Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Plan, Plan, Plan

For those of us fortunate (and hard working) enough to have millions in the bank, deciding whether or not to live as an ex-patriate in our favorite country of choice is rather simple. There is little need for debate, just a decision to take action. And should things not work out in Bocas del Toro or Palau, there is always a nice cushion of funds to ease the way back home. It also goes without saying that for ex-pat millionaires, there is not necessarily a need to find a job in the country of one’s choice: the interest from the bank will do quite nicely, thank you.

However, for most of us, the decision to pick up everything and move abroad is quite a painful one. It can require a leap of faith that feels much too dangerous. Most of us will go wobbly, and ultimately, keep putting the decision off.

The reasons are obvious. Pulling up stakes and going to another country can risk our careers and our health. The prospective ex-pat may consider going to Mauritius to open a motor scooter rental shop, but what happens if the business fails and he quickly runs out of money. Then what? How easy will it be easy to find another job back at home?

For American ex-pats, the dilemma is even worse than for Brits, Aussies or citizens of continental Europe. The United States is one of the few countries without universal health coverage. For people who have health insurance but have a chronic, pre-existing condition, the risk of losing coverage is a huge impediment. A failed American ex-pat faces the prospect, if her or his relocation, does not work out, of coming back to the States without a job, or health care coverage, or any kind of social safety net.

As a youth, I made a crazy leap of faith once that taught me a lesson. Even leaps of faith must be backed by proper planning. I quit my government job at the age of 23, believing I was going to write the great American novel. A year later I was serving coffee and muffins and trying to find my way back to an office job. And no, I did not publish a thing.

Following your bliss is essential: but so is planning for contingencies. What if things don’t work out? What if you get sick of the island pace of life after a year? What if you run out of funds? What if you or a family member gets sick and feels the need to return. These are all contingencies that must be thought out.

The danger is that, in planning for contingencies, you can talk yourself out of the move all together. While I don’t advocate pulling up stakes and moving without a plan, neither do I think one needs to get oneself in a tizzy over ‘what ifs…’. The happy medium is to have a plan, and plenty of money, to get back home, if need be. Don’t be foolish, but don’t be a coward either. I have a friend who has quit his job at least three times in his life to go backpacking around America. Each time, he has landed on his feet, with no problem at all.

The first piece of advice is: don’t burn any bridges. Give your boss plenty of notice, and leave on good terms. If you can’t work out a remote work arrangement before leaving, at least make sure there is the possibility of returning to your old job. My second caution is to have enough money in the bank- and this is money you cannot spend in your new country of choice- to live for six months without a job. Finally, there is health care. If you can at all afford, it try to keep your health insurance while you’re trying your new country out. Of course, you’ll have to have a physical address on record (that is where friends and family come in handy).

Draw your plan out. Figure out how much money you will need to live a year in your new country, how much it would cost to move there and back, and how much money is needed to maintain health care. If you don’t have pre-existing conditions in the family, you might be able to skip the last part. If, after all that planning, you don’t have at least six months worth of money to live off of, seriously consider waiting and saving.

These are not hard and fast rules. Each person must build his or her own plan. But please, please, don’t just leap out there without any idea of contingency. Every leap of faith needs a safety net below.

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