By Felicia S.
I recently found myself shelling out some $200 for a pair of waterproof walking shoes (for an upcoming trip to Europe) and as I got out my credit card I had a flashback to when I bought my first pair of shoes as an expat in California. The shoes were nothing to write home about and the experience was not notable for any other reason than that, as a newly arrived expat, I had no idea what to think about the $30 price tag. I was a trailing spouse with no income of my own and no point of reference for what things cost. Looking back to that first year, I can see that I really had no idea what I was getting into in terms of finances. As a matter of fact, I get a slight panic attack just thinking about how little I knew and had prepared for.
My husband and I arrived in Silicon Valley young and naïve, taking my husband’s comparatively substantial salary at face value and not thinking farther than that we needed to pay rent and utilities and buy food. Everything else was peripheral and, in our minds, minor in terms of expenses. As you can imagine, we were in for some rough surprises. One of my first shocks was our phone bill – calling overseas in 1994 was expensive, and FaceTime and Skype were not yet invented. We quickly learned that calls back home would be time constrained and not as frequent as we wanted them to be. Turns out, the phone bill was really not a big deal compared to some of our other financial discoveries. My husband was a contractor and we had to buy our own health insurance – oops! Never mind actually qualifying for a health plan, which was hard enough, the cost was outrageous and not really in our budget. I was going back to school but somehow we had forgotten to budget for tuition – oops again! Our family and friend obligations back home suffered, as we could not afford airfare – I missed my best friend’s wedding; my husband could not visit one of his friends during a serious medical emergency.
We never took the time to consider the big picture in terms of expenses when we decided to embark on our big expat adventure. It is not difficult to see that our lack of financial insight and planning led us to some very cash strapped days and some hard choices. We had many weeks where we existed solely on pancakes for dinner. We constructed a desk out of cardboard boxes because we could not afford to buy one – turns out the desk served us well for over a year and no harm was done. In hindsight I can think that these experiences built character and resilience. Sometimes we remind ourselves of those lean days by singing our made up “box-for-a-desk, pancakes-for-a-week”-song. Honestly though, and maybe I say this because I am older now and have less tolerance for instability and uncertainty, the right thing for us to have done would have been some due diligence to figure out our real financial parameters. It would have saved us a lot of headaches and even some heartaches!