Category Archives: Expat packages

Relocation & Expat Resources – Legal, Expat packages. Information, Inspiration, How-To Guides and Tools for Trailing Spouses, Accompanying Partners, and Families in Transition.

The Fragile Finances of the Expat Trailing Spouse. Defining Moves, The Art of Successful Relocation

Women, Money and What ‘Dependent Partner’ really means. The Fragile Finances of the Expat Trailing Spouse.

The Fragile Finances of the Expat Trailing Spouse. Defining Moves, The Art of Successful RelocationUpdate: After considerable lobbying from consumer groups, the US Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection has amended the rule requiring evidence of independent income when applying for consumer credit, replacing it with a declaration of household income. This is excellent news for accompanying partners in the United States who had been denied access to credit and left unable to build an independent financial identity, in a country where a credit card or credit history is required for everything from hiring a car to setting up a cell phone contract. Sanity is restored…

I came to a horrible realization the other day that I was beholden to my husband. It sounds incredibly old-fashioned; even using the word ‘partner’ in that sentence would be wrong, because it implies an equality that I had let slip away.

The dictionary describes the term beholden as owing something to somebody because of something that they have done for you’, so if you view being shuffled from pillar to international post as a favour, the word pretty much covers it. I realized that although I live in California, where community property and a 50/50 division applies, I did not have the independent means to pay for legal advice. And when he leaves all his dirty breakfast dishes on the counter above the dishwasher for the 5 millionth time, there is a big emotional difference between don’t want to divorce my Other Half, and CAN’T…

As with the vast majority of dual career couples, when I agreed to the OH’s first relocation, I was aware that from now on my own career would take a back seat. Global mobility research discusses the change (usually reduction) in income when a couple relocate, but discussion centres around household income, rather than individual earning power.

Which is exactly what I have lost. I have never worked in professions known for lavish salaries (nursing or teaching, anyone??), but I was able to earn significant personal income with opportunities for promotion. Now, however, my sole income in drawn from the ‘household’, and as such, is vulnerable. And I’m not alone.

It’s not just those of us who relocate that are in this position. It’s anyone who has chosen to reduce or give up work to manage family commitments, whether you are in constant global motion, or have never set foot outside your home town. If you have no independent source of income, whoever earns the salary holds the keys to your supposed household income.  And while you are legally entitled to a portion of those, it requires court approval to gain access to them, whatever the circumstances. Which also requires legal counsel, who (funnily enough) will want to be paid.

Take credit cards. Over the last 20 years, we have become used to being approved for credit, regardless of our personal income; the household income has always been taken into account. Sure, the credit limit may be small, but it’s quickly increased once our payment history shows our ability to make payments and manage the account well. However change is afoot, certainly in the US, where credit card issuers are changing their rules, and making it far more difficult for the accompanying partner to gain credit (and a good credit history), unless they are employed outside of home.

Last year, the Fed ruled that credit card applications should ask about a consumer’s individual income or salary rather than his or her “household income”. This isn’t just for students under 21, but for everyone. That means that a stay-at-home parent is considered as unworthy of credit as an unemployed college kid–and seven out of eight stay-at-home parents are mothers. No one without a pay stub, no matter the value of her contribution to her household, can get a line of credit unless her spouse cosigns the account. (Anisha Sekar,  July 7, 2011)

Now, in light of the recent economic meltdown, placing more focus on individual income and ability to repay debts is no bad thing, but it does have ramifications for those of us who suddenly lose the ability to get even the most basic forms of credit like a cell phone contract or credit card. It also means that unless you are named on the account, you lose the ability to make financial decisions, access accounts and resolve disputes, which if, like mine, your partner spends a great deal of time out of the country and on air flights, can make financial management impossible.

The Other Half is also the primary name on the host country bank account, and I don’t have automatic access to his account. Typically, he goes ahead to take up his new post, while I remain behind with the children to finish up the school year and pack the house for the move. It works well for us, but does mean that he has sole responsibility for setting up basic financial services in the new location, so it is his name on the salary transfer and tax details, and therefore his name on the account, at least until we get around to updating it.

We choose to manage this by having me sign all the checks (if he signed one himself, it would probably be dismissed as a forgery), I have the ATM card and PIN number, and I’ve set up the internet banking with my passwords. And while this unusual state of affairs makes for amusing dinner party conversation, it gives me absolutely no legal right to the household funds in that account, nor access to them should he suddenly develop amnesia / get run down by a London bus / decide to trade me in for a younger, blonder model…

The mention of Tax ID and salary above should alert you to the fact that opening your own bank account is not necessarily as easy as it first appears. Requirements vary from country to country, but most require evidence of who you are, your legal right to be in the country, how you will pay tax on any interest, and how you intend to fund the account. So when you turn up with your passport and cash, you may be disappointed… However, it is something that is worth doing if you value your sanity, because things can and do go wrong, and I am willing to bet that it is you who will be left holding the can when it does. If the money is in your sole name, you have control over it; if it’s not, you don’t. Simple as that.

And finally, let me mention the dying thing. I have known a few situations where a spouse has died at a young age, and not once did I ever hear the words “well now, let’s get on and sort out the money”. What I saw were people who had their lives knocked out from under them, who were trying to cope with immense loss, overwhelming grief, and devastated children. Imagine how much worse it gets when you are overseas, your right to be in the country expired with the demise of your spouse, and all your assets (and therefore your ability to get home, to make funeral arrangements, to pay medical bills and to pay for normal household expenses) are now severely compromised. I have seen it happen, and it was horrific.

So, if you do nothing else today, do these things for me, wherever you are. Get started on your own personal credit history, even if you have to take out a secured credit card to do it. Promise to keep track of your credit score, every month. Get an independent bank account in your host country, and commit to funding it, every month. And finally, make a joint will, keep it simple and safe, and make sure it is legal in the country that you live in.

Oprah would be proud. I feel more secure already…

8 Rules for creating an expat budget. Defining Moves - the art of successful relocation. Information, inspiration and resources for the global trailing spouse, accompanying partner, expat partner.

8 Money Rules for Creating Your Expat Budget

8 Rules for creating an expat budget. Defining Moves - the art of successful relocation. Information, inspiration and resources for the global trailing spouse, accompanying partner, expat partner.It’s Part 2 of the “8 Money Rules for Creating Your Expat Budget” post – if you missed the first part, you can read it here.

 

5. Protect Your Credit

So you think paying your bills on time is enough to get an excellent credit rating? Think again. Credit companies don’e release the formula that they use to compute your credit score, but it is a combination of length of credit history in the location (strike one- you’ve only just arrived), range and types of open credit (strike two, because you can’t get credit easily due to lack of credit history, documentation, etc etc.), ratio of credit balance to availability (strike three – any credit cards you do manage to open will have tiny limits – think $300).

The bad news is that your credit score is used for everything from renting a home to getting a cellphone contract to job applications, so you can’t avoid it. The good news is that account management has the greatest positive impact on your score after length of history and range of loans, so set up direct debit payments for at least the minimum payment for every card.

This doesn’t mean we are giving you permission to carry balances from month to month – what we are doing is protecting you against memory loss, jet lag, time zones, and general expat chaos – all things that make it very easy for due date to slip by unnoticed, until your credit score plummets like a lead balloon.

There’s a final warning, however; don’t neglect your credit back home. For large loans, many global banks will do an international credit check, which is great news unless you forgot to put your other payments on autopilot and the now overdue bills are lost somewhere between here and Outer Mongolia..

 

6. The Expat Emergency Fund

No matter how culturally aware, linguistically talented or globally experienced we might think we are, I have yet to meet an expat, HR manager or Global Mobility Specialist who can predict the future, despite what we would have you believe. Instead, we focus on the assignment, assume that everything will go perfectly and rely on finely honed problem solving skills to get us through. Predictably, it’s a monetary recipe for disaster, so you need include saving an emergency fund in your budget now.

The financial gurus will advise you to aim for and emergency fund equal to 6 months of living expenses, with an additional allowances for dependents or if you work in a highly specialized field.

For expats, what constitutes 6 months living expenses can vary greatly, and so we need to err on the side of caution. If an overseas assignment ends early, you have significant additional costs: the cost of repatriation, temporary accommodation, down payment on a home / rental deposit, household goods (especially electrical items), location appropriate clothing. Repatriates face not just the financial implications of finding a new role, but finding a new home and a new way of life.

As a guide on what your long term emergency fund should look like, use your country of citizenship as a guide – while you may be able to live more cheaply elsewhere, you are not guaranteed citizenship, especially without employment. Take into account the cost of living, but also include a figure for transportation of yourselves and your household goods and pets, housing deposits (if you don’t already own a house), temporary accommodation, health insurance (if your country doesn’t have a national health service) and interim job search costs.

The good news for those of you who don’t suffer redundancy, early termination of assignment or other loss of primary income is that you have an emergency fund that will see you through almost anything expat life throws at you. And if you think expat life is all warm milk and puppies, you might want to head over to the Expat Life and Laughter section for some timely reading..

 

7. Think Long Term

Bottom line – the average lifespan of the international assignment has us all focusing on the short term, but our nomadic lifestyles mean that we should be paying more attention to long term planning than our less transient friends. Why? Extended or repeated expatriation can mean losing eligibility for home nation benefits such as healthcare, resident school and college fees, and even (should there be any left by the time we retire) state pensions.

Expats should be putting at least 10% of their income into retirement savings; even more if you change jobs frequently, plan on retiring outside of your home nation or somewhere with a high cost of living. Younger expats also need to budget for college fees for children, especially if their career path takes them through the US.

The good news is that many expats are eligible for tax free savings and investments accounts if they reside outside their home location for a named period, however you will need to get advice from a reputable investment advisor who is familiar with both your long term lifestyle goals and the tax rules for your country of citizenship.

 

8. Insuring Against the Unknown.

Somehow, we always seem to come back to the tricky subject of what happens if the worst happens, but it’s one of the most important pieces of your expat financial plan.  Life insurance for both partners is vital – while often only one partner is a direct income earner, that ability to fulfill the demands of the role is facilitated by the supporting partner.

The fundamental questions to ask about life insurance include length, value and cost of the policy, how premiums / eligibility changes according to location, health and age of the policy holders, and in the case of company provided policies, what happens of you leave the company?

You may also want to consider long term care (LTC) and disability policies – while not often included in employment benefits, they are extremely important, especially in light of the rising cost of health care. They will need careful consideration – many policies will exclude specific locations, activities or have requirements for redemption, so make sure that any policy you take out accurately meets your needs. More expensive premiums are infinitely preferable to risking a denied claim.

 

If it all seems overwhelming, don’t panic. We’re not expecting you to get everything done today, or even this week or this month. The most important thing you can do is something; most of the items on the list take under an hour to get set up and get started, and once automated, can carry on building quietly in the background. As for the rest? It’s up to you..

 

Additional Resources

The Household CFO – A Financial Guide for Expat Spouses.  Excellent basic guide to expat finances, from highly respected financial advisors writing in a way the rest of us can understand. (Email address required)

Credit Karma. Free credit score access with no pull on your credit record. (Email signup required, but the emails are rare, and are a very helpful reminder to check your credit)

Five Free Financial Favorites. Previous post with links to some great resources (including Credit Karma)

Relocating? 9 Essential questions every expat should ask. (Part 2)

It’s the second part of our guide to avoiding relocation disaster – and the same rules apply for domestic moves, diplomatic postings and international assignments. So before you sign on the dotted line, here’s numbers 4 and 5 of the essential questions that every relocating expat should ask.. If you missed the first part, you can catch it here.

4. What support is available? If you answered the first three questions, you already have an idea of what support you’ll need – so here’s where you have a clear conversation with HR about what support services are in place to meet those needs. Many packages seem lavish to the casual observer, but when you scratch the surface, the services included are not always right for your family needs.

Schools, for instance. While the local schools may be excellent, if you are on a 2-3 year contract with a high school age child. you need a curriculum that accepted by their target college rather than a host location one. If the relocation package doesn’t include funding for private schooling, your salary has effectively been reduced by anything up to $30,000 per child, per year.

Increasing numbers of assignments are to developing markets – India, China and Africa – all of which need considerable amounts of cultural orientation and language training. Does the package include enough for you to be able to function effectively and meet your personal goals outside the home or workplace? Shopping, medical visits, dealing with bureaucracy – all are a very real part of the transition, and all involve interpersonal communication.

These examples are gleaned from experience, and the best way to understand what support is needed is to see it firsthand. Hence number 5.

5. Do we get a family pre-visit? In my mind, the pre-visit is vital to a successful relocation – there is no substitute for seeing firsthand the challenges that you all will be facing. Throughout the assignment process, your life transition is facilitated by people whom you have never met, and who are deciding your needs for you. The pre-visit is your chance to see what they got right, and what they have wrong.

The biggest mistake people make is to use the pre-visit purely to find housing. This is wrong for two reasons:

  1. it means you agreed to the assignment based on a very small amount of information and
  2. the time is better spent identifying the challenges you face, not choosing floor plans.

So what should you be doing? Sadly, not staying in the hotel enjoying room service, or visiting the local tourist sights. Your goal is to recreate daily life, in all it’s glory, using the information that you put together in the previous steps. Look at neighborhoods, visit schools, experience traffic and commute times, do some grocery shopping, and most of all, talk to other expat residents.

Listen carefully to what they are telling you about the good, the bad and the plain ugly of your new home. Not all  of their concerns will be problems for you, but you can count complaints about the weather, issues with utilities, security, traffic and schools being pretty universal.

Once everyone has given you the low down and dirty, listen carefully to the concerns of your own family. The work environment will be more familiar and (usually) more supportive, whereas everyone outside of work is flying solo, and your package needs to acknowledge and make allowances for that. With “62% of all refusals to accept an international posting .. family related” and “34% of expatriates return from assignment prematurely because of family concerns”, this pre-visit is a time for the whole family to identify the potential pitfalls and possible ‘deal breakers’ while you still have time and negotiation on your side.

References:

Tales of woe from the roaming professionals

Brookfield Global Relocation Trends Survey

 

Camel train circa 1900's

Relocating? 9 Essential questions every expat should ask. (Part 1)

Camel Train circa 1900

 

When we think of living abroad, we instantly conjure up images of white sandy beaches, turquoise seas, friendly locals and a leisurely quality of life. That is, until we’re two days into our first relocation, surrounded by boxes, with no power, not internet, and no help in sight. By day four, the bloom has gone off this particular rose, and by day seven, we realize that we were possibly just a little naive in thinking that four bedrooms, a balcony and guaranteed sunshine were really all we needed to find our bliss. So for the anyone considering relocating, here’s part one of the ‘9 Essential Questions Every Potential Expat Should Ask’ series. And yes, the same rules apply for domestic relocations too..

1. Where am I going?

The standard ways of finding out destination information – travel guides, websites and maps – tell you very little of what you need to know when relocating. Visiting a country for a short period is very, very different to living and working  there, and it’s the challenge of day-today living that causes many assignments to end early.

To understand whether your new location is a good fit for you and your family, you need to do two things. Firstly, assess how your time is spent currently, including work, school, commuting travel, after school activities, sports, socializing etc. Using resources specific to long term living rather than short term visits, assess how much change you would experience, what benefits and disadvantages your new location has, and decide whether or not this is really the move for you.

This might be anything from a lack of sunshine /open space/daylight hours/ professional theatre to different education systems, religious practice or high crime rates. There is a whole world out there, and it’s better to keep your options open for a more appropriate assignment than be forced to terminate one early.

Ask your HR department about global information that the company purchases –  resources like Living Abroad, Expat Arrivals, the Not for Tourists guides and the Lonely Planet guides will give you much of the information you need, and online blog registries and expatriate forums have the real life experience. Consider joining a network like Internations to meet locals and expats from your potential host location.

2. How long will I be going for?

Notice that didn’t I ask how long was your contract was for?  Ten years and 5 relocations ago, we were offered a 1 year temporary assignment to Kenya. I have yet to return home, and all of our wedding photographs, birth certificates, photographs of our children as babies and furniture are still in a house in Wales. Contracts get extended, new transfers are offered, and if you are taking short term assignments, often all your belongings are not included in the relocation policy.

More importantly, you need to have a clear understanding of how long all members of the family are willing and able to participate a globally mobile life.

The long term issues surrounding schooling mean that your children may not have the required qualifications to attend the school of their choice (although colleges and universities are becoming much more flexible in terms of acceptable international admission criteria) or they may now be liable for higher ‘international’ tuition fees as you have lived outside your home country for too long to qualify for local fees.

The accompanying partner may have negotiated a year’s leave of absence, or may be required to maintain professional registration status, both of which become vulnerable if an assignment is extended.

3. What does the package include?

There are various types of relocation policies, including local, local plus and international, all of which give different levels of pay and benefits dependent on location. And while some will seem very generous in terms of base salary and hardship allowances, once on assignment you can quickly discover that the money is eaten up in unexpected ways.

If you have the information from the previous questions, you will have a better idea of what your new lifestyle will cost, and whether or not components that you consider essential are reflected in the assignment offer.

Key areas to look for are not just base salary, but frequently reviewed goods and services supplements (useful in less stable countries where the price of goods and exchange rates can fluctuate wildly) , health insurance coverage, childcare and school funding, whether you will be paid in your home or host currency, travel allowances, emergency evacuation policies, and repatriation assistance.

Talking to other expats will give you the best understanding of the real cost of living, which brings us neatly to the first question in Part 2 – “Do I get a preview visit?”