New country, new budget: How to manage your expenses smartly

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Published on 2024-06-07 at 14:00 by Asaël Häzaq
As you settle into your new expat life, you begin to find your bearings. Between housing, transportation, food and extras, how do you spend your money? What are your priorities for keeping control of your budget?

Managing money abroad: Expat stories

Admittedly, the first few weeks of settling in a new country are rarely conducive to financial worries. The accountant in you hasn't yet resurfaced. Freshly arrived, you still feel like a tourist and indulge in little extras, from impulse purchases to shopping sprees and trying all the local dishes that are new to you. But soon, reality sets in. You're not here for a few weeks but for a long period, perhaps for a year or more.

Housing and employment are top priorities amid the economic crisis

Housing remains the most significant expense for newcomers in many countries. Many immigrants, especially international students, arrive in their host country without stable housing solutions. Prices are skyrocketing; job-seeking expats and students can quickly find themselves in precarious situations. This is the struggle faced by Max, a 20-year-old British student doing an internship in southern France. Arriving in the winter of 2023, he was assured he would find an apprenticeship. By May 2024, he's still searching for a company, unable to find a part-time job either, and oscillates between anxiety and hope. “I think about money all the time.”

Max's rent is covered by his family, who aren't wealthy. He's considering returning home but has enrolled in a French school for at least three years. “They promised to find me an apprenticeship... I didn't think it would be this hard.” He's applied to fast-food chains, restaurants, hotels, etc. Other students share his plight, though many have found apprenticeships or jobs. “I don't understand why it's not working for me. It's really tough.” When not in class, Max mostly stays in his dorm room. He forces himself to walk in parks and considers studying at the library to avoid isolation. “This is my first time abroad, and I didn't expect it to be this hard. I'll give it a few more months... The school says it should get better by September.”

Priority on savings

Prisca, an Italian in her forties who has been living in Canada for over 15 years, remembers the first months of her move with one word: “savings.” Naturally thrifty, she became an unofficial accountant before even setting foot in her new country. “I moved just before turning 30. I thought I should do everything possible to succeed.” Prisca was fortunate to have a job offer but acted like she had no job and no savings (despite having enough to live on for several months without working). “I moved when I found cheaper housing closer to work, invested in a bike, cooked everything myself and grew herbs...”

Prisca recalls cutting back on almost everything to continue saving. “Even $30 here and there adds up. Thirty dollars a month for a year is $360 saved. That's a nice amount.” Her advice to new expats: make a clear budget and regularly check your accounts. “Some are afraid to delve into their finances. But the banker won't do it for you. It is better to understand how a bank account works and what savings accounts are available. Then, you can have all the fun you want.”

Beware of unnecessary expenses

Martin, a 25-year-old student from Belgium, admits he had “delusions.” He went to study in New Zealand last year. “I bought a bit of everything, even things I knew, like mayo and ketchup. It's different there. I tried all the brands... But it wasn't too crazy.” His first financial mishap came with his phone bill. “I used my plan to call family in Belgium instead of using the apartment's Wi-Fi.” The result was a 200 New Zealand dollars bill (about 110 euros) instead of a few dollars if he had used Wi-Fi.

The experience brought Martin back to reality: he was there to study, not to waste money (especially since part of it came from his family). His priorities are clear: quickly find a job to ease his finances and focus on rent. “To save on transport, I cycle or walk everywhere.” Leisure activities come last. Martin enjoys “sweet treats.” Every Saturday, he treats himself to Anzac biscuits (oatmeal cookies) to celebrate the week. But he stopped after finding a student job. “I should have done the opposite, but oh well. I now use my microwave to make them. Anyway, I prepare everything to save money.”

More tips for managing your expat budget

Before moving, review your expenses and monthly income. How much do you need to live in your host country? Assess the cost of living in the foreign country. Is the difference in your favor? Do you have the means to bridge the gap (job, job offer, savings)? Will you be able to work in the host country? List your main expenses abroad.

Once you have settled in your new home, update your list of main expenses. Can you save on some items? Keep a ledger. Explore local stores and discount chains. Adopt local tips. Always set aside an “emergency” fund for unforeseen expenses.