This post is about the areas I wish I’d given more focus. There are plenty of things you need to consider when planning a relocation abroad and you may have already thought about some (or all) of the areas I’m talking about here, which is great. My points below will hopefully give you a few additional things to add to your considerations as well as help you feel comfortable that you’ve given each area the attention it needs to avoid problems further down the line. I’ve tried to include my personal experience on a lot of these to give you a feel for what you might go through.
I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that relocating to another country is a big deal. How much of a big deal it is will ultimately depend on your current situation. For example, someone relocating their wife/husband and two kids probably has a greater challenge ahead of them than a young single person relocating by themself. Some relocation challenges will be shared (language barrier, sorting out utilities and so on) and others will be unique (schooling, more pressure to get the finances right, support network for spouse etc). Take a look through and hopefully you’ll find some information that’ll help you with your decision making process.
1. Impact on the family you relocate (including you)
This is one of the areas that I think can be key to make our break in a foreign country. I had blinkers on when we were considering our relocation to Spain and I found ways of masking the very real issues of isolation and loneliness with positivity in other areas.
Ask yourself the following questions:
- How independent are you, your spouse, your kids? How much do you rely on others when times are challenging (be honest with yourself here in terms of how much you rely on others)
- How do you feel when you go somewhere you’ve never been before? Do you feel out of place, uncomfortable etc? How long does it last?
- How good are you/your family at mingling with new people? Particularly different types of people from different cultures/backgrounds
- An awkward one, but how strong are your relationships? Have you had to go through challenging times in the past and how did you all handle them?
- Do your family rely on you for a lot of things? Can you still provide these things with all the pressures of being in a foreign country, doing a new job and trying to get everything else settled? How could you still support them?
- Individual states of mind. Are you generally positive or negative about situations? Are you an optimist or a pessimist? Do you focus on problems or solutions? What about your family and their attitudes?
You have to be realistic when it comes to evaluating how others will cope with a situation that you’re creating. I wasn’t realistic and just convinced myself that everything would work out great. Had I spent more time focusing on the practicalities for my family I think things would have worked out differently.
2. Impact on the family you leave behind
It’s easy to think that this one will be an ‘out of sight out of mind’ situation but for me that couldn’t have been further from the truth. I was constantly thinking about the fact that I had whisked my wife and daughter away from the people they love and cherish, and those people could resent me for it. I knew our family were sad about us going but I don’t think I ever really took the time to sit down with them and really talk to them honestly about how they were feeling and what their hopes/fears were.
Don’t underestimate the pressure from this area. And even though not everyone will air their views about the move, you’ll get a sense for how they’re feeling soon enough.
All I would say here is just communicate with people. Talk to them, ask them questions, give them reassurance that you know what you’re doing and that you have a plan. Give them your time and let them know that you care how they feel and how this will impact them. And obviously play the ‘it’ll be somewhere for you to go on holiday for cheaper’ card if you really need to!
3. Building your new support network and feeling part of something
A key element of success in any relocation is how quickly you can integrate into:
- the local community
- the expat community
- groups of people with like minded interests
- any other type of social group/gathering that will provide support and friendship
Your social circle can have a huge impact on you and your family’s well being. Feeling part of a community is really important for most people and feeling like an outsider can lead to isolation, negativity and regret.
It’s definitely worth searching the net for people/groups in the area you’re looking to relocate to and then finding out what they get up to and how they help others to socialise and meet new people. As an example, my daughter joined an international pre-school in Barcelona so my wife built up a few contacts through that. We also used a variety of sites to get a feel for the social aspects of the areas we were interested in. Here’s a list of some of those sites:
– www.mumabroad.com – mainly aimed at mums and Spanish relocation. It has a load of content about schooling and social network building so well worth a look. It includes interviews with local people and teachers.
– www.britsabroad.com – as per the title, this is mostly aimed at British residents moving to other countries. It covers pretty much everywhere and is built around a forum, so a great place to ask questions and meet people.
– www.britishexpats.com – again, mostly aimed at British residents living abroad and covers most destination countries. This is more of an information site but also has a forum so another opportunity to get amongst people who are already living where you’re looking to go.
– www.expatfocus.com – another information site covering moving, finances etc. Also has a forum.
That’s just a starter but you should be able to find resources more specific to where you’re looking too.
The other thing that shouldn’t be overlooked is the difference of someone going to work and someone staying at home. I worked in Barcelona and my wife stayed at home, so I got loads of social interaction every day whereas my wife had to really put herself out there. It’s harder, more tiring and more demoralising to have to go out and hunt for friends so the best thing to do is have plans of how you’re going to build your network before you go! If that means contacting people on websites/forums/blogs then absolutely go for it. You’ve got nothing to lose!
4. Speaking the lingo – do I need to know the language?
This is another one of those areas where people will say ‘oh yeah, you can get by without knowing any of the language’. This is true to some extent but I would highly recommend that you do whatever you can to pick up the basics before you go. If you can take some lessons then that’s great although most people probably won’t have the time for that. Something I found really useful and is a great place to start is www.duolingo.com. It’s a free service and they have apps for Apple and Android. It’s basically a learning platform for multiple languages that starts on the basics and gradually works you onto more advanced areas as your skills improve. For a free service it’s brilliant and really user friendly so its well worth a look.
What I found in Spain was that you can get by in restaurants, bars, cafes and tourist attractions etc, but anything a bit more official or serious was a huge challenge. I’m sure you can imagine the fun we had at the doctors when we went for early scans of baby number two. It took us about 20 minutes to find out our due date! And for public transport, notice boards, car servicing and the like it would be really beneficial for you to at least have a baseline knowledge of the language. This could also give you a massive head start with integrating into the local community and give you a broader pool of people to add to your social circle. The locals will also really appreciate you making the effort.
Here are a few language related resources that I’ve either used or considered:
– www.duolingo.com – free website and apple/android app to learn multiple languages
– www.mindsnacks.com – free apple app to learn multiple languages. This one is more game based and could be a good place to start prior to Duolingo.
– Rosetta Stone – you may have seen the adds on TV for this. There’s a cost associated with it but from what I understand it’s a great product. I’ve never got round to using it but I’m tempted to it at some point on the future.
Take a look at my post ‘Do I need to learn a new language when moving abroad?‘ for a bit more detail on languages.
5. Your lifestyle – it’s no holiday
I know this is a bit of an obvious thing to point out but it’s something that you can’t truly replicate until you’re living it. The only experience i’d ever had with being abroad was being on holiday, enjoying time off, having spending money allocated for that period of time and generally just doing what we wanted as a family.
Now throw a 9-5 job into that environment, plus ongoing management of bills, house cleaning, washing, food shopping, car services, MOTs or equivalent and finding all the right places to get the things that you can live without on holiday but not in day to day life.
My point here isn’t that you won’t enjoy living abroad because of these things. It’s more about being realistic in terms of what your lifestyle will be like.
My recommendation here ties in slightly with a previous point around network and support. Search online for forums/guides to the areas you’re interested in and find a way to get in touch with people who are already doing what you’re planning to do. You need a rounded view of what life will be like so avoid getting views from just a couple of people who don’t reflect your situation. As an example, when we were doing our research a lot of the guidance came from people where both parents were working and were earning a considerable amount more than I would be. Therefore they had less money worries, more ability to do the fun stuff and were in a better position to pick up the pieces if things went a bit wrong. I wish I’d got in touch with people who were closer to us in terms of family set up and disposable income. Funnily enough we had British/Italian neighbours who were in a very similar situation to us and had I spoken to them before deciding to relocate I probably wouldn’t have done it.
So, you just need to be 100% clear on what it is you will and won’t be able to do when you get settled, and make sure that it meets your expectations. If it does then that’s great, you’re on the right track. If not then you have the opportunity to either call it a day or find a way to make it work for you before leaving the country.
I’m sure there are plenty more forums out there though so just get searching and get in touch with people!
6. Travelling home – how often, how much and how long?
This is an area where we actually did spend some time panning. Originally we budgeted for my wife and daughter to travel back to the UK from Barcelona around once a month. Before we relocated to Spain people said things like ‘it’s only a short flight if you need to come back’ and ‘it’s quicker to fly back than it is to drive to Scotland’. I think I worked out the second one to support my desire to move abroad. We came up against two challenges though…
If you’ve read my ‘about me’ page then you’ll have seen the challenges I had around additional taxes and therefore a drop in my anticipated income. This was the first challenge as it pretty much blew our ‘traveling home’ plans out of the water. I had to frantically recalculate everything and a lot of flights ended up on the credit card. This put trips to the UK under pressure and made them a chore rather than a nice experience.
A site that helped a lot here was www.skyscanner.net. The ability to compare prices and put together a return flight across two different companies was extremely helpful! It also meant I got to fly with Monarch, who I haven’t flown with since I was about 11 years old! I also used easyJet Holidays a hell of a lot and most of my flights were with them. I knew what to expect and could keep track of everything in one place. They’re a bit easier to use now that they allocate seats, prior to which was a big problem I think they had! There’s always British Airways too and, contrary to popular opinion, they’re not as expensive as you think a lot of the time.For that little bit extra you really do get a superior service and experience. And you obviously get a healthy luggage allowance and often in-flight food as part of the cost.
Being realistic on the practicalities of the journey (particularly with children)
The second challenge was facing the reality of organising a trip back to the UK. Although everyone tells you it’s easy to hop on a flight (and it can be), it all depends on your budget and your flexibility. For example, if I booked a flight 3 months in advance then I might pay a total of around £60 for one person there and back. If I decided I needed to travel home in two weeks the same flight could cost twice as much, if not more. So you need to know when you want to travel if you don’t have cash to throw around. You also need to consider getting to and from the airport, airport parking, how much luggage you take, where you’re going to stay and everything you would normally think about for a holiday. This is obviously more complicated if you have children so just bare that in mind when you’re considering things like public transport to the airport.
It’s worth putting the effort in to really work out the time it’ll take you to complete a trip from one end to the other. For me I was working on a 4 hour door to door assumption from Barcelona in Spain to Hampshire in the UK. What I didn’t factor in was the time you have to allow yourself at the airport on the way out, the time it takes to get off the plane and get your luggage, and just factoring in the uncontrollable. So for me, 4 hours was more like 6 hours, which isn’t too bad but the longer your journey the more the time could slide. Just assume the worst and then anything better than that is a bonus!
There are a few sites that recommend you don’t travel home within the first 6 months of relocating abroad. I understand the idea behind this but I would change it slightly to something like this – Don’t travel back to your native country until you feel like you’ve built enough of a network and desirable lifestyle to make you look forward to returning home to the new one. And home is your new home in the country you’ve moved to. You’ve got to be in a position where you’re looking forward to getting back to your house, regardless of whether that’s 6 months, 6 weeks or 6 days into your relocation.
7. Every aspect of your finances – budgeting your day to day, managing current outstanding debt and planning for the long term
Again, if you’ve read my ‘about me’ page then you’ll know this was a huge factor in our reasons for coming back. Not so much because I had got my calculations wrong, but more because I hadn’t been given the whole truth by my company so I ended up falling short each month.
Budgeting your day to day
I’m sure most people have some sort of spreadsheet that they use to manage their day to day finances and this is a good place to start. You need to work out all the things you currently have on there that won’t be needed when you relocate and all the new things that need to get added. For example, I didn’t realise that you don’t pay a TV license fee in Spain (or at least in Barcelona), so we could wipe that off our budget. On the flip side of that, you may well want to get private medical insurance to make sure you’re covered. In Barcelona we actually had to prove we had medical cover in order to register as residents so it may be required depending on where you’re going. So we saved €15 per month or so from the TV licence but added €45 for medical insurance (I received a great deal through my company on Sanitas, the Bupa equivalent in Spain).
There are a lot of sites on the net that give an indication of monthly costs for utilities, mobiles, petrol and so on but this is another example of where you never really know until you’re there. Linking back to a comment I made earlier in this post around networks, I’d recommend trying to actually get into a discussion with people (via a forum perhaps) who are in a similar situation to you and could provide you with a more accurate indication of costs. You can also use property agents, relocation companies, the company that’s hiring you and generally searching the net.
One thing I’d definitely recommend is getting to the bottom of taxes and necessary payments you have to make to authorities and governments. The tax issue was partly my own fault but more so my companies for not providing me with my net salary. Get your company to tell you what your monthly take home will be! This obviously doesn’t apply if you’re working for yourself or continuing to be employed by a company in your own country so just make sure you get definitive answers on what you have to pay out of your earnings. It might even be worth contacting an official, such as a financial adviser in the country you’re moving to (if you don’t have a company or relocation agency) to make sure you get definitive answers.
I’m sure you’ll already be thinking this, but make sure you have spare money each month after you’ve put away for savings, disposable and all that. If you’ve put all your necessary costs down and you have €10 spare per month then I’d recommend seriously considering the viability of your move. I budgeted for a spare €150 per month (which was demolished by the tax error) but that would have helped with an over inflated electric bill in the summer, a particularly challenging month for food shopping or just some additional activities we might have wanted to do. It was on top of money I’d budgeted for savings to cover things like Christmas, car tax and service and other stuff like that. Just set yourself up to have reserves.
Managing current outstanding debt
If you’re anything like me then you’ll still have loans/credit cards etc outstanding in your native country. This makes things a whole lot more complicated with exchange rates and international banking. I held onto both my UK bank accounts and updated the address to my wife’s parents house. That way I could keep all my direct debits going and just transferred the money in each month. The more you’re having to pay each month the more your monthly payments could fluctuate in the new currency. One of the key things here is to get a bank account that doesn’t charge you for international transfers. When in Barcelona I had a Barclays account, which provided everything I needed, including an English speaking bank manager, online banking in English and free international transfers. It was also reassuring knowing that they were an international bank with ties back in the UK too.
Planning for the long term
Whether you’re looking to stay for two years or ten years, it’s definitely worth considering what your finances look like further down the line. I generally plan 3-4 years ahead on my spreadsheet but I didn’t really do this when budgeting to relocate to Spain. I was more interested in the now and the excitement rather than the ‘what happens in 2 years’.
This may include things such as:
- Will we have saved enough money to move our stuff back in two years time
- Have I budgeted for rent increases and a rise in utilities/petrol etc (it’s inevitable that these things will go up rapidly in some countries)
- What if we have a baby (or another baby)? What about additional schooling costs and health care?
- If/when we relocate back, will I have enough of a fund to sustain me whilst I hunt for jobs? I can tell you in all honesty that job hunting from another country is not easy to do! It’s much easier to relocate back first and then hunt for a job
- If you haven’t already, do you want to buy a house? Can you cover the legal/government fees?
Like with anything in life, it’s just good to know where you want to be and to plan for it. It takes the edge off some of the curve balls and helps your steer the ‘now’ in the right direction.
8. What if it doesn’t work out, what’s the backup plan
Oh how I wish I’d spent more time on this one. My backup plan was as detailed as this – Don’t worry darling, if it doesn’t work out we’ll just make a plan to come back, no big deal. In reality it was a very big deal, and planning to come back when you’re already desperate is not a good time to do it.
I think a lot of people would say that having an exit strategy is probably not a good idea as it means you’re planning to fail. I disagree with this 100%. I’d say that having an exit strategy takes some of the pressure off, and means you can chill out a bit more about things knowing that if you’re really in a challenging position you can sort it out.
To give you an idea of why it’s a good idea to really get this one covered, here’s what we had to deal with when we made the decision to call it a day:
- Paying back the relocation costs to my company – potentially €3500
- Relocating our household items back to the UK – €1800
- Getting out of a 12 month rental agreement 6 months in – potentially €7000
- We had no house in the UK, and no ability to rent one
- We had no car in the UK, and no ability to get hold of one
- We had no spare cash anywhere, no emergency fund (major mistake on my part)
- My wife was due a baby in May 2013, and we faced the prospect of me having to work in Barcelona until March 2013. Luckily it didn’t work out this way but it was a huge concern
Hopefully this will give you a sense of what you need to try and avoid. I think you need to have an emergency fund that you’re adding to, you need to know where you’ll stay if you need to come back urgently and you need to have a plan to deal with transportation in the early days of coming back. If you’re relocating back because things haven’t worked out then it’s likely it’ll be a pressurised and stressful situation, so the more you can plan for this situation upfront the less stress you’ll have to deal with at the time. I have first hand experience of how terrible it can feel to be trapped with very few options so just try to be smart.
Hopefully these points will help to guide you on a few of the key things you really need to spend a lot of time on whilst you go through the decision process to move abroad. It’s not an exhaustive list and there will obviously be a whole load of other things going through your head that you need to sort out, plan for and worry over. I’m more than happy to try and answer specific questions relating to these things and others if you want to leave me a comment on this post. Just let me know and I’ll do whatever I can to help.
All the best, and I’ll have another post out very soon.