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You Can’t Live on Fresh Air in Paradise

It’s been one of those weeks already!  I received an email enquiry from a would-be expat retiree asking if he could conceivably live well overseas on his British state pension.  Upon a little further enquiry on my part, I deduced that he didn’t own any property to sell to enable him to find a place to live abroad, and that he really wanted to be able to eat his cake and still have it by practically surviving on fresh air in some imagined paradise.

And then I came across an excellent post by Matt on TropicalPenPals.com link entitled ‘Can a Foreigner Make a Living in The Philippines,’ that really summed up what I’d been feeling all week!

All too often people want to move abroad, but they have no realistic plan about making a living, sustaining a decent lifestyle, affording somewhere to live – and their dreams fall apart and they wonder why.  Basically it’s all about being realistic, (or not as the case may be), – and planning to succeed, rather than not planning at all.

I should know better than to engage with the enquiries that I know will take up so much of my time and yet bear no fruit.  So why did I waste time over 48 hours emailing back and forth with my disillusioned retiree?  Because I felt sorry for him – and because I felt it was my duty to try and ‘educate’ him!

Time and time again I come across expats who’ve moved abroad on a whim, or those who are planning to do just that.  They want to set up a bar, buy a café or clean some pools.  And as Matt says in his aforementioned post: “The big question many people ask is ‘can a foreigner make a living in the Philippines?’  As the first ports of call people think they can get are:-
“Call centre job.
“Set up an Internet cafe.
“Buy a bar/ Bikini bar.
“Own a restaurant.  Which in reality is the same thing I hear when people talk about moving to Greece or many other places (not the call centre bit).  In reality these businesses are often money pits that exist because the last guy who went broke just sold it to you and he bought it from someone else leaving and the cycle continues.”

What all this boils down to is not being realistic.  If you know anyone who’s thinking of living abroad, tell them to ask themselves this: ‘can I survive on fresh air where I currently live?’ – chances are their answer will be ‘no’ – so why do they think it will be any different abroad?

The Philippines is a particularly hard environment for foreigners to make a decent living in by all accounts.  Matt explains that: “There are very few boundaries of ownership that most people understand, as a case of “don’t give a damn” cuts in very often, which is why they will pee on your wall, steal your crops, graffiti your wall and think it’s ok to nap in the back of your multicab.  Not being negative – all these things happen all the time.”

But nowhere in the world will the unrealistic achieve their dreams of living on fresh air in paradise.  I’d even take this one step further and say, if you haven’t made a success of your life so far, why do you think running away overseas will improve your situation?

Of all of you out there reading this I am 99% sure you’ve come across your fair share of those who haven’t a clue.  People wrongly assume it’s easy to start again abroad, that the traditional dreams of opening a bar or a restaurant are failsafe, and that they will be happy living a much simpler life just as long as the sun shines every day.

The reality of being an expat is that actually, you have to have a pioneer streak in you!  You need to be able to face up to the unfamiliar in your work and home life, you need to be adaptable and flexible, you have to take personal responsibility for many areas of your life now that you discover the state won’t support you anymore…

So perhaps it’s no bad thing that emigration numbers from the UK have fallen dramatically since the economic turmoil in Great Britain.  (The Office for National Statistics last week revealed that emigration from the UK in 2010 was at its lowest since 2005 with just 336,000 Britons taking the plunge.)

Apparently, of those moving abroad most are of working age, most are going to a job already, or specifically to find work overseas – and therefore most have perhaps got their heads more screwed on than all those who ventured overseas when the pound was strong and property abroad was seemingly too cheap to be true.

Hopefully all these new expats will be moving abroad with realistic expectations of how hard it can be to make a living, (i.e., at least as hard as it is to make a living in the UK!), and we seasoned expats won’t have to reach out and help them when they fail to find their feet.

From speaking to expatriate friends around the world, all too often one feels a sense of responsibility for fellow foreign faces in our chosen foreign land.  And just as I wasted precious time on my would-be expat retiree this week in a bid to prevent him from making a terrible mistake, I’m sure you have all tried to voice caution to those hell bent on ‘giving it a go’ abroad, after all, ‘what’s the worst that can happen’ right?

Well, the worst is that people lose everything and have no leg to stand on.  They have no family abroad, no money to survive and no prospects of any improvement to their lives.  The worst is that those who fail to plan realistically can make their present bad situation far worse by moving abroad.  Which reminds me of probably the most tragic enquiry I ever received from an expat who was trying to get another expat home.

The man who contacted me knew the woman he was enquiring on behalf of purely by casual acquaintance.  He had seen her life fall apart around her ears as her dream of a new life abroad had failed to come to fruition.  He contacted me and said he’d stump up her plane fare home but did I think any charity in the UK would be able to pick her up, house her, get her benefits and basically save her.

She’d been abroad too long to immediately qualify from any help, she had no address in the UK so would struggle to get benefits, she would be homeless but hardly a priority (according to Shelter, the housing and homeless charity in the UK there are 1.7million households in Britain waiting for social housing), and her plight just proved how badly wrong it can go for those expats who fail to be realistic about their new life abroad.

More should perhaps pay heed to posts like Matt’s rather than reading hastily penned eBooks about ‘living the dream for less in this perfect paradise.’

As many of you reading this will hopefully agree, yes you can start a new life abroad, yes that new life can bring improvements to many aspects of your lifestyle, but no it’s not always an easy ride and no you can’t expect instant success if you’ve put very little thought, or realism into your planning.

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