Being an Expatriate is not for Everyone

Being an Expatriate is not for Everyone

Americans frequently ask Bonjour Paris about moving to France or another European Union country. For many, it’s the dream of a lifetime to live in a place they consider culturally more enriching.  For others, it’s an adventure.  These people are generally ones who’ve been coming to Europe for years.

If they had the foresight to buy property—a pied a terre or a country house, perhaps for retirement—they have a leg up on a lot of people.  But unless they also converted dollars into euros a couple of years ago, living in the EU with the dollar at its lowest in history should make you stop and think.  And think again.  And pray for divine guidance.

Gone are the days when a euro was worth 85¢.  Even though some people fantasize the dollar and the euro will once again be at parity, most experts predict that won’t be the case any time soon.

Will the European Central Bank intervene?  Will the Federal Reserve lower interest rates some more?  (That would likely drive the dollar down further.)  What about the US trade deficit?  I am neither an economist nor a financial guru; I didn’t have the smarts (or the funds) to dabble in hedging the dollar or arbitrage.  All I know is that life has become incredibly expensive in France and those of us living on dollar incomes have succumbed to eating bread, drinking tap water, and a lot of wine.

Suffice it to say these are trying times unless you’re a multi-millionaire where a few (thousand) dollars here and there means nothing.  But don’t think we’re all moving back to the US—even if it might make financial dollars and cents. France is our home and, no, we’re not being perverse. We’re being as inventive as we know how when it comes to saving money—or not spending it. We’re taking public transportation or have purchased bicycles if we’re not subscribing to the Vélib,’ bikes you can use free for half an hour or rent for longer times.

But there’s a different category of Americans coming to the EU and they’re the lucky few—the ones who’ve received job offers from multi-national companies.  But in order to make the right decision, the more knowledge they have, the better off they’ll be in making a sensible decision.  Counting on your company’s human resources people may not always be the best strategy.  A lot of HR people are overworked and few of them have any knowledge about the day-to-day cost of living in the EU.

You’ll need to do your own research.  There are simply too many variables to permit an off-the-cuff answer to an offer to work abroad. The challenge, the change of pace, and the change of scenery may be welcome and exciting.  But times and circumstances are not what they used to be, so you need to keep up with the times and on top of circumstances before saying oui or non. 

Those who sign up with the State Department or another government agency that requires travel usually know what they’re in for.  Ditto to the people who choose permanent jobs with multi-national corporations where turning down a move is going to knock you down a rung or two if not completely off the corporate ladder.  But don’t rely on others.

We’ve compiled a list of factors that should be kept in mind before making any decisions.  None of them is etched in stone; if they were, you wouldn’t need human resources personnel or relocation specialists.  And the need for therapists would be greatly diminished.

Knowing the job and its goals, even if they are moving targets, is your business, but here are some points to consider.  Before turning to them, don’t be shy about consulting a lawyer and an accountant who are knowledgeable about countries’ laws, taxes and tax treaties, and equalization packages.  If you’re an American who plans on working in France, expect the rules of the game to change without a great deal of notice.  My lawyer in Paris is constantly attending classes just to keep up on behalf of his American clients.  Here are some questions to ask, and remember there are no dumb ones.

  • How long is the assignment?
  • Who will be responsible for doing all of the legal paperwork?
  • Will there be relocation professional to locate an apartment that is up to your standards?  Will he or she pre-screen them or drag from hither and yon?
  • Will the company guarantee the apartment or house lease so you don’t have to place funds in escrow?
  • Will the budget be adequate?
  • If decorating or equipment is needed (many French apartments are rented without kitchen cabinets or appliances), will the work be done for you?
  • Will there be a local to take care of decorating and equipping that require tradesmen?
  • Will there be a professional to deal with the shipment of your furniture and clearing customs?
  • Ditto for when you return to the US or go on to another overseas assignment?
  • If you’re married, will the company attempt to get your spouse working papers and a job?
  • If you have children, will the company pay for private school education?
  • How many home leaves per year will you have?
  • If you are flying over a certain number of hours, will business-class travel be part of the package?
  • Will you and your family have advanced language training, preferably before going abroad?
  • Are medical insurance and emergency evacuation policies in perfect order?
  • Most important:  Will you be paid in dollars or euros?  If in dollars, will there be an adjustment if the euro continues to rise against the dollar? And remember to consult with your accountant before signing the contract. For example, US residents living abroad currently aren’t taxed on the first $82,000 of earned income. But depending on the US Congress, this could change too.

For many, an overseas move is traumatic enough. After all, for some, moving across the street is enough to provoke a nervous breakdown.

But for a lot of people, it’s one of the most enriching ways to spend a professional career.  Just make sure you know what you’re doing before you do it.

© Paris New Media, LLC

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