Sarah Li Cain
I never thought I’d ever move to the U.S., let alone predict that spending time in my new country would help me radically change the way I thought about money.
As a Canadian who has lived overseas since 2006, I’d always assumed I’d be an expat for life. What started as a solo trip across Australia during my sophomore year in college morphed into a teaching career in Australia, South Korea, and China. I fell in love with the expat life and I took every opportunity I could to travel to faraway destinations during school holidays.
To keep my expatriate lifestyle going, I snagged teaching jobs at international schools. As a certified teacher working overseas, I was in high demand: international schools wanting to keep their talent offered great working contracts. Both China and South Korea offered salaries that were comparable to U.S. salaries—except the standard cost of living was much lower. And the jobs came with other perks: I had subsidized housing, saving me about $700 to $1,000 per month for a two-bedroom apartment, and free flights back home each year. Utilities were cheap too, averaging only a few hundred dollars per year. As for groceries, I probably spent around $150 a month which included eating out at restaurants.
All of this meant I had a ton of disposable income. Naturally, I spent a lot of money.
Overseas, I could save money with each paycheck while also living the high life. Like the other expats I knew, I stayed at five-star hotels, traveled to over 30 countries, and ate out whenever I wanted. I justified the expenditures because I was there to enjoy myself and I wasn’t living paycheck to paycheck, so I wasn’t exactly being irresponsible with my money.
Even when I got married overseas, my lifestyle didn’t change much. Both my husband and I still dined out almost daily, and traveled to more places than we’d ever dreamed of. We never had to budget or look at our bank accounts often because we knew we had more than enough.
And then our lives changed in three little words: I gave birth.
Overseas, births can be expensive, but luckily my employer covered the costs. However, my husband and I soon decided we wanted to raise our son in the U.S. There, we would be closer to both our families, who lived within a few hours of each other, making it easy to visit everyone or to find help in case of an emergency. And as much as I loved my teaching career, I longed for something more flexible so I could spend more time with my son.
To prepare, we started saving money. Before my son was born, I’d started freelancing some on the side to keep busy during my off times at school, but work was picking up. That gave me the confidence to make the leap and freelance full-time. I was filled with idyllic visions of my son sitting on my lap while I typed out articles for clients in our new country. It seemed like the best of both worlds: the opportunity to support my family without sacrificing time with my son.
The reality of our move, motherhood, and my new career was much less romantic.
Anticipating the added expenses we’d encounter in the U.S. left me lying awake at night worrying how we would pay the bills. For example, in China, our internet bill was around $100 a year. In the U.S., internet costs about $70 a month for the same speed. Our monthly grocery bill more than tripled, costing us an average of $500 per month to feed a family of three.
My husband and I had set aside about two years’ worth of expenses in our emergency fund, so there was no way we were going to land on the streets like I worried we would. But, I couldn’t shake the feeling we were moving from a state of “plenty” to one of financial deprivation. Once we moved, I started to snap at my husband whenever we had to deal with an expense, caving more than once to the anxiety of it all. I clipped coupons so we could save pennies on cereal. When I got fed up with that extreme, I’d splurge, endlessly dancing between spending in a carefree way to hoarding every last penny.
Aside from the initial shock at having to pay more expenses, I was also constantly anxious about my freelance writing income. I made decent money—more than enough to pay for the family’s living expenses—but I didn’t trust I could do what it took to turn freelancing into a long-term career. In China, with my regular 9-5 work, I didn’t need to look at my bank account because I knew we had plenty of cash. In the U.S., with my irregular freelance writing paycheck, I was scared to look at my bank account, afraid of the number I would see.
As an expat, I found joy in spending my money and was confident I was looking out for my future needs. In contrast, moving back to the U.S. made me afraid of money. There never felt like there was enough to keep my family secure, let alone to enjoy the finer things in life. No longer did we go out to eat every night, and now with a young son—and the expenses of parenting—in tow, traveling was out of the question.
But gradually, things began to shift. Working from home, adjusting to life in the U.S., and being a young mother forced me to examine what was essential in my life, including the way I spent my money. I came to the realization that while I was spending money more freely overseas, that carefree financial attitude didn’t increase my levels of happiness much more than being more thoughtful about my spending choices did.
The ability to dine out constantly while I lived overseas was a boon, but once I became more frugal with my spending on food, I realized how much I enjoyed learning to cook. Rather than be a hindrance, learning how to meal plan and experimenting with new ingredients became a fun hobby.
I also learned I shopped out of boredom or as a social activity—it wasn’t necessarily because I needed or loved the things I was buying. In China, I shopped relentlessly for clothes and other knickknacks because it was cheap to do so, or because it was an opportunity to socialize with coworkers. But when I left China, I left 80 percent of my clothes behind—many with the tags still on. It was a huge waste of both money and resources.
Looking at this excess spending made me realize what was more important when it came to money: using it help my family and using it in a way that brought me real happiness. Having that big emergency fund, rather than a bunch of clothes I’d never wear, allowed me to launch a new career that I love and move across the world, all without falling into debt.
It also made me realize that while my time overseas was fun and felt financially bountiful, I was really mindless about my purchases, and the waste I was creating. As I continue to scrutinize my spending, I do so now with the lens of whether it’ll truly benefit me and my family and have a minimal impact on the earth.
This shift in mindset has helped me stop freaking out over every penny. I’ve learned it’s OK to spend on things that bring me pleasure, as long as I understand why it is I’m spending, and that my financial future will be as fluid as my life has been. Sure, I’m spending more on life expenses than I ever did while I was overseas, but at the end of the day, the numbers aren’t that important as long as my family is healthy, safe, and provided for.