Don't Do This If You Want To Move Abroad

The writer, Dave Smurthwaite, with his family in France. Dave Smurthwaite

The most common mistakes that prevent people from realizing their dreams of living abroad. 

How does it sound to leave home behind?

• The drawn-out screech of heavy screen door opening. . .
• The muffled grind of a house key turning in its lock. . .
• The tick, tick, tick of small luggage wheels skipping over the sidewalk. . .
• One last deafening clang as the screen door slams us adieu.

It’s 6 a.m. on a Tuesday when the six of us tick, tick, tick away from our emptied home and into two large minivans. In tow are four little boys, ages 11, 9, 7 and 4. In hand are four musical instruments, four suitcases, six backpacks, and one travel kennel housing a Newfoundland/Basset Hound mix (picture Falcor from The NeverEnding Story with shaggy black hair).

That’s all we claim as essential for this new adventure.

With a deafening swarm of emotions buzzing in my head, we back out of the deserted driveway. As four little boys anxiously look back to the only home they’ve ever known disappearing around the corner, we push off into the unknown.

How does one take a family of four kids and one pup, strip down their lives to what they can push around on three luggage carts, and move over 8,000 kilometres to a French village for over three years?

It might sound impossible to you, but trust me it’s not. Here are four key lessons that our family learned in making the leap that will help you get started.

1. DON’T look back (or sideways, or any other direction but forward).

Okay, seeing as you’ve gotten this far into the article, humour me with a quick exercise:

Imagine where you’d like to be six months or a year from now. Now close your eyes for 30 seconds and try to picture the sights, hear the sounds, even smell the aroma of your dream destination.

Seriously, close your eyes and do it, now for at least 30 seconds.

Now honestly ask yourself: What’s one thing I can do to take a single step closer to that destination?

Resolve to do it today. Google the average cost of living, check out monthly rentals on Airbnb, read up on visa requirements, and research your home valuation or a property manager in your network. The exercise won’t cost you a thing but could become a defining bookmark in the start an exciting next chapter.

Early on in your journey, you’ll discover that picking up and seeking the unknown is largely limited by your mindset. Sure there are financial considerations and the completely rational fear of the unknown, but believe me when I say that the minute we decided as a family to make the move abroad, doors started appearing: A family friend knew someone to contact in France, I found an MBA program that offered me both a visa and an exceptional scholarship, our house’s value increased right before selling.

The trick is, you have to be willing to make the effort of reaching out, turning the door handle, and passing through each threshold as they appear.

Here are three major questions we had to address:

• What will we do with our home? Selling our home gave us a financial security net and helped reduce the risk factor. Renting out your home, however can provide monthly income that might help supplement changes in employment or just go towards your travel budget.

• What will we do for income? I went to my employer, explained our situation, and let them know I’d love to keep working for them remotely. Thankfully, my role allowed for such a transition. If you’re unsure about how to make the transition to a remote working situation, I highly recommend watching this Tim Ferris video to get started. 

What will we do for school? We wanted our kids to have an immersive experience, which meant throwing them into a small village school. While abroad, we’ve witnessed families living a full range of education plans, from world schooling (allowing the experience to be the primary educator), to homeschooling, to online schooling, to international and local schools. It might seem intimidating at first, but know there are a lot of ways to educate and a lot of parent mentors willing to share

Remember, looking and moving forward will accelerate your journey exponentially. Looking back, sideways or any other direction will only delay your departure by months or, worse, a lifetime.

2. DON’T hesitate to ditch everything that doesn’t matter in order to get there. (Hint: This is 98 per cent of everything you own.)

Think it sounds hard to sell the stuff you own in order to fund your next adventure? Believe me, it’s not. People sell their homes, their cars or get out of leases every day for a lot less important reasons.

My wife and I were still newlyweds when we knew we wanted this adventure for our family. Pre-kids, pre-puppy, pre-mortgage, we knew where travel took us intellectually and emotionally.

As soon as we decided to move abroad, Craigslist became our best friend. We listed bikes, appliances, toys and any other random belonging that was either valuable or intriguing enough to sell.

For everything else, we held a massive garage sale. By the end of the day, between friends, family, and complete strangers we had sold or donated 90 per cent of our stuff. We didn’t make a fortune, but it helped pay for a chunk of our family’s airfare (over $5,000). More than the cash, selling our “stuff” suddenly liberated us from everyday life. We were so light on our feet; so ready to soar.

Looking back, we still held on to at least five per cent too much. Don’t make the same mistake: dump and jump. You won’t regret simplifying no matter how long you plan on being abroad. And, for all those things with which you can’t bear to part, there’s always long-term storage.

3. DON’T worry about what you’re leaving behind

For us, by far the hardest part of leaving America was family. When we’re having hard times abroad, it’s family that we look back to longingly, wishing they were close by to make us feel comfortable and cozy.

Our hope is that in walking away from what was easy will allow us to develop new habits and strengths as a family. In our isolation, we’re reminded time and time again that it’s the quality of life’s moments shared—not the quantity—that truly deepens our relationships. Like adding new spices to life, our experience abroad has infused every relationship we treasure with more flavour.

All this has happened because we decided one day to invest in the unknown. What we’ve found is that as soon as we started building, the people we care most about came. They came and added to our experience because they love us and they want to taste a piece of what we’re experiencing as a family.

4. DON’T ignore the itch

My wife and I were still newlyweds when we knew we wanted this adventure for our family. Pre-kids, pre-puppy, pre-mortgage, we knew where travel took us intellectually and emotionally. Our desire was to make sure that travel (in the form of authentic cultural exchange) became the most vibrant threads in the tapestry of our family’s life story.

If you’ve gotten this far in the article it means you’ve got a similar itch. Perhaps you’re looking to wade into a short-term stint abroad (60 to 90 days); perhaps you’re looking for a long-term adventure. Whatever the itch, the best piece of advice I can offer is start scratching away.

Once you stop dancing around the idea and instead take it by the hand, I promise it will take the lead. Where it leads you will undoubtedly be into the uncommon, the unfamiliar, which is precisely where you’ll find a better version of yourself, your couple, or your family.

So don’t let the itch pass you by for another wanderer on the platform; it’s you reminding you there’s a better way of life just waiting to be discovered.

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Published in Why we travel
Dave Smurthwaite

Dave Smurthwaite is a writer, a husband, a father of four amazing young boys, and co-founder (with his wife) of a startup dedicated to helping families experience personal change through the power of travel. For more help on getting your own family abroad, visit


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