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When we moved from California to London nearly 5 years ago, money was the last thing on our minds. Jordan’s job offered him a transfer and I happily joined him. I’d always wanted to move to London (and become friends with Kate Middleton, naturally).
After a few months of planning, we finally boarded our plane to Heathrow with a one-way ticket in hand. We’d gone through so many details to get to that point. We’d filled out extensive visa paperwork. We’d packed up our entire apartment and put our belongings on a slow boat. And we’d made the rounds to say goodbye to family and friends.
We landed and a driver arranged by Jordan’s company picked us up and dropped us off at our temporary housing. We’d made it! We decided to treat ourselves to a lunch of fish and chips and headed to the pub on the corner.
Once we ordered and needed to pay, we were quickly reminded that our US debit and credit cards needed to be swapped out for UK versions. The next day we started the process of opening up UK bank accounts. We quickly learned that our excellent credit scores in the US meant nothing in our new home country.
We navigated that initial frustrating situation less than gracefully and learned a lot of key lessons along the way. Just like most expats, we have a complicated money situation. We juggle different currencies, make monthly international transfers, and we are always in the process of prepping, reviewing, or filing our taxes.
Seriously, we’re always filing our taxes.
But we’ve managed to figure out a system that works for us. It’s not perfect and I’m sure we’re spending an extra $15 a month because we’re not watching currency exchange rates. But this system keeps us sane.
How we are paid
Not every expat gets paid the same way. I wanted to break down what our situation looks like for context.
- Jordan is paid in US dollars into a US-based bank account
- I’m paid in US dollars and British Pounds. The payments in US dollars are deposited into a US bank account and the payments in pounds are deposited in a UK bank account
- We have US debt, but no UK debt (we have a mortgage and I used to have a student loan)
- We’ve been here for 5 years but plan on returning to the US…eventually
Our Money Management Objectives
As much as I love geeking out over a good spreadsheet and I Iove ensuring we’re getting the best deal, that’s not our number 1 priority with our money here. We have two main objectives for managing our money as expats:
- Keep it as simple as possible.
- Minimize transfer costs, within reason
Keep it simple
Managing a lot of different accounts in different currencies can be a little overwhelming. Our number 1 goal has been simplicity. We do this by:
1. Keeping very specific bank accounts
We keep very specific bank accounts that help us keep everything organized. We think of these different accounts as different folders for our money.
These are the bank accounts we have for our own situation – each expat will have different bank accounts based on how they’re paid.
- Main checking (Jordan’s paycheck is deposited)
- Business checking (my money is deposited)
- Business savings (for US taxes)
- US investment accounts
- Separate US checking accounts (for us to each have our own fun money)
- Various US savings accounts (for goals like a 9 month emergency fund, vacations, our f-fund, etc)
- US mortgage account
- UK checking account (my business income and money that we transfer from the US is kept here)
- UK savings account (business savings for UK taxes as well as one month of expenses for our UK emergency fund)
- EU currency account (for our travel around Europe)
2. Automating nearly everything
I’m a huge fan of automating our money – see this no budget, budget. When we get paid, the money automatically gets disbursed to exactly where it needs to go. Here’s our flow:
- Jordan’s paycheck is deposited into our US checking
- Once it’s deposited we have automatic transfers set up to our US savings accounts, our investment accounts, our mortgage account, our personal spending accounts
- When I’m paid into our US accounts I have an automatic transfer into our business savings account and personal savings accounts
- We do one manual transfer from our US checking account to our UK checking account for money to live off of each month
- Our UK bills are automatically paid from our UK checking account
- When I’m paid into our UK bank account I put it into our UK savings account to build up our emergency fund or pay for Henry’s childcare
Here’s what this looks like in a flow chart:
We have a lot going on and your situation likely looks different. But the thing to take away is that we try to keep everything as automatic as possible. Dealing with different accounts and different currencies means it’s really important for us to keep things as hassle-free as possible.
There are only two things each month that aren’t automatic:
(1) a monthly transfer from the US to the UK to live off of for the month, and
(2) a transfer to put my UK paychecks into savings.
3. Not timing transfers based on exchange rates
Since we’re all about keeping it relatively simple we don’t watch the currency exchange rate. While I love getting the best deal possible, I also love to stay as sane as possible. That means that on the first of each month we’re moving money from the US to the UK, regardless of what the exchange rate is.
4. Choosing a country for our savings and investments
As much as we absolutely love living in the UK, we are going to move back to the US eventually. Our family is there and as Henry gets older we want him to have time with his grandparents and cousins.
Because we know that, we keep as little money as possible in the UK, minimizing the costs and effort related with moving money back and forth. We contribute to US retirement accounts and keep our investments with Vanguard and Wealthfront.
5. Making checking in easy
With so many accounts – we have over 20 in total – it would be easy to be disorganized. Actually, my specialty in life is being just a little disorganized. Finding an easy way to keep track of things has been crucial.
Enter: Personal Capital.
I’ve sung the praises of this free tool before. I’ve even made a tutorial video to show you exactly how to use it. The quick version of why I love it is this:
- It aggregates all of our accounts so I’m able to get a quick snapshot of our net worth within seconds
- I’m able to keep an eye on how things look in every single account, without logging onto multiple platforms (ex: yes, our mortgage payment went through and look at those deposits into our savings accounts)
- I can see exactly how much we have invested in what. How much we have in stocks, bonds, etc.
- It easily shows me how much I’m paying in fees
- It has excellent tools for retirement planning and 529 planning, which I consult often (especially the 529 because college is expensive)
Personal Capital only keeps track of our US accounts, but that’s really all we need it for. The money that we keep in the UK is far less complex. I sadly haven’t found a comparable tool for UK accounts. When I do, I’ll update this post!
Minimize transfer costs
This is probably my biggest tip for expats: you’re being charged fees that you shouldn’t be. Your bank charges you excess transfer fees. While we’re at it, so does your credit card.
I know, I know. Your bank told you that they don’t have fees. You’re a valued customer and they would never dream of charging you fees. You get free international transfers because they love you so much!
We were told the same thing. And yes, when we looked at our transfers initially, there were no fees included.
But, not so shockingly, we found where the fees were buried. In the exchange rate. Tricky, tricky.
To combat this and save thousands of dollars, we use Transferwise. It is the best.
Let me break down exactly how much you’re losing by making transfers through your bank. Below I’m using the exchange rate as published on XE.com from September 17, 2018. I’m also using exactly what our bank quoted us to transfer as well as what Transferwise has quoted.
When we transfer $100, we’d receive:
Our bank: £74.18
When we transfer $1,000, we’d receive:
Our bank: £741.18
When we transfer $5,000, we’d receive:
Our bank: £3,709.00
If you’re transferring $100 once and you need it to be as easy as possible, I get it. You might want to pay an extra 72 cents for the ease of moving money between your accounts. Completely reasonable.
If you’re transferring $1,000, that ease starts to become a bit more expensive ($16 difference). If you’re moving $5,000 the fee they’re charging is straight up highway robbery.
There are likely a lot of services that will allow you to move money easily now, but I signed up for Transferwise right when we moved here and I haven’t looked back.
If you’re an expat anywhere in the world, I highly suggest you look at using them. We’ve saved thousands using them over the last 5 years. I also was in one of their Facebook ads for free, because I’m just that big of a fan. Catch me at the very end.
I hope this breakdown was helpful and inspires you to create a system that is simple and minimizes fees. It’s helped us to keep our sanity while having money in different accounts all over the world.
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Money should be simple.