Oringal Post at MarketWatch: https://www.marketwatch.com/story/want-to-move-to-a-cheaper-country-read-this-first-2017-11-02
The U.S. isn’t an easy place to live cheaply, and the reason isn’t just the high cost of housing, health-care, food, and bed linens. The pressure of consumerism compelling you to buy, buy, buy can cause you to grind your teeth down to little white nubs.
During the Great Recession of 2008, my husband, then 8-year-old son and I moved to Vietnam to take advantage of its low cost of living, but we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into and made some expensive mistakes.
Around six of every 10 Americans didn’t have an emergency savings account when the recession hit. I was one of them. I don’t know why I thought selling nearly everything we owned and moving to Vietnam would be the easiest way to get back all I’d lost. Call it desperation. I was laid off from an industry becoming more obsolete by the day — newspapers. My husband’s home business was also tanking, and with debts that equaled what seemed like the GDP of a small country, we didn’t have the capacity for clear thinking and careful planning.
So, in 2008, we moved to Ho Chi Minh City to get jobs teaching English. In a country where a great meal was $1, a motorbike taxi ride was 50 cents, and cable TV plus telephone was $6 a month, I had lofty expectations of saving bundles of money and returning home in a year.
What we didn’t account for was high rent. The least-expensive place we could find was $400 a month for a nine-foot-wide house on a crowded alley with no hot water, but plenty of roosters and rats. We took it.
My husband got a job at a language school while I advertised for private students. For about two months my plan was going well. Then one day, the tenants leasing our house in Los Angeles ran off without paying and left us with a $10,000 plumbing disaster.
The regrettable circumstance screamed, “An emergency savings account would have been nice right about now!” Instead, those events set us back so far that we became stranded in Vietnam for two-and-a-half more years.
That wasn’t a bad thing, necessarily. Looking back, we had a grand adventure. But adjusting to the life of a pauper wasn’t easy.
Our poorer Vietnamese neighbors taught us, through example, to live with less while smiling more. If they didn’t have a microwave, I didn’t need one. If they didn’t have a toaster, blender, or bigger TV, I could live without them, too. An old T-shirt became a kitchen towel and cardboard boxes became nightstands.
In comparison to our neighbors, who earned $2,000 a year on average, our dire financial straits were nothing more than wholesome downsizing. I was humbled.
Save money for rainy days and global financial meltdowns? Why would I do that?
As I relate in my book, “So Happiness to Meet You: Foolishly, Blissfully Stranded in Vietnam,” it wasn’t that I was inept at saving money. It just depended on what I was saving for. If it was for a trip or a Jacuzzi, I could stretch my paycheck like nobody’s business. It was no sacrifice to lengthen the life of my sneakers by wrapping duct tape around the loose soles. But save money for rainy days and global financial meltdowns? Why would I do that?
“Resolve not to be poor: Whatever you have, spend less,” said British writer Samuel Johnson in the 1700s. My family followed his lead, and solemnly but successfully changed our ways. For instance, we transferred $400 a month to a bank account in the U.S. (It became such a habit—money we simply didn’t think about — that we continued the practice when we returned home in 2011.) Frugal living in Vietnam also seemed to take the edge off a yearning for material things. Now we value life experiences more.
So if you are considering a move abroad, keep in mind that other countries aren’t likely to offer you a safety net. You never know when you might want or need to return home quickly. Maybe it’s a health problem or a family crisis, or maybe you just miss the 260 digital premiere channels you used to love so much. Save first and then flee to that exotic locale. I’d move again in a heartbeat, and still hope to someday, but this time I’ll go with greenbacks in the bank — for emergencies, of course.
Former Los Angeles Times journalist Karin Esterhammer is the author of the memoir “So Happiness to Meet You: Foolishly, Blissfully Stranded in Vietnam” (Prospect Park Books, 2017).