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?

The Secret Superpower of a (Relatively*) Low Salary

When I accepted the job that allowed me to move to Ireland, I was acutely aware I was taking a pay cut. Cue the shock and disbelief! How could someone who prides herself on being financially responsible, on the path to financial independence, voluntarily accept less money?

One of the common threads I note in the financial independence community is that, for basically all of us, money is far from the most important thing in our lives. Instead, we simply agree that mastery of money is one of the best ways to give those things that are the most important to us the time and attention they deserve.

Thus, when I was offered the opportunity to have another expat experience, which has always been one of my goals, I took it, and decided not to worry (at least not too much) about the lost savings potential. Life’s too short, #YOLO, and all that. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, and here’s why:

The Secret Superpower of a Low Salary

  1. Keeping expenses low is a superpower

If you can live within your means on a low salary, it means you can budget, find the best deals, and eliminate the unnecessary. That makes you a badass who can demonstrate immigrant hustle when called upon. This is a good muscle to develop no matter your income, but it really shines in situations where income is limited, or taxes/cost of living is higher than what you might be used to. You’re proving to yourself that you can survive, thrive, and be happy, while spending very little. This is a necessary precondition for the next step.

  1. Determination to save, no mater what, is a superpower

I consider saving money a non-negotiable. When you are living far from home, it’s especially important to not be spending every cent you earn and thus have a cushion to fall back on. It’s just a good practice that will serve people at any income and with any lifestyle goals. But when you can take a relatively modest take-home salary and decide how much of it absolutely must be saved, no matter what, you’ve just levelled up your superpowers and are ready for the next, most crucial phase of this process.

  1. Low salaries aren’t that difficult to walk away from (or replace)

And here’s the kicker, the biggest secret superpower of a low salary: no golden handcuffs here! You’ve proven to yourself that you can be happy, and save, on a fairly modest amount. Now you can start doing the math, and figure out exactly how much you’d need to replicate that lifestyle. Playing around with the numbers in lower cost of living areas is particularly fun, for example. But the important thing is now you know the income amount on which you can continue your totally satisfactory and financially responsible lifestyle without changing a thing. And you may find that it’s not that daunting to try and replace it.

If you’ve mastered these superpowers, the real secret is you’re already free. You can take the leap into self employment, entrepreneurship, alternative income streams, or side hustle work. You can happily walk away from the salaried job, with its stress and demands on your time.

Being debt free is the foundation that makes it all possible

It’s really much easier than perhaps many people think to keep expenses low, but I feel the need to caveat that it’s made possible by having no monthly non-negotiable expenses. Yeah, none. Most notably, no debt payments. Everything else can be optimised and adjusted, everything else is just a fun variable to plug into our calculators (what does it look like if I spend €50 less on food? What about €100 less on housing?). Debt sucks, I’m extremely grateful I don’t have any, and I’m vigilant about guarding against acquiring any debt in future. Being debt free, combined with being even a little flexible or creative in your other must-haves opens up the entire world to you. Quite literally, as I’m about to find out.

*One important note. I’m being a bit flippant about the comparatively lower salaries on offer in Ireland vis-a-vis the US, combined with high cost of living and high taxes. I’m very, very aware that my salary here is above the local average and is certainly enough to live comfortably while making very few real sacrifices. I’m very grateful for that and am conscious that being in a position to walk away from any salary is a huge privilege. But, with that being said, it is a privilege I think more people could get closer to, if they wanted, with just a few changes in mindset and habits.

Five things I WILL miss about my 9-5, and why I gave my notice anyway

In the interest of being balanced, I’ve been thinking about what I will miss about my job when I switch over into the world of self-employment. Or will I say I’m a freelancer? Or an entrepreneur? Oh dear, let’s hope this isn’t another case of expat/immigrant/digital nomad. (Although, it appears it’s about to lean more towards the nomadic in the near future.) But, I digress. Onto a list, and then, an announcement.

Gratitude (or: an aversion to printers and printed things)

I’m incredibly grateful for the way my career has gone thus far. I’ve had a chance to work with amazing professionals and clients, and to develop a niche skill (namely, US expat tax) along the way. When I started out, I certainly didn’t have the foresight to plan how nicely that would dovetail with my eventual expat inclinations, so that’s down to luck. Or my subconscious directing me towards anything with the magical, life-giving word “international” in it. Anyways, it’s pretty neat that it’s brought me here.

While I’m 100% excited about my upcoming move into self-employment, there are certainly things I’ll miss after my last day in the office. Here they are, in very specific order:

  1. The people: Is it just so cliched to say this? None of my coworkers even know about this blog so I’m not even trying to flatter them, but real talk, I’ve worked with some terrific people over the years. I’ll miss having great people in an office next door to bounce ideas off of, or to commiserate with. I know I’ll encounter more great people as I move forward, but honestly? It’s been really nice having such easy access to a collection of them, all handily gathered in one place. Global mobility tax being a small, small, tiny world that it is, I hope and expect that many of our paths will cross again in future.
  2. The resources: Working for a big company has many perks, not the least of which includes access to high quality and expensive resources at your fingertips. I know I am facing a learning curve when it comes to finding the resources and tools that will work for me, everything from research tools, to software, to things I probably haven’t thought of yet. I think that now more than ever, there’s increasing ability for individuals or small companies to access world-class tools, but I admit it’s been nice having it all on a silver platter. But hopefully it will be even more rewarding to seek out and implement the right tools and resources that will work for me.
  3. The structure: This is probably a blessing and a curse. Having a rigid structure is one of the main things I’m looking to move away from, and yet there is something to be said for a bit of routine. Having a set schedule means I know exactly which yoga class I’ll be going to, for example. And forces me to plan my meals each week. Being aware of that will hopefully allow me to implement the elements of routine that work well and add value to my productivity, and jettison the pointless rituals.
  4. The free food (sometimes): Free food is great, and big companies are often very generous with it, which is lovely of them. There will be no more boxes of chocolate sitting out by the printers when I’m working for myself, for example. Although, time will tell if that actually turns out to be a good thing for my fitness goals…
  5. The ability to print things (sometimes): In my ideal future state, I’ll never need to print anything, ever again. Printers are hideous relics from a backwards, brutish time that can’t be too soon forgotten. I used to feel like quitting my job* every time I had printer drama, which was every time someone cruelly and sadistically compelled me to waste paper on what could so much more sensibly be conveyed on a screen. And yet. As long as Ryanair continue to add insult to injury, and taunt those of us who are EU-passport-deficient by forcing us to print our tickets and have them stamped, it’s been handy having a place to do that. I’ll have to print my Ryanair tickets elsewhere someday soon. (But seriously, Ryanair, do you think we sad, wretched non-Europeans haven’t suffered enough? Have you seen the non-EU passport queue? Take pity on us.)

*…So I quit my job

With all that in mind, I gave my 1 month notice this week anyways. I’m so excited for this next chapter to unfold. After giving it a lot of thought, I’ve decided to try combining a lot more location independence into this experimental alchemy of lifestyle design. I’m still going to make financial independence a priority, but no longer at the expense of being free to roam, and to see all the amazing people and places I love around the world.

As I told different people the news this week, I got an interesting variety of responses. People are lovely and they want to know you’ll be alright, is my main takeaway point, I suppose. And making a slightly unconventional choice makes some people uncomfortable. But for the most part, there was a lot of support and excitement, even if I had to answer some version of “but what will you do???” at least 6 different ways.

I wonder if in the not-too-distant future, making this kind of choice will be so commonplace, that concern or outright skepticism will have gone the way of my nemesis, the printer. My hope is that my small example will add to the growing chorus of people living lives on their own terms, smashing printers and doubts (and the patriarchy, because obviously) wherever we go.

And yet I haven't aged a day

How is this movie 18 years old, and printers still suck?

 

Frugal expat tip #2: have a no-spend work week

When you’ve really settled into a place, you eventually find the rhythms and routines that work for you. It’s part of what makes a new location feel like home, instead of like an extended business trip (or, depending on your mindset, vacation).

One of the things that I’ve been doing lately is getting my weekly grocery shopping and most of my batch cooking done on the weekends, such that my meals are more or less ready for the entire week. It occurred to me that on workdays, where I walk to work, bring my own lunch, and go to yoga after work, I wouldn’t need to make any purchases at all.

Veggie-heavy meal prep

The Challenge

So I thought, why not make it into a challenge? I’m going to see how many weeks I can go without spending anything at all from Monday-Friday. It’s really not that different from usual, but it will cause me to be more mindful about just stopping in at the supermarket to pick up one or two things, and walking out having spent €15 on random items. Or getting coffee during my lunchtime walk, just because I feel like it.

My intention with this challenge is to be more mindful of my day to day spending, to plan my food shopping more carefully, and to practice being extra frugal in anticipation of some big changes I hope to implement soon. And I also just want to engender not spending money as the default modus operandi. Making a purchase should be a considered and mindful occasion.

It goes without saying, but of course anyone could avail of this frugal strategy. But I feel like especially expats and/or the globally mobile might not think to set up the same kinds of thoughtful, frugal routines as they would at “home,” and thereby mightn’t be as aware of their day to day spending habits. This will help push the reset button! Home is where you’re at right now, and being mindful with your money is one of the best things you can do to enhance your freedom and mobility even further.

I’ve now completed my 2nd week of this challenge and I plan on keeping it up for the rest of the summer! What ways are you saving money this summer?

 

The Perks of Being an Outlier

I’ve recently started using Twitter. Re-started, rather. I was an early adopter but eventually found it a strange combination of information overload and dull, and gave it up. What I’ve come to realise is I just hadn’t found my tribe. I’ve partially done that now, by following a bunch of really smart, inspiring people in the financial independence community, as well as the expat community. It’s become one of the top sources of new content for me. I love reading content by, and interacting with, people who are so immersed in the subjects I care about.

On the financial independence side, one of the things I value is the diversity of the stories there, how people are all taking their own unique paths in pursuit of their goals, and how many of us share a common goal of greater freedom over our lives and our time. One recent post that spoke to that was this guest post on Millennial Money Man’s excellent blog.

I was delighted to read it, as it echoes many of my own thoughts on the subject of financial independence. It was so gratifying. Here was someone else who valued freedom as highly as I do, and was taking steps to get there! I wasn’t the only one!

Before I started following blogs like that, I didn’t know there was this big, supportive community of weirdos like me. What I did know was that the unspoken rule in our culture is: you don’t talk about money.  And I picked up on the fact that, understandably, many people wouldn’t want to talk about early retirement when they could be uncertain whether they’ll ever be able to retire at all, full stop. And so I added financial independence to the list of things that I was interested in, that most people just wouldn’t relate to. I was used to having such a list, was used to being a bit of an outlier.

I suspect that most of us in the FIRE community learn to pick our audience carefully, around the sensitive topic of personal finance. Probably there are other aspects of our lives that we selectively share, not out of secrecy but more out of a desire not to bore (or worse, alienate) people with our sometimes nerdy pursuits. I suppose I’ve always been an outlier of sorts, even though I try to “pass” for normal in polite society… with varying degrees of success ;). But I think there are some perks to being an outlier, even if you sometimes feel as though you live a double life of sorts.

There are a few different, but overlapping and, I think, complementary, aspects to being an outlier that work in our favour.

Here are some things that make us weird, in a good way, and how I think that ultimately gets us closer to our goals, financial or otherwise.

 

Immigrant mindset – Put yourself in a place where you are the different one

One thing that will definitely make you aware of being different is being a foreigner. You’re weird by definition, and it’s so freeing. It’s a great, eye-opening experience that I have come to love. I recently watched a great TEDx talk by Tayo Rockson, who is a seriously inspiring thinker on the subject of global mindset (he also runs one of my favourite podcasts). His talk included the above line which really resonated with me. It’s what we as immigrants, expats, and digital nomads do regularly, and it’s so beneficial. We’re in places where we’re the different ones, in one way or another.

Having an immigrant mindset changes the way you look at the world and you ultimately become culturally bilingual, which is a huge asset. If you can understand not just the culture you grew up in, but another one as well, you’re at a massive advantage. That’s two (or more) sets of wisdom and “common sense” for you to draw from (and question, as we’ll see below). Part of what’s so powerful about this is you learn that conventional wisdom isn’t universal, and that there are diverse ways of knowing and being.

You also learn to code-switch, much in the same way those of us in the FIRE community learn how and when to talk about our goals for financial independence. There’s no better, faster, or harsher, lesson in the importance of picking your audience. Immigrants get this. Immigrants also hustle hard.

 

Self-experimentation – The Tim Ferriss Effect

It seems like there’s a significant overlap between the FIRE community and what I’ve come to think of as the “Tim Ferriss Effect.” I think Tim brought a lot of new ideas into the collective consciousness in a way that hadn’t been done before, or at least not as effectively. For those of us who had always been prone to being outliers, reading his work lit a spark and made us aware that self-experimentation, and thinking differently, wasn’t something to be ashamed of, but celebrated. And that it could be beneficial, even profitable. As I continue to learn from others in this space, I see his name pop up over and over as an early inspiration for a lot of people. I’d count myself in that group, in my own small way.

Looking back, it was kettlebells that proved to be my gateway drug. See, I’d believed the gospel of women’s magazines that long hours of steady-state cardio was the One True Path to the body I wanted, and yet strangely enough, all that time on the treadmill wasn’t getting me the results I sought. I genuinely hadn’t considered that there might be a better way, until I read Tim’s book, the 4 Hour Body.

Then, when I began to see results from trying something different, from doing a little independent research, from going against the conventional wisdom, it’s like it gave me permission to start questioning everything. I started reading up on lifestyle design, and while it took a few years for me to really action any of what I was reading so voraciously, that first step of shifting my mindset was crucial. The mindset shift that acknowledges it’s ok to do something different, even if it’s different from what the “experts” recommend.

If we can challenge the conventional wisdom of the literal treadmill, we can challenge the conventional wisdom of the figurative treadmill of high-spending/low-savings/40 year working life. We can challenge the idea that the place you were born is the place you should stay. We can demand something more, something better, something different.

 

Question everythingNot following the herd

Once you feel you have “permission” to question everything, and a good many badass people don’t require even that, you have the keys to the kingdom. From self-experimentation, the natural progression is self-education. We learn we don’t need to rely on authorities, we learn that conventional wisdom is often plain wrong. And we learn how to find the information we need. Or if it’s not out there, to create it ourselves.

The blogging community does this so incredibly well. There’s detailed information available now that simply didn’t exist a few years ago. One great example is the now-classic and oft-cited FIRE tax strategy known as the Roth Conversion Ladder. Thanks to outliers like the MadFIentist, it’s now out there for anyone to discover.

The way I see it, the future belongs to the outliers, to those who embrace being the different one, who get out in front of the herd. And I think we can all do this, not just in the realms of personal finance or global mobility, but in whatever areas we’re passionate about. And by doing so, we not only reach our goals faster, we bring others along on the journey.

8 countries in 6 months

In the first half of 2017, I’ve done a good bit of of travelling. It was a mix of work, family, and fun/random trips, and it made these past few months fly by. It felt like I was rarely in the same city two weekends in a row. Which was good, as it was a stressful time at work and I welcomed the diversions.

And also, it’s honestly a big part of why I’m here in Ireland. I’m going to make the most of being in close proximity to so many countries, and having an array of cheap Ryanair flights to peruse every time a bank holiday weekend crops up.

Here’s where I’ve been since 1 January 2017, in order:

  • Edinburgh, Scotland

    Edinburgh, for Hogmanay

  • Brussels, Belgium

    Brussels

  • Vancouver, BC, Canada

    Vancouver is amazing

  • Seattle, WA, USA

    Seattle from a friend’s rooftop deck

  • Paris, France

    Paris in spring

  • Marbella, Spain

    Beach club in Marbella

  • Prague, Czech Republic

    Prague, from the Petrin Tower

  • Portland, OR, USA

    I didn’t get many pictures in Portland, but this cool neighbourhood was cool

  • Rome, Italy

    Rome is stunning

That’s 9 cities, in 8 countries, in less than 6 months. It actually wouldn’t be my first choice to travel so quickly, but for now I need to make the most of limited vacation time and bank holiday weekends. Someday, post-location independence, I’ll be able to travel more slowly, and avail of cheaper flights mid-week. But for now I think it’s important to keep doing what I love, namely, travel, as it’s motivation to get to location independence/financial independence all the sooner.

Here are 8 things I learned travelling to 8 countries in 6 months
  1. Flights don’t need to be wasted time: I’ve been a pretty regular flyer for the past few years now, although I used to dread the wasted hours on planes. No more! With a little planning, those hours can be relaxing and productive. Catch up on podcasts, read, write, or watch movies you never have time to watch at home.

  2. Short trips are still worth it: Sometimes it can feel like a waste of time to travel for just a few days, but I’ve found these trips to be invaluable in terms of recharging my batteries and giving me inspiration and motivation. Even if an international trip isn’t always practical, switching things up and putting yourself in new scenarios is good for your brain.

  3. Always have a portable charger: You will absolutely positively require your phone to navigate a new city, in the dark, in the rain, exactly and precisely when your battery jumps from 21% to 2%. Plan for this eventuality.

  4. Travel light! This is my incessant mantra, but only because it works so well. In each of these trips I still could’ve packed even lighter than I did, and I only brought a large purse for a few of them, and a 30L carryon for the rest. Pack light, and then pare down even more. You won’t regret it when you’re breezing through airports and hopping onto public transit without a care in the world. Plus, packing/unpacking takes less than 15 minutes.

  5. Stay where the locals stay: By staying in AirBnB’s for most of these trips, I got to experience what life might be like in actual neighbourhoods where actual people live. Imagining what it would be like to live in a new city is a lot of fun, even if you’re not a perpetual expat/nomad. But if you are, every trip is just more research. That charming corner coffee shop could one day be your local haunt!

  6. Go with the flow: Travel is so different depending on who you’re travelling with, and their particular pace and style. Thinking back, each of these cities took on a unique feel that had a lot to do with my travelling companions, even when I travelled solo! It’s good to have a mix, and it’s best to just embrace the uniqueness of the trip you’re on. My friends have been kind enough to accept my innate desire to not do anything before 10 am, and I’ve in turn tried to accept that not everyone wants to walk 25 km per day (bizarre though that may seem to me). And we’ve had amazing experiences in spite of (or because of) those differences! Don’t let it stress you out if things aren’t going exactly to plan; we don’t travel to stay in a bubble of predictability, after all.

  7. Public transport makes for the best stories: Seriously. Like the time this cool Oregonian dude and I had to walk to a random bar in Rome to find change, because the metro ticket machines didn’t take notes or cards, only coins. And the solution offered by the metro worker was a vague gesture and half a shrug. Sure why not go on a random stroll in search of change! Or, did you know the Prague metro apparently operates on an honour system? All the cool locals just stroll out without scanning or showing their tickets anywhere. (Still buy a ticket though!) Public transit, like staying in AirBnBs, gives you an amazing view into everyday life in another place, and for me, that would be worth it even if it weren’t also vastly cheaper and more environmentally friendly.

  8. Down-time is acceptable: Travel is exciting, but that can also mean sensory overload. And sometimes, midway through your travels, you might need some chilled out time to recover and to prepare you for your next round of adventures. Sometimes you might just need a few hours of no-talking (if so: what’s up, fellow introvert!). Never feel bad about this. While I wouldn’t suggest a short trip as an ideal time for a two day Netflix binge, sometimes you need to unplug and relax in order to fully enjoy the rest of your trip. Don’t feel badly about this if it’s what you need to really be present and absorb your experience.

I don’t have any trips planned for the next few months, although I’ll probably pop over to Glasgow to see my sister in August. I plan to relish this stretch of airport-free living and make the most of Irish summer, such that it is! But I love knowing that a fresh batch of inspiration and discovery is only an airplane away.

Have you got any summer travel planned? How do you make the most of your limited vacation time?

Reflections on a year abroad

One year ago I was getting on a plane, with a one-way ticket from Vancouver to Dublin, and all of my physical possessions in a few bags. It wasn’t my first expat experience, although perhaps it should’ve felt like the most momentous. This was across an ocean! In a country I’d never been to before! For who-knows-how-long! And yet, I wasn’t the least bit apprehensive. What was the worst that could happen, I figured?

It’s an attitude that I try to remind myself of often. Expats, world travellers, immigrants, and all variety of hustlers, we’re all risk-takers, but we know a secret: most risks aren’t really that risky. Getting on a plane is easy, and you figure the rest out when you get there. Starting a business or a side hustle doesn’t have to be agonised over, it can be started with a simple, single step. In fact, that’s the only way. That’s how it works, and you don’t need to wait for permission, or for some pre-tested checklist. And if we can remember that, we can gather the nerve to do some pretty epic shit.

I’ve lived in Ireland for a year now. Dublin feels like home, or home-ish. I’ve mostly figured out what I needed to, gotten the lay of the land. I’ve had those perfect, expat-magic days when everything about this city seemed wonderful and significant. And I’ve had those rough days where I felt out of place and uncomfortable and sad.

Like the day I found out I wouldn’t be able to get a mortgage here because of the work visa I’m on, for example. In hindsight, it may have been a blessing in disguise, but at the time, facing what I thought would be endlessly rising rents, and viewing a flat that I could totally, really easily afford to buy, being told “no” felt like a devastating blow. Sometimes being a foreigner means having doors slammed in your face, decisively and for no good reason. The rules are sometimes just different for us, it’s not fair, and it sucks. But #immigranthustle means accepting that life isn’t fair, and developing resilience.

Because not being able to buy a house does suck, maybe, but when things don’t come easily is when we have the chance to be our most creative and tenacious and fearless. And when we’re a bit off-script is sometimes where we can find room to play in the margins, whether it’s carefully managing our tax residency, or maintaining funds in multiple currencies. Or simply not buying a property in the run-up to another housing boom. Just a few small things that spring to mind. 😉

And I think taking these risks, and weathering the setbacks, has a compounding effect. We just keep getting stronger and braver, ready to take on even bigger risks, unafraid. I need that reminder, as I’m currently preparing to take an even bigger risk, something potentially much further off-script than I’ve done thus far. And I’m surprisingly at peace about it. More than that, I’m excited. What’s the worst that could happen?

Minimalism for Expats

Minimalism has become a full-blown cultural movement. The Minimalists have a hugely popular podcast, and film that has recently come to Netflix. When I encountered the concept a few years ago, it was immediately a good fit for my personality and preferences. I’ve been naturally inclined in that direction for most of my life, and I loved reading about how others interpreted the idea of living with less and reducing excess. I eagerly delved into accounts of capsule wardrobes, tiny houses, and living with 100 things or less. It makes for compelling reading.

However, for many people, it’s understandable how minimalism could remain a casual Pinterest fascination. They might sense that applying some of the ideas could benefit their lives, but lack that motivating factor. One group of people I think can benefit from minimalism in very real, tangible ways is the globally mobile: the expats, the digital nomads, those of us who try out new countries as readily as some people try out new neighbourhoods. I believe our ranks will only continue to increase, and that one of the best ways to prepare for a successful move is to embrace minimalism.

Here are some ways embracing minimalism will make your life easier, freer, and better, whether you are making an international move or not:

1. Travel light: Whether you are travelling for a weekend, a few weeks, indefinitely, or picking up and transplanting your life to a new location, the concept of travelling lightly will serve you well. “Stuff” weighs you down, physically, mentally, financially, spiritually. You’ll find you can make your move(s) so much easier and simpler if you can cut down your physical possessions to only the essentials.

This is an iterative process and it helps if you minimise early, and minimise often. If you only have a few pairs of shoes, because you’ve been diligently minimising for months prior to your move, it’s not hard to decide which to bring with you. And better yet, if you’re not that attached to any of them, it’s not hard to leave some behind. There will be shoes in your new country, trust and believe this.

I thought I had made a fairly minimal move, and even still I found myself donating various items a few months after I’d arrived in Ireland. Bring less than you think, it’s almost never a mistake.

still too much

What I brought with me to Ireland (aka all my worldly possessions).

2. Simplify your finances: When you move to a new country, or hop around the globe, it’s really helpful if you can keep your financial life as streamlined as possible. The last thing you need is to have 20 different passwords for 20 different financial institutions, and then to have to remember which card charges you foreign transaction fees, and which accounts you have linked, etc.

I suggest keeping a bank account open in your home country, and best yet if you have a no- foreign transaction fee credit card that’s with the same provider. Extra bonus points if you don’t pay an annual fee for either the account or the card. Banking is annoyingly expensive in Ireland, but from what I can tell there’s not much that can be done about that. I kept my US bank account, and a Visa associated with that account. For investments, I’m all Vanguard. I have a Paypal linked to my US bank, and another linked to my Irish bank.

I haven’t found anything like Mint or Personal Capital that works with non-US accounts, but at least I can log into Mint and it only needs to check two financial institutions to give me a snapshot of everything on the US side. I’ve been keeping the Irish side low key for now, so there’s only a few places I need to look there, too.

3. Minimalist home: Let’s assume you adhered to Minimalist Expat Commandment #1 and didn’t lug a bunch of heavy home furnishings and decor half way around the globe with you. Give yourself a well-deserved pat on the back. Now that you’re in your new country, for however long that may be, see if you can keep your home-related acquisitions to a minimum.

My flat when I moved in. (I added the Bay blanket. And the wine.)

To dress up my furnished flat, I purchased a few things to hang on the walls, a few throw pillows, a charity shop chair, and a storage ottoman/coffee table. Plus the necessary kitchen stuff. All of this will probably stay in the flat when I leave, or get donated. And I’m none to precious about any of it, which helps when I’m letting the place on Airbnb when I travel. I don’t mind if they break a plate or two (although this hasn’t happened, but it seems to be a concern for some people, who ask me: “What about your STUFF?” in anxious tones when I tell them I host Airbnb guests when I’m out of town).

4. Daily routines: By this I mean your day to day cooking and grooming and whatnot. Have you encountered people who feel as though they require a lot of complicated accessories just to get ready for a normal day? Simplifying this, to the extent possible, makes travel and relocation a lot easier. I don’t feel I need 15 different hair products to be a valuable member of society or to enjoy my life. And I really enjoy the ease of packing, since all my normal personal care products easily fit into the 1L bag limit. Being flexible and adaptable is something to continually practice, and is a skill that would serve any expat well.

I’ve come across expats who complained that the posh nail salon in our exclusive, wealthy suburb of northern Johannesburg (Sandton, just to name-drop for those in the know), didn’t stock the right kind of gel nail polish. I don’t know, but it seemed like they might have been missing the point? Try to make peace with an alternate brand of gel nail polish, is all I’m saying.

5. Technology and digital life: This is one area I’m working on. I sometimes bring more devices than is strictly necessary, but the setup I currently have is:

      • laptop

      • iPad

      • iPhone

      • Kindle Paperwhite

      • associated chargers

      • external battery pack

I don’t bring all my devices on every trip, but if I were moving longer term again, or if I were transitioning to full digital nomad, I think I’d keep more or less this roster. The iPad is a few years old and probably the most redundant, but I like it for reading free magazines from the library (shoutout to the Zinio app! Don’t buy expensive magazines, fam). In reality, I probably won’t replace it when it dies, especially now that my laptop is a lovely, lovely Macbook.

Technology setup, on the multi-use ottoman.

I also have a portable bluetooth speaker that sorts out my music needs, usually via Spotify. With Spotify and Netflix, I’m well covered from an entertainment perspective, and the only thing I need in a new country is wifi. No TV or stereo required, either in a shipping container, or in a rented flat.

So there you have it. There are surely countless more benefits to minimalism when you are undertaking something as major as moving countries, but with simple, streamlined, and thoughtful possessions, finances, homes, habits, and technology, you’ll be well ahead of the curve. Go forth and become location independent with intention!

Frugal expat tip #1: shop like an immigrant

 

I’ve written before about how the terms “expat” and “immigrant” are both somewhat unsatisfactory. I tend to use both with a bit of a winking eye alcohol suggestion:

But, gratuitous Arrested Development references aside, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, and what’s good for the expat and the digital nomad is probably also good for the casual traveller as well as the locals. I definitely think that’s the case for this first Frugal Expat Tip.

Shop Like An Immigrant

Immigrants are smart, fam. They know where the good deals are, and they usually have some awesome ingredients. Perhaps best of all, if you’re doing your grocery shopping where the immigrants are, I can guarantee your food budget will stretch farther.

Food is the only thing I shop for on a regular basis, and my go-to supermarket here in Dublin is my friendly neighbourhood Aldi. They have both amazing prices and a reassuringly diverse clientele, so I knew I’d found a smart place to shop. My weekly food shop, including some luxuries like a bottle or two of wine and a bit of dark chocolate, comes to an average of €30 per week. That’s with loads of fresh veg, meat, eggs, cheese, coffee, and whatever household bits and bobs I may need, like bin liners or soap. With that, I make the vast majority of the food I eat in a week, with the exception of the odd restaurant meal (say once a week on average).

Just to math that shit up (to borrow a phrase from the always math-y Millennial Revolution) a quick sec, if I make 7 breakfasts, 7 lunches, and say 6 dinners a week, that’s 20 meals a week. If the average cost is €30 per week, that’s an average of €1.50 (or USD$1.64, or CAD$2.25) per meal. And that’s for stuff I enjoy and feel is healthy, like green smoothies with banana, spinach, and coconut oil in the morning, big salads with chicken & avocado for lunch, and things like Thai curries with loads of veggies for dinner. Plus good coffee every morning, and the odd glass of red wine with dinner.

When I lived in the US, I wasn’t lucky enough to live near an Aldi or a Lidl, but my solution worked just as well, if not better: Asian markets (the fewer white patrons, the better tbh). My favourite was the Vietnamese place near my old neighbourhood (what’s up, Hau-Hau). I would routinely get a week’s worth of healthy, fresh food here for $20 USD. You’d have to go elsewhere for little treats like chocolate or cheese (or anything not meat, fish, veg, or Asian-specific), but since they stocked the staple foods of my diet, at about half what I would have paid anywhere else, it was a big win. Plus it was just plain fun to shop there. This was one of my weekly hauls, and it came to less than $20 as I recall:

Here in Dublin, I’ve not found a full-service Asian market on par with the likes of Hau-Hau, but Aldi/Lidl do the trick, with some good Asian/African shops for sauces and spices and the like (shout out to Han Sung). And this is a trick I try to replicate when I travel on a more short-term basis, as well. I always love shopping in foreign supermarkets, and it’s the most fun when they’re not the overpriced, posh ones, which tend to be more generic. Go where the local immigrants, and the smartest of the local native-born population, go. Enjoy the slice of real life, enjoy not overpaying like a sucker, and enjoy the healthy, tasty results. Gawking at the weird stuff you’ve never heard of counts as bonus free entertainment. Extra bonus points if you walk there. 😉

Similar to my feelings on not owning a car, I see this as a triple win, at minimum: saving money, living healthier, and having way more fun. Plus the sense of satisfaction that you did the more badass thing. Start flexing those frugality muscles, and shop like an immigrant, whether you are one or not.

Little expat wins: my €0.02 on car ownership

 

I recently listened to a great podcast by the amazingly informative and thorough lads over at www.ChooseFI.com. I’ve enjoyed all their podcasts so far, but the topic of their most recent episode was interesting to me mainly because it didn’t apply to me at all. Let me explain.

The True Cost of Car Ownership

Jonathan and Brad do a terrific job of breaking down the cost of car ownership, and their comprehensive and satisfyingly math-y approach will serve as a really useful resource for a lot of people. They come at the issue from the entirely reasonable assumption that most Americans can’t or won’t give up car ownership altogether. That cars are an expensive, necessary evil. And for the most part, they’re right. But it made me appreciate how my particular life journey has allowed me to bypass car ownership altogether. And it made me wonder how much that choice has saved me over the years.

I have lived without a car for most of my adult life. I couldn’t afford one in high school or university, and then didn’t want the hassle of paying for parking when I lived in a city. I grew up in a remote, rural area and spent many, many boring hours in cars as a child. I think that experience influenced my decision to live car-free once I had the choice to do so.

I haven’t always been naturally inclined towards what might be called Mustachian lifestyle choices, but one thing that’s always been a priority for me has been living close to where I work. That made me something of an outlier in the US (even in dense, walkable Seattle most people I knew had cars), but I was perfectly content with that. When I was ready to leave Seattle and pondering my next move, one of my top criteria was that my next city had to be walkable or otherwise conducive to a car-free lifestyle. I first cast a glance around the US and didn’t find many places that seemed to fit the bill.

Rather than take it as a given that owning a particular item, or even living in a particular country, was non-negotiable, I decided to think outside those perceived constraints:

 What would happen if I resolved to find a location that suited my preferred lifestyle, instead of adjusting my lifestyle to fit into a particular location?

Most cities in Europe are extremely supportive of a car-free lifestyle, and since moving to Dublin, I haven’t given any thought to getting a car here. I walk everywhere 95% of the time, and take public transit otherwise (and that’s mostly just to and from the airport!). It’s such a natural fit for me that, until I listened to the excellent podcast from the ChooseFI gents, I had genuinely forgotten that so many people consider a car an essential possession.

It occurred to me that it’s a good example of how thinking just a little differently can align with FI principles in so many ways. In my case, being willing to eschew car ownership supports not only a form of minimalism, but also health, geo-arbitrage, participating in the sharing economy, concern for the environment, and just generally living in a way that supports my values. The fact that it’s saved me many thousands of dollars(/euros) over the years is really just icing on the cake. I’d choose to live this way regardless of the cost.

But, just for fun, let’s break down the theoretical savings, using the ChooseFI guys’ methodology:

Based on their assumption that the true annual cost of owning a 10 year old fuel efficient vehicle was $2,605, and using their example of compounding annually (calculator is from MoneyChimp) at an average return of 8% over 20 years, my decision will have made me more than $140,000 richer than if I’d owned even the most efficient and least silly car possible.

And if I’d somehow undergone a personality transplant and bought a brand new SUV, I’d be $420,000 poorer than I’m going to be.

There aren’t always clear wins when it comes to expat life and finances, but this seems like one of them. When we are willing to look outside the bounds of both conventional wisdom and geography, we can find ways to live that align with our goals, values, and beliefs. For me personally, I don’t foresee a time when I will want to live in a place where I’d need a car. Fortunately, there are so many exciting places around the world that aren’t car-dependent that I’m confident I’ll be able to find locations and ways to live that work for me.

Ultimately, that’s the goal of becoming location independent with intention, no matter one’s personal transportation or other lifestyle preferences. As millennials in particular, we don’t want to be tied down by rules we didn’t choose, or values we don’t subscribe to. And I see the amazing and inspiring diversity of the FI community, the minimalism movement, and the location independent/expat community as being a sumptuous array of experiments in lifestyle design. The more that we all think critically about our choices, and think for ourselves, the richer (in every sense of the word) all of our lives will be.