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By: Alan Dempster
Director of BD Wealth Management. 
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Three Tips to Expat Survival
or How Dick Whittington Could Have Avoided Disappointment

Sunday 10th May 2015

The new expat often arrives with pre-conceived ideas of what their new home will be like.  And like Dick Whittington heading to London with the belief that the streets were paved with gold, so the possible expectations for those just about to head to new lands may be just as fanciful.  High salaries in exotic lands with plenty of Facebook evidence to show that friends who have done it before have lived the high life.

Or perhaps it is nothing as fanciful - rather relief to have a job, to generate income just to live, or maybe to pay the bills back home.
Whatever the perception, each new land has its shocks and pleasures, its lessons and rewards. How you react is a factor of your personality, but if you are not prepared to be flexible, to rearrange your expectations, to “go with the flow” at least in some aspects, then the experience is likely to be brutal, short and miserable.
In over 30 years of living as an expat I have observed those who have succeeded and those that have failed and here are some of the less common tips to survival in no particular order:

1. The Work. What you expected to do is nothing like what you actually do.  This may be because business methods, cultural or legal requirements while having the same label in your new country, are radically different to how it was back home. Almost all find that they have to work harder and do more than they expected.  A teacher for example may find  education authority, teaching practices, parental expectation and colleague professionalism so different that it takes over a year to not feel totally discombobulated. This is not to mention things like human rights, health and safety, manners, etc.. A key tip to survival seems to be to accept that perhaps how it was done back home is not necessarily the benchmark for excellence and, once sure of your ground, to initiate change gently and with humility.

2. Loneliness.  We often underestimate the support network that we need to stay sane. Some people deal with this better than others and it seems that it is not predictable. Doing well as an expat in Dubai may not be an indicator for doing well in Singapore.  The other people in your life also need to be taken into account. A spouse coming along for the ride when a new job is involved may be desperately unhappy, bored and lonely. Equally those left at home may not cope as well as one had hoped.  The result is that the venture, while financially beneficial, may die on cost of relationships.  A Key tip to survival is to know yourself and your family and to have a strategy that involves getting involved with others, preferably beyond work colleagues. Those that are able to network and join in well seem to do best. Joining a Church, club or similar with people who have some shared experience of what you are going through can be a powerful way to cope. Be careful of the crowd you join. Just like anywhere else some groups can be destructive or expensive - see below!

3. Finances.  Benjamin Franklin postulated "In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes" and he was right.  Even if you are working in a tax free environment you pay a tax (or cost) for doing so. This may be in the form of needing frequent flights home - for relationship reasons, or holidays just to recharge (the Facebook photos of Expat friends doing exotic things). The cost of living comfortably may be quite high, you may have to double up on expenses running two homes, paying for storage and the like. You may also find yourself spending money to keep the loneliness demons at bay (see 2 above).  These hidden costs may eat into that extra you receive so that the whole venture becomes questionable and the high hope you came with of hitting your financial targets are missed.  A key tip to Survival is to see a local expat financial advisor early on in your experience.   They will help you understand what insurances you should have - medical travel etc. and what you should be putting aside for emergency, pension and other plans.  We see people who come from their home countries with their finances in a mess and, because they had no idea what they were doing, go home with little improvement.  Those that seek advice from qualified advisors who have had a similar expat experience, pretty consistently achieve their financial goals.

Finally, remember that lots of people love it! They embrace the change, their new situation giving them the opportunity to renew themselves in body mind and soul.  Over the years I have seen many who began not knowing how they would cope in their new environment and ending not wanting to leave their great new friends both local and expat, or  the things that they have worked for and achieved. Sometimes there is even a sense of dread about returning to the stultified monotony that  “home” now represents.