Yesterday I posed two rhetorical questions: “Where will you be happy, and how can you know before you decide to live there?” I was thinking about a recent article I’d read, proclaiming Singapore a “utopia” for expatriates.
Would that island city-state be the “perfect country” for you? To repeat my cheeky answer from yesterday: I have no idea. That’s because you’re you and I’m me, and I don’t know what’s in your heart and mind. I can tell you that although I’d be thrilled to base some of my assets in Singapore, I wouldn’t fancy living there.
So what would be the ideal place for you and yours — a place to live, love, and explore life? As I said yesterday, “To find out … you need a process.” Let’s explore the process and discover how to choose where to expatriate.
The question of where you’ll enjoy living abroad is really about your values.
I don’t mean values in the moral (personal) or ethical (social) sense — although these are certainly important — but rather in the sense of how you rank different aspects of life against one other. Choosing a new home involves weighing and comparing those different aspects of life, and identifying a place that will maximize your happiness.
In that sense, choosing a country in which to live is like an investment choice. You balance risk against reward. Some countries offer very high returns in terms of lifestyle, but at the cost of potential risks to wealth. Others might protect your money, but bore you to tears, were you to become a resident. Others, however, are like the proverbial bear’s porridge — “just right.” It’s a balancing act: How much of one thing are you willing to give up in order to obtain a certain amount of another?
Start with Your Goals
The single most important thing to do when planning a major life move is to be clear about what you want to achieve by it — your goals for the process. That’s easy to overlook. If you’re considering a move abroad, you’re likely to focus on what you dislike about living in the U.S. … what you’re trying to get away from … the “push” factors. It’s easy to overlook how important it is to identify your unstated goals for a life abroad and use those to assess a given country’s “pull.”
For example, I met a couple at last year’s Total Wealth Symposium who had decided to move to one of the Caribbean islands. They were deeply concerned about wealth confiscation in the U.S. They wanted a second passport. They didn’t want to pay heavy taxes in a new home.
But they told me they were having second thoughts. They were bored and isolated. They’d visited the island before, but only as tourists. On those visits they’d been treated like royalty because they were spending U.S. dollars, but now that they were locals, they had to stand in the same lines at the grocery and the phone company as everyone else. There were very few other expats on the island.
A Process of Elimination
They wanted to try somewhere else, and asked my advice on how to choose where to expatriate. Here’s what I told them:
Sit down and brainstorm a set of questions about the things that are important to you in these four areas: Money and Wealth; Lifestyle; Personal Relationships; and Home and Possessions. For example, how important is:
- Being able to work or start a business in your new home, even if you’re retired?
- Having the little things that make you comfortable in life, like a morning bagel and a custom coffee blend?
- Being within easy reach of family and friends in the U.S.?
- Being able to take most of your possessions (including cars, pets and guns)?
I asked them to come up with half-a dozen or so questions in each category and answer each with either “a lot” (three points), “moderately” (two points) or “not too much” (one point). I then told them that if they scored 12 or above for any of the four categories, that they should only look for places that could meet their goals in that area of life. They should focus their research process on those areas and eliminate those that didn’t fit. “It’s a process of gradually narrowing the field,” I said, “not picking a winner.”
And, I added, “Do the process together. After all, if you don’t agree on your priorities now, you won’t when you get there, either. The time to identify the need for compromise is before you go.”
Where Will You Be Happy?
No one thing in life — money, hobbies, culture, environment, friendships — constitutes the sum total of your happiness. All of us go through life balancing these things, usually unconsciously. Life is a process of trial and error, and as you get older, your underlying values reveal themselves via the accumulated choices you’ve made.
So as you start thinking about a life abroad, by all means read all the articles you can find about popular expat destinations. But read between the lines as well.
And above all, make sure to know yourself, so you can be “true to you” wherever you choose to go.
Offshore and Asset Protection Editor