Want to Expat? Well…maybe. (part 4) Wealth and its dictates

If you’ve read the three previous posts in this series, you may wonder why I’ve changed the subtitle from ‘Don’t’, to ‘Maybe.’ Of course we’d challenge anyone who wants to become an expat to do so, and to make the best of it.

We’d simply like for other potential expats to be better informed, with more hard data, and with less starry-eyed enthusiasm than we, admittedly, had three years ago. This post offers more of that hard data. Once again, it’s not gospel. Do adequate research, and you’ll be better off than we were.

Wealth: We’re expats in Colombia. We are wealthy here. Those two phrases are nearly redundant; it’s difficult to envision anyone arriving from the U.S. (for example) as an expat who doesn’t qualify as rich in comparison. The simple fact is that we expats have not only more cash, but also much more income than the average Colombiano, or Mexicano, or Panamanian etc. As soon as we step off the plane we’re in the economic 10%, possibly the 1%. There is a thriving, (and I believe growing) middle class in Colombia, so a good thing.

But we have more than most average folks. No surprise there, but what does that mean? And what does it dictate in terms of our behaviors, perspectives, and general interaction with our new neighbors?

The subject of this post, number 4 in the series, is wealth, not just in monetary terms but overall as expats. It’s not a simple subject, and we’d be first to admit that after two years in Medellin we still don’t know all the ramifications of it. I’ll try to unpack a few of them here.

Realities: Starting with hard economics, the average Colombiano earns roughly 781,242 pesos, or around $265 USD per month, equivalent to $3,180.00 a year. The average monthly wage in Mississippi, poorest state in the U.S., is $2,477, or $20,600 per annum. Granted, the cost of living in the U.S. is relatively higher, and Colombia does offer certain things much cheaper, like healthcare for example. Still, the difference is considerable. The average Colombiano likely has no appreciation for the concept of discretionary income.

We realized right away when we arrived here that we likely carry more cash in our pantalones than most of the folks we pass on the street earn in a month. Thus…

Dictates of Wealth: What do we do about that? First, we’re aware of it. We learned not to pull wads of cash out and flash it around. Mariah is better than I am about this, but I’m getting better. We take as little cash out of the house as we might need. We use a credit card to avoid large displays of bills. We don’t hand a 50 thousand note to a taxista if we can avoid it. Not only because he may not have change, but because it may not be safe for him to be carrying large bills. We do dole out cash to street people on occasion, especially now with many destitute Venezolanos on the streets of Medellin. Again, we donate small bills, to help them out a bit, but to minimize their exposure as well.

$$$ Customs: Other things we do to lower our financial profile are as follows. We don’t wear bling. Like Colombianos, we leave rings, lockets, bracelets, and earrings at home. We wear cheap watches. We try to avoid public iPhone monologues. We don’t assume that our Colombian friends are able to freely come and go as we do, or to buy tickets for every event, or to make plans to jet off here and there at a moment’s notice. In other words, we’re sensitive to their (lower) financial position, without appearing casually generous or ostentatious with ours.

It appears that the underlying theme is protection against thievery. It’s not. We’ve never felt threatened here. Our reluctance to display wealth is mostly to avoid showing the glaring difference in financial status. In our experience, Colombianos work very, very hard for very little cash. We have no wish to flaunt our economic elevation, or our separation from the daily grind that occupies their time.

Time and its Value: Which brings me to the next measure of wealth, our abundance of time. Like most expats, we worked many years, made reasonably good money decisions, and managed to build an adequate retirement account. Unlike our opposite situation at age 30, we now have much more money than time. Here in Colombia, the workweek is often six days, and not uncommonly 12 to 14 hour days, so we’re wealthy in time as well.

Our time is our own. We’re aware that this status is a gift. Colombian friends tell us that they’ll be hard pressed to retire, ever. There is a kind of social security safety net here, but it’s a bare bones system. At 62 for men, and 57 for women, many companies tell them hasta luego. They can retire, but must then find other employment. They have no leisure time of their own. When casually discussing travel plans, or an early dinner and movie, or any other time (and cash) sensitive item, we remember that.

Expat Mates: The other aspect of wealth as an expat has more to do with relationships than money. As I write this, a great friend of ours in Ohio is mourning the recent loss of her husband. On Easter Sunday Jim went golfing with his pals, and never came home. He had what turned out to be a fatal heart attack on the golf course. He was taken to a local emergency room and cath lab, but did not survive the stent procedure. Jim was 69.

We’ve tried to remember, especially since Jim’s death, that being expats makes us wealthy in our time together as well. We don’t have a lot of it left anyway. Every day we see a bit more sand sift through the hourglass. So we remain aware of how precious our time is, and how fortunate we are to have it to share. A related factor is my wife’s current employment status. She’s retired, due to a work related injury. Being here has given us the ability to spend much more time together. If we were still in the US, she would need to work many hours a week, and we wouldn’t have that time.

Giving Back: We live a fuller, richer life here, one without concern about money. Thus we’re able to help Colombian people, as well as to donate to our favorite U.S. and international charities. Being expats has enriched our lives in that way as well.

Being expats does indeed mean a lot of time together, and it can become tedious. As comedian Rita Rudner once said, “isn’t it (marriage) great to find the one person you’re going to annoy for the rest of your life?” Departing ones home country to expat with a mate adds wealth to your days and nights, and the opportunity to actually strengthen the bond that exists between you. We were already best friends and soul mates. Being expats has shown just how important our bond is when faced with the challenges of a new place, and a new system. Plus, we’ve found ways to convey our affection and love for each other in a new language, and that’s always great fun.

We’re wealthy people. We would have recognized that whether we became expats or not. But leaving the U.S., moving to a country far from our ‘home’ has shown us a different kind of wealth: The chance to grow personally and together; the opportunity to learn a new way of life, a new language, and to make new friends; the graphic demonstration of just how rich we are; the privilege that having this wealth conveys, and the dictates and requirements that go along with it. We’ve always thought rich folks have an obligation to give back, so I hope we’ve found ways to do that. It feels good. But better than that, it feels right.

Byron & Mariah Edgington live in Medellin Colombia. Contact them at medellinretirement.com.