies, for a good exchange rate and with low, easy to understand fees. Don’t do anything silly and complicated like old fashioned wire transfers, unless there’s really no way around it.

Taxes: Just adding this to the checklist, as you’ll want to consider your residency
status in both locations, as well as arrival and departure filing requirements.
These really vary a great deal depending on your personal circumstances, so,
again, find a friendly expat tax expert for all the countries you deal with!

Simplify: I got rid of any excess cards and accounts that I wasn’t using, and
continually re-examine this to see if there’s anything further I can minimise or
simplify. I like having as few accounts as possible to get the job done. Right now that tends to average two per country I deal in, one for everyday banking, and another for long term savings/investing.

 

Practical stuff:

Communication: Everywhere else in the world uses Whatsapp, but I had to get a
few of my American pals on board with it. Yes, you may be used to texting me.
Now you can text me on Whatsapp and then the evil empire (aka the cell phone
company) doesn’t triumph over the downtrodden.

Free your phone: I happened to own my phone outright, so I was able to ask my
previous phone company to unlock it before I left. This made getting a new SIM a
snap. I’d suggest this where possible. Using a foreign SIM sucks for a number of
reasons, not least being extortionate roaming charges, and not being able to easily give your number to cute people you meet. Trying to explain your weird foreign phone number with its country code and plus signs and leading zeroes will really kill your flirtation game. Kidding! Sort of! It’s good for giving your number to local services too. Just get on a local SIM as soon as you can, and start living your life.

Mailing address: This one doesn’t come with any easy, pithy answers. Physical,
paper mail is the sucks and there’s no really satisfactory way of transporting those
horrible bits of paper around the world. Minimise the amount of physical mail
you’ll need to the extent possible, and then ask a friend if they can forward you
the really essential stuff.

  • For me this basically amounted to my W-2, as my previous employer wouldn’t email
    it to an external email address. And even this managed to suck! They
    ended up sending it to my old apartment, despite my best attempts to update my forwarding address to my friend’s address before I left. Ugh, fine. Fortunately, I had set myself a reminder to follow up on the W-2 if it hadn’t arrived by a certain date, so they would have time to resend it to the correct forwarding address. Doing this one time was fine, but doing this monthly would be unpleasant. Avoid paper mail to the extent possible.

Passport: If it will be expiring anytime soon, you might want to renew before you
leave. I have a gorgeous 10 year passport and it’s my most prized physical
possession.

Driver’s licence: In my experience you really don’t need that “international driver’s
licence” thing people sometimes mention. But it will be handy if your current
driver’s licence has as much time left before it expires as possible. Fortunately, I had just renewed mine before I moved, so I’m using this
to buy time and decide if I want to get an Irish driver’s licence. They make you
take the test, so I’m leaning towards no. I haven’t had any difficulty renting a car here on my old licence.

Anything else?

I’ll be making another move soon, this time to become semi-nomadic and
location independent. I envision having a few mini-bases in a few important locations where
my most beloved people are. But I’ll still rely on the above concepts of minimising and
simplifying, as they have served me well. What would you add to this list?

…and taxes

Given that taxes are one half of the oft-cited only two certainties in life, you might expect my humble profession to have a more glamorous, or at least dramatic, reputation. And yet, despite having a profound influence on every aspect of our financial lives, some people (inexplicably!) find the topic less than scintillating. Shocking, I know.

I found myself in this field somewhat by accident, but after nearly a decade working with expats and taxes, I can tell you it’s far from dull. Especially working with individuals, and never more so than in the context of international moves. Helping people sort their taxes out can be incredibly gratifying at the best of times, when I ideally help set someone’s mind at ease, or provide insight into complex areas that can be rife with misinformation. Then there are the other times, when someone perhaps wishes they’d thought about taxes a bit sooner. Those conversations can be a tad more dramatic, albeit not the kind any of us hopes for.

But at the end of the day, dealing with tax means dealing with people and their lives, in all their beautiful, messy complexity. The intermingling of their pasts and their futures. 

International moves can be overwhelming. And for busy professionals, often their taxes could be one of the last things they want to devote their valuable time to thinking about. So I always count it a personal, as well as professional, win when someone tells me how glad they were they spoke with me, even at that most hectic time in their life. And even in those, shall we say, ‘dramatic’ times, it’s always better to get a plan in place sooner rather than later.

When I say I found myself here by accident, I will admit I didn’t set out to be a tax professional when I grew up. I sometimes joke that it doesn’t tend to be what little girls dream of. (For the record, I believe my top professional aspiration at age 8 would’ve been “princess.” Still waiting on that one…)

When I signed up for the on-campus interview through my university, I was drawn in by the “international” aspect of the job description. I later found out that the job entailed diving deep into this very specialised area of US tax that many people never think about. But it has expanded my own global mindset in every way possible, and now I count myself truly fortunate to be able to work in a profession that so closely aligns with my values.

I deeply believe that global mobility is an incredibly powerful tool for personal and professional growth and fulfilment. I also deeply believe that the freer people are to move around the planet, the better our world becomes. In that sense, I consider it an honour to play a part in facilitating that freedom, one person at a time.

The other side of the equation is helping people sort out a major area of their finances. To the extent that I can help people feel more empowered, and less in the dark, about the financial impact of their relocation, to me that’s absolutely worthwhile, values-driven work. To take something that can feel overwhelming and undecipherable, and make it relatable and actionable to individuals, given their own individual facts and circumstances, is really rewarding.

So, despite a somewhat mild-mannered reputation, I see my work as furthering two of the things I value the most: empowering individuals in both location freedom and financial freedom.

I try to keep that in mind even when I delve into the denser or nerdier aspects of expat tax, which I may even do on this blog. And if it inspires or reassures anyone to take the leap into the expat or globally mobile lifestyle, it will be well worth it!

Do you have any areas of confusion on expat tax issues?

Particularly from a US perspective, either people moving to the US, or US people moving abroad? I’d love to hear from you and plan some posts to help bring some clarity to any areas of confusion! There are absolutely no silly questions in this complex area, and remember, smart people ask.