Managing your money
while living abroad
an adventure, a dream, a challenge, a change, a new beginning.
"Living overseas, even for a short time,
is like reinventing yourself," says Rosanne Knorr, author of
Grown-Up's Guide to Running Away from Home. "It's a
Imagine living, eating, working and playing
in a faraway land. It could be Europe or Asia or Africa or South
America, whatever part of the world you have to experience for yourself.
Knorr lives in France's Loire Valley.
"The joy of living where we live, we're
within six hours of six countries," Knorr says. "The cultures
in Europe are so old and rich and diverse and we get to participate
in all of that. It's addictive."
Barbara Frew, author of Personal
Finances for Overseas Americans, has lived in Finland, Austria
"Basically you're being challenged in ways
you've never experienced," Frew says.
"You gain knowledge about other cultures.
You gain knowledge about your own culture. Over time you gain knowledge
Pack your bags and plot
Once you make the leap overseas, it's clear you're in for quite
an adventure. But there are also a lot of money matters you'll need
to square away. It's going to take some cash, some planning and
some savvy financial maneuvering to make an international move a
First off, you'll want to hang on to your American
bank accounts. Chances are you'll still have some bills -- mortgage
payments, utility bills and credit card bills -- to pay here in
Setting up automatic bill payments for your
U.S. bills can save you a lot of headaches. That way a mortgage
payment on your American home could be debited from your U.S. bank
account as you sip a cappuccino in Venice.
If you plan to mail payments for U.S. bills
from an overseas address, be sure to post them well in advance of
"You don't want to ruin your credit by
having your bills paid late all the time," Knorr says.
Be sure to bring an ATM/debit card from your
U.S. bank when you go abroad. These cards, such as the Visa Check
Card and MasterCard Money, are linked to a cardholder's checking
account and can be used for purchases and to withdraw money from
"If you need to make a withdrawal in a
foreign country from a U.S. bank account, that's the easiest way
to do it," says Cali Garcia-Velez, president of Citibank Florida.
For example, Garcia-Velez knows a U.S. retiree
in Guatemala that has her Social Security check deposited in a U.S.
bank account. She then withdraws her check in quetzales from an
ATM in Guatemala.
"She withdraws whatever she needs so that
makes it very easy," Garcia-Velez says.
She also gets a nice exchange rate on the transaction.
Foreign exchange and fees
The exchange rates secured by Visa and MasterCard
for debit card and credit card customers are based on wholesale
rates offered to large banks and corporations rather than the retail
rate offered to consumers. So it makes a lot of sense to pay with
plastic when living overseas.
The Web sites of Visa, MasterCard and American
Express list ATM locations in countries around the world.
Be sure to test debit cards before leaving the
country, and make sure you have a four-digit, numeric personal identification
number for your card. Many ATMs outside North America do not have
letters on the keyboard or the letters appear in a different order.
Find out what kind of fees your U.S. bank charges
for using another bank's ATM. The fees typically range from $2 to
Also, some major U.S. credit card issuers charge
a 2 percent to 4 percent fee each time a customer pays with credit
cards in another country.
These new fees come on top of the 1 percent
currency exchange fees long levied by Visa and MasterCard on transactions
made abroad. Card associations bill issuers, and many issuers, in
turn, bill customers.
You'll want to take note of fees as you track
Every time Knorr uses her American ATM card
to withdraw francs she writes down an estimated cost in U.S. dollars
and the date of the transaction in her check register. She then
leaves room to reconcile her estimates with the actual amounts listed
in her bank statement.
"Once you get used to doing it, it's not
so bad," Knorr says. "You have to be able to have an idea
of how much you have left in your checking account."
Many banks and credit card issuers offer online
account access. These types of accounts can help you track just
how much your overseas spending is costing you in U.S. dollars.
Protecting your wallet
It's also a good idea to have overdraft protection on your
American checking account in case you underestimate your spending
or unexpected expenses pop up.
"You could get stranded, and you don't
want to incur overdraft fees while you're gone," says Tammy
Trotter, assistant vice president of private financial services
for U.S. Bank in Minneapolis.
People who are planning an extended holiday
overseas, say six months, may be able to pay for much of their stay
with U.S. credit cards and debit cards. Folks planning on living
abroad for a few years will probably need to open a foreign bank
account. You'll need it to pay local phone bills and utility bills
as well as rent.
"In many countries bills are directly
debited from a bank account. So you will want to have a bank account
overseas, most likely for paying the rent," Frew says.
It's a good idea to bring reference letters
from your American bank and other financial institutions such as
brokerage houses and credit card companies with you overseas. You
may need a reference letter to open a foreign bank account and even
to rent an apartment.
"A landlord may be unwilling to rent to
someone new to the country. That's where bank references and things
like that come in handy," Garcia-Velez says.
Maneuvering your money
If you're working abroad you may want to choose the bank
used by your employer. Or, you may want to ask your American bank
to recommend a bank in the country where you'll be living. Banking
with a foreign bank that your U.S. bank does business with can help
simplify money transfer procedures. This will come in handy if you
need to wire money between your American and foreign bank accounts.
Much of the paperwork needed for international
wire transfers can be taken care of before you leave America. Once
overseas, you'll just have to phone or fax a wire transfer request.
Wire transfers are a great way to move large sums of money, say
thousands of dollars, between foreign and domestic bank accounts.
Be sure to ask your bank about fees.
a smaller sum of money, say a couple hundred dollars, is a snap.
Take your ATM/debit card from a U.S. bank, make a withdrawal at
an overseas ATM and then deposit the money into your foreign checking
"I go to an ATM, then I walk around the
corner to the bank and I deposit $300 of French francs into my French
checking account," Knorr says.
Most banks limit ATM withdrawals to $200 or
$300. You may want to ask your bank to raise this limit before you
head abroad. Some banks may raise the withdrawal limit to $1,000
Consult your friends
-- and financial institutions
Be sure to visit your bank and discuss your overseas move.
Discuss wire transfer procedures and fees. Ask about fees for using
ATM cards and credit cards overseas. Look into online account access
for bank statements. Ask about getting a reference letter and tips
for selecting a bank in the country where you're headed.
"It takes some prep work, but the prep
work does pay off," says Trotter, who has helped private banking
clients with moves to London, Paris, Prague and Hong Kong.
Ask about specific banking products tailored
to Americans living abroad. Citibank has a number of products geared
toward overseas business people and retirees.
Contact your credit card companies and let
them know that you'll be heading abroad. That way when dinners in
Tokyo start popping up on your bills, they won't think your card's
Try to minimize your debt before heading overseas.
That means paying off credit card balances.
Frew recommends building up a financial cushion,
equivalent to six months living expenses, to help cover moving costs.
"Ideally, have it in place before you go,"
You may want to hop online and chat with expatriate
Americans living in the country where you're moving. They can give
you the low-down on costs and all kinds of other advice. Check out
Web sites such as expatexchange.com
Save some for later
You'll also need to set aside some money
for re-establishing yourself in America when your overseas adventure
"There needs to be a set amount you won't
go below in your savings," Knorr says.
Once overseas, it's important to keep track
of your spending.
"The first time you go overseas you can
be overwhelmed," Frew says. "You need to be aware of the
money going out."
Once you settle into your new life, you can
fine-tune your budget. In Europe, for example, utility bills and
gasoline prices are much higher than in America.
"In the beginning I re-did the budget every
week," Knorr says.
Once you take care of these practical matters
you can get down to enjoying your new home away from home. It's
one thing to be dazzled by a foreign destination, it's another thing
to feel part of it.
"You're part of the lifestyle," Knorr
says. "You shop in local markets. You eat local foods. You
meet people who show you how to prepare those foods."
-- Posted: Jan. 22, 2001