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The Heart of Money: The Best Financial Practice for Moving Abroad is Nonattachment

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Paul Sutherland in Uganda fishing with some kids off a dock.

When you move abroad, especially to a different culture like Uganda’s, normal just ain’t normal. My family and I have lived in Kampala, Uganda, for three years, and I just re-renewed my one-year work permit to stay here, at a cost of $4,000 plus a bit of “facilitation.” Even with a “green card” and a document glued inside my passport, I still worry that one random day I might not get the choice of whether I’m allowed to stay in the country we now (temporarily) call home. I still worry, when my wife takes our children out of Uganda on holiday, that they’ll wind up stuck in the Ugandan airport’s immigration office because Uganda is mad at the USA, or the officer on duty decides he needs a little “Christmas.”

I mention this because the first rule of moving to a new culture is nonattachment. Do not buy a home, business, or anything substantial until you have been in the country a while and understand the culture and the legal ramifications.

We rent our home and bought cheap, handmade furniture sold by struggling carpenters selling their wares along the side of the road. Our clothing also comes from vendors along the side of the street. When it comes time for us to leave, we will donate everything we have accumulated and be on our way.

We learned this the hard way. We tried to buy some land in a sealed-bid process. The clerk who coordinated the auction opened our bid, then grabbed one of the envelopes under ours, opened it, and declared the winner to be the only other bidder in the room. They all smiled and we were rushed out with our lawyer, who wanted $5,000 for setting up our failed bid. I suppose it was all a blessing, though, because a friend who has lived here for 35 years told me the only real problems he has had involve real estate. 

So, take a breath and explore your new country like a dating relationship. This advice remains true whether you live in a lawless place like ours or a veritable heaven. Before we bought a home on Maui, we rented for more than a year, sampling a few locations and schools for our children before we decided to buy a home on the side of a volcano 12 miles from the ocean, something we never would have considered initially. We had moved to Maui to be able to enjoy the beaches and ocean, never thinking much about such matters as local climates, neighbors, traffic, schools, and noise. 

Once you have rented a temporary place, your next step is to connect to locals and the expat community and ask: Where should I live? What is your favorite story about this place? What drives you crazy? What did you not expect? Do you own or rent? What did you pay for your home? Is that the market rate today? Is there a yoga/spiritual/vegan/dog lovers community here? Where do you go to church? Where do your kids go to school? Do you know a lawyer whom you trust? Who is your doctor? What is your favorite Indian restaurant, and can we take you there for dinner sometime? 

Bottom line: Get connected. Trust everyone, but keep your cell phone in your pocket and your money in a safe, and don’t invest, buy, or make any financial commitments that would set you back financially if the money simply vanished. 

Credit cards work, but we have found that you cannot depend on them in an emergency. Always have enough cash in your pocket for whatever you really need to buy, and have plenty of cash stored safely in a safe, with some hidden in other areas of your home. Ideally, you should always have enough cash on hand to pay for a taxi and air tickets out of the country you are living in. Never assume that the banking, legal, police, or other systems we take for granted will work. Cash always works. 

For Americans, it is also very good practice to register your whereabouts with the Department of State, so that you can be informed of potential unrest or security issues in your new home. 

Life is an adventure. Looking to relocate requires thoughtful planning of one step at a time, but ultimately it winds up as a roll of the dice. I have met a lot of people who say, “I came here just to visit for a few months, and that was 20 years ago.” Be prepared for all the possibilities!  

Paul, Amy, and their kids are getting ready to move: maybe to South Africa, or back to family, friends, and the predictability of Traverse City, Michigan; or maybe to Buenos Aires. Any suggestions?


Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland resides in Michigan with his four youngest kids, ages 5 to 10. He and his wife, Amy, try to be an example of Parenting for a Peaceful world, in which democracy begins at home.


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