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Welcome to NerdWallet’s Smart Money podcast, where we answer your real-world money questions.
This week’s episode starts with a discussion about how to check in on your money goals for 2021.
Then we pivot to this week’s question from Kaylan, who sent us a text asking:
“My husband recently got a new job in Germany and we will be moving later this summer. It’s a three-year contract, so we may only be there for that time frame but potentially longer. Should I open a German bank account? I plan to keep my US accounts open but how should we go about money management for a temporary time in a foreign country?”
Check out this episode on any of these platforms:
When doing a midyear money check-in, take stock of various parts of your finances — like flexible spending account contributions, debts in forbearance and car expenses — and know whether any of them have been affected by recent changes in Congress or in the economy. FSA contribution limits, for example, are higher this year. Then see how you’re doing on your 2021 money goals. Given the reopening of the economy, you may want to reset your goals or tweak your budget.
On the topic of managing money while living abroad, know how to save money and make managing your finances easier. If you’re living in a different country long term, opening a bank account there may make sense, but know that you’ll likely have to prove residency and that some banks have a high threshold for proof.
In general, take advantage of easy strategies to save money while you’re abroad. These include getting a SIM card for your cell phone in the country you’re in instead of using your domestic cell phone plan, which may have high rates for international service. Also, look for banks that don’t charge foreign transaction fees. Some credit cards may have this perk, too. If you’re going on an expensive trip, consider buying travel insurance.
Make your life easier. When living abroad, you might want to open a bank account in the country where you’re based.
Shop around for bank accounts if you frequently travel internationally. Look into U.S. bank accounts that waive ATM fees.
Find the right credit card for your travel. Look for one that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees and earns you points.
More on NerdWallet about managing money while traveling:
Sean Pyles: Welcome to the NerdWallet Smart Money Podcast, where we answer your personal finance questions and help you feel a little smarter about what you do with your money. I'm Sean Pyles.
Liz Weston: I'm Liz Weston. To have your money questions answered on a future episode, turn to the Nerds. Call or text us on the Nerd hotline at 901-730-6373, that's 901-730-NERD, or email us at [email protected].
Sean: In this episode, Liz and I answer a listener's question about managing finances abroad, but first, in our This Week in Your Money segment, Liz and I are talking about doing a midyear check-in on your financial goals for 2021. And Liz, I understand that you actually recently covered this topic in your column, right?
Liz: Yeah, we were just talking about how much is changing with people going back to work, either going back to an office, or they've been unemployed and now they have a job. At the same time, people are traveling, planning for celebrations like weddings, and Congress changed a bunch of laws. Normally, I like to do a midyear checkup just to make sure that we're on track with retirement savings and tax withholdings and things like that, but now, it's really important to take a look at these other changes and make sure that you're up to date, essentially.
Sean: What do you think people should start by looking into?
Liz: I think the most important thing if you are a parent is to look and see if you have a flexible spending account at work, and if you do, if the amount that you can put in for child care has increased, because Congress more than doubled the amount that you can put into a flexible spending account for child care. If you're a married couple, for example, it went from $5,000 last year to $10,500 this year.
Sean: Wow, that's a big change.
Liz: It's a huge change and can save you a ton of taxes, so if you're a parent, if you have child care, you want to check that out. Another one that seems to be coming up more frequently is frequent traveler programs and loyalty programs in general. This is not a traveler program, but I went into my OpenTable account and I'd lost 4,000 points.
Sean: Oh, jeez. Because they just expired?
Liz: Yeah, because obviously, we weren't going out there. Now, fortunately, they restored the points, but if you want to make sure that your various loyalty points and miles and all those things don't expire, you want to go in and check all of these different accounts to make sure that you've still got the points that you thought you had, if you're in danger of them expiring, that you either use them or reach out to the loyalty program to see if you can get an extension of some kind.
Sean: Yeah, I think that's a really good point because when people do midyear money check-ins, they might think, "Oh, what's my budget looking like? What am I spending?" But I think that's actually a really great time right now for people to look into all of the different financial things that they didn't use last year that have just been gathering dust and seeing what they're looking like now that people are beginning to use them again, like as you said, with your OpenTable account.
Liz: I think a lot of these programs soften the rules and they put off expirations, but that's not going to last forever. That actually segues into my next topic, which is debt forbearance, because that's not going to last forever either.
Sean: Yeah, thanks for the reminder. My student loans are emailing me it seems like weekly at this point, just knock, knock, knocking at the door saying, "Ahem, don't forget about us."
Liz: Yeah, so the forbearance on federal student loans is scheduled to end this fall. We don't know if that's going to be extended or not. Right now, payments are supposed to resume in October.
Liz: If you got forbearance on any other debt, like mortgage forbearance, for example, or forbearance on a car loan, whatever it is, all those forbearance programs have an expiration date. You want to know what it is and you want to have a plan to pay off the payments that you missed. Those payments didn't go away. Unlike federal student loans, where they really did put a whole pause on it, your debt didn't increase, your interest didn't continue to accumulate, but with mortgages and car loans and other types of debt, the interest did continue to accumulate, so you've got to figure out a way to pay that off over time. Typically, you don't have a big lump sum to deal with, but you’ve got to call your lender and talk about your options.
Sean: It seems like part of the midyear money check-in is just doing an analysis of the various aspects of your finances, like an FSA, like debts that we might have to start paying again, come fall. But I also think it's worthwhile to look back at what you wanted to accomplish at the beginning of this year, seeing how that's gone so far, and then maybe making some adjustments. I'm a big advocate for the SMART goal for setting goals. This is an acronym. It's specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound. I actually like to add an R for that, being the child of behavioral psychologists, add a little bit of positive reinforcement and reward your goals, so SMARTR goals is how I like to approach it.
I think it's worth, again, setting out what you wanted to do, seeing how it happened, and then go into this exercise without judgment or beating yourself up if you didn't totally stay on track. The whole world has been in a state of flux for the past 18 months, it seems, so there are lots of things out of your control, but what you can control is how you respond to what has happened to your finances and what you want to do next. I think a lot of people are going to realize that we're actually in a moment of pivoting. It's an inflection point right now where, as you've mentioned, people are traveling again, people are spending money in a lot of places they weren't spending money for the past year, and so it's worth seeing where your money is going now. Where do you want your money to go over the next six months and how can you actually harness your finances to achieve what you want?
Liz: Yeah, I think that's a really good point. You don't have to do a huge deep dive. I would just take a budgeting app like NerdWallet's and look at your spending for the last month or two and see where your money is going now because with people going back to work, maybe you're using your car more, you're buying more gas, you're putting more miles on it, so you're going to have higher maintenance costs, possibly repair costs. Same thing if you have kids, you've got back-to-school costs to think about. All of this stuff is stuff that you need to plan for, but you also need to know where your money's going so you can look at places where you might want to trim. We talked about this already, but one of the big obvious ones is streaming services. How many do you have? How many do you need? You can put some of those on pause. You don't have to actually cancel it. You can just say, "Hey, hold up for a few months," and maybe focus your bingeing on one or two streaming services rather than having, ahem, five or six.
Sean: Yeah. I think that's a really good point because sometimes when I talk with people about goal-setting with their money, they can get a little overwhelmed thinking that they have to have one comprehensive plan for all of their money. That's just not true. You can have one goal of, "OK, I want to only eat out once a week. I want to cut my food budget," and so how are you going to focus on that and actually achieve it? Doesn't have to be a master plan for your finances because that can be a little bit overwhelming. I think it helps to tackle one thing at a time.
Liz: That's a really great suggestion, Sean. Again, it doesn't have to be a huge, heavy lift. This is just a chance for you to reset midyear and make sure that you're making the progress you want to make on your goals.
Sean: One thing that I've also been trying to focus on, and I actually am using one of my many savings accounts, which we talked about a few weeks ago, is Christmas spending, holiday spending, because I've never really been great at it. I've tried. Last year, I actually did pretty well at saving for holiday presents, but now that it's midyear, I'm really beginning to focus on, "OK, how much am I going to spend? What's that precise dollar amount?" so I can kind of back my way into it and not feel like I'm draining my savings for presents this year.
Liz: We've talked about our savings buckets, and one of mine is holiday spending just because that's such an expensive time of year with traveling and entertaining and buying presents, and we usually tack on an extended family trip afterwards, so having that savings bucket, and I just call it Christmas, is super helpful because I know that money is being put aside and I won't have to sweat it when the bills come in January.
Sean: I'm at the point where I'm sorting out what my goals are for the rest of this year because at the outset of 2021, I knew that I was going to be closing on this new house that I'm in the process of moving into. I knew that I really wanted to change how I was banking and I finally signed up with the local credit union here in the Portland area. I've pretty much stopped using my big national bank. I have a little bit of cash that stays in there so I can pay my mom for the cell phone bill every month, but I'm trying to think, "What do I really want next?"
So yes, it is understanding how I'm spending my money with the house. I have a lot of new expenses, like garbage and water and propane, all those things that I didn't really think about when I was putting down this deposit, but now I need to understand exactly how they're impacting my budget. For me, my goal right now for the rest of the year is just to get a grip on where every penny is going and maybe a more granular way than I had in the past six months and then continuing to trim expenses so I can save about as much as I was before, if possible.
Liz: Oh, very cool. Well, I like the fact that you enumerated the goals that you've met because that's important, too, is to give yourself a pat on the back for the goals you've achieved. That's no small thing.
Sean: Speaking of the "R" in "rewarding" for SMARTR goals, I have a nice, big bottle of champagne waiting for me at my new house to celebrate with my twin sister when she comes to visit later this week.
Liz: Oh, awesome. Go enjoy that.
Sean: Thank you.
Liz: All right. Well, with that, let's get on to this week's money question.
Sean: This episode's money question comes from Kaylin, who sent us a text asking, "My husband recently got a new job in Germany and we will be moving later this summer. It's a three-year contract, so we may only be there for that timeframe, but potentially longer. Should I open a German bank account? I plan to keep my US accounts open, but how should we go about money management for a temporary time in a foreign country?"
Liz: To help us answer Kaylin's question, on this episode of the podcast, we're joined by travel Nerd Elina Geller.
Sean: Hey, Elina. Welcome on to the podcast.
Elina Geller: Hey, guys. Thank you so much for having me.
Sean: It's great to have you here. I have a number of questions for you about spending a significant amount of time abroad and how to manage your money. But first, I think it would be helpful for folks to understand exactly why you are the Nerd that we are having this conversation with, so can you tell us a little bit about your background and your digital nomad lifestyle?
Elina: I'm originally from New York, and before COVID, I was a digital nomad traveling the world full time for about three years. I've been to 49 countries. I'm currently based in Amsterdam, and my specialty is travel rewards, miles, points, travel insurance, credit card rewards, all that good stuff.
Liz: I have so many questions for you, but let's turn to Kaylin's questions first. Does it make sense for somebody who's living abroad for a few years to open a bank account in the country where they're living?
Elina: I think that answer has a few different points to it. If you're moving to a foreign country on some kind of a permanent contract, or let's say a contract that's one year or two years, you're going to be able to much more easily access a bank or a rental lease because you're going to be able to show some kind of a document from the employer saying you're authorized to be there.
Sean: It seems like you're saying that for folks who are going to be living and working abroad for a significant period of time, like it seems like Kaylin and her husband are going to, it would make sense to open an account where you're based so that you can get paid and have direct deposit with your employer and then also pay rent and things like that, is that right?
Elina: Well, the rule depends on every single country and it depends on the contract. The rules in Germany might be different than somewhere else. Of course, it may be easier to have a German bank account if they're able to get one, but if, let's say, that's not the case, then definitely you want to position yourself so that you have a bank that's not going to penalize you for taking the money out in a foreign country.
Sean: It's like finding what's easiest for you and your finances.
Elina: Even if, let's say, they moved to Germany but then they decide to travel to another country on vacation, still, they want to make sure that they're going to be able to withdraw money without having to pay any ATM fees. I don't know if a German bank would waive foreign ATM fees, so it might be good advice, in general, to open up an account with a company like Charles Schwab because all ATM fees are reimbursed.
Liz: But if you don't have a contract, or you're just going to be traveling and not living in one place, it probably isn't worth trying to open a bank account in that country, right?
Elina: Absolutely not. You wouldn't even be approved in most instances because you're going to need to provide a lot of documentation. Why would you want to jump through all those hoops? Normally, if you're just interested in spending a significant amount of time abroad, or if you're a digital nomad and you're just traveling, I think it's important to get a few things checked off. For example, you want to bank with a bank like Charles Schwab because Charles Schwab reimburses all ATM fees, so if you're taking money out, when you're in a foreign country, not only are you potentially paying the ATM fee of that ATM, but your bank might charge you an ATM fee as well, so it can get pretty pricey. Some ATM fees could be like $5 per withdrawal, so definitely get a bank that has no ATM fees.
Then another thing you could do is if you're paying money to, let's say, you're renting an apartment for a month and the landlord has asked you to transfer the money, if you're going to do that from your own bank account, or even PayPal, you're going to have a high commission-based built into that. There's this company that allows you to transfer money between foreign currency accounts with minimal fees. That company, it used to be called TransferWise and now it's known as Wise. They have an app.
Sean: I think it is also worth throwing in there that there are a number of credit unions that have reimbursed, ATM fees or no ATM fees. My partner has one of these and he loves it and he's actually used it while traveling abroad. It's not that Charles Schwab is your only option. I just wanted to clarify that for listeners, too.
Elina: I also wanted to clarify that maybe there may be some banks out there that make it easy to open accounts, but from what I heard from different friends, it seems like it's always been an obstacle to open up a foreign bank account unless you're there for a significant period of time and have documentation available.
Liz: We go back and forth to Europe, or we did before the pandemic, fairly frequently. We were thinking about this, "Maybe it would be just easier to open a bank account," so it's good to know we're not going to be able to or it's going to be a huge hassle, so we'll just stick with our bank account that makes it easy to access our money abroad. Thanks for the tip about Wise, by the way, because the other thing we do is my husband conducts workshops overseas and we're constantly being sent money, or sometimes having to reimburse a deposit, and boy, those fees can really add up if you're using a traditional brick-and-mortar bank.
Elina: You mean when it converts into foreign currency?
Liz: Yeah, that, and just the fees they charge to push money back and forth.
Elina: Yeah, you really have to shop around, but I would say TransferWise is really good for that. I have a foreign bank account in the U.K. from when I went to school there. I still have that account open and I transfer my money between my U.S. and my U.K. account using Wise because if I just did it directly from my bank account, it would have a lot more fees.
Sean: Are there any other aspects of managing finances and different bank accounts while living and working abroad that you think Kaylin or other listeners should know?
Elin: Most importantly, you just want to make sure you're not getting hit with ATM fees when you're abroad. The other thing I want to mention, when you're withdrawing money from a foreign ATM, whether your bank waives ATM fees are not, you're always going to get asked the question if you want to accept the conversion rate provided by the ATM, and the answer you always want to say is no; always decline the conversion because whatever rate is being offered to you always includes a spread for the ATM to make money off of you that you're going to be paying commission, so always say no.
Liz: I noticed that was happening everywhere we went. In the stores and restaurants, we were constantly being asked if we wanted to convert it and the answer's always no.
Elina: You always want to pay in local currency. Always decline the conversion. Always do local currency.
Sean: Huh. That's interesting because to me, having not a ton of experience with managing money like this, I would just assume that you would have to accept, yes, otherwise you wouldn't be able to get your money or make the purchase, but that's not the case.
Elina: Yeah, it's not the case.
Sean: It seems like another core aspect of managing money abroad is using credit cards strategically so that you can get points and also make managing money easier overall, so what is your advice for someone looking to do that?
Elina: This is also important. First of all, if you're going to be traveling abroad, you want to make sure you have a credit card that does not charge you foreign transaction fees. Foreign transaction fees could be as high as 3% and if you have a card that does not waive them, you're going to be paying a 3% spread on every transaction that you charge in a foreign currency and you don't need to pay that. You could get a travel credit card that waives foreign transaction fees. If you're looking for a card without an annual fee, there are some cards out there that don't charge transaction fees, so if you're thinking, "Okay, I just want the simplest thing. I don't want to pay an annual fee," you could still find a credit card that doesn't charge foreign transaction fees, so definitely do that.
If you are comfortable with a credit card that has an annual fee and you're somebody who likes to travel and you want that flexibility, I would definitely recommend getting a premium travel rewards credit card that earns points for international purposes. When you're abroad, not only are you earning points every time you swipe the card, but you're also earning points on bonus categories.
Sean: That's really good advice. For folks who don't travel abroad super frequently, I think it's worth looking into what your own credit card might have. For example, I have this absolute workhorse of a cash back credit card, and I just discovered that it has no foreign transaction fees. I just realized that I'm going to keep using this whenever I do travel abroad because pre-COVID, I would do it, at most, once annually. For me, it just didn't make sense to get a travel credit card because I'm not traveling three to five times a year abroad.
Liz: Another tip is you want to take more than one credit card abroad. Several times, we've had a card closed because of "suspicious activity," and sometimes it was hard to get ahold of the credit card company from abroad, so it's nice to have a backup card until you get that taken care of.
Sean: That's a good reminder to call it your banks before you are traveling abroad so they know to expect that you'll be making charges from somewhere beyond your usual locations.
Liz: It's interesting that some credit card companies will tell you now, "Oh, you don't need to do that," but we've had the experience of being told that and still having the card shut down or telling the credit card company, "Hey, we're going to be in this country for this length of time," and still having the card shut down.
Sean: Oh, no.
Liz: I don't know what's going on with the security over there, but I would definitely take more than one card.
Sean: Yeah, that's a really good tip. I typically would travel abroad with a group of friends from college and, without fail, every single trip, at least one of us would run into that issue, and making these phone calls while abroad while you're trying to have a good vacation can be quite the headache.
Liz: A pain in the butt, yes.
Elina: That's actually an excellent point. Another thing I wanted to mention is a lot of times in foreign countries, American Express is not as widely accepted as Visa or MasterCard, so if you're taking a credit card with you and your main workhorse card is some kind of American Express card, also make sure to take a Visa or MasterCard because if the place you're going to doesn't accept Amex, you're going to be out of luck.
Liz: Another thing credit cards can offer you is travel insurance, right?
Elina: Yes, definitely. A lot of the premium travel cards, they offer travel insurance and a lot of benefits like trip cancellation, trip interruption, baggage delay, lost luggage. In general, travel insurance is super important, especially now. If you're thinking about going abroad, you want to make sure that your non-refundable trip plans are covered. If you're thinking about taking an international vacation, look and see if your credit card, the one that you already have, has travel insurance. Because, if it does, then the limits might be sufficient enough to cover any kind of trip that you're going on. If it doesn't, then you know that buying a policy might be a good idea, like a comprehensive travel insurance policy.
The other important benefit of travel insurance is emergency medical. People need to pay attention to the fact that when you're traveling abroad, your U.S.-based health insurance may not cover international expenses. If you're going somewhere where the medical care is relatively affordable, then you may not need a super-high limit. But again, insurance is meant to protect you in case of unexpected emergencies. If your credit card doesn't offer medical coverage as part of its travel insurance policy, then you may even want to just get stand-alone travel insurance that only has medical benefits, because if, let's say, your trip is fully refundable, that's great, you don't need some benefits, but you may need protection for any unexpected medical emergencies.
Liz: We really learned the value of this when my father had a stroke while traveling and medical evacuation — getting somebody home — is really important because it's really expensive. It's not something you want to pay out of pocket.
Elina: That's a very important benefit, comprehensive travel insurance policies. Also, another thing to consider is if you do have travel insurance through your credit card, the entire trip cost that you're trying to insure needs to be paid with that credit card and you also need to stay within the bounds of how many days you have to be away and away from home and away abroad. There's a lot of fine print. It's just something to keep in mind that if you're relying on your credit card to cover those plans, you want to make sure that the trip is paid with that card.
Liz: So somebody like you who's living abroad for an extended period of time, you want to have a separate medical insurance policy. You don't want to rely on your credit card, in other words.
Elina: Right, exactly. I have medical insurance through my employer in the U.S., NerdWallet, but then I also have travel emergency medical insurance that basically covers me if I'm traveling abroad — and it's not expensive. I think I pay like 30 or 40 bucks a month. It just gives me that peace of mind in case something goes wrong.
Liz: I just realized I conflated two things. I talked about credit cards, but most credit cards just offer travel insurance, they don't typically offer medical insurance.
Elina: Yeah, there are very few cards that offer any kind of medical benefits and they're not high.
Sean: All right. Well, Elina, do you have any other cost-saving tips for folks traveling abroad?
Elina: Yes. One of my other favorite hacks is when you're traveling abroad, let's say you're going to an international destination, as soon as you arrive, go and buy a local SIM card so that you get a phone number in whatever country you're traveling to, and then you're going to be able to access data and Internet and probably local calling for much cheaper than you would get if you have a U.S.-based phone plan and you turn on roaming. Yes, you're not able to access your text messaging, but just use WhatsApp instead, or communicate over Facebook messaging, or whatever other ways, email, however you communicate with your family or friends back home. A lot of people that I talk to, they have a U.S.-based phone plan and then they travel abroad. Then I asked them, "How much does it cost?" and they're like, "It's only $10 a day," and I just want to shake my head.
Sean: I was going to say I've had that same thing where I get a text when I land that's saying, "Oh, it's so convenient. It's just $10 a day." At the beginning of my trip, I think, "That's really not that bad." Then by the end of my weeklong trip, I am not happy with myself.
Elina: When I was in Argentina, I paid $7 for a SIM card that provided me three gigs of data and you have like a month to use that data, and I wasn't there for that long. That's way cheaper than any U.S. plan. It's just something to keep in mind. Plus, when you're having that data, when you're roaming, it's probably not going to be as fast as any local network. You want to feel like even if you're abroad, there's no interruption in comfort level. If you're stuck on 2G because you've used up all the allowable data on your plan that you're paying $10 for versus the 4G that you could get from the local SIM card, that's a great money-saving hack.
Liz: I've got a couple of thoughts because we've been through various iterations of this, which the most important one is if you are going to buy a foreign SIM card, have somebody set the language to English, because we did that in France and the instructions were in French and I don't speak French, so we had to grab a friend to set that for us. But eventually, we switched to T-Mobile because they are a German company and it works all over the world. We don't have to switch out SIM cards anymore.
Sean: Well, Elina, I know a lot of people are going to be traveling this summer. People are getting vaccinated. A lot of folks are wanting to get abroad. I'm wondering, what advice you have for those hoping to do that?
Elina: If you're looking to go abroad, definitely consider the travel insurance angle, right? Just in case. The second thing is look at the guidelines of whatever countries you're considering visiting and try to follow them. Some countries may still implement some sort of a quarantine or maybe they only allow in travelers without quarantine if they're fully vaccinated. Definitely just want to familiarize yourself with the guidelines of whatever country you're thinking about traveling to so that you know what to expect.
Sean: Well, I'm wondering also what COVID-era travel changes you think are likely to stick around?
Elina: Airplane cleanliness. I think before you would always hear people talking about, "Oh, you can't drink coffee from an airplane. You can't drink tea from an airplane," or, "The tray table is dirty." But I think now, airlines are definitely incorporating so many more cleanliness guidelines. I think that that's not going to go away, even if people don't have to wear masks on a plane anymore.
Elina: Then the other thing I wanted to mention is I think remote work is becoming more normalized. The digital nomad lifestyle, working from home, I think as we've all seen, if they had a job that could have been done remotely, most people were doing that. I think that's here to stay as well.
Sean: Well, Elina, thank you so much for chatting with us.
Elina: You're welcome. Thank you for having me.
Sean: Now, let's get onto our takeaway tips, and I can kick us off. First up, make your life easier for yourself. When living abroad, you might want to open a bank account in the country where you're based.
Liz: Next, for frequent international travelers, shop around for bank accounts. Look into U.S. bank accounts that waive ATM fees.
Sean: Lastly, find the right credit card for your travel. Shop around for one that doesn't charge foreign transaction fees and earns you points. That is all we have for this episode. Do you have a money question of your own? Turn to the Nerds and call or text us your questions at 901-730-6373, that's 901-730-NERD. You can also email us at [email protected] and visit nerdwallet.com/podcast for more info on this episode. As always, remember to subscribe, rate, and review us wherever you're getting this podcast.
Liz: Here's our brief disclaimer, thoughtfully crafted by NerdWallet's legal team: Your questions are answered by knowledgeable and talented finance writers, but we are not financial or investment advisors. This nerdy info is provided for general educational and entertainment purposes and may not apply to your specific circumstances.
Sean: With that said, until next time, turn to the Nerds.