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.
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.
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”.
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.
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?
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.