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?

How to think about your side hustle income

Originally published at Millennial Money Guide:

It’s no secret that millennials are a generation of hustlers. Many of us have, or are looking to develop, side hustles to supplement the income from our main jobs. But how should you categorize your side hustle income? Make sure every dollar has a purpose with these 4 strategies.

1. Don’t double count your earnings

I recall my first non-wage side hustle income. It was the simplest introduction possible: I started selling my old stuff on eBay. My primary motivation wasn’t even the income, but rather the decluttering that selling my stuff would facilitate. I was looking to ditch dead weight, and focussing on physical clutter seemed like one way to begin. But, when the sales actually began hitting my PayPal account, I began thinking of all the things that new income stream could offset. And I do mean all the things. I was full of excitement about how that $75 I earned selling a handbag could cover my groceries for a week! And half a plane ticket to Vegas! And a nice restaurant meal out! I needed to slow down and realise it might offset one of those areas of spending, but not all. And that it ultimately represented a net loss anyways, given the handbag probably cost over $200 new.

Once your side hustle income starts flowing, check that you’re not allocating it to more than one area. Give each dollar a singular purpose, be it covering day to day spending, bulking up your emergency fund, or investing.

2. Don’t spend it before you earn it

Closely correlated to the above, be mindful about adjusting your spending upward, especially before your side hustle income really starts materializing. My preferred way of looking at it is, earning side hustle income is not a good reason to spend recklessly, or in a way you wouldn’t have done otherwise.

An example of this is income earned from Airbnb, particularly if it’s only when you travel. I list my apartment on Airbnb when I travel, but I only do so for trips I would’ve taken (and would’ve been able to afford) anyways. If I started taking trips just for the purpose of earning more Airbnb cash, I’d want to be very mindful of the overall cost of that travel, relative to the potential income generated. The same could be said of buying items to flip, which is a really interesting area to look into. Just be conscious that the inventory you bought doesn’t represent actual cash until you’ve successfully flipped it. And it should go without saying, but please don’t go into debt chasing side hustle income.

3. Budget for taxes

Depending on the character of your side hustle income, you may need to report it as self-employment income. One way or another, in most cases it will ultimately end up on your tax return. One exception would be when you have a loss on the sale of personal-use property, such as your car, home furnishings, or clothing (i.e. that $200 handbag I sold for $75), which is not reportable, as it’s not a deductible loss. In general, any source that has paid you more than $600 is required to issue you a 1099, which is reported to the IRS, and is then your responsibility to report on your tax return. For a broad overview, the Turbotax blog provides a summary of what to think about. You should consult a tax professional for the specifics on this as related to your personal circumstances.

4. Enjoy the process while you develop your hustle muscle

I’ve found delving into different side hustles to be a really fun process. Even just those first few eBay sales started building up my entrepreneurial drive. My side hustle muscle, if you will. It’s remarkable how different it feels earning your first independent income, versus getting the same old paycheck you’re used to. I’ve found, and have noticed in others, that it tends to spark the desire to do more, to seek out new opportunities, to optimize other areas of life. As millennials, we’ve tapped into the power of developing multiple income streams, and we certainly love the freedom and flexibility that allows. Keeping a few key concepts in mind as we do this will serve us well as those income streams grow and change over time. Whether your goal is to replace your day job income, pad your savings, or fund your next adventure, thinking more like an entrepreneur is going to get you there faster.

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.

Damn the man. Start investing.

When you hear the word “investing”, what comes to mind? Do you think about old, rich, white guys talking about mysterious (and possibly shady) things involving acronyms? Or does it start to sound like the grownups on Charlie Brown are droning on again? Hold that thought.

Now, what happens when you think about socially aware, even radical, ideas and causes? Does an image of the noble, penniless activist pop into your head? The idealistic dreamer who has far loftier things to think about than something as unpleasant as money?

Money occupies an uneasy place in our culture. The oft-cited cliché that money isn’t the most important thing is, of course, true. But it’s still a major factor in how our lives play out. It dictates, to a large extent, the amount of time we have to dedicate to the areas that truly are the most important things to each of us. Things like family, travel, community service, political activism, art, creativity, and personal development. All of these are best served when we have the bandwidth to focus on them, both financially and in terms of our most valuable resource: our time.

Money is something we all grapple with; it flows around us and weaves its way through our lives. And I’m going to make the case that one of the most radical, woke things you can do, dear reader, is more than just get your finances together. And no, it’s not only to get out of debt and start saving, which everyone (correctly) advises we all do. But instead, it’s to start investing, doggedly and with determination, both for your freedom and to advance the freedom of others. And in dedication of your loftiest ideals. Here’s why.

Breaking down mental barriers:

To many people, perhaps especially millennials, investing can seem not only out of reach, but somehow perhaps even incongruent with our values and beliefs. But the image we may have of being broke as some kind of noble condition is unnecessary and outdated. A more accurate picture would be to conceptualize that the forces that many of us oppose want us to stay broke, stay in debt, stay mindlessly consuming. And that our act of educating ourselves and taking control of our financial future is an act of rebellion against the status quo.

Getting rid of the taboos and breaking down our limiting beliefs about money is a necessary first step. Not talking about money doesn’t serve us. And buying into the false belief that investing is for the elite and the privileged, doesn’t make us any freer. Depending on the backgrounds we come from, we’re all carrying around different inherited and received ideas about money. And for those of us coming from less economically privileged backgrounds, the very idea of increasing our wealth can make us feel like class traitors. We need to validate and acknowledge that feeling as normal, and then systematically dismantle it.

Self-education:

Historically, one of the biggest barriers to financial literacy would have been access to information. But we no longer need to belong to a wealthy family in order to learn about investing, nor do we need an expensive financial advisor to get us started. There’s more and better information online, and a plethora of low-cost options out there. The barriers to entry have become all but nonexistent, with the exception of our own (totally normal and understandable) fear of getting started.

I’m not a financial advisor, but low-cost index funds seem like a reasonable place to start, for example. We should all do our due diligence and read about why they’re a good option, and then actually take the steps to open the account and contribute to it. Once you do, you’ll be doing the same thing Warren Buffett has instructed be done with his own estate. What could be more democratic than your money sitting there alongside the money of one of the richest men in the world?

If you are living within your means and building up a surplus, you’ll eventually need to put it somewhere. Interest rates on savings accounts are essentially zero, and that’s no way to build real, life-changing wealth. To do that we need to invest, and whether that takes the form of simple index investing, real estate, or otherwise, we need to do more with our money to allow it the chance to really grow. Investing is for everyone. You deserve to benefit from economic growth as much as anyone else. Don’t shortchange yourself.

The benefits of financial freedom:

Once we’ve tackled our limiting beliefs, and taken the steps to educate ourselves and take action, how is investing going to impact us in a way that really matters? We all care about more than the bottom line, or on numbers on a spreadsheet. I think there are three ways that increased financial freedom benefits us as individuals, in ways that we can align with our values and beliefs.

Firstly, when we choose to save and invest our money, we are necessarily making a choice that involves less reliance on consumer culture. Every dollar we earn has potential and possibilities. It could be spent on consumer goods, and with that the attending questionable labour practices, environmental waste, and dodgy ad campaigns we may not subscribe to. Or it could be invested in our future wellbeing, and that of our loved ones and communities.

Secondly, increased financial freedom means less reliance on jobs that may not align with our beliefs, or at the very least take our time away from the things we truly value. If we’re going to be trading our time for money, as the vast majority of us do, we should demand a better return on investment. If we don’t invest a portion of our earnings, we’re not getting any closer to free with each passing year. No matter how much you may like your job, think about what an impact buying an extra year of your freedom could have.

Finally, when we are financially secure, we have increased ability to make a positive impact on our communities and spheres of influence. Similar to putting on your own air-mask first on a plane, the idea is to get ourselves right so we can more effectively help others. That doesn’t mean we should stop thinking about, talking about, and organising around the systemic issues contributing to inequality and injustice. Far from it. But as individuals, taking concrete, deliberate action towards our own financial freedom is powerful. Think about the positive impact it can have on generations when the first person in a family goes to college. I think the same can be true of opening the first investment account.

The knowledge and ability to invest no longer needs to be shrouded in mystery, or the province of elites. It can and should be for everyone, and is a powerful way to better serve our communities and our goals. We now have unprecedented access to information that allows us to democratize and de-mystify investing, to normalize it so it’s no longer solely the inherited, protected knowledge of the wealthy and privileged. So if you’re progressive and pissed off, take the radical, counter-cultural step towards freedom. Damn the man, start investing.

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?

 

…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.

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.

Something something The Dow!!!

I’m embarrassed to say that I only recently learned what the Dow Jones Industrial Average actually is.  A few weeks ago, on a podcast (Jim Collins on ChooseFI, eagerly anticipating the next conversation in that series, by the way!) it was finally explained in simple, plain language. And, like so many other Sphinx-like mysteries, once it was demystified, I couldn’t believe I’d once found it so utterly unknowable.

On a recent long-haul flight, availing myself of the expanse of hours and selection of films (cheers, Virgin Atlantic), and on the recommendation of my boyfriend, I started watching the movie Arrival. It wouldn’t have been something that would’ve jumped out at me, but his recommendations are generally sound, so I gave it a go. Early on in the film, in a completely throwaway line, a TV news announcer mentions something like: “the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 2000 points.” Nothing noteworthy, but I heard it in a new light after listening to that podcast. We all know what the screenwriter wanted to convey was: the stock market is taking a nosedive! And the generally accepted standard fill-in-the-blank words to use are “something something the Dow!!!”

I started thinking about the whole chain of people who, in all likelihood, hadn’t the slightest clue what “the Dow” is, much less why anyone should care. The screenwriter, the actor delivering the line, the majority of the audience. And I remembered hearing that term as a kid, and getting this weird sense that it was something, along with a lot of other financial stuff, that the grownups didn’t know about any more than I did. Like everyone was kind of fudging their way along. Kids can smell bullshit a mile away, and that was definitely some bullshit.

Something something, ouroboros

But somewhere along the way, we stop feeling comfortable asking questions, I guess. Which is a pretty lame excuse for how I went 32 years, including nearly 10 years in a finance-adjacent profession, without ever really knowing what the Dow was, exactly. I know from experience that even other smart people have similar shrouds of mystery over things like how various tax advantaged retirement schemes work, what even are dividends, and what to do with their W-4’s (US-specific, so don’t panic, non-US friends). And the reason that some of these topics seem so mysterious is that even the people who are supposed to understand them, don’t. Not really, anyways. Not such that they could explain it to aliens (sorry, I’ve just seen Arrival).

This is just one more small way that people are disenfranchised when it comes to their money. We’re made to feel as if we’re the only ones thick enough not to know what the newscaster is on about when he’s talking about “the Dow” like it was his best friend. If you asked him what it was, he mightn’t be able to tell you. But he probably feels too intimidated to ask, too.

It’s incredibly off-putting, and it’s why a lot of people just steer clear of the whole area. For me, I’ve only ever been content with my level of understanding of something if I feel comfortable explaining it to someone else. Years of providing US tax consultations to a population of highly analytical newcomers to the US will entrench that belief. You’d want to be really clear on your pre-tax vs. your after-tax vs. your Roth 401k’s, for example. Because the guys I was giving these consultations to would grill you on it, and have you explain it 5 different ways, with examples. They were taking full advantage of a little-known, and rarely exploited privilege afforded to anyone who’s new to a topic and not afraid to ask questions until they’re satisfied they get it. I learned to respect and emulate this approach as yet more #immigranthustle magic.

And that’s how we should all approach this stuff. Ask loads of questions, and don’t rely on advice from anyone who can’t explain something in clear, simple language. And never feel stupid for asking. Smart people ask.

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.

A leafy path... to freedom

Financial independence as a radical act

I am continually inspired and impressed by the quality of the content that is produced by the personal finance bloggers and podcasts I follow. It’s especially cool seeing so many women in this space, as historically the world of finance and investing hasn’t been particularly female-friendly. That’s changing now, because badass women are making that change. No one invited us to the party, but we’re showing up anyways, and we’re bringing our friends.

Thankfully, we live in the age of almost unlimited access to information, and therefore to self-education. We can decide we’re going to become financially literate, regardless of where we come from or how “the industry” or the education system or anyone else may perceive us. To me, that’s incredibly empowering. I love that no one can close those doors on us. The information is available, and where it used to suck, and be unnecessarily (and perhaps even intentionally) confusing and exclusionary, we’re out there making it increasingly accessible for anyone who wants it. I aspirationally include myself in that “we,” but really it’s rockstars like Frugalwoods and Broke Millennial, as evidenced by this recent post, regarding Broke Millennial’s new book (which looks awesome). 

Empowerment over despair

I found the above post incredibly inspiring, and it also happened to be a stark contrast to something else I came across this week. I stumbled upon a podcast that sounded like it would be a fun, fresh take on personal finance. The tone of it, unfortunately, was one of repeated despair and helplessness. As though the fact that we exist in an imperfect, unequal system is a valid reason to give up and stop trying. That’s crazy! The fact that the system sucks, and that it extra-sucks for women, people of colour, marginalised communities, etc, makes it extra important for us to arm ourselves with knowledge, and resist by lifting each other up instead of reinforcing the status quo.

I’m aware that I exist in a space filled with all kinds of privilege, but it just so happens that I do not come from a wealthy background at all. No one taught me about how to manage money (and in particular, no one teaches you how to handle money in a new country! I’m working on that…), and for a long time I was too intimidated to try to learn how for myself. But now that I do have a modicum of knowledge, I echo Mrs. Frugalwoods’ sentiment that we as women need to declare our financial independence. We owe it to ourselves, and we owe it to others still stuck in despair.

I feel that as women, we especially benefit from having our “fuck-you” money sorted. This can take many forms. It doesn’t have to amount to full financial independence (but it will be oh so sweet when it does), to be incredibly impactful on our lives.

When one of my beloved younger sisters was planning a big, bold move last year, that was my one bit of serious older-sister advice to her, and it’s my advice to all women:

Make sure you have your fuck-you money ready.

At a base level, to me that means money that allows you to say goodbye to any immediate situation that you’re uncomfortable with. From there, you can build on that. But having that baseline of self-sufficiency is powerful. We women need that irrespective of our marital or relationship status, age, orientation, geographic location, employment status or lack thereof. And we shouldn’t compromise it for anyone.

No matter where you’re at, commit to do better, and to lift others up along your way. Here are some things you can action, now, today, to get freer. Make it an act of joyful rebellion. (Points if you were like, was that a reference to a great mid-00’s hip hop album from Canadian artist K-os? Because yes.)

  1. Beginner: Get your baseline fuck-you money together, be it only a few hundred dollars/euros to start. You do that by reducing unnecessary spending and treating that money as sacred. It will grow, but you have to start!
  2.  Intermediate: Amp up your savings rate. If you’re currently saving 10%, that’s something. But what would it take to save 20%? 30%? Look at your spending line by line, and say a big, happy “fuck-you” to the forces that work to keep us down with every additional percentage point you take back.
  3. Advanced: Work on your side hustle and/or spread the knowledge. One of the ways the system works against us is by keeping us silent, under the taboo that you don’t talk about money. So get after it, and talk about it. Share something on your social media. And keep hustling. As passionate as many of us millennials are about injustice, we are also steady on our side hustles. I see these two as working perfectly in sync. Get free and help others get free.

Just because the gender, racial, or generational deck may be stacked against us, doesn’t mean we need to admit defeat. As for me, I unsubscribed to the whiny podcast of woe, and will continue to follow those who provide a more uplifting example. And hope to pay it forward myself in some small way.