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Friday, December 3, 2021

Money Snapshot: An In-House Counsel Shares Her Expat Experience

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For today’s Money Snapshot, we’re talking salary, net worth, debt, and more with Baking Lawyer, an expat living in the Middle East and working as an in-house counsel.

She noted, “I wanted to complete a Money Snapshot because, as an expat, I want to encourage this amazing group of readers to pursue expat opportunities, not just for the personal experience and professional development, but because of the (potentially significant) financial benefit. I hope my Snapshot will be at least interesting, and maybe even motivating!” 

We got a few requests from readers to launch our own “money diary” series, so we’ve asked willing readers to fill out a form with lots of details about debt, spending, saving, and more! If you’d like to fill out the form and be considered for a future personal money snapshot, please click here to submit your response! You can see a PDF of the questions if you want to review them ahead of time. See others in the Personal Money Snapshot series here.

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Please remember that this is is a real person who has feelings and isn’t gaining anything from this, unlike your usual friendly (soul-deadened, thick-skinned, cold-hearted, money-grubbing) blogger — so please be kind with any comments. Thank you! — Kat

Name: Baking Lawyer
Location: I live in a Gulf Cooperation Council (the “GCC”) country 
Age: 40
Occupation: BigLaw –> In House
Base gross: $270,000; Bonus: $50,000–$60,000
Net worth: $2.1 million
Net worth when started working: Started practicing at 25; net worth was -$60k in law school loans.
Living situation: Single; rent is $200/month

This reader chose the pseudonym Baking Lawyer because this Earl Grey-flavored tea cake was in the oven when she filled out the Money Snapshot form. (Note: She adjusted the recipe by replacing half of the oil with butter and adding rehydrated apricots.)


What does your debt picture look like?
Graduated with $60,000 in law school debt, which my parents and I paid off together in about five years. No debt currently. 

How did you pay for school?
My parents paid for my in-state college tuition. I went to an out-of-state public school for law school; my scholarship gave me in-state tuition and a very small monthly stipend.

Have you paid off any major debt? 
My student debt. However, I read others’ stories and am reminded that although my debt was not insubstantial, it was reasonable, and with my parents’ help, I paid it off relatively quickly.

Home debt: Share your theories and strategies with us. 
I don’t currently own. When I did, I put 20% down and took on a monthly payment (mortgage + property tax) that was equal to about 25% of my monthly take-home pay.

Have you ever done anything noteworthy to avoid or lessen debt?
For the first four years that I practiced, I lived at home with my parents. I am South Asian, and as a woman, living at home until you’re married is not uncommon.

To be honest, in some ways, it was difficult for me to see myself as self-sufficient enough to move out on my own as an unmarried woman — I was the first woman on either side of my family ever to live alone under such circumstances. My family is quite close-knit; moving out as an unmarried woman was incredibly difficult for my parents to accept.

While I lived with my parents, I had no housing expense, though I made payments on my car loan and paid for my own discretionary expenses. Although I didn’t have to pay for “my own” groceries, I regularly contributed to those types of expenses; furthermore, I helped out with other household bills occasionally if and when my parents needed some assistance. There is no doubt that I experienced significant financial benefits by living at home for several years, earning a significant salary, while living in a MCOL city.

While I lived with my parents, I worked in small and regional law, making between $70,000–$110,000. Because I started at a lower income and did not do a good job of negotiating my salary when I moved to BigLaw, I made significantly under market for basically all 11 years that I was in private practice.

Baking Lawyer provided some additional details when she submitted her Money Snapshot: 

My gross income is high, though not as high as many readers’. However, my net is significantly higher than it was back home. My housing is virtually paid for; I have no utility bills; I get a tremendous tax break. My employer provides a significant 401k match, which happens to match the annual contribution limit, which I max out each year. Expats are required to take two weeks out of the country every year, called a repatriation trip (or repat); the company pays about $9,000 for each member of the household to take their repat.

When I moved here, I spent $6,000 in cash on a car that will take me the seven-minute commute to work and to the grocery store, etc.

Like many, my expenses for the past year have been significantly lower because of Covid. However, I lived in the GCC for almost 1.5 years before Covid hit; during that time, I went to Greece, Amsterdam, Lebanon, Jordan, Oman, the UAE, Germany, Austria, and India twice. One of the great advantages of living here, and a big reason I took this job, was for the travel opportunities. However, travel is expensive. My discretionary income has largely been redirected away from eating and drinking out to travel (in non-CV times).

I have never carried any consumer debt and always pay my credit card balance in full. I had a hard time remembering to pay my bills on time, so I switched to auto-pay everything: credit card, mortgage, car, electricity, phone. I paid as many of these charges as I could on my credit card, in order to earn points.

We asked Baking Lawyer if she had advice for readers interested in working abroad, and she had this to say: 

Be open and adaptable to new ways of thinking about the same issues, both at work and in your personal life. Approach the experience with as few expectations as possible, which is MUCH easier said than done. I had a lot of international work experience before coming here, and I still spent many of my first weeks in a Constant State of Snit and Frustration. The experience can be what you make of it; the more you seek out new, unusual, and local (not expat) experiences, the more rewarding and meaningful working abroad will be. Say yes to as many things as you can.

We also asked her about her experiences working abroad as a woman — and as a South Asian woman. Here’s what she shared: 

At times, very frustrating, and at other times, extraordinarily rewarding. I’ll talk about the rewarding parts. Part of my job is to provide training to employees, and in non-Covid times, we would do that live, in presentation rooms with 200+ people in attendance. Often, I am the only woman in the room (not just the only woman presenting). I have been surprised at how many times an attendee (almost always a man) has approached me after the presentation to say that it is encouraging, promising, and positive to see a woman in a position of authority. My name is very identifiable as South Asian, and is often another avenue of connection with South Asians who may be in attendance.

Because of the hiring rules and dynamics, most of the expat women hired here work in administrative support, do not have a college education, and gross about 25% of my gross. I have found it personally rewarding and eye-opening to make friends with women like these; at home, I simply do not cross paths socially with people who do not have advanced degrees and who are not high-earning.

Savings, Investments & Retirement 

How much do you save for retirement?
I max out my annual 401k. I don’t contribute to any other retirement accounts because I don’t want to lock up more funds until I’m close to 60. I want more flexibility.

How much money do you allocate to other tax-savvy investments/accounts?
None. However, because of my situation, I get a significant tax break.

How much do you save outside of retirement accounts?
As an expat, in non-Covid times I saved about $12,000/month. My monthly take-home is about $17,000. I budget about $5,000 per month in expenses, though I often spend far less than that in a month. In 2020, my total expenses were less than $25,000. I have been an expat for about 2.5 years; whenever I think about these numbers and amounts, I’m honestly taken aback.

Talk to us about investments. 
I’ve had a financial planner for about three years. I have about $680,000 with him, invested mainly in individual stocks, mixed with some bonds. I have invested about $170,000 in a brokerage account that I manage myself. I enjoy researching stocks and investing, and like having some money to trade with. I have an additional $400,000 in real property investments. My 401k accounts are in target retirement funds.

Do you have an end goal for saving or are you just saving for a rainy day?
My parents were extremely frugal when I was growing up, and although I realize now that we weren’t really struggling, it didn’t feel like that to me on a day-to-day basis in my childhood. For as long as I can remember (at least since high school), my goal has been to make enough that I never to have to worry about money. To now be in a place where I know I don’t need to worry about money is an incredible, but also incredibly disorienting, experience and feeling.

We asked Baking Lawyer whether it was difficult to adjust to being financially comfortable after growing up in a very frugal family:

Yes. But my parents are so supportive, and encourage me to buy the Fancy Handbag, stay in the nicer hotel, etc. And over time, I have felt less and less guilt about being financially comfortable.

What’s the #1 thing you’re doing to save money, limit spending, or live frugally?
As an expat, most of my discretionary spending is on leisure travel and related expenses. When I travel, I stay in nice, but not extravagant hotels. However, I will spend whatever I want on experiences: getting a private car and driver because doing so will guarantee me safety and comfort, for example. Booking a private tour guide because doing so will give me the flexibility I want during the time I’m visiting a particular place. I love good food and drink, especially when I travel, and will pay for cool or interesting food/drink experiences.

I am not big on acquiring “stuff.” I’ve been wanting to buy myself a Fancy Handbag and Nice Jewelry for a couple of years and still haven’t managed to do it.

When did you start saving seriously? How has your savings strategy changed over the years? 
When I first started working, my goal was to live within one paycheck and save the second paycheck in each month. Especially while I lived at home, I did that pretty consistently. I moved out and moved to a BigLaw firm at about the same time. So, while my expenses increased, so did my income, and I managed to save about 50% of my net monthly income for a number of years. However, lifestyle creep being what it is, by the time I moved out of the U.S., I had reduced my monthly savings to about 30% of my net monthly income.

Have you ever made a big money move or investment with savings, such as rolling over an older IRA into a Roth IRA or superfunding a 529?
I did a backdoor Roth conversion a few years ago. However, after taking that tax hit, I have not gone back to do it again.

Do you have an estate plan in place? A trust? 
No. As I don’t have a partner or kids, I haven’t been very motivated to do so. Probably not wise.

How much do you have in cash that’s available today?
$20,000. This is lower than usual; I typically target $40,000–$50,000 in cash.

How much do you have in cash that’s available in a week? 
If I liquidated my non-retirement investments, I’d have an additional $800,000.

How much is in your “emergency fund,” and did you include it in the previous question?
Same as the immediately-available cash; about $20,000.

How much do you have in retirement savings?

How much do you have in long-term investments and savings (CDs, index funds, stocks) that are not behind a retirement wall?
$1.4 million

If property values (home, car) are included in your net worth, how much are those worth?
I don’t own a residence; my car is worth $5,000. I have, with other individuals, invested in real property development opportunities. My investment so far is about $410,000.


How much do you spend on the following categories on a monthly basis?

Groceries: $300
Restaurants, bars, takeout, and delivery: 
Clothing and accessories: $2,500/year
Almost nothing
Rent/living expenses: $200
Other major expenses: Travel. I take two-week vacations once or twice a year; spend about three weeks in the U.S.; and take a number of 3- to 5-day breaks throughout the year. Generally, the vacations cost $275–$500/day, including hotels. I also spend about $200/month on my hobby.

What’s your spending range for these things? What’s your average?

Vacations – Range: $275–$500/day
Vacations – Average: 

Individual items of clothing – Range: $10–$150
Individual items of clothing – Average:
Work clothes: $150/dress; bum-around clothes: $50 for pants; lots of free T-shirts

Car or other vehicle – Current main vehicle: $6,000 (2009 small SUV)

Fill in the blank on this question: I could save _____ if I stopped ______, but I don’t because _______.
In non-Covid times, I could save $600 a month if I stopped going to brunch on the weekends, but I don’t because it’s such a fun way to relax, dance, hang out with my friends, and meet new people. The weekend here is Friday & Saturday; Friday brunch is a HUGE, all-day affair.

If you own, how much did your home cost? 
I owned a condo for five years that I sold just before coming here; bought for $220,000, sold for $270,000.

Are there any other large expenses in your life, now or previously?
I bought a condo when I was 33 and sold it when I was 38 to move to the GCC. Had a mortgage payment during my ownership period.

How has your family provided financial support in your adult life, if any?
My parents paid for my in-state tuition and all expenses while I was in college. My parents and I paid for my law school expenses together. When I graduated, I moved back in with them for 3.5 years expense-free. During that time, I paid for a semester of my brother’s college and paid various household bills from time to time.

Does your family provide any non-financial support? 
My parents remain my home base in the U.S. They have some access to my bank accounts and credit card so that if I need U.S.-based assistance with either, they help. They are now both retired.

Money Strategy 

Do you have a general money strategy?
Save, save, save, and then invest, invest, invest.

Time vs. money — do you spend money to save time (e.g., cleaning service)? Do you donate your time instead of money? What else does this phrase mean to you?
I have a housekeeper to clean my house once a week. I get a few meals a week from people in my expat community who sell home-cooked meals, because it’s quite affordable, and I end up working pretty long days. The traffic and driving style here are pretty stressful, so if I leave the compound for dinner or if I know I’m going to drink, I hire a driver, who generally costs $10–$40.

What are your favorite resources for personal finance?
The Motley Fool podcasts and blog. Can’t say enough good things about their philosophy and the clarity of their advice. I used MF when I first started investing my own money in my mid-30s and did quite well on my initial investments. I listed to Dave Ramsey for a while but fell away from him. I used to read Barron’s, and although I still subscribe to The Economist, I don’t read it as much as I would like.

What advice would you give your younger self about personal finance?
Keep being frugal. Buying lots of lower-quality things is not as rewarding as buying a few higher-quality things. Most importantly, don’t be scared to invest — and buy more Amazon and Apple. haha.

In some ways, I have become evangelical about the importance of investing. Back home, my friends were also high-earning, single women who spent almost no time or effort on investing, instead either relying on their fathers/parents, or letting their money accumulate in a bank account.

I found investing to be incredibly intimidating when I started, and I didn’t have anyone in my friend circle I felt like I could talk to. I think it is so important that we talk more to each other — especially single women — about investing, and how easy the act of investing is (separate from having the excess money to invest in the first place).

Here in my expat community, I have offered to discuss with my closest friends about what investing in the stock market means, how to do it, and how it can be a tool to build wealth. One friend — in her mid-20s — recently opened an investment account!

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