Category Archives: The Preview Visit

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

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…

The golden rules of expat housing - buying a home. Defining Moves - the art of successful relocation

The Golden Rules of Expat Housing – Buying a Home


I’m not a real estate professional, so the good news is that I’m not going to try and sell you a home. Predictably though, I have made plenty of mistakes when it comes to expat housing, and have spent long hours with more seasoned expats discussing what they have learned and what advice they would offer. So here, following on from our Golden Rules of Renting, are our points to ponder when considering buying property as an expat.

The golden rules of expat housing - buying a home. Defining Moves - the art of successful relocation

Understand your assignment contract.

Many assignment contracts include a buy out clause to facilitate a quicker move for the new expat family (or one transferring to local payroll), but don’t assume that you will automatically qualify. There are often limitations on the type of property that are included, such as homes that are atypical for the local area, ones that have planning or permit issues, any covenants or contractual limitations to the property or ones that you bought without conforming to company assignment policy.

In addition, buyout clauses tend to offer a ‘competitive market value’ for your home, which in plain terms means a price at which the property will sell within three months. For expats whose home location has a slower housing market, this can mean a substantial reduction in home value.

Understand your finances.

Since the 2008 financial meltdown, rules and restrictions governing mortgage eligibility have tightened  significantly. To the expat, this means  you may have difficulty qualifying for a home loan or that your limited local credit score only qualifies for the higher interest rates.

Talking of credit scores, you are going to need one if you plan on applying for a home loan. While some lenders will allow your international credit history to be taken into account, many won’t. Establishing and building a good local credit score means taking out some form of credit agreement as soon as you arrive (the length of credit history is one of the crucial factors in your score), and then managing it carefully, especially in the year preceding any mortgage application. For more information on credit history, scores and how they are calculated, check out the links at the bottom of the page.

When you are deciding what you can afford, it’s not just about the mortgage payment. Investigate any fees, charges and taxes that may not be standard in your home location. Most fees and taxes are calculated according to home value, and where international assignments are concerned, there will be wide variation in housing values.

Council taxes, local authority charges or property taxes are all calculated on home values, but need to be researched thoroughly  before you commit to buy – they vary hugely between states, regions and countries, and can add up to 25% to your mortgage payment.

There are also huge variations globally in terms of real estate agent fees and as an expat, you are likely to incur these more frequently than a permanently local employee, so include them in your financial calculations from the outset.

Be realistic about your timeframe.

When you take on a long term assignment or switch to a local payroll, it’s tempting to believe that you will live in your new home for the long term. However, unless you are emigrating or retiring, you are far more likely to be in your new home for between 3 and 5 years –  currently considered a ‘long term assignment ‘s international relocation terms. Your company may well help you with the moving costs, but I can guarantee you will have invested plenty of your own money in furnishings, maintenance, remodeling, landscaping and services. For assignments of under 5 years, renting will almost certainly be cheaper, so consider your motivation for buying very, very carefully, and be honest about the real costs over your assignment duration.

Understand the work involved.

A home is the largest single purchase you are ever likely to make, and involves a great deal of money, complex legal requirements and a team of people. If you haven’t already bought or sold a home, be prepared to expend a considerable amount of time, effort and emotional energy. If you are selling a home it’s even worse; open houses, viewings, contract negotiations and surveys are all demanding your attention just at the point you need to concentrate on planning your own relocation. There are ways you can minimize the effort involved (see list of tips, below) but still, know that if your relocation involves a property sale, you are less mobile, less focused and at the mercy of the buyers market..

 

STILL WANT TO BUY?

If all of our advice hasn’t made you run screaming for the hills, you must be serious about your plans to buy a house. From experience, the rules for buying a house as an expat are a little different, and for many of us, we have learned them the hard way. Luckily for you, we’re here to let you into our ten secrets for making your life in global transition a while lot easier..

1. Get a good real estate agent with a proven track record in the local area and who you trust to work in your best interests. Sometimes, this also means telling you what you don’t want to hear.

2. Listen to your real estate agent. Even if you don’t like what they are saying. You don’t have to agree with everything they tell you, but you do need to consider their advice.

3. Buy small. I love cathedral ceilings and huge family rooms, but experience has taught me that furnishing, heating, decorating and lighting them is more expensive than it seems. And nothing will fit in the next house – I guarantee it. A small home means that you have less debt, lower ongoing expenses and your house is far more rentable should you need to move. Oh, and it’s cheaper to heat, light and decorate..

4. Buy popular. Spend time watching the local real estate market nd understand what sells quickly, because if you get the offer of a lifetime on the other side of the globe, you are going to need to sell your house as fast as possible. Add in that most relocations have a very short turnaround time, it avoids the unpleasant situation of the working partner being transferred while the rest of the family wait behind for the home to sell.

5. Avoid quirky. By quirky, I mean anything that may raise red flags on inspections, or reduce your pool of potential buyers. You may love the murals in the front entrance, the 1920’s themed bar area or the garden gnome habitat, but everyone else is just adding up the cost and effort of removal.

6. Avoid fixer-uppers. Oh, I know, you love a project – but try to limit yourself to work that can be done in under six months and on a moderate budget. You are in the unenviable position of not knowing anyone well enough to call in favors, you don’t have a list of tried and trusted tradespeople, and no matter what the company says about your assignment being 3-5 years, if it ends early, you are stuck with a half-finished property..

7. Limit your spending. I have lost count of the property listings that I have seen which detail the huge amount of money spent on granite countertops and maple cabinetry. Neither of which I would want in a kitchen – give me white cabinets and butchers block every time. If something is very important to you, by all means go for it, but don’t for a minute assume that you will get your money back when you sell. Keep your spending proportional to the value of the home and the budget of the local buyers, and if in doubt, get a real estate agent to give you advice, rather than the contractor who would be doing the work. Realtors get very, very tired of sellers who are unrealistic about the true market value of their marble whirlpool spa.

8. Get permits. Make sure that any work you do is fully documented and inspected if necessary, and use licensed contractors. It’s not just about safety and quality, it’s also about having all the necessary paperwork when it comes to selling. The collapse of the financial markets has meant that lenders are being far more cautious about the properties that they lend money on, and any irregularities that the survey turns up may void the sale. In addition, it may invalidate any buyout clauses in your relocation assignment contract. You have been warned.

9. Ask your real estate agents for recommendations for tradespeople. They usually have a fantastic contact book of people who do work well, quickly and inexpensively, and most importantly, don’t leave a job unfinished.

10. View your home as a consumable, not an asset. In financial terms, expecting to make money on a property in the short term is highly risky, especially when it is your family home that you are speculating on. Even experienced property owners have been burned in by the recent fluctuations in the housing market, and they have the advantage of catering solely to the market, rather than having to make compromises to meet your individual family needs. Consider any  spending in the same way as rental payments, and you shouldn’t go too far wrong.

Now it’s your turn.  There’s an unlimited comments section stretching out below, just waiting to hear about your triumphs and disasters – I’ve got a great Dulux Paintmate story to trade….

 

Online Resources & Further Reading 

 

FreeScore – provides information on credit scores worldwide 

MyFico Credit Basics (US)

US Federal Trade Commission Access to Free Credit Report information (US)

Credit Karma (US) Website providing ongoing free credit score & management information

Money at HowStuffWorks.com’s overview of the credit system.

BBC Guide to Credit Score (UK)

BBC Guide – How to Check Your Credit Rating (UK)

Money Saving Expert – Consumer Guide to How Credit Rating Works

 

 

Expat Housing - Renting a Home. Defining Moves - The Art of Successful Relocation

The Golden Rules of Expat Housing – Renting a Home

Expat Housing - Renting a Home. Defining Moves - The Art of Successful Relocation
Make sure that everyone involved understands your housing needs.

It’s a time of turmoil in the Defining Moves household. After 14 years, we are finally selling our family home in Wales and transferring our home status to the US. It’s a funny feeling – despite living in six different homes since leaving, the process of finding and buying a new home away from “home’ is daunting.

The summer vacation is the peak time for family relocation; it’s the end of the school year, so educational transitions are easier, and you have more time to accomplish the endless tasks that moving yourself, your life and your family requires. With this in mind, I’ve put together a collection of golden rules garnered from international expats (I hesitate to use the term experts when there are quite this many blunders involved.) across the globe. Every one represents one of us learning the hard (and usually expensive and/or stressful) way, so take note. Today we feature renting properties – on Saturday, it’s the turn of the homebuyers..

N.B. If you are relocating with children over the summer, read this first.

Do your research.

Even if you have a Destination Service provider or relocation counselor assisting you with your search, don’t hand over all responsibility to them. Check out online rental listings, contact local realtors and ask amongst the expat community, international school networks and amongst work colleagues – often property owners use word of mouth or private advertising to find tenants independently, and you will get a much better idea of what is available and what you can expect to pay if you do a thorough search.

Understand what is both usual and available in your host location. In the US, for example, for a room to qualify as a bedroom it must contain a closet. In Europe, there is no such rule, and storage tends to be more limited, en suite bathrooms far less common and kitchens more basic. You are also more likely to be doing the yard work yourself, so be warned.

Check the standard of construction, even in newer housing, especially in less developed countries. While the houses may seem new and shiny with every modern amenity, leaky roofs, substandard electrics and insufficient water supply are very, very common. Where the local infrastructure is poor, ask to see the water supply and storage system (and whether it is mains, brought in by tanker, from a bore hole etc.) and how it is pumped into the main house. For electrics, ask to see previous bills, note whether there is a generator and look at the quality of installation. Is the property on mains sewerage or a septic tank, and when was it last emptied? And finally, from bitter experience, check for stains on the ceiling and around the floors to see what happens when the rains come..

Look at lots of properties and meet either the landlord or the property manager in person. If you don’t feel comfortable with them now, imagine calling them when the toilet backs up at 10pm.. Reputable landlords will be happy to supply references from former tenants (it’s even better if the former tenant is showing you the property), so don’t be shy about asking for them.

 

Get your finances in order

Most landlords will run a credit check, and it’s easy when transitioning between countries to lose track of payment due dates, utility fees – even medical bills. Once a bill falls 30 days past due (and sometimes even earlier) it shows up on your credit report and can negatively affect your credit rating, score, interest rate qualification criteria, home insurance rates and how you are viewed as a potential tenant.

Safeguard your international credit score before you leave your home location, by clearing any outstanding debts and payments, and set up direct debits or standing orders for ongoing recurring payments. When you arrive in your new location, get a secure PO box for mail forwarding rather than using the interim housing one – one glance in ‘your’ mailbox will tell you how many former tenants have been through and are still getting mail to that address. Then consider taking out a secured credit card, cell phone contract or other available credit to get your score started as early as possible. Take professional advice before taking out any credit – even a store or fuel card – if you plan on applying for a home loan. Every credit check, successful or not, has a negative impact on your short term score, which pushes up your available interest rates ..

 

Lifestyle Priorities

One of my wise friends gave me the advice to ‘shop for neighborhoods, not homes’, so spend some time working out what your priorities are before you sign on a six month tenancy agreement. For those of you with children, schools will almost certainly be at the top of the list, but also consider what will be beneficial or frustrating in day-to-day life. Parking, low traffic, good local amenities, parks, access to of leash dog trails, a diverse community with local events, libraries and good food are all on my list, but you may be looking for sports facilities, a supportive expat community and nearby shopping. The choice is yours, but make it before you drive the realtor mad, hey?

If you are staying in the same location for an extended period of time, consider the longer term costs. Many expats transfer to local payroll while still overseas, and allowances for private schooling, airfares and housing change. Will your income support private schooling long term – and if not, what are the local schools like? What college fees will you pay? Recent studies have shown that many expats’ current lifestyles are affecting their long term financial health, so don’t fall into the trap of living beyond your actual income and relying on expat allowances for the rest of your working life.

 

Consider the costs.

I love cathedral ceilings and picture windows. After two years in the East Bay area, with it’s 90 degree summers and breezy winters, I’m very, very glad that utilities are included as part of the tenancy agreement – especially when you have 79 internal light fixtures, not including lamps. Seriously.

There are the obvious costs, like transport into town or school, availability of public transport, memberships and maintenance fees, but there are also the ‘keeping up with the Jones’ costs that sneak in. The more affluent the community, the greater pressure there is to maintain the same standard of living, entertainment tends to cost more, and the local services, stores and amenities will cater to a higher disposable income. You have been warned..

 

Paperwork

Read the contract, and get professional advice about the local rules for both tenants and landlords. In many cases, the contract is difficult to enforce without a lengthy and costly legal battle, but it does serve as an early warning system of how experienced, knowledgeable and trustworthy your landlord is. A basic contract should include at the very least a name and address for both parties and the home for rent, the rental sum (and what it includes in the way of utilities, furnishings and any other applicable fees), the duration of the tenancy, the responsibilities of the landlord and tenant (garden maintenance, gutters, etc), any rules the landlord may have regarding treatment of the property (picture hanging, use of candles, parties etc) and an inventory of condition and contents of the property.

Before you sign, check whether the property is in financial good standing (your realtor or destination service provider should be able to help you with this) – tenant evictions because the house is being repossessed by the lender are increasing, and you have both the inconvenience of an unscheduled move and a lost deposit.

Do a move-in walk through with the property manager or landlord before your household goods arrive, and take lots of pictures, especially of any wear and tear or damage. And finally, get a receipt for each and every payment (especially the deposit) or at the very least, have a clear official record of the transaction.

 

Security

It’s our final piece of advice, informed by the experience of a friend of a previous tenant walking in unannounced at 7 am. Ask the landlord to change the locks. Establish who else has a key or access to the property – cleaners, gardeners, property managers, landlords – and what are the rules for permission of entry. Our front doors are the most basic form of security, and yet it’s the one thing that we all forget or take for granted. If you have an alarm, get instructions on how to change the code, and do it the day you move in. And then don’t do as a friend of ours once did and write the code on a Post It note next to the keypad. Hmmm.

 

 

8 Noble Truths of Relocation

Yes, I know Buddha only taught four noble truths, but I don’t have his powers of concise thought..

1. It sounds far more glamorous than it is. The leisure industry has been brainwashing us for years about the wonders of travel, whether domestic or international, focusing our attention on the turquoise sea, the golden beaches, the breathtaking landscapes and beautiful people with their fascinating culture. They spend less time discussing the language barriers, healthcare issues, traffic jams and isolation from your support network which consume most of your new shiny life abroad. It’s real life, after all.

2. Support from your employer is never as good as you are led to believe. Fewer than 50% of employers offer relocation assistance, and when they do, the emphasis is getting you and your belongings to the new location as quickly as possible. How you survive once you are there is your own business. Destination support is usually an outsourced part of the physical move, and the variation in quality and service is immense. We have had everything from “What more can I do to help?” to “What do you want, flowers??”. Sadly, the latter was obviously sarcastic, because I have yet to be buried under a deluge of blossoms.. Here’s a checklist of what to expect from a good one..

3. Finding paid employment is usually more difficult than you anticipate. If it takes you less than three months just to get all the paperwork finished, the kids to school, find your bearings and manage to shower once a day, you are better at this than I. My main barriers are the ever changing school schedule, endless volunteer requests, navigating the legal requirements and trying to explain on my CV why my qualifications are not valid, why I move every 3 years, and how exactly that is an advantage to the prospective employer. I’m finally self-employed, but it’s taken me ten years. (For those of you who are wrestling with this conundrum, check out Jennifer Bradley’s website. She’s relocated, so she understands..)

4. Your spouse / partner will rarely give you the support you need. It may sound harsh, but I’m betting anyone who has relocated will agree with me. For one, the partner is starting a new role, and are having to adapt to their own changes in the workplace. Secondly, they are buffered from reality by a) the work environment and b) you. Unless you experience firsthand the sense of isolation and bewilderment that moving to a new place creates, it’s difficult to understand, especially when the spouse is a tangible asset to the company, whereas you appear to be more of an encumbrance, logistically speaking. The good news is that you will discover you are stronger than you ever realized, and will make lifelong friends who help you find your feet.

5. There is more paperwork than you can ever imagine. If you are embarking on an international assignment, you have the passportvisas and employment authorization documents to deal with before you go, and with rental agreements, driving licenses and dual tax filings to look forward to when you are there. Then you have the school applicationseducation transcriptshealth insurance and medical provider information, pet licensing and financial services.. And you needn’t be smug if you are on a domestic move – any savings in the passport / visa / driving license area are more than made up in any home sale or purchase. I know; I have bought and sold in California…

6. You have more clutter than you ever realized. ven if you move every year. We went to Kenya with a D sized container.. We returned with a 20′ container, and let me tell you, Kenya is not the shopping capital of the world. I was smugly telling my in-laws how I used to be a pack rat but now I don’t collect anything, and their eyes drifted to the three dogs, three cats and a goldfish that we have accumulated across three continents. Touche.

7. None of your furniture fits. Or, for that matter, the bedding, the appliances or your clothes. Your house may look the same, your needs may be the same, and you might have ruthlessly maintained your high school weight, but the dimensions, the voltage, the climate and the style will all look hopelessly out of place. Which brings me to my next point..

8. You become a master of the art of reinvention. Better than madonna, in fact. So far, my credits include bartender, nurse, college lecturer, events organizer, therapeutic riding assistant, retail sales associate and now this. I have bought clothes from Saks Fifth Avenue, and the secondhand market in a Kenyan slum, and gone from brunette to blonde and back to brunette, which means my driving license is never accurate. I have learned two things;  if you don’t try, you’ll never know, and the longer the title, the smaller the pay.

Now it’s your turn.. what are yours?

 

Five Free Financial Favorites

One of the downsides of wandering the world at a very slow pace is the difficulty in managing finances long-term, when your needs, expenses and income radically change every three to five years. So here are my favorite ways to maintain financial sanity, and best of all, they’re free.

Self-made spreadsheet from OpenOffice

Yes, I know it’s boring, but the need to keep track of just how much everything really costs is vital to staying solvent.  I’ve put more detail here, but in a nutshell, you need to track your spending for two or three months to see where the money goes, and then start working on categories and a spending plan. And if the budget word fills you with horror, remember that it is your money, and you can spend it wherever you want. I don’t peek.  Here’s a copy of my  moneyminder spreadsheet to amuse you – worth noting are the ‘Reluctant Invitations” and “Bloopers” categories.. (You will need to ‘enable macros’ to open the spreadsheet.) Finally, here’s a set of tutorials, for those of you who are using that as an excuse..

Once you have put together a spending plan,  be prepared to get it badly wrong for at least six months, but the clarity you eventually gain is well worth it. My own spreadsheets have an ‘adjustment’ column, which allows you alter your spending allocation, without losing sight of what you initially thought you would spend. At first, my lack of accuracy was hugely frustrating; two years on, my adjustments are smaller, but the freedom to change my mind about where the money will go is liberating, especially when the children keep coming home with endless requests for sports equipment, book fairs, and other such ’emergencies’..

Internet Banking

Frankly, I hate most banks. (And for the record, Bank of America tops that list.) However, internet banking is right up there with email in terms of improving quality of life for global nomads, working families and insomniacs. It means that you can track your spending in real-time, manage savings, make bill payments and spot fraudulent transactions at 1 am in your pyjamas if you so choose. So when you choose which bank to open your new account with, make sure that it has a secure online banking facility with the ability to view transactions, pay bills and make fund transfers. It also helps if you have checking and savings accounts with the same bank so that  last-minute transfers to cover unexpected payments are possible – I have saved hundreds of dollars in bank fees with this facility alone. I have internet banking for both my home and host country accounts and my credit cards, so keeping track is a breeze. Remembering all the password, not so much..

Smartypig / ING

I have a credit union savings account, which makes it easy to move money between checking and savings. For the kids, however, the needs are different. I need them to easily see how much money they have, to learn to set savings goals, and for us to be able to deposit relatively small amounts of money frequently. Oh, and to make it interesting, and hopefully educational. My favorites for this are Smartypig, and ING. Smartypig is a savings account available to the residents of the US and Australia, with two key features; you can subdivide your savings goals into specific categories (e.g. Christmas, flights home, car, etc.) and you can share those goals via social media like Facebook and Twitter, so that others can contribute. For Third Culture Kids, who often miss out on birthday gifts, or for family and friends who struggle with postage or currency issues, this is a fantastic tool. ING offer a wider range of services and are global, but still have the convenience of internet based banking, and the ability to subdivide goals. They also offer child accounts, which allow transfers of funds either electronically, or by mail.

Credit Karma

A free credit history website which “allows consumers to get access to their credit score anytime they want for free without the sneaky “free” trials or subscription requirements”. It also suggests a million and one financial products that ‘might be of interest’, but I’m willing to ignore these to get what is a very good overview of my credit, and an understanding of how different financial behaviors (e.g. keeping my balance below 20% of my credit limit, opening another card) will affect my score. As I am currently preparing to buy a house, and my credit score affects my mortgage rate offers, I am finding it invaluable.

Learnvest / Mint / Quicken

All three of these bring all your financial accounts together online or on your mobile device, automatically categorize your transactions, let you set budgets and help you meet your savings goals. You have to be comfortable with letting a third-party access your accounts and transaction, but for those of you who hate inputting data into spreadsheets, they do the hard work for you. They take time to set up effectively, as you need to set budgets, but they do help you gain an understanding of where your money is really going. The first two are free, but if you don’t want your information stored online, Quicken does the same job for a fee, and will let you download information from your account so you don’t have to do everything the long way. Take note though; if you don’t take the time to set up a spending plan /budget, these only tell you where your money has gone, which is a little like shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted.

The first recommendation forms the backbone of your financial management – making decisions about your spending, and maintaining clarity and control over your finances.  The others are the icing on the cake, and make the process simpler by allowing you to track / manage / save your money more easily. They also all have the advantage of being portable – as long as you have a laptop / mobile device and internet access, financial wizardry is at your fingertips. Now if we could just make money magically appear…

 

Driving forces – Cultural Observations of the (incompetent) Trailing Spouse..

When you are a relocating trailing spouse, cultural orientation comes in many forms. I had a British driving moment yesterday, which bearing in mind I’m in the US, is not such a good thing. I was turning out of a petrol (gas) station, and without thinking, ended up on the left side, much to the alarm of the guy in the truck coming towards me..

It’s one of the many curses of the expatriate life. No sooner do you get a valid driving license, than you are relocated to parts unknown where the rules are completely different, the steering wheel is on the wrong side, and the potential for disaster is immense.

Take Britain, for instance. Much to my driving instructor’s exasperation, it took me four years and five attempts to pass my driving test, and not before I could juggle, had a degree, and could legally inject people with controlled substances. My first car was an ancient Volkswagen Golf, which had a steering wheel on the right, a gear stick in the middle, and a cassette player that gradually ate its way through my music collection.

The rules of the road in Wales are simple and mainly involve staying on your own side of the road and taking your foot off the accelerator when the word “ARAF” appears in large white letters on the tarmac. While the correct translation is “slow”,  it usually signals impending doom, anything from a single lane blind bend to a large combine harvester blocking the road.

Other potential obstacles include large dairy herds (twice daily for milking), errant sheep (for every one you can see in the road, there’s three more waiting to jump out of the hedge), tractors with large blades attached, and the fact that every piece of relevant highway information is in Welsh.

Oh, and most of the roads are single track  back roads with 12 ft high banks of granite cunningly camouflaged by primroses, designed in ancient times to lure the unwary tourists of the future to lose their wing mirrors, passenger door paintwork, and no claims bonuses..

Just when you’ve mastered rudimentary Welsh and the emergency stop, the internal driving obstacles appear – children.

Suddenly, keeping your eyes on the road is made impossible by the sight of a small person behind you sticking foreign objects up a nostril, rubbing banana into the upholstery, or (my personal favorite) opening the door while passing the Swindon exit at 70 mph on the M4.

Car manufacturers fail to allow for multiples of children, of different ages and developmental abilities, ‘helping’ you by making sure the child lock is on for their little sister while you are loading the car. I invented the term “Rodeo driving’ – the art of hanging on to the steering wheel with one hand, while swiping furiously at the rear seat with the other in an attempt to stave off the latest catastrophe, usually involving sibling near death experiences.

There needs to be a “Highway Code for Parents” which outlines just what driving actions are to be taken when Offspring No.1 decides to feed large lumps of banana to (newborn and now somewhat purple) Offspring No.2, and the nearest motorway service station is 14 miles away.

Lest you think there are no advantages to having children in the car, however, I must confess that the only speeding ticket I never received was when I had my 8 day old son in the car with me, and was stopped for doing 37mph in a 30 mph zone. Inexplicably, I was on my way to the Other Half’s office with an enormous batch of homemade profiteroles, which were wedged firmly in the lap of my newborn. The policeman took one look at my red-rimmed eyes, my hormonal state, and my infant son buried under dessert for 30, and obviously decided that this was one he didn’t want to have to try and explain in court.

Accidents in Wales were greeted with little drama. Most of the vehicles on the road already bore the scars of the stone banks, the narrow bridges and the supermarket shopping trolleys, so minor scuffs were no cause for alarm.

More serious accidents involved calling the police, who rather enjoyed the chance to drive really, really fast to the only interesting thing that had happened that week, and then make sure they got a very detailed family history so that they could tell on you to your mother, your boss, and all their mates down the pub.

Fast forward eight years, and the Other Half relocates to Kenya. Despite his many and varied promises for help, support and gifts, what he really meant was “I’m going back to work on Tuesday, so here’s a 4WD vehicle, a very out of date map, and a sticker to get through the security gate. Have a magical day”. Although the road signs were all familiar, the interpretations were very, very different, and can be summed as ” avoid the potholes; only stop when there is a policeman watching”.

The roads were appalling, with the tarmac laid over red soil, so that every rainy season, the supporting earth was washed away from underneath, and huge, axle-breaking chasms appeared. New ones could be easily identified by the white toyota corollas stranded at strange angles, or upended matatus (13 seater minibuses which are the main public transport) with amused commuters watching while the driver and conductor valiantly attempt to restore it to its wheels.

Accidents in Kenya are commonplace – rarely did a day go by without seeing a bus on its roof, having veered too close to the steep sides of the road. And yet not once did I see anger on display, either on the road or off it. Horns blared constantly, driving was an extreme sport, and yet apologies were standard, and the worst insult I ever heard our driver, Gerishom, offer, when witnessing a particularly disastrous piece of speeding, was ‘You see, this man? He is not very good at his job.”

Enter Los Angeles, where they drove on the wrong side of the road, turned right on red lights, and never, ever used  their indicators. The vehicles were huge and covered with tribal decals(everything from satanic symbols to Girl Scout logos), people passed you at high speed on both sides, horns blared constantly, and the anger was palpable.

Especially on the school run. I have never seen such aggression, and from women who were on their way to explain how “Character Counts” to eight year olds. The size of the vehicle was inversely proportional to the number and age of the children, and woe betide you if you paused a nanosecond to long at a stop sign en route to school. These women may only be a size zero, but they were fueled by days at the gym, caffeine and hunger. They were the maternal version of napalm.

Accidents in LA can only be resolved with the help of lawyers, three months of physical therapy and an astronomical insurance premium. Million dollar ‘umbrella’ insurance provides the liability version of the airbag, and the focus was less on actual injury and damage and far more on emotional distress and potential future incapacity. And never, ever say sorry. It said so on your insurance documents..

Ironically, the only time I have ever been hit by a car was in LA. Heavy traffic, stop lights every 200 metres, and a driver behind who was changing radio station, all combined to insert the front of his car into the rear of mine. We both pulled into a side street, where the offending driver jumped out and, ignoring all insurance guidelines, proceeded to apologize profusely, and check my somewhat battered Volvo for (additional) damage. In true British fashion, I politely told him that all was well, I had sustained no injuries, the car was fine, and thanked him for actually stopping to check on my welfare. He looked at me like I had grown an extra head, got back in his car and sped off into the dense traffic, with me waving gaily behind.

Gerishom would have been proud..

 

My Favorite Ways to Choose a Neighborhood.

Choosing a neighborhood is partly to do with practicalities, and partly to do with your own preferences, all of which are different for every person or family.

 

Go for a drive

This is my personal favorite, and the one I do first when choosing locations. Getting in the car (or on a bike, which is often even better) and just driving around the residential areas will quickly give you a clear snapshot of the people around you and the lives they lead. Are the houses single family homes or townhouses, condos, apartment blocks? What is the level of maintenance, and are the homeowners out maintaining them, or playing in the yards or local parks. Are people out walking or cycling? Do people stop and say hello if you are walking? Are children playing in the street, and are they supervised? Do the houses have very evident security features, and high fences, or are the yards open?

 

And what about dogs – often the breeds of dogs give clues about what type of needs the local people have – are they ‘vanity’ or ‘toy’ breeds such as Yorkies, Chihuahuas or Shi-tzus; family dogs like mutts, Labradors, Retrievers etc, or are they guard dog breeds – German shepherds, Dobermanns, Pit bulls or Rottweilers. And yes, I know these are broad generalizations, but you can see what might reflect your own lifestyle choices. Some of us see children playing on the street as a sign that it is an area with strong family values, a safe neighborhood, and calm traffic; others see it as a potential for broken windows, loud noise levels and no peace. It’s not about what these characteristics mean to others, it’s what they mean for you and your day to day living. What do I look for? Single family homes, homeowners carrying out their own maintenance, no gated communities, a mixture of all age groups, dogs that don’t bark incessantly whose owners pick up after them. And yes, I do have three dogs who have been with us for a total of 24 years and 3 continents, so it’s not that I don’t like dogs.

 

 

Shop at the Stores – (especially grocery stores!)

Everyone has to eat, even stick thin celebrities, so one of the quickest ways to get a snapshot of your local community is to head to the local grocery stores. All of them.

Not only do you get a pretty accurate picture of the local demographics, you also get a quick and dirty on their driving skills, their manners, and their eating habits. Oh, and if you are single, it’s a great place to meet fellow singletons..

 

Parks & Recreation Facilities

While you may never see anyone during working hours, here’s where you get to see your neighbors at play. But it’s also where you get to see how they behave in the sandbox – do they share, do they fight, or do they all play together nicely. Remember those school days when you watched the dynamics of the school playground? Well, the names and ages may have changed, but the rules sure haven’t, and here’s where you decide which team to try out for.. Or not.

 

So while we’ve taken a lighthearted look at good ways to check out your new neighbors, the bottom line is this – how did it all make you feel? Sure, you don’t know anyone, but did the places and people make you feel comfortable and want to hang around, or did the little voice inside you tell you to get in the car and drive on to the next place? Call it intuition, call it gut feeling, call it what you want, but it’s actually you picking up on all the social signals that are sent out, and your job is to hear what’s being said, and decide whether you agree or not.. Happy hunting!