Travel Tips

Expat Tips: Accumulate Experiences, Not Things

Look at your time as an expat as an opportunity to accumulate experiences rather than things. Explore your new country and immerse yourself in its culture. Travel as often as you can. The things you’ll learn while traveling and living abroad will prove far more valuable in the future than a new car or a bigger house ever will.

If I could offer one piece of advice to future expats, this would be it. As an expat, you’ve been given a rare gift – an opportunity to discover how to live in another culture and the chance to explore new places around you. It would be a shame to waste a gift like that, and I can think of a couple different ways you could do it – refusing to leave the safety of the walls of your house out of fear of the unknown, or simply squandering your money on stuff when you could use it on something much more meaningful. This is your chance to accumulate experiences, not things.

Expat Tips: Accumulate Experiences, Not Things

There are some times when I give advice to others and I’m giving it as much to them as I am myself, but in this case, I feel pretty confident in my ability to live the “experiences over things” lifestyle. Due to some sort of fluke in the assembling of my DNA pre-birth, I entered into this world as a female who hates to shop. A heavy feeling of dread comes over me anytime I hear the word ‘mall’ or ‘department store’. Even my own birthday comes with anxiety – I just don’t like stuff. (Clearly, I am the worst gift receiver, ever.)

When we found out we’d be moving to London as expats and would need to downsize from our 3,000 sq ft house to a tiny flat in the city, I felt relieved. It’s hard to see when you’re living with them, but your things can actually be holding you back from doing something more worthwhile. Besides being an eternal suck on your bank account, they also monopolize your time. After we sold our house and our cars, and either sold or gave away practically everything else we owned, I finally felt free.

Expat Tips: Accumulate Experiences, Not Things

When we arrived in the UK, we did everything we could to hang on to our newfound freedom. We moved into a flat with very little extra space and limited storage so we wouldn’t be tempted to fill it with stuff again. We even rented it furnished so we wouldn’t have to buy any furniture. We rejected buying cars, in favor of taking public transportation instead. (The roads in London are probably much safer without me on them, anyway.) We didn’t even bring our pets, which were, by far, the hardest to let go of. But without all these things tying us down, we were finally able to start living. We were free to go places and do things without feeling guilty that we should have been spending our time on something more “productive”, or our money on something “necessary”.

Expat Tips: Accumulate Experiences, Not Things

Our possessions never made us happy like traveling and delving into a new culture have. We’ve seen and done things that have taught us so much about the world, and in doing so have become more open-minded people. (This really hits home when you see your children accept other people or practices without passing judgment – they’ve just acquired a skill of unparalleled importance!) And it’s not just the world we’ve learned more about, but ourselves and our own capabilities, too. Travel is an extraordinary teacher.

Maybe I’m stating the obvious here, but doing things is just more fun than having things, right? When we owned things, all of our time and money went towards paying a mortgage and keeping all of the things we owned in working order. We were lucky to get away long enough to have a dinner out, much less to travel anywhere. That was not how we wanted to live. Becoming expats gave us the opportunity to let go of the things that were keeping us from living a more fulfilling life, and for that I’m eternally grateful. Today, I have almost nothing to my name, yet I’ve never felt richer.

Expat Tips: Accumulate Experiences, Not Things

A Few Ways to Accumulate Experiences Instead of Things as an Expat

Rent. Let home ownership be someone else’s problem. It’s liberating to know that if something goes wrong, it’s not your responsibility to fix it, nor your pocket that the money will be coming out of.

Live cheaply. Try to stay under budget on all the boring things – rent, groceries, bills, etc. Depending on which country you’ve moved to, seeing and doing things, not to mention traveling, may not be cheap. We put every extra cent we have towards travel, and we’ve never once regretted it.

Go local. And by that I mean, live in a neighborhood that isn’t exclusively for expats, eat at restaurants with names you don’t recognize, and make friends with people outside of your own nationality. Part of the fun of being an expat is learning to shake it to the rhythm of a new place – don’t deprive yourself of such a great opportunity by sticking only to what you know.

Walk, bike, or take public transportation. (But only if it’s safe to do so!) Some of the most unusual conversations I’ve had since arriving here have been on the bus. And have you really experienced London if you haven’t ridden the tube on a weekend, pressed so tightly against other passengers that you can’t even so much as move your arm to scratch your nose that’s been itching for three stops? I don’t think so.

Consider gifting experiences for birthdays and holidays. In our family, we forgo the traditional birthday and Christmas gifts and instead give and receive experiences, normally something all three of us can do together. We did this even before we became expats and I’ve really enjoyed the memories we’ve made more than I would have a new pair of earrings. (But like everything else in this article, it all comes down to personal preference!)

Make lists of the things you’d like to do or places you’d like to see. Then refer back to that list when you feel the urge to make a big purchase. Is whatever you’re purchasing more important than the things on your list? If not, let it go – you don’t need it.

Think about your wants vs needs. Eight specialty Starbucks coffees are the same price as a round-trip ticket on Ryanair. Just a little over a week of drinking coffee at home and you could fly to a new country for a weekend. How’s that for perspective?

And finally…

Say yes. Say yes when the opportunity to become an expat comes up. And then continue to say yes as much as you possibly can after arriving in your new country. A local family invites you over to dinner – say yes. A friend is taking a day trip and wants a companion – say yes. A good deal on a travel site catches your eye – say yes. Nothing remarkable ever happens when you say no.

This post was written in collaboration with HiFx’s Advice From Expat Experts campaign. Please visit their site for more helpful advice from other current and past expats.

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  • Erin
    March 31, 2014 at 5:46 AM

    Great list, I will need to share it with some of my friends! I started on a minimalist journey about two years ago and since then my life has totally changed for the better. I have less rubbish and a lot more travel and joy in life!

    • Sarah Shumate
      March 31, 2014 at 12:37 PM

      Same here. I grew up in a house FULL of things. Holidays and birthdays were so overwhelming. I wanted a different experience for myself and my daughter, so we started our minimalist journey when she was about 4 or 5 and we’ve never looked back! There is still more we could do, but it’s a work in progress. As long as we always prioritize experiences and happiness over things, I think we’re on the right track! :)

  • Emmymom
    March 26, 2014 at 8:15 PM

    Great great tips! Seriously so wonderful. We are just renting our house as even though we aren’t expats we do move a lot with work, so it is easier not to have a house to have to worry about selling every time we move. That is so crazy about the starbucks for same price as plane ticket, makes me stop to think of how many little things over time I waste money on.

    • Sarah Shumate
      March 27, 2014 at 10:19 AM

      You guys move about as often as expats do! I think you’re smart to rent. We owned and had to sell three houses in 6 years. It wasn’t super fun. We’ve learned renting is the way to go, at least for us!

  • Carmen Allan-Petale
    March 25, 2014 at 8:54 PM

    Agree, agree, agree. We live by these rules and everything we own fits into two backpacks.

    • Sarah Shumate
      March 26, 2014 at 3:12 PM

      Oh, I’m so jealous! I want that to be me someday – completely unburdened by things. There’s definitely a lot of freedom in that! :) Thanks for commenting!

  • Mrs. Match
    March 25, 2014 at 4:09 AM

    The cups of coffee example is crazy true! While I do love having roots, and our home, I am starting to develop the attitude of experiences instead of things. I’m trying hard to teach that to Piglet as well, and we do our best not to buy him too much stuff. I can’t wait to take him on adventures. I just need to be a little bit more brave!

    • Sarah Shumate
      March 25, 2014 at 9:35 AM

      I absolutely need roots, too! I admire the travel bloggers that truly have no home – they just roam from place to place exploring, but that could never be me. I need a homebase to come back to!

  • Abby Rockwood
    March 25, 2014 at 12:58 AM

    Love this post! I couldn’t agree more….We live in a 800 sq ft condo which helps with not feeling the need to buy stuff as there just isn’t any room! We are actually selling our car next month. We have some big travel plans for next year and having one less expense means getting closer to our goal. I actually hate shopping in malls too, feels like I am suffocating when I am there. I don’t mind the high streets and markets as much, at least you get fresh air:) Looks like you have had some pretty awesome experiences!

    • Sarah Shumate
      March 25, 2014 at 9:33 AM

      I think that’s awesome that you know what you want and you’re doing what you have to to achieve your goal! What travel plans have you got in the works?

      When we move back home, I think I want to find something small, preferably less than 1,000 sq ft, and cheap to move into so that we can travel America. I’ve been to more countries than I have US States which is a little embarrassing, actually!

  • Alyx
    March 21, 2014 at 7:28 PM

    Love this. I am just aching to move abroad so that we can go back to living simply… I miss being able to take public transportation everywhere. These are such great tips for anyone moving abroad!

    • Sarah Shumate
      March 23, 2014 at 6:53 PM

      Funny how it does seem to take moving abroad for us to see how great life can be when you give up your material things! At least, that’s what it took for me to embrace it wholeheartedly!

  • Stacie Stamper
    March 20, 2014 at 2:06 PM

    Yes, yes, yes! I love this concept, I even have friends who are taking this approach to gifts for their grandchildren, giving experiences/making memories instead of buying useless junk.

    • Sarah Shumate
      March 20, 2014 at 4:42 PM

      That is a GREAT idea for their grandkids! Especially if they are able to join them in the experience they gift them with! What a great memory for the kids!

  • Katrin
    March 20, 2014 at 6:59 PM

    Such a beautiful and smart post, Sarah! You are so right. I definitely feel the need to get rid of some stuff as well (I don’t mean pets here). I definitely own stuff which I don’t need and I feel like it would make me feel free to get rid of some of it! Thanks for the motivation!

    • Sarah Shumate
      March 20, 2014 at 8:48 PM

      Before we moved, I would go through my house every 3-6 months and get rid of stuff. I’d either give it to Goodwill or post a free ad on Craiglist – anything to get it out of the house. It always made me feel so good to clear unnecessary things out!

  • Tina @ Girl-Meets-Globe
    March 20, 2014 at 11:44 AM

    I love this Sarah!! We’ve collected so many great memories and experiences over the years. I remember those far more than any one thing!

    • Sarah Shumate
      March 20, 2014 at 4:41 PM

      I know you have! Considering how often you guys move, I can imagine owning less things makes each transition that much easier as well!

  • Irene @ Away from Tenerife
    March 20, 2014 at 8:07 AM

    I loved reading this, Sarah! And I couldn’t agree more with everything you say.
    I really enjoy shopping for clothes but since I moved abroad I do it less often because I rather give my money away on daytrips and traveling. And one of my favourite things about living in Europe is how easy it is to travel abroad – just get on a train and hop over the border. But the thrill of going somewhere foreign and new is always there, despite the easiness.
    Thanks for sharing :)
    Have a lovely day – almost weekend!

    • Sarah Shumate
      March 20, 2014 at 4:39 PM

      You’re totally right – that thrill doesn’t go away, no matter how many countries or places you’ve visited. There’s always somewhere new to discover! I have said it so many times, but I LOVE the train. I love how even though I live on an island, I can still catch a train that will take me to countries all over the continent. THAT is amazing.

  • Carly @ Let Us Wanderlust
    March 20, 2014 at 3:39 AM

    These are great tips Sarah! I agree totally – I am a collector of experiences, not things. Your point about needs versus wants really resonated with me. I recently wrote a post about how to save money to travel and one of my biggest take home points (and from my own experience) was considering whether you actually need something, or it’s just a want! I really enjoyed reading this post :)

    • Sarah Shumate
      March 20, 2014 at 4:36 PM

      Yes, I read that post and was excited to see that you shared the same point of view! You had some really good tips in there as well! When it comes down to it, we actually have very little actual “needs”, but somehow we’ve all convinced ourselves that we need more things than we actually do. Even though we’ve downsized considerably, there are still PLENTY of things I could get rid of. I have this dream of being able to fit everything I own in a backpack – it’s probably a bit far-fetched, but I’d be pretty dang proud of myself if I were ever able to do it!

  • Sammy @ Days Like This
    March 19, 2014 at 9:36 PM

    You are so bang on with all of the above Sarah. I think we have talked about this before, but letting go of stuff and welcoming in experience is such an exhilarating way to live!

    • Sarah Shumate
      March 20, 2014 at 4:22 PM

      It truly is! I know not everyone can have the expat experience (nor would everyone want it), but I think a lot of this advice could apply to everyone, no matter what sort of life they lead. Making memories is so much more fulfilling than adding to an accumulation of STUFF.

  • rorybore
    March 20, 2014 at 2:35 AM

    I have always been more of a “browser” than a buyer. I could wander a shop just looking at the things, but I rarely feel lead to actually buy anything. It’s enough to just know they exist. So, that is why it confounds me, that others keep buying me Things!! LOL I have so much knick knack needing dusting, and I didn’t purchase 90% of it. I agree: I would rather someone give me a gift certificate to get my nails done. or movie tickets – yes – things to DO. Awesome tips.

    • Sarah Shumate
      March 20, 2014 at 4:33 PM

      “It’s enough to know that they exist.” Haha! You crack me up! Although I don’t enjoy going to malls and regular stores, I DO love browsing through markets. And I love doing it in other countries – it’s neat to see what sorts of things they sell there, even if I have no intention of buying any of it!

  • Constance
    March 20, 2014 at 1:32 AM

    I concur on all your points. Having had the privilege of living in 12 countries, I can attest to valuing experiences over things. It is so liberating. Your pictures resonated with me as well = I have been blessed to experience all of them while living for a couple of years in Thailand and one year in India and traveling to Bali and Paris at other times. BTW I also lived four years in Singapore (I know that is part of your history as well)! We live in Nashville now. Last June/July, we visited Scandinavia, Scotland, England and Wales. I enjoy and am thankful for your blog!

    • Sarah Shumate
      March 20, 2014 at 4:32 PM

      Hi Constance! Thanks for commenting! I’m in awe (and a bit jealous) that you’ve had the opportunity to live in a dozen different countries. That would be my dream!

      I did get to live in Singapore for 3 years as a teen, although I’d love to return and try living there again as an adult. I know it would be a VERY different experience! How funny that you’re in Nashville now, too. That’s where we moved from when we came to London! I love that city!

  • andrea
    March 20, 2014 at 1:11 AM

    Such great advice! This is what I miss the most about living in London, the experiences.

    • Sarah Shumate
      March 20, 2014 at 4:27 PM

      I do feel very blessed so have so many opportunities to do new things here. The possibilities truly feel endless in a city this big, but I think there are experiences to be had no matter where you live – it doesn’t have to be travel-related. It could be dressing up and splurging on a nice dinner at an upscale restaurant. Or taking a class to learn a new skill. Just so long as you’re doing something new, I don’t think it matters too much what it is!

      • andrea
        March 20, 2014 at 4:34 PM

        Oh I absolutely agree! But I miss the European specific experiences ;)

        • Sarah Shumate
          March 20, 2014 at 4:44 PM

          I understand! Any chance you guys might move abroad again someday?

          • andrea
            March 20, 2014 at 4:51 PM

            Anything is possible! My husband is from the UK but has no interest now in moving back, but who knows. He just started working for an international company so the likelihood is certainly higher now than it was before!

          • Sarah Shumate
            March 20, 2014 at 8:47 PM

            That sounds promising!! :)

  • Sand in my Suitcase
    March 19, 2014 at 9:31 PM

    Wonderful post! Experiences make us the most happy too – travel experiences :-). But didn’t know that RyanAir was that cheap! If you’re based in London, you have so many places at your fingertips – lucky you… We have to go a little further afield to get beyond our North American comfort zone :-).

    • Sarah Shumate
      March 20, 2014 at 4:20 PM

      That is true, but North America is huge! I know it’s not as exciting as adding a new country’s stamp in your passport, but there are a LOT of amazing things to see there. When we return (someday) I plan on exploring my own continent more thoroughly. I meet people here in London that have been to more US States than I have. That’s embarrassing! :)

  • Emma @ AdventuresofaLondonKiwi
    March 19, 2014 at 8:52 PM

    Love this, every word is so true!

    • Sarah Shumate
      March 20, 2014 at 4:18 PM

      Thanks, Emma! This one really is of the utmost importance to us. Who knows how long we’ll be expats – we have to make sure we’re taking full advantage of every second of it!

  • Jenn
    March 19, 2014 at 8:17 PM

    I think that starbucks thing also says something about the overpricey-ness of starbucks … Just sayin’. And I completely agree, I would rather travel then have a lot of stuff!

    • Sarah Shumate
      March 20, 2014 at 4:17 PM

      Well, maybe a little bit of that, too. :) Ryanair does have pretty cheap flights, though – I’ve seen seats go for under £20!

      • Jenn
        March 22, 2014 at 1:49 PM

        WOW! That’s awesome!

  • Ashley | Domestic Fashionista
    March 19, 2014 at 4:03 PM

    I remember on a minimalist blog they talked about giving experiences as gifts. That way they were giving memories and not just things that would soon be forgotten. I am trying to be better at buying more things for the house or myself and save so we can plan for more experiences!

    • Sarah Shumate
      March 20, 2014 at 4:16 PM

      We started asking for experiences rather than gifts while Lexie was young. I always felt burdened by the amount of gifts she would receive every holiday. We had this little bitty house and it felt like every square inch of it was filled with plastic toys. It made me miserable, so we started trying to change how we celebrated holidays. The absolute hardest part has been convincing my parents and other family members that it’s okay not to give a tangible gift. It’s still a work in progress with them, but we much prefer it this way!

      • Ashley | Domestic Fashionista
        March 20, 2014 at 4:44 PM

        This is definitely something that concerns me when we have kids. Watching my nephew I have about two baskets worth of toys that are out and a bin I store in a closet of toys he is not interested in at the moment, and then I occasionally switch things out. This has been a good learning experience for me to be able to see he is plenty happy with not much and when he is getting bored it means we need to get out of the house or go play outside. But both sets of parents for us are generous with gifts and I imagine it will be a challenge to try to communicate we do not want much. It is that tough challenge that we have made holidays about gifts (which I also enjoy as well). Like you said, changing how we celebrate is a great point. Going to have to work on that!

        • Sarah Shumate
          March 20, 2014 at 8:46 PM

          That’s exactly how it is for us, too. Our families are so kind and generous and they truly LOVE giving gifts for every occasion. I used to feel bad for asking them to slow it down and only give her one gift each holiday (instead of the 10+ she’d get from each person) but you have to stand up for what you want your kids to experience growing up. For us, we wanted it to be about the relationships – the getting together and enjoying a meal and each other’s company, not gift-giving. :)

  • Tammy Chrzan
    March 19, 2014 at 3:54 PM

    This was amazing. I couldn’t have said all of these things better myself! My parents were expats for awhile and it was awesome soaking in the culture of Guam. I have also decided that my life is going to be about experiences and not things, in fact, I started downsizing this past summer but convincing the children is slightly harder than convincing myself. They do know that many of their special things will be with dad at his place or in storage but once we are in the UK and traveling often, I think they will understand that travel is so much more fun… that’s my plan anyway, as a mom, teaching my children that experinces are what’s important and stuff is just stressful. One thing that I’ve always said “Don’t buy me a dust collector!!!” I really don’t like stuff either.
    I loved this article Sarah… Loved it!
    PS… Have fun in Ireland, that country is AMAZING!!! What part will you be in?
    Much love to you,
    Tammy xx

    • Sarah Shumate
      March 20, 2014 at 4:12 PM

      Right now, saying no to things must feel like an awful trade for them since they aren’t getting to travel yet, but it’ll get easier once they’re out exploring and seeing new places! We have always had this sort of mindset, so it’s how Lexie has grown up and she’s used to it, but I’m sure it must be a pretty big challenge to get your kids to change their habits now that they’re grown, but don’t give up! It will pay off so much in the long run!

  • Miwa
    March 19, 2014 at 9:18 AM

    You are so right–“things” do keep us tied down. And even though I know it in my mind, my house overflows with stuff that I’m pretty sure I won’t be needing in the future… These tips are obviously great for expats, but I think many of them are also great for non-expats as well. Like thinking about wants vs needs, saying yes, making lists of things you’d like to do or places you’d like to see. They’re all things that would help make anyone’s life a little brighter. (Lovely photos by the way!)

    • Sarah Shumate
      March 20, 2014 at 4:06 PM

      I think you’re right – it is definitely something that could apply to non-expats, too! I hope that once we are done living abroad that I’m able to keep this same frame of mind when we move back “home”. I never want to feel trapped by the things I own ever again. I know everyone’s experiences are different, but owning things has always made me feel anxious!

  • Dannielle @ Chicadeedee
    March 19, 2014 at 11:24 AM

    I love this post, my favourite way to spend money is on traveling. I’m not a big clothes shopper, and I’ve scaled down my shoe addiction so I can buy plane tickets haha. I’m not one of those people that need to buy lots of stuff when I travel either, I’d rather go on an excursion. Great tips!

    • Sarah Shumate
      March 20, 2014 at 4:08 PM

      Same here! We have a travel shelf in our living room where we keep a little something from each country that we’ve visited and that’s all we ever buy on trips. I still love to go to the markets just to see what kinds of things are popular in other countries, but I never buy anything…except food. :o)

      • Dannielle @ Chicadeedee
        March 20, 2014 at 8:55 PM

        seriously, the food is the best part! I love going through markets and hunting for treasures though.

  • Tanya @Other Side of the Road
    March 19, 2014 at 8:57 AM

    This has truly been one of our most important lessons from being expats. Downsizing your house to half the square footage and getting rid of tons of stuff was very liberating. As we repatriate this summer, I will have a new perspective on how much house we need and what we fill it with.

    This lesson first hit home when we first arrived with just clothes, a few toys/personal possessions, and house full of rental furniture. We lived like that for about a month until our sea shipment arrived and were surprised that we didn’t miss all our stuff one little bit!

    • Sarah Shumate
      March 20, 2014 at 4:04 PM

      It is incredible to discover how little we actually “need”. I had the same experience in our temporary flat. We had 3-4 suitcases between us and I found that I couldn’t even remember what I had in boxes in our sea shipment after awhile. I’ve loved living with less things. I hope you find it easy to continue that sort of thinking when you move back to the States!

  • Sara Downton
    March 19, 2014 at 7:40 AM

    As someone who does love to shop, this is something I constantly have to remind myself while living abroad! I’m always wanting to decorate my room with nice shelving and things, but then think of it in perspective: like you said with the Starbucks; a new bedside table could be my weekend flight to Spain. It really makes me think things over before impulse buying!
    So glad I read this post this morning on my way to work; I’m having a bit of a nostalgic/missing home morning and this really reminded me that I worked hard to get here and have new life experiences that I’ll never forget!

    • Sarah Shumate
      March 20, 2014 at 4:00 PM

      Hi Sara! I really appreciate you sharing this with me. I think we all need reminding every now and then of the reasons why we chose to become expats. To those who have never lived abroad, it must seem as if all we ever do is travel and live it up, but there is a certain amount of sacrifice involved as well. We will ALWAYS be missing some place (or someone) no matter where we are.