Three years ago my wife Christine and I started a new life overseas. We fell in love with Cuenca, Ecuador, South America’s city of festivals, because it had everything we had ever wanted in a home, warm friendly people, year-round pleasant weather, wonderful restaurants, live music everywhere, a sense of pride and the invigorating challenges of living in a new culture and language that makes every day an adventure.
Since then we’ve explored over half the South American continent on our regular trips, and had more fun and more adventures than we could possibly have imagined we would back in 2008, before we took the leap to a new life overseas.
Of course, that’s not to say we didn’t learn some lessons. Here, are my eight best pieces of hard-earned advice so that your move will be even easier and smoother than ours was.
1. Make sure your expenses and investments at home won’t be the anchors that cut short your quest and drag you back. The day before we headed out on our adventure we signed a new lease on one of our rental properties. It had been empty for a few months while we were deciding whether or not to sell it. In the final weeks, we decided to lease it and were happy when it rented just days before we left.
But in the rush of last minute preparations, we didn’t do our normal due diligence. For the first time in two decades of owning rental properties, this one subsequently went south.
By trying to wrap everything up in the last few weeks before we left, we exposed ourselves to the headache and frustration of dealing with our investments from thousands of miles away. There were expenses for notaries, express delivery services, inspections, repairs and the lack of income on the property for months. Before it was over it had cost us and pulled us temporarily back from our new life to deal with a frustrating situation at home.
As you head out, make sure your investments at home are stable and easy to deal with over the phone or computer. Don’t take on new investments or make large decisions just before you leave. Walk out the door into your new life with as few ongoing financial obligations back home as possible.
2. Don’t pay for services back home that you are not using. In these days of “sign up online,” it is sometimes hard to keep track of the services that automatically re-bill our accounts. Pull a year’s worth of your checking, debit and credit card accounts and search for irregular and automatic expenses like satellite radio, magazine, newspaper subscriptions, health club dues and computer services. We found numerous expenses that we no longer needed while abroad.
3. Don’t assume that your move will be permanent. There are two critical times for new expats, the six-month mark and the two-year mark. These seem to be the times when people get most frustrated with the language, miss family and friends, decide to go back home or move on to a new adventure in a new location.
You don’t want to find yourself ready to move but unable because you’re tied down in some way. Give yourself the flexibility to easily change your mind and your location. Start off renting in your new paradise. Short-term arrangements on furnished apartments are common in many countries. Get yourself moved in and comfortable and see how you like it. There are thousands of wonderful places in the world, each with its own pros and cons. Hold back on that desire to throw out a real estate anchor and give yourself a chance to check out your new life.
4. Don’t assume your tastes will stay the same. One of the more startling aspects of an expat life is finding that some of the things you always assumed you wanted don’t seem so important once you are living outside of your home culture.
It can be a little unsettling to find that, after working decades for that beautiful country home on a hilltop, you prefer city life in a small apartment in the thick of things. We’ve seen numerous couples arrive in Cuenca to live in temporary apartments while their dream homes are built, only to find that they love the hustle, bustle and sense of community here so much that they never move into the new house.
5. Don’t try to take more insurance than you need with you. There is a saying that 99% of all illness is stress related, and as we talk to people considering an international move, it is obvious health care and insurance are major stress factors. The good news is that this is a uniquely U.S. worry; it is simply not true in most of the rest of the world.
Your new life abroad will be one of more freedom, choice, adventure and vitality. Your stress levels will be lower because you are in control. There will be more time for exercise, family, friends and healthier eating and living. Prices for medical services are market-based as everybody pays cash, so it’s easy to tell what you are spending and what you are getting. It’s very reasonable to find yourself needing a doctor’s care and only paying $15 for a full half-hour visit.
The bottom line is you most likely will feel better, have less stress in your life and find yourself needing care less often than you did back home. We came down here spending over $700 a month for an insurance plan that no longer met our needs. Look into a high-deductible catastrophic insurance plan that will cover the cost of getting you back home and into care there, should you ever need it…then forget about it.
6. In your planning, budget $3,000 per person for six months of language lessons. We always assumed that our biggest expense while living abroad would be housing. But learning the language during the first six months ended up being the big-ticket item, and we had not even considered it as an expense. The rent on our beautiful rooftop apartment seemed a pittance to the $320 a week we paid our Spanish school for tutoring. (In most of South America plan on 20 hours a week at $8 an hour times the number of people in your family.)
Don’t try to save money by taking classes together; it’s a guaranteed recipe for divorce. No matter how close and in love you are, your learning styles are different and one-on-one is the only way to go for quick acquisition. A good school or instructor is your ticket into the community, taking you by the hand and introducing you to people, places and the ways of your new home.
Those months of hard work and expense are an investment as well. Your language ability will save you thousands more than it cost to acquire. Think of it like tuition, an investment in your international future that will pay handsomely down the road. An example is the incredibly-located and beautiful apartment we just found fronting the central square in Cuenca. (If you’ve been in Cuenca you probably took a picture of it; everybody does.) We found it online in a completely Spanish website for half the price of marginal apartments in much less desirable areas. Your ability to speak and understand will be your biggest expense and most profitable investment.
7. Find a new hometown first, and then travel from there. When we first headed out on our adventure three years ago we traveled all over the world: Scandinavia, Croatia, Italy, Morocco, Tortola, Argentina, Mexico, Spain… We were looking for the perfect place to land in our new life. It was fun but not exactly productive, as places to see are not always the best places to live. Pick a place and go! There are perfect places to live all over; try one, and then another and then another, but live in each one. When you have found the right place, it will feel right. Then you can go traveling to see the world from there.
8. Don’t wait too long…. Despite all the mistakes, trials and tribulations, being an expat is a wonderful life full of freedom, opportunity and excitement. Once you do it, you’ll realize your biggest mistake was that you should have done it so much sooner. ¡Buena suerte!
Earn in U.S., Spend in Ecuador
There’s a reason that the cost of living in Ecuador is so low, the wage structure is even lower. Don’t assume that you’ll be able to work here. If you want to continue working, keep up with old colleagues back home and spread the word that you are interested in short-term contractual work. A three-month assignment paid at your former wage may be all you need to live well for a year here. Or take your work with you. Our son’s work for planning and architecture firms is completely online, he can work from anywhere.
Editor’s note: If you’d like to learn more about ways you can pay for your life or travels overseas, sign up for Fund Your Life Overseas, a free e-letter from International Living. Sign up here and we’ll send you a free report: Fund Your New Life Overseas With These 4 Portable Careers.