Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Expat Interrupted

How do you know when it’s time to move on?  

How do you judge if those annoying little elements of your new life overseas become more than simple bugbears?  

A few weeks ago, I posted on the going getting tough for me in Sydney, about the minor gripes in my life becoming more than just that, and about a pressing need to re-assess the current situation. To understand whether this expat should in fact get going, I first needed to understand what was really going on and whether major change was necessary.

Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons xiquinho

To do this, I made use of a couple of expat-related resources to help evaluate my situation, to determine what I wanted with my life overseas, and where I might find it.

I sought the opinion of a well-known expat coach, Megan Fitzgerald, who suggested I complete a brief exercise to better assess what my ideal day would look like, how that compared to my current day, and what were those things I could live with and could quite easily live without. The outcome would be an understanding of the extent to which life in Sydney was, or wasn't, delivering my ideal day and I could then take action to fix the situation.

Once I knew what I was looking for to create my ideal day and preferred way of life, I used the recently released Expat Explorer tool, which is a handy online resource for expats or potential expats wanting to understand how their wants and needs match up with possible countries to live in, based on the experiences of expats across the world who were surveyed one year previously.

By selecting my preferred criteria on the tool, I was able to draw down a list of possible places to call home that best matched that criteria. I could then compare these selected countries with my current home to see how each place stacked up. In other words, in which country would the local people make me feel more comfortable at work? In which country would I find a better work-life balance? Where would commuting be least painful? Where was the housing of best quality?

At the end of these exercises, I had a much better sense of what I originally went looking for, what was still important to me, and in which country I could have that different, less ordinary way of life. I reconfirmed that I went in search of a life that would involve more time with my family and less time spent in the office. I wanted a life less stressful and more relaxed, with increased time outdoors and stimulation from my immediate environment. Most of all, I did not want to be that guy sat in front of the TV night after night, full of regrets at passing up opportunities, unhappy with his lot in life, and destined to infinite suburban boredom. 

And the outcome... just where is the best place for us to live such a life?

It will come down to one of three places. And with family and friends in all three locations, it will never be easy but, one way or the other, our interrupted expat life will get back on track. Watch this space. 

Are you deciding whether it’s time to move on? Have you tried any exercises to help evaluate what you’re looking for, such as the Expat Explorer tool or even the services of an expat coach?  If so, I'd love to know how you got on?

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Saturday, 14 May 2011

Winter? What Winter?

Something strange is happening in Australia.

The clocks have changed and the nights are getting darker. The mornings have freshened up and the sun is sitting lower in the sky. The average temperature has dropped and daily life is becoming a little chilly. Winter has officially arrived in the southern hemisphere. Or has it?

You see, unless I’m mistaken, the other telltale signs of winter are missing.

Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons Richard Gifford

It’s 7 o’clock in the morning, I’m walking my dog and it’s bloody freezing. It may be a balmy 10 degrees Celsius by northern hemisphere standards but, after five years of acclimatisation here, I’m positively chilled to the bone. As I nod to the neighbour and acknowledge my fellow dog walkers, I sense something is not quite right. Where are their outer garments? No jackets, no jumpers, not even a glove. This seems unusual given the nip in the air but perhaps they left home in a hurry?

I drive to my office in Sydney, with the heating turned up and the windows wound tight. Rain clouds threaten overhead and the harbour looks murky and grey. As I slow down for the city exit, a stream of cars pass me by – a Jeep with its top down, a convertible Saab with the roof folded back, and a smart looking Beamer with sunroof wide open. I am struck by the bravado of these drivers on such a dreary morning. Surely they’re feeling the cold?

At lunchtime, I brave the wind tunnels that form between the Sydney office blocks and gaze in awe at the number of female Sydneysiders tottering down the street in small scraps of clothing. Wearing what can only be described as fashion normally confined to the bedroom, they negotiate the bustling pavements with scant regard for the day’s cool temperatures. Perhaps Australian women are a tougher breed than I realised?

Later that day, I head home after work. Soon after purchasing a house on Sydney’s Northern Beaches at a price that would make your hair go curly, I discovered to my displeasure that our heavily mortgaged house did not actually have any heating. Purchased in the middle of an Australian summer, I laughed this off as a non-issue but, upon entering the house on this wintry evening, I can almost hear the estate agent laughing right back.

The house is so cold that a hot mist escapes from my mouth. Not only is there no heating but also no insulation, no double pane glass, and no longer any carpet. I also now possess the world’s single most expensive electric heater, which I plug into the wall and watch helplessly as the warm air drifts up out the ceiling and evaporates through the walls. Maybe the original house builders forgot to install the heating?

Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons Tatters

I sit down and weigh things up. I have seen no jackets, hats or gloves being worn. I have watched open-top cars cruise past, then watched scantily-clad female city workers navigate the business district. Now I sit in my unheated house. And all this set against the onset of winter. I seem to be the only person aware that winter is here and apparently the only one feeling the cold. I start to suspect there is a case of Australian denial taking place. A refusal on the part of Aussies to accept that winter is really here.

For Australia is, after all, known to its people as God’s country. A place where the sun never stops shining, the sandy beaches are infinitely golden, and the temperature is always turned up high. The very idea of winter goes against everything that Australia stands for. Winter is a grim and depressing affair. It is a time for hibernation, not outdoor pursuits. A time to huddle around the fire as dark nights draw in, not a time to embrace the ‘barbie’ and spend long evenings sat on the deck with a chardonnay in one hand and a jumbo-sized prawn in the other. Winter is for people in the northern part of this world, while Australians will settle for summer any day of the year.

So winter obviously doesn’t fit with the Australian psyche. “It’s un-Australian, mate”, I can almost hear the cry. This would also include complaining about the weather or acknowledging any drop in temperature, judging by the acts of outdoor bravery and courage I witnessed on this unpleasantly cold day.

The winter deniers are out in force here and I must be in the minority. Forget talk of picturesque frosty mornings or cosy nights spent in the warm. Winter is a taboo subject and a season that Australians seem keen to ignore.

Have you experienced winter in Australia and how did you find it (and did you acknowledge it out loud!)?  Did you even know that it gets cold in Australia?

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Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Credit Where It's Due... Please?

A letter from the bank landed on my doormat this week offering yet another increase to my credit card limit. This was the third such letter in as many months and it made me reflect on how much my situation has changed since I left England eight years ago.

Credit is a funny thing. When you don’t want it, the banks can’t help but send you endless offers for more but when you need it the most, there’s often none to be found.

Those first few months living as an expat eight years ago were tough financially. In the UK, I had a good job and salary, numerous credit cards, a sizeable mortgage, a car purchased through a bank loan, and an unchequered credit history. All that would be forgotten as I landed in this new country and my past was scrubbed clean. I was effectively a new identity, with no record of daily life here and no financial history to speak of.

Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons Andres Rueda

I had set up a local bank account but that was it. I had no credit cards, no established relationship with my bank, and certainly no creditable reputation upon which anybody would choose to lend money to me. I had even taken steps to request my entire credit history from the UK authorities as demonstration of my credit worthiness but this would prove irrelevant. My unblemished credit track record was worthless and I had to start building a history all over again. I was a ‘credit ghost’.

But why would the issue of credit matter so much in those early months? Plain and simply, establishing credit was a critical component for my financial security. For example, without a credit history, I was not able to have my electricity, water or telephone turned on in my new home unless I was prepared to pay a hefty deposit. I was not able to secure a mobile phone contract, not able to arrange a car loan so I could get from A to B, and not able to secure a mortgage for my dream house.

I found this extremely frustrating as I had committed to this place, dotted the i’s and crossed all the t’s in the way the authorities had asked me to, yet I felt that I still hadn’t been truly accepted or was being trusted. So much in the modern world relies on the use of credit and existing without it was no mean feat. I was an unknown quantity yet I needed finances to build my new life. I did not have vast quantities of Sterling to bring with me and found myself living hand to mouth with the money I had traveled with. Those early days were not smooth sailing.

And the outcome? I chipped away at the banks and other financial institutions over time in an attempt to build a credit history. Day by day and month by month, I made every effort to tie myself financially to the country I now lived in. My wages flowed into a basic bank account, I avoided going ‘into the red’ which would blemish any track record, I requested an overdraft facility from the bank which would eventually be given, and I paid my utility bills by cheque each month in the hope that I was becoming associated with timely payments and low risk.

Photo credit: WIN-Initiative / Alamy

I would also regularly apply to those generic credit card offers that come through the door. One bank in particular would send out credit card offers on a frequent basis and would eventually approve an application, offering me a ridiculously low limit of $250. Over time, this card would become the backbone of my financial security as the card limit increases crept up to a more useful level.
The moral of this story is that it pays to be patient - but also to prepare.

It pays to set up a bank account in your chosen destination in advance of moving there. The simple act of moving money into that account several months before arrival will generate a transaction record with your bank, the beginnings of a relationship, and ultimately an offer of credit down the line.  

Furthermore, upon arrival, the bank or credit card companies may offer a credit card based on the funds sat in your new account. For instance, if you have $10,000 in the bank, then the bank would in all likelihood offer you a credit card with a $10,000 limit. But do not take my word for it. These are my experiences and these things change so often.

At the end of the day, do the research and be prepared. It may suit you to rely on the credit cards from your home country until your overseas credit comes online but you will need to keep back some money in that country in order to pay the monthly bill.

Having no financial history and no credit for those first 6 to 12 months in my adopted country was a major hardship during my early expat life. Only now, eight years later and two countries on, do I look back and reflect on those testing times, wondering how I got by with my $250 credit card.

I got by because I had to, because I had no choice, and because it was part and parcel of this grand expat adventure. And, anyway, who said expat living was supposed to be easy?

Have you got any interesting credit-related 'war' stories to share? 

Did you ever find yourself in a situation where the banks wouldn't trust you and you only had the use of a dwindling supply of hard cash to get by with?

This appeared in The Telegraph's Finance section on 4 May 2011 - http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/personalfinance/offshorefinance/8488177/Credit-where-its-due...-please.php

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