10 Luxuries I get for being an expat
Updated: Mar 25, 2019
Many diplomats are quick to point out that their lifestyles aren’t as glamorous as they sound. They much rather talk about the downsides of international travel, government-paid housing, and fixed salaries than admit that they can afford to do things abroad that most people back home probably can’t.
I was thinking about the type of luxuries I afford myself these days, and specifically the things I probably wouldn’t allow myself to spend money on if I wasn’t an expat. This is the list I came up with.
The idea of hiring a full-time nanny to care for my children was inconceivable to me ten years ago, especially in a scenario where I wouldn’t even have a full-time job. I always though nannies were unhappy and underpaid workers, and that anyone who had one was a heartless snob.
Now I have a full-time nanny even though I haven’t started my job yet, just so I can have freedom to go places and have someone to help me with the cooking and cleaning. As far as I can tell we’re both benefiting tremendously from the arrangement.
2. PERSONAL DRIVER
My son has a driver that picks him up every morning and brings him home at whatever time I want; he’s not our exclusive driver (he has tons of other customers within the American community), but he’s never once stood me up or told me he wasn’t available.
I hardly ever use a driver for my own transportation because I like to be spontaneous and prefer walking and cycling anyway. But whenever my kids or visitors from abroad need to go somewhere I use a driver and it’s awesome.
3. STRONG TIPPING
I’m a frugal person so I had to learn how to tip properly. Before I met my husband I never tipped more than the standard amount and I was pretty clueless about when and how much money to give. Growing up in Europe, I was surprised–and a little bit annoyed–that in the US you’re supposed to tip at the hairdressers, for example.
These days I try to tip more than people expect, just because I think it’s so much better to make someone feel happy and appreciated than running the risk of snubbing them.
I also have a personal rule to give to everyone who begs for money, which really isn’t very expensive in most places I’ve lived so far; if someone asks you for money once or twice a week, and you give them a few bucks each time, it really doesn’t ad up to much and you never have to feel heartless.
Also–with the full support of my husband–I do my level best to “support the local economy” by buying lots of local souvenirs, crafts, and delicacies, and shopping for food and clothes in local supermarkets and malls as much as I can. Guilt-free shopping is the best.
4. 3-DOLLAR AVOCADOS
The foods that we know and love are often much more expensive abroad because most American/European brand cereals, chocolates, beers, etc. have to be imported. If I’d only buy local food I could probably do a week’s worth of groceries for under $50, but because I want the brands I know and trust, I spend double that amount.
Imported produce like avocados and blueberries are particularly expensive. As a poor student I scoffed at the prices and made do with local stuff. But I’m less strict about it now; if I want to eat guacamole I don’t mind spending ten dollars on avocados that may or may not be rotten on the inside–I try not to worry about the money and focus more on what I like and what’s good for the kids.
5. GOOD WINE
Growing up in Europe I learned that a decent bottle of wine doesn’t have to cost more than $7; even in specialized wine stores you can find really good bottles for under 10 bucks. So I was very surprised when I heard Americans refer to 10-dollar wines as “cheap wines.” It took me a long time to spend that amount on wine without feeling bad.
Now that I live in Armenia I think it’s normal to spend ten or even twenty bucks on wine. Local wines (at least the good ones) simply cost that much because of high production costs. And good imported wine costs that much because of transport and import fees. And if I can choose between spending a few more dollars and drinking acid and getting a massive headache, the choice is easy.
Manicures and pedicures seemed like a total waste of money to me before I could comfortably afford it. Why spend forty bucks on something you can do yourself for a fraction of the cost without having to leave the house? I just didn’t understand the logic behind it. But it’s much cheaper outside of the US and I learned to appreciate it once I got into the habit of doing it.
Now I get my nails done a few times a year, typically for every new season and for special events. It’s just like going to the hairdressers or buying a new outfit; sometimes you just want to make sure you look and feel your best, and someone diligently scrubbing and polishing your hands and feet just really helps with that.
7. BALL GOWNS
I never wanted to buy an expensive gown because I felt it was a waste to spend money on something you only use once. Instead, I’d get something cheap in a consignment store or borrowed from a friend–heck, I didn’t even buy a dress for my own wedding!
Running around the expat community, however, I realized that most women had several full-length dresses in their closets, using them on rotation for special occasions and, most importantly, for the yearly US Marine Ball.
I grew into it slowly though: for the first ball I borrowed a dress; for the second, I wore a 90-dollar dress from Zara; for the third, I got a heavily discounted Vera Wang mini dress. After that, I decided to splurge and bought a Karen Millen dress. Maybe next I'll have a dress custom-made, like I see many of the ladies do around here.
8. DECENT FLIGHTS
I’m the organized one in our family, so naturally I arrange most of our travel. Whenever I’m in the process of booking a flight (for personal travel), I present my husband with two options: a cheap one and a more expensive/comfortable one. My husband never fails to go for the latter option.
Somewhere along the line my husband decided that, if we’re going to have a to travel a lot, he wanted to do it in the quickest and safest way possible, even if it costs extra money. It’s bad enough to travel with small kids. That said, we don’t travel business class (we only did it once, pre-kids), and there are limits to what we're willing to pay.
The same goes for hotels these days; we don’t automatically book the “standard room” anymore–we book the room that makes most sense for us. When we travel for pleasure we want it to be pleasurable, so the more stars the merrier. On the other hand, we still opt for family-style hotels and B&Bs frequently because our kids aren’t exactly on 4-star behavior most of the time.
Catering at my house? Yes please! After a decade of worrying about what to serve at work-related events, I finally decided to shell out the extra bucks to have someone else come up with a menu and work up a sweat in the kitchen.
At first I thought catering was too expensive. Paying two or three hundred dollars for brunch seemed excessive. But when I tried it I realized that it’s actually not that crazy if you consider the amount of food and work that goes into it, and the joy you get from serving great food and being relaxed at your own party! Also, you have awesome leftovers. So it's definitely something I plan to do again in the future.