Expat life plays havoc with your finances. Often you are paid in one currency but live day-to-day with another, creating a budget is impossible when you have no idea what you will need or what anything costs, and trying to keep track of your spending when you have to establish a whole new life, home and family is virtually impossible.
Every time you relocate, your expenses peak sharply – flights, hotels, car hire, home furnishings, increased fuel consumption while looking for houses.. The list is endless, and those of you who keep financial records will bear me out. And while many of these fees are paid directly by the relocating company, there are plenty that you will pay and claim back or generally be stuck with. So if you are going to have to pay out, you might at least get some benefits.
Here’s the harsh reality about expat finance. When you move to a new country, your credit history will (almost certainly) revert to zero, you will need vast amounts of documentation to open any sort of financial account, and if you are an accompanying partner you may not be eligible for an independent account. However, bear with me, because I have goods news. Used wisely, credit cards can not only make your financial life easier, but they will reward you for your excellent management..
It’s an approach that I have been using for the last two years, and I have a very nice dining table and sideboard to prove it – bought with the cash back earned simply by routing our household spending through our credit rather than debit cards, and enjoying the additional benefits of fraud and faulty goods protection while I’m at it. So if you too would like revenge on the credit card issuers who gouged you mercilessly when you were young(er) and naive, read on..
There are a number of rules in my devious master plan;
1. Get a no-fee credit card.
The earlier you have some form of local credit on record, the longer your credit history will be and, providing you manage it well, the better the rates for any future loans that you apply for will be. However, note that every application for credit causes a temporary dip in your credit score, so if you are applying for any other loans (car loan, mortgage etc., you might want to hold off until after those loans have been approved. The higher interest rate on your credit card won’t matter, because you won’t be carrying a balance from month to month, and so won’t incur charges. As for cards that charge a monthly fee, I can only ask why, when there are so many no-fee cards out there?
2. Don’t be tempted to take out store cards.
They may be easier to get, but the low credit limit and the additional pull on your credit score will hurt your credit history in the short term, and the benefits are less transferable. Keep to one card, at least in the early days. There is plenty of time to shop around later, once you have perfected your technique.
3. Sign up for online access.
For those of us who know the color of the carpet in half the airports of the world, the ability to check accounts at any time of the day or night is vital. More importantly, it allows you to keep a very close eye on your balance, your transactions and your spending patterns, which makes keeping financial accounts far easier.
4. Have Good fraud protection.
This is also essential, especially when you live in countries with high levels of internet and card fraud. Go for one that allows you to dispute a transaction online, immediately and 24 hours a day, without having to wait in a call centre queueing system. Also, check the small print for liability – in the US, Federal Law guarantees zero liability for incidences where there card details have been stolen, and $50 when the card has been lost or stolen. Note, however, that this is reliant on you notifying them within a specified time after the transaction takes place. Hence the need for online account access…
5.Get on the Cash Back Rewards Program.
Okay, so it doesn’t have to be cash back, but I have toyed with various other options (air miles, ) and became so fed up with the seemingly impossible task of redeeming them that now I just demand cash and buy budget flights from whomever I choose. A decent cash back program will offer between 1 and 2% of spend, and while that doesn’t sound like very much, when you add up the costs of relocating and regular daily expenses, you will be astonished at just how much you can gain.
6. Monitor your account activity.
We use our credit card like a debit card, and keep a close eye on our budget. For those of you who don’t have any idea what you spend from month to month, logging all your spending on one card means that someone else is keeping tabs on the money going out, and financial clarity is only a mouse click away.
It’s not just about catching fraudulent activity – you need to think of your credit card statement as a bank statement or cash flow report, and know when you have reached your limit. The detail on the statements allow you immediate, accurate access to your day-to day spending – vital information for creating an accurate financial plan and proactive financial management.
7. Pay the balance in full, every month.
No ifs, no buts. Carrying a balance from one month to the next will wipe out any benefits of the cash back immediately – it’s what the banks are counting on when they make the offer. If you can’t pay it off immediately, don’t buy it, because credit card interest rates are the most expensive ways of borrowing next to payday loans and loan sharks. If you are worried about how disciplined you can be, start small and get in the habit of monitoring your money at least weekly.
8. Keep to the credit card payment schedule.
Watch the due dates closely, because any payment before the monthly statement is issued won’t register against that statement. It sounds complicated, but the credit card company requires you make a payment between certain dates, so while you can make additional payments to keep the balance down throughout the month, make sure you make a payment according to the bank’s schedule. So, if your statement is issued on the 20th of the month, for payment by the 30th, payments made on the 19th may not count, and you may incur late payment or even missing payment fees and delinquent notices. Sounds crazy, but it’s true, so watch out for it.
9. Keep records.
Credit card companies don’t make money from good money managers, so read the fine print carefully, and remember that the minute you close your account, you will lose access to your financial records. So while the online access is vital to keeping track of your money, you may need paper records for tax and reimbursement purposes. Many unwary expats have been caught out when they close an account in preparation for leaving a country, only to discover that the instant their agreement ends, they no longer can access their past financial history with that credit company. If you will need records in the future, print off paper statements at regular intervals, up to the point when you terminate your agreement.
As someone who spent her 20’s and 30’s juggling due dates on credit and store cards and constantly dropping the financial ball, there is something intensely satisfying about turning the tables and not only using their resources to keep control of the money, but also make them pay for the privilege. Finally, a reason to smile when you open your credit card card statement..
Photo courtesy of George Eastman House