In online expat forums, questions around expat finances 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 expat 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. 

The bottom line is expat or not, it is important you educate yourself and take control of your own financial situation. Stop putting it in the too overwhelming basket and start taking charge. You will not become a financial whiz in a day or a week or a month, but you will never become one if you don’t get started. 

Expats are often more open to talking about their finances and financial situation than most. However, they are still not great at it either. 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. 

 

Finances
Take control!

Where is your money

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. 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 (like a worldwide pandemic!) 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 financial goal. If it is retirement you are saving for, ask yourself where you will likely live, how much money you 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 backward 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.

Educate yourself about expat finances

For those of you who find the whole world of financial planning overwhelming and intimidating, you need to start educating yourself. As I mentioned earlier, in many ways, expat finances are not different from any other finances. Your options may sometimes differ due to your location. Start off reading whatever your friends recommend (see above!), and if you find what you are reading is over your head, ditch it and find something more accessible to you. 

Girls That Invest is a great way to educate yourself. It is a podcast based out of New Zealand, but most of the information is transferable to anywhere in the world. You can find them on Instagram, and their podcast is widely available on most platforms. If you listen to the podcast, start at episode 1 of season 1. It is like a mini-course in finance.

Ellevest is specifically aimed at women. Although they do offer financial services, their website has some great articles cover all things investing.

Vanguard is a very good place to start educating yourself on index funds. Again they do offer a service, but they also have great, comprehensive information on financial planning. 

Although The Motley Fool is a subscription-based service, they also have a lot of free content written in plain English covering the stock market. They are fans of index funds and have a lot of information around why these are a good option for lots of people.

Suzie Orman is also worth a look. She had loads of great articles covering everything from investing to insurance. The content is often aimed at women. 

Manage your own money

I am of the mind that you should be managing your own money, not be handing it over to someone else to manage. In this regard, expat finances are no different from non-expat finances. 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, just make sure you 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.

Make sure that an index 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 an index fund to see if it is worthwhile.  

If anyone makes you feel silly for asking a question, then they are not for you. If you feel like you are being belittled or spoken down to find someone else to educate you. Don’t be fooled into thinking there are stupid questions. It is your money, and you deserve to have a complete understanding of what is happening with it and how a product works.

Expat finances
It is your money and your future so ask as many questions as you need to!

How to invest as an expat

Don’t put all your money in one pot, this is true of all investing not just expat investing. 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. We know that it could go pear-shaped (because that’s not uncommon with startups) but the returns, if‌ ‌it‌ ‌succeeds, are significant. However, we did not invest more than we were prepared to lose. We are not reliant on that money now or ever.

Although we follow the progress, it is a case of invest and forget. We made an informed decision and are comfortable with it. We researched the people involved, the financial situation, and the short and long-term plan. Then we 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 investment, on the other hand, is a pretty safe bet. 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’s not bad either. It is a solid, reliable product that meets our needs. 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. As mentioned above, be open and upfront about your financial situation and what you are looking for when talking with people. Recommendations from friends are a great place to start. 

Investing as an expat may be more important since some foreign companies do not offer retirement options or you can’t invest in the local market. You can’t rely on your company to do it for you.

The two most important takeaways for expat finances

The two most important takeaways when it comes to expat finances are 1. take control of your situation and 2. to do this, you need to educate yourself. And for all the women out there, please be actively involved with your finances. You should know what your family’s financial situation is. 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 straightforward.


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