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Budget Breakthroughs for Expats

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How to find financial balance while working abroad.

Money is one of—if not the—biggest factors to consider before moving to work abroad. There are start-up expenses like flights, visa and healthcare costs, and set-up expenses to get your feet on the ground. And of course, adapting to a new city means adapting your sense of living costs, too.

But once your life is settled into something resembling normal and your first paycheque arrives, how do you find financial balance when all you want to do is soak up every second of your limited time in your new city?

My natural inclination is to impose a strict budget, but I soon realized that the kind of budget I lived on in Canada didn’t mix well with living in the city I’d been dreaming about my whole life. I was sacrificing too much. I needed to shift my mindset and accept a new kind of financial balance. Here’s how I did it.

Stop converting currencies 

When you start earning a regular income in the currency of the country you’re in, stop converting to your home currency in your head. Trust me; it only leads to madness.

I just spent £2.50 on a regular coffee. When I first got here, I converted every time: $4.00?! But I’m not here on a vacation spending Canadian dollars—I live here and earn an income in pounds. If I continued to convert everything I purchased, it would prevent me from doing anything at all.

Budget in your new home’s currency and temporarily pause your inner conversion app.

Scope out what’s free

When you land in your new city, one of your first financial objectives should be to figure out what you can do for free or for very little. 

For example, in London nearly all museums are free—and they’re some of the best in the world. If I’m particularly tight on cash, and a friend wants to do something one day, I’ll suggest a museum I haven’t been to yet.

The UK also has a brilliant offer at most grocery stores called £3 Meal Deals. This involves a pre-made sandwich/salad/pasta, a snack, and a drink. Sure, you can’t live on that forever, but you sure as heck can suggest it as a lunch option to your museum-going friend!

Boom. A Saturday outing and it only cost you £3.

It takes a bit of research, but every city will have some ways for you to get out and explore on the cheap.

Allow yourself “extra essentials”

It goes without saying that the first thing you need to do with your paycheque is set aside funds for the essentials: rent, groceries, transit, any necessary bills and savings. But whenever I’m able, I then budget for “extra essentials.”

For example, I’m a theatre junkie, and I now happen to live in one of the best cities in the world for theatre. So I tuck £20 away every month for this, and just like that I can go to the theatre at least once a month.

These extras may change monthly. Maybe you know your friend is coming to visit in six weeks’ time, or you have a long weekend getaway to Germany on the horizon. Whatever it may be, make it one of your extra essentials, and set what you can aside from each paycheque. 

I’m not advocating an intense kind of guacamole-abstinence as the key to financial success. I’m just saying that the beauty of being aware of every dollar is that you can save.

After you budget for your essentials and extra essentials, the funds that remain are what you have to play with. Some months it will be a big pool, others you may have to be more careful—but the beauty of budgeting for a secondary level of “essentials” is that some splurges are already worked right into your financial plans.

Act like every dollar matters (because it does)

This may seem self-explanatory, but I’m constantly amazed at how little people think about small purchases. And I firmly believe that simply not paying attention to these is one of the main reasons money drains so quickly.

For example, I think we all have a tendency to say to ourselves, “Oh, adding guacamole to this order of nachos is only an extra £3.00. That’s nothing!” But let’s say you do an average of eight extra activities a month that you didn’t originally budget for. A pint here, a brunch there. If you sacrifice the metaphorical £3.00 guac every time, but still indulge in the nachos themselves, that’s £24 saved. That's about the same cost as a flight from London to Germany.

To be clear, I’m not advocating an intense kind of guacamole-abstinence as the key to financial success. I’m just saying that the beauty of being aware of every dollar is that you can save small amounts here and there without sacrificing the activity itself. You’re still making the most of your time abroad, and your bank account will be better for it.

Still treat yourself

Generally, I like to live by a 90/10 rule when it comes to finances. Ninety per cent of the time, I hold myself accountable to adhering to the budget decisions I made at the start of the month. Ten per cent of the time, I cut myself some slack.

As with before, I try to do this consciously. If I splurge today, that likely means I won’t do it tomorrow—or maybe even for the next full week. Adding these little splurges into your life can not only add to your experiences within your new city, but they’ll likely prevent you from cracking under the pressure of a too-strict budget and splurging too often.

Working abroad will likely be an experience that you look back on later in life and name as one of your very best. You owe it to yourself to enjoy it. Finance is and should be a major consideration in how you live your life abroad, but with a little organization, awareness, and research, you can make that money work in your favour.

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Published in Work Abroad Blogs
Ashley McCallan

Ashley McCallan studied English and writing and worked in book publishing before moving to England on a Youth Mobility visa. She now lives in London, works in Project Administration, and is as in love with Big Ben as the day she arrived.

Website: www.instagram.com/ashleymccallan055/

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