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?

Three things I’ll keep doing after I’ve left my 9-5

I’ve considered the pros and cons about quitting my 9-5, and I’ve given my 1 month notice. Now, besides counting down the days, I’m thinking about what habits I’ll keep once I’ve embarked on my journey into self employment.

For a long time, I didn’t have very good habits regarding structuring my workday/week. I was constantly reacting, and thus constantly felt overwhelmed and out of control. Over time, I’ve tried to address the primary pain points as much as possible, and while I haven’t always been 100% successful, there are a few habits I’ve developed as a longtime cubicle dweller that I plan to carry over into my new work scenario.

Three habits I’ll keep up after I’ve left my 9-5

  1. Planning meals in advance.

This is one area that does get talked about a fair bit, especially in frugal circles. But I really do find it such a good discipline that has a profound knock-on effect into other areas besides merely saving money. Of course, by planning my work lunches in advance, I’ve saved many, many thousands of dollars/euros over the years. It’s also far healthier, encourages fun and exploratory grocery shopping excursions, and provides a nice weekly discipline. It also means I know what I’m going to be eating, and thus don’t mindlessly snack, or succumb to impulse buying of “convenience foods.” (Scare quotes are intended on both the “convenience” and “food” claims.)

I anticipate with having more time and mental bandwidth, I’ll be able to branch into even more interesting recipes and ingredients. And if I happen to be based in a new place for a while, it should provide just the sort of steadying routine to help me feel settled. 10/10, will keep doing post- 9-5.

2. Walking before and after work. 

This is also something I’ve been consistently doing for years, both when I lived in Seattle as well as here in Ireland. It goes with the territory of car-free living, that the daily commute involves moving around outdoors for a little while before and after work each day. I reserve the right to minimise this on the days where the weather is truly dreadful, but honestly, it’s a good discipline too, and a little rain never killed anyone. Getting outside for a little walk is a nice way to signify that the workday has begun and ended. I’ll continue doing this both to bookend my day, as well as to keep that bit of daily activity when I no longer have a walking commute.

3. A long walk at lunchtime.

This is a new habit. I’ve only been doing this ever since I realised the 1 hour lunch break is a non-negotiable at my current company, and my tendency to work through it was neither helping me stay on top of email, nor being valued especially. It’s just not in the culture here, which is fine. I’m an adaptable gal, but I also cannot fathom a universe in which it takes me 60 minutes to each my little packed lunch, and I also get hungry well before the designated lunch hour of 1-2pm.  So I started taking a 1 hour walk each day, usually listening to podcasts.

This habit has become one of my favourite parts of the day. It’s nice, gentle exercise (great for keeping that step count up!), it’s a lovely way to explore the adjacent neighbourhoods, and to take a little mental break in the middle of the workday. I’m also keeping up with more podcasts than ever before, which I really enjoy. I find I come back less stressed, more creative, and more productive. In a perfect world, if it were up to me, I’d still allow people to forego the rigidity of the forced lunch hour, and arrive later/leave earlier if they preferred. But I’m grateful that the policy caused me to develop this beneficial habit. I’ll definitely keep this up in one form or another. It just may not be at exactly 13:00 on the dot every day. 😉

No-Spend Work Week: Status update

As a follow-up to my previous post, my no-spend work week challenge has been going brilliantly. I love setting out on my daily walk with no cash or cards on me, and I love coming straight home from work, or post-work yoga, without having to consider whether I’ll pop into the shops. My bank statement reflects this simplicity. There are far fewer transactions and they’re all deliberate, mindful ones, that I don’t regret. I even find I have less food waste, because I know I’m only buying it once a week, so I buy only what I’ll eat that week. My fridge is all but empty by the following weekend. I take that as a good sign of both a lack of processed foods, and a lack of food waste, both things that are important to me.

What habits have you developed that you’d continue, even if the structure of your work week changed?

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.

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?

 

Frugal Travel Tips

One of my primary intentions is to enjoy life to the fullest while still moving towards my financial goals. Location independence + financial independence is the ultimate dream, but until I get there I have no intention of cutting travel out of my life. I live simply in most ways so that I can experience the things that really matter to me, and travel is, and always has been, high on that list. And it doesn’t have to be prohibitively expensive, if you’re thoughtful, creative, and adaptable.

Here are some ideas you can incorporate into your travel planning, to travel lighter, travel simpler, and travel more:

1. Pack light: This will save you in more ways than one. Firstly, don’t pay to check bags. Ever. (*Unless you are moving countries permanently, and even then, question each item ruthlessly.) This will save you up to €100/$100 per trip, since checked bags can range from €25 per bag, each way.

But the savings don’t stop there. When you travel carry-on only, you can easily avail of (fun, interesting, character-building!) public transport instead of needing to take boring, expensive taxis to fit your luggage. You can also happily stay in small Airbnb’s or hostels because you don’t have lots of stuff to store.

Are you travelling to admire your possessions, or to get out and experience something new?

2. Fly cheap(er): I avail of Ryanair whenever possible, but not everyone lives in an area that’s well served by low-cost carriers. (Ahem, I’m looking at you, basically all of the United States and Canada…) So here are a few ways to be sure you’re getting a good deal:

  • Google Flights: Are you using Google Flights yet? You should be. You can set up tracking for any flights you’re interested in, and it will let you know when it thinks the price is at its lowest. I really like the calendar feature as well, especially if you have flexible dates.

    Hopefully making a trip to gorgeous Cape Town later this year…

    I also like the Explore feature, where you can have a gander at where’s cheap to travel if you have specific dates in mind (like a long weekend, and you don’t mind where you go in a region with lots of great destinations, like Europe, or Southeast Asia, for example).

I wish they had a dedicated mobile app, but that’s my only quibble.

  • Hopper: I also like Hopper for helping me decide when to book or wait on a particular flight. It gives handy reminders from a mobile app telling you when it thinks you should book.

Savings: I’d say I average €100 savings on most round-trip flights I book, by following the sage advice of Google Flights and/or Hopper.

3. Airbnb: Airbnb is my first stop when booking accommodations. Rarely do I find a better/cheaper/overall more appealing option than on Airbnb. It’s great as a solo traveller, because you can book a room in a shared accommodation if you want the potential to interact with the host, or you can book the entire apartment if you rather have privacy. I’ve also had great experiences with Airbnb in groups, where we got lovely houses for a great price, and were able to cook/relax together either as a group of friends, or with family.

I was an early-ish adopter of Airbnb and have been using it since 2012, with almost entirely positive results.

If you still haven’t given it a try, here’s a code to get €20 off your first trip!

Get €20 off your first booking on Airbnb!

Savings: The places I stay tend to average €50 per night, and hotels can be up to €200 per night (!?! Or so I’m told! That sounds insane to me but okay…) So let’s say that’s an average savings of €450 per trip, since my weekend jaunts tend to be around 3 nights.

5. Ground transportation: Walk when you can, and public transport all other times, should be your default approach. Sometimes safety or practicality can make public transport untenable, but give it an honest consideration at least, and approach it from the perspective of being a bit adventurous and anti-fragile.

Savings: At my home airport, I save at least €50 per trip, just by taking the Dublin Bus Airlink, at €6 each way, or €10 round-trip, instead of taxis at ~€30 each way (or more in traffic). Then at my destination, I’d say it’s easily another €50 savings on average, as most European cities have even better airport-to-city-centre transit options than Dublin.

So, let’s estimate the total savings per short, weekend trip, of applying a few really basic principles:

TOTAL SAVINGS:

  • Pack light = €100

  • Fly cheap(er) = €100

  • Non-insane accommodations = €450

  • Ground transportation = €50-100 per trip

TOTAL= €700- €750 per trip!

Stick that chunk of change into your low cost index fund, or your fund for your next trip, and travel on, you frugal, personal finance whiz!

I’ve followed my own advice for my trip to Rome this past weekend. A roundup of the #pursepacking results and some pics to come!

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!