Two Keys to the Easy Expat Life
As the weather turns cold in Denver, I’m preparing again to leave, first to Virginia to get a mountain studio in West Virginia ready for sale, then back to Mexico.
You probably think I must be very busy getting ready to be gone six months, right?
I am! Here’s my schedule
Wine festival and tasting
Attend a fund-raiser beer drinking sing-a-long
Visit Western Art Musuem
Go to a play
Do a little leisurely shopping for cool weather clothes
Take some videos of Denver for my Mexican friends
Go out for some dinner and dancing
Do some writing and research for my blogs and books
Pack one large and one carry-on suitcase
Sounds pretty stressful, right?
Of course it doesn’t. The weeks right before you leave the U.S. for your part-time life as an expat should not be spent in panic mode. It should be spent relaxing and enjoying your friends.
From time to time, a person tells me that having a life divided between two countries would just be too much trouble, too hectic for them. I hope the above schedule demonstrates that in fact, living in two countries can be less complicated than living in one.
If you are reading my blog, you are probably considering the life. From time to time, I like to cover the mundane mechanics of the part-time expat life (rather than writing about Mexican legends or a particular part of Mexico).
Developing two habits has made the big difference in how easy the expat life has become. The habits are minimalism and maintenance.
One look into my storage unit in Denver explains a good bit of why simplicity is key. My possessions fill about a third of the smallest unit you can rent. Once you begin a two-country lifestyle, you have to evaluate the clutter right out of your life. You do not want to be waist deep in some freezing storage unit trying to find which box has your winter coat.
Culling your stuff down is not always easy. Any time I question an item to toss, I show it to a friend and say, “Does this look like junk to you?” That small exercise of looking at an item through another person’s eyes helps me be more objective. I don’t always agree. Usually, I do.
A small storage unit still gives me plenty of room for what matters, paintings, seasonal clothing I really wear, several boxes of souvenirs, and some old letters and photos I’ll want to bawl over in old age (some junk is not junk.)
Anyone should be able to get possessions down to a small storage unit (You can pack these units to the ceiling, you know). With practice, you will develop a refined eye for what the difference between value and junk is to you. (For me it starts in what story the item tells). Everyone will be different on what adds value to their life.
I say “with practice” because you can get a little over exuberant with the whole minimalist mindset. I have tossed a few things I regret getting rid of, a topic authors on minimalism don’t write about. My mistake was throwing away a good pair of roller blades. I hadn’t used them in years. They were bulky.
Then one morning I saw someone roller-blading on a nice day. I realized I’d probably never roller-blade again. I’ll never spend $200 on roller blades at this point in my life. I cut myself off from a potential experience.
The lesson I learned is not to throw away a costly item that would be integral to an experience unless you know with absolute certainty you will never engage in that activity again.
Items in this category might be golf shoes, or a well-cut suit, even if you’ve worn nothing but loafers for five years.
My test question is “If my favorite person in the whole world invited me to [blank], would I long to go? Would I cringe saying, “I can’t. I don’t have any [blank].”
If an attractive person of the opposite sex asked you go skiing, would you want to, to hell with the bad knees? If you literally got “invited to the ball” at $150 a ticket, would you be able to shop and pay for a new evening gown, or should you keep that sheath and high-heels (or tuxedo)?
My storage unit costs $60 a month. I highly recommend StorageBox if they operate in your area or any service that will pick up and deliver your boxes for you. I find that trips to storage units make me feel unmoored. I avoid them by planning and packing well, which keeps trips down.
Packing more small boxes is a whole lot better than a few large (heavy) boxes. With small boxes, you can be specific on the label, “winter boots” or “gloves,” which saves a lot of trouble down the road.
You might also want to consider packing clothes as complete outfits, rather than having shoes in one box, and coats in another. I learned this after having to open four boxes for one evening out; coats were in one box, gloves in another, shoes in another.
The weather in Denver is usually vastly different when I come back from what I have left in Mexico (grrrr). I usually keep two complete outfits appropriate to the weather I’ll be coming back to in a thin hanging bag stored in my apartment, in case it takes a few days to get to the storage unit. It’s the only personal item that any tenant has to live with.
Small boxes marked, “October outfits” or packing your snowshoes with the clothes you’d be wearing if snowshoeing means if you unexpectedly have the opportunity to do an activity you haven’t perhaps done in a long time, you can pull that one box in minutes and be golden.
I absolutely refuse to buy boxes for storage. I call retail stores (My favorite is T.J. Maxx) very early in the morning (7:00 a.m) before they break their shipment boxes down, and try to sweet talk them into pulling a few for me. Do this weeks before you leave. It may take a few calls to get the right size and number of boxes.
As a woman, my goal is that no box weighs more than 30 pounds filled, not only for my sake but for the sake of anyone I might bribe or cajole into helping me if need be. With small boxes and contents marked in detail, I can just pull precisely and quickly what I will need for those months in Denver. This creates a much cleaner existence while at home.
My days unloading and loading all my possessions into my apartment every six months, like a bird bringing all forms of trash back to re-build the nest, ended early. All those items surrounding me in my apartment only made me dread having to pack it up again. I comfort myself they are always there if I need them. A calm house is a calm mind.
A two-country lifestyle is not for procrastinators. One of the things that make the movement back and forth easy is being “on it” continually. The lifestyle is an on-going, year-round process, not a bulk of activities to be performed 30 days before you take off in either direction.
If you get into the habit of doing tasks within days of even thinking of them, they won’t load up on you the 30 days before you leave, when you want to spend time with friends. This especially comes into play when you are renting your apartment or house, which you will need to do to take advantage of the part-time expat life as a financial plan.
An on-going expat lifestyle means that if you need to replace the blender before your next renter moves in, you pony up the minute you realize you need the blender, rather than think you’re somehow saving money by putting it off until right before you go (like I used to).
Otherwise what happens is that you order the blender, the towels, or whatever you need to replace in your apartment, and when the item arrives, the blender is missing a part, the linens the wrong size or the carpet cleaner cancels your appointment, all leaving you stressed out the final days, rather than enjoying your good-byes.
Do you think your bank might have new services that apply to you in particular as an expat? Walk into your bank the minute you think of it and talk to them. This goes for anything you will need to do between now an departure. Do it right away to free up time in the back-end.
As an example, while you can do all your banking online, I find that knowing a real person, and a direct number, at my bank branch at home very comforting while I’m in Mexico. I think of some excuse to go in and chat with my banker for a few minutes every time I’m in Denver. I never want to be in a position trying to convince a customer service person of my identity from Mexico.
Maintenance particularly applies to keeping your house or apartment clean for rental. Don’t wait until a week before leaving to deep clean your place. Do those things continually. Then all you will need to do is a quick wipe down before you go.
I used to think, “Oh well, I’ll have to clean before the renter moves in anyway. I’ll wait and clean the grout right before.” Wrong answer. Clean the grout on a regular schedule, even if it barely needs it. If you have to clean it again, it will be far less work. This small tweak in my operations had an inordinate effect on how easy comings and goings have been the last few years.
Tasks like cleaning windows, carpets, inside cupboards, all those bigger jobs should be kept up with to the point that you’re always maintaining, not cleaning a disaster. An hour or so doing one of bigger tasks once or twice a week from the time you get back to the time you leave again for Mexico beats the heck out of 12 hours on your knees the day before leaving.
Do tasks as soon as you realize they will need to be done, keep the number of your possessions down, and the days before your departures can be spent with those you love, doing things you love.
George Carlin knew a lot about our stuff. Before moving to Mexico, consider his timeless words. Ventanas Mexico
Next up: Uber is a game-changer for those considering part-time expat life. The rules however, are a bit different.
Living in another country has always inspired artists, composers and writers. Might it inspire you?
About the author:
Kerry Baker is the author of two books for those considering expat life. The “Interactive Guide to Learning Spanish Free Online” offers a curation of the best free tools on the web, organized into lesson plans. Back in up with the support page on this site, and you will have all you need to learn Spanish in unique ways every day.
The second book is “If Only I Had a Place.,” your guide to renting luxuriously for less in Mexico, plus tips on how to set the stage for your most gratifying expat life.