Expats are often more open to talking about their finances and financial situation than most but they are still not great at it. A lot of people are really lost when it comes to their finances and what they should be doing with their money. They are not sure where or even how to seek out information and are often reluctant to admit they don’t know where to start. 

In expat forums questions around this topic come up all the time. Questions range from the very general – what should we be doing with our money, through to more specific ones around offshore banking and tax issues. There is no one right answer for anyone. So many variables are involved even when you are not an expat but once you are an expat those variables increase tenfold. If you are a couple from different countries you can pile on a few more variables. 

Get involved with your finances.

Look at where you are now

Start with the basics. Firstly, you need to completely understand where you are today. Write it all down. Make sure you know where all your money is and the short, medium and long term implications of where it is. How well is it performing and how easy is it to get out if you chose to move it to something else. What is your likely income over the next 12, 24, 36 months and what are any big expenses you can foresee during that time? 

Work out how much cash you need to hold in case of hiccups and let’s face it we all know expats who have faced some major hiccups. Account for any large foreseeable expenses but also keep some cash in a safe easily accessible account in case of family emergencies, a sudden move, health issues or any other unforeseen drama that is all too common in expat life.

Don’t leave this up to your partner to do. Get involved. Ask questions. Clarify anything you are not sure of. Make sure you understand it all clearly and none of the details are hazy. Having it all in writing helps.

Start with a goal

Firstly, before you even start to think about what you should be doing with your money you need to set out what your goals are. Most expats seem to be looking for investments that will make their retirement dreams come true. This is not always the case, some are saving for their children’s university or a house back home.  Everyone’s goals will differ a bit but as with anything writing it down will clarify it. 

Secondly, look at your specific goal. If it is retirement you are saving for ask yourself where will you likely live, how much money will we need to live the lifestyle you want, how many years until retirement and include any other things that are important to you. When you have a clear picture you can start to work backwards to figure out a budget and how much money you will be able to save each week, month, year.

Once that figure is established and you can start to look at options. Your options partly depend on where your money to invest is coming from. Some people save each week so literally, have money each week or month to do things with. Others save their bonuses so have money quarterly or yearly to invest. These things all make a difference as to what is available to you. 

Talk about your finances

Don’t be afraid to ask around your friends to see what they do with their money. Some will be far more open to sharing information with you than others. Talking about your finances will also lead you in directions you had not thought about. It is amazing when you are open and upfront about your situation how willing people are to share information with you.  But no matter what never take someone else’s word as fact. Always, always do your own research. 

 

Don’t be afraid to be open about your financial situation. Talk to your friends – especially the ones you know are financially savvy.

Manage your own money

I am also of the mind that you should be managing your own money not be handing it over to someone else to manage. You are the person with the most vested interest in your finances so take charge of them. It is important you understand everything when it comes to your finances. Handing it over to someone else to do does not change that. If you are educated well enough to understand what a financial advisor is telling you you are educated well enough to do it for yourself.

That doesn’t mean you can’t invest in certain funds or financial products through a third party but again you should always do your own research. Don’t take recommendations at face value. Ask around about specific companies and their reputations and get online and research the products you are interested in and don’t be afraid to ask what you may perceive as stupid questions. Make sure that a tracking fund isn’t going to offer a similar, more reliable return than a managed fund. Check out the fees and what they might cost you and again compare it to a tracing fund to see if it is worthwhile.  

Spread your money around

Don’t put all your money in one pot. We personally have our money invested in four basic categories. Property, stock market, business and forestry. Four totally different areas. Some of them are more stable and conservative than others. Never invest more than you are prepared to lose in anything considered risky. 

We have invested in a startup app and know that it could go pear-shaped (because that’s not uncommon with startups) but the returns, if‌ ‌it‌ ‌succeeds, are significant. However, we have not invested more than we are prepared to lose. We are not reliant on that money now or ever and although we do follow the progress it is a case of invest and forget. We made an informed decision – researched the people involved, the financial situation, the short and long term plan for it and decided to give it a go but we were also aware that no matter how much research we did something like this was never going to be a safe, secure, sure thing. 

Our forestry, on the other hand, is a pretty safe investment. We know exactly what we are up for, what the laws governing it are, how it works, when we get a return and how much that return is likely to be. Is it a fabulous return? No, but it is a solid reliable product that meets our needs and we have used money we are reliant on for a successful retirement. It is a long term product that so far has acted exactly as expected. 

It is important to get some diversity in your portfolio. This takes time and effort and lots of research and as I mentioned above being open and upfront about your financial situation and what you are looking for. Recommendations from friends are a great place to start your research. 

The two most important takeaways

In case you haven’t got the point yet I think 1. talking with friends and colleagues about your situation and 2. research are the two most important elements when it comes to investing, especially if you are just getting started. And for all the women out there be actively involved with your finances. You should know what your family’s financial situation is and be part of the goal setting, planning, research and decision-making process. The more time you spend talking, reading and educating yourself the more you will realise that a lot of it is very straight forward. 

For those of you who find the whole thing overwhelming and intimidating just start. Start off reading whatever you can find and if you find what you are reading is over your head ditch it and find something more accessible to you. I will leave you with a list of websites to help get you started. Good luck!

Ellevest – this is specifically aimed at women and although they do offer financial services they have some great articles on their web site that cover all things investing.

Vanguard – a great place to start to educate yourself on tracer funds. They offer a service but have great, comprehensive information. 

The Motley Fool – although they offer subscription-based services they also have a lot of free content written in plain English covering the stock market.

Suzie Orman – loads of great articles covering everything from investing to insurance. 


Rachel Nelson is a New Zealand expat who has lived and worked in the US, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the UAE, Qatar and Germany.