I've just looked at our budget and it makes sobering reading.
Before we came to Chicago, both my husband and I had good jobs that paid well. On paper, our financial picture looked pretty rosy. But with a sizable mortgage, along with the ever-rising costs of food, petrol and utilities - not to mention two teenagers to feed and clothe - the cost of living in the South East of England was high. So when the chance came to start afresh, with the offer of an attractive financial package, we were more than happy to take the plunge.
Of course, we did the maths first - with a calculater and everything! We read all the documentation provided which gave detailed financial comparisons of US vs UK and, on balance, it seemed to make good financial sense. Don't get me wrong, we didn't move for the money - but there were some aspects that certainly sealed the deal.
So here are the financial facts: my husband's salary pretty much doubled and with his final salary pension (as rare as hens' teeth these days), that was a major driver. We were also given a generous relocation package that included a rent allowance for our first two years. Many expats are not given the same kind of soft landing, so we knew this was exceptional. But here's the flip side of the coin: I gave up my salary which will obviously impact my pension, we also still have a mortgage and UK expenses to cover, whilst also getting to grips with a whole new financial system here in America. Two lots of tax, two bank accounts = double the hassle!
Then there's the issue of becoming a landlord. In theory, it's pretty simple: you get permission from your mortgage lender to rent out your home, get renter's insurance and find a good letting agent to deal with the day-to-day issues. But what if you can't get a tenant? What if you have to pay for repairs and cover fees? For us, this was the reality. At one point we wondered if we would be paying both rent here in the US and a mortgage in the UK. Luckily, the day after we moved into our rented home in Chicago, we found our tenant, so we didn't have to stare down the barrel of that particular gun for long.
There's also the emotional response to having another family living in your home. We've coped with this by completely distancing ourselves - both geographically and emotionally. We know we have a lovely family in our house, and that's all we know. As far as we're concerned, it's theirs now and we want them to be happy and make it a real home for as long as they're living there. But for our friends and family still in the UK, it's often been commented that it feels strange to drive past our old address and see different cars in the driveway - a daily reminder that we're no longer there.
But here's the real issue for many expats: you never truly know the cost of living until you're here. When I looked over our spending over the last three months, things didn't look anything like the spread sheets we'd seen before leaving the UK. Here's a brief break down of the best and worst financial shocks over the last 6 months...
1. Our biggest monthly outgoing after rent.... food. I did some research because I couldn't quite believe just how much money we're spending just to eat. Apparently, the average American family can expect to pay as much as $1100 a month (over 800 GBP). It's not even as if we can slum it once in a while with beans on toast because I have to rely on UK care packages for Heinz beans! Good food costs, so unless you want to eat canned mac and cheese every day, you're in for a shock.
2. Petrol is cheap, but public transport is even cheaper. Helped by huge savings for buying season train tickets. Travelling into the city each day is surprisingly affordable and convenient.
3. Car insurance is much higher. Generally, the car rather than the driver is what gets insured, so whilst cars are relatively cheap to buy, insuring them is not. But this does mean that anyone can drive your car with your permission without being added to the policy (subject to your policy conditions etc.).
4. Medical costs are HUGE. Thankfully, we have comprehensive health insurance, but that didn't stop us getting a shortfall bill for $189 for Son#2 to get all his school vaccinations and health check. The reality is, I'm scared to go to the doctor!
5. Rent on the North Shore is high. It's much cheaper to buy. The average rent for a three bedroom house in our northern suburb is $3200 (2435 GBP). The average price to buy a 3 bedroom house here is $440,000 (335,000 GBP). To give an idea, the average sale price of a semi-detached home in our Buckinghamshire village in the UK was 515,826 GBP ($675,826) in 2017. You get more bang for your buck in terms of the size of house too.
6. Internet and phone services are more expensive than what we were paying in the UK
7. Gas and electricity are much cheaper - except if you run the AC all day and leave your bedroom window open (Note to Son#2!).
So what's the bottom line? Until you actually live here, you can't really know the true cost of living. For now, we're doing OK, but many expats I've spoken to who have less relocation support have found it a real struggle. Hopefully, I'll soon be contributing to the family coffers (if I ever get my work permit!) which will help as we begin to stand on our own two feet financially over the next year or two.
I started this blog because I wanted to present the reality of moving abroad to live and work. So to stay true to that ethos, the biggest cost has never been, and will never be, financial. It will always be measured by a different kind of balance sheet - the one which shows what we left behind against what we have gained in experiences and personal growth. So far, early projections are looking pretty good -some days I'm still in the red and the price I've paid for being here feels too high. But that's the nature of finance... the market can fluctuate, and before you know it, it's booming again.