Last week I touched on the number one question people ask about my move back to the states “do you miss Thailand yet” in Transitions. This week I want to discuss the number two question.  “Was it Worth it?”

To answer this I’m going to approach this question from the perspective of what you have to give up to live the expatriate existence.  In economic terms we call this “opportunity costs.”

 

To answer this I’m going to approach this question from the perspective of what you have to give up to live the expatriate existence.  In economic terms we call this “opportunity costs.”

 

The interesting part, I know of at least 3-4 individuals who are considering moves back to their own countries and are perhaps watching how my move goes and asking the sort of questions you can tell are important for them to form their own choices.  Of course I’ve listened to why hundreds have moved back before me, most in the last 2-3 years.  We’ll discuss why that is later in this essay.

For many it’s new territory, you spend 10+ years living in a foreign country and you’re just not sure how things will work out leaving your host country behind and trying to integrate back into your home country.

Really, it’s a different set of circumstances for everyone.  An obvious observation for sure, but let’s take a closer look from the perspective of what you lose vs. what you gain between both your host and home countries.  Please excuse the generalizations, but they are only just that.  Generalizations.  I’ve lived in the Kingdom long enough to acknowledge the many exceptions.

Let’s face it, unless you’re very wealthy and well-connected you’re not going to do very well financially in Thailand.  Even so, there have been many wealthy people who have lost their fortunes in Thailand for various reasons, so being wealthy is no guarantee you’ll do well, it merely ensures you have the means to give it a fair shot.

I don’t count making baht 30,000-100,000 a month as a teacher or bar manager as doing well.  Of course this is relative to your education and job prospects in your home country, but for most unless you’re lucky enough to land an expat package position you’d do much better financially in your own country where you’re not fighting restrictive and often illegal labor practices.

 

Let’s face it, unless you’re very wealthy and well-connected you’re not going to do very well financially in Thailand.  Even so, there have been many wealthy people who have lost their fortunes in Thailand for various reasons, so being wealthy is no guarantee you’ll do well, it merely ensures you have the means to give it a fair shot.

 

I was fortunate enough to find a niche which allowed me to do well, yet without a doubt I could have done much better financially in my home country.  I was also prepared with a rock solid retirement package which included medical insurance and other benefits which came in helpful during slow times.  But there’s no doubt I gave up considerable earned income during my stay in Thailand, not to mention a big blank spot on my resume/CV.

In my own country my primary investment vehicle has always been real estate.  I ‘expect’ to make capital gains on the home I’m living in, and additional homes I selectively pick up and flip after a bit of work.  This has always, 100% of the time, resulted in significant gains.  With the recent housing market maybe it wouldn’t have, but I’d like to think I’d have been on top of the market and limited my losses initially before making the market work for me and climbing back on top.

In Thailand it’s a rare person who doesn’t lose money on any type of real estate or business they purchase.  Ownership restrictions, dishonest dealings, and a very different market than what we’re used to all conspire to restrict or eliminate any real earnings from real estate.

Cost of living comparisons have been done to death, you can either go native and live on very little, or spend more to maintain the western lifestyle level you were used to in your home country.  If you have school age children who you want to attend decent schools, or the need to frequently travel back and forth, the cost of living differences can be quite high.

There are only two main groups/types of people I know of who are better off financially in Thailand.  The first group are those with very small savings or retirement incomes (and subsequently basic lifestyles) who move to one of the popular low cost areas like Korat, Chiang Mai, or Nakon Nowhere to live out their twilight years near their spouses family.  These people usually live very frugal existences, yet from what I’ve seen they’re usually quite happy with their lives.  Providing the marriage works out and they don’t lose what little they had or worse.. end up a statistic.

Then there are those who “winter” in Thailand, usually in Hua Hin at what for them are very reasonable prices for nice villas with pools, house maids, and the nice stores and restaurants Hua Hin provides.  This group usually comes from cold countries and find their rent for a nice villa can be less than their heating bill back home.  They have substantial savings or retirement portfolios and enjoy an comfortable existence for very little compared to how they normally live back home.

Of course there are other groups from those who move to Pattaya for the benefits of that particular location (along with significant personal risks), to those like me who choose to live a comfortable western lifestyle in Bangkok which isn’t an inexpensive endeavor.  Like any big city, rents and all costs for goods and services, are much higher. And there are also better professional opportunities and a never ending source of interesting things to do and places to see.

I’ll be very honest on this, and I apologize in advance if I upset anyone.  But 95% of those I knew in Bangkok lived FAR below the living standards I’ve been able to afford in the states since my early 20’s, and that was on a serviceman’s salary so I wasn’t and am not well off by any means.

Their homes are very small and of low quality, the furnishings are usually included with their apartment, or if their own, very inexpensive furnishings.  Most don’t own cars, and their free time is spent doing things I could only be bothered doing on the occasional basis.  The odd part to me, is they were willing to forego living standards for what they see as lifestyle improvements, i.e. what Bangkok offers during their free time.

Bottom line:  Unless you belong to one of the two groups above, the poor retiree’s or the wealthy winterers, then you are most likely giving up considerable earned income and capital gain opportunities for your expatriate lifestyle.  You’re also probably giving up significant quality of life benefits, though this is the most difficult to quantify.  Expecting to flourish financially would be on the same odds of a successful relationship with a bar girl.  Yes it happens, but it’s a rare exception.  So there are ‘some’ exceptions, just don’t count on being one.

 

Bottom line:  Unless you belong to one of the two groups above, the poor retiree’s or the wealthy winterers, then you are most likely giving up considerable earned income and capital gain opportunities for your expatriate lifestyle.  You’re also probably giving up significant quality of life benefits, though this is the most difficult to quantify.  Expecting to flourish financially would be on the same odds of a successful relationship with a bar girl.  Yes it happens, but it’s a rare exception.  So there are ‘some’ exceptions, just don’t count on being one.

 

I briefly mentioned the blank spot on your resume/CV.  If you’re planning on going back to the professional world of your home country, you’d better have a graduate level or better education and quality professional contacts, or be young enough to work your way up from the bottom, again.  Employers just won’t understand why you chose to drop out of your professional life to go teach English in a third world country, or worse they’ll think they understand and label you.

Another area to consider is professional growth.  As your career progresses you’re expected to grow professionally.  I can hardly know all careers, but my guess is that it’s hard to grow professionally at an equal or greater rate than you would in your home country.

Personally I believe I grew professionally right along with my global peers, learning the new technology, equipment, software, and refining my workshop facilitating skills.  Yet, I was out of the professional loop and the few offers I received to be a guest instructor on Antarctica or African workshops were too costly from a logistical standpoint.  I believe I suffered ‘some’ professional growth opportunity costs.

I reckon for the overwhelming majority of those who live a decade or longer as an expatriate, you will never find your way back into the professional existence you would have otherwise had.  For most your professional life will be over, and employment opportunities will be limited to lower end blue collar positions.  If you’re lucky.

Of course if your family owns the corporation or you have the sort of contact where you can always be given a position based on that contact, then none of this applies to you.  I’m just talking about your average guy.

And none of this applies to those who have what it takes to start up and make successful small businesses.  But please don’t think starting up and running your own business is easy, or even possible without a certain background and skill sets.  Small businesses, depending on which sets of numbers you believe, have less than a 10% success rate.  And that’s in your home country.  Want to guess what it would be in Thailand?

If I had one piece of advice for someone who is still of working age, say in their 40’s, and wanted to go back to their home country and work in their profession, I’d recommend going back to your country and completing a recent graduate or doctorate degree program in your field of choice and network like hell while doing so.  It’s a tough world out there.  Taking 10-20 years off from your professional life is normally insurmountable.  It’s a career killer of the worst type.

So far we’ve determined your opportunity costs probably include severe financial, professional and lifestyle costs.  Debits you’ll probably never recover from.  What else is there to lose?

How about family and friends?  Take a decade off from your friends and you may never fit in again.  Your family will always welcome you, hopefully, but if you missed your kids growing up or your parents last years, then you’re losing what can’t be replaced no matter who you are or how much money you have.

You all know I moved back to be with my son while he attended university, and live close to my older son who’s a high school calculus teacher.  How is this working out?  I’m pleased to say it’s working out well.  I’ve always had a great relationship with my sons and I count them as my greatest accomplishments and assets.  Nothing means more.

I left Bangkok in late April, hoping to have enough time to buy a home, set up house, buy cars, and have a “home” ready and stable by the time my youngest started university this fall.

Today was his first day.  He was so excited about his first day of college he couldn’t sleep the night before.  Watching him prepare the night before, and then get up early the next morning to eat, pack his books, and head out for school was priceless.  It was even better when he came home this afternoon and normally a quiet kid, he couldn’t stop talking for nearly an hour as he told me all about his first day.  Nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing in this world, could have been worth more to me.

For the last few weekends both sons and I have driven out to a private farm area where we take our different firearms and compete against each other, talk, and share.. it’s a treat.  And we’ve spent a lot of time working on the house and cars together.  Basically, we’ve been a family and there’s nothing better.

THIS is why I packed up after 24-25+ years in Asia, left a very comfortable lifestyle, a growing business, and what many have told me is the dream life.  And so far it’s been worth it 1000 times over.  Losing these opportunities would have been the opportunity costs which would have bankrupted my soul.

Something else not often discussed is medical care.  I’ve heard some say you can receive great affordable medical care in Thailand.  I do know Thailand has some very good private hospitals which cater to foreigners, providing you can pay.  It’s not cheap.  I know, because I received my medical care at Bumrungrad which is considered by many to be the best, and the bills while less expensive than I’d pay in the states, weren’t ‘that’ much less expensive.  If you consider my insurance covers me 100% in the states and only 70% overseas, then it’s now more expensive.

After 6-8 visits a year during my entire stay I felt I received adequate medical care in a first class hospital.  But this was routine treatment.  I’d decided early on if I needed anything serious and it could wait long enough for me to fly back to the states, then I would.  The “business” aspect of medicine in these hospitals is much more keen than I’ve experienced in the states, and the part which really bothered me is that the doctors feel much more privileged.  In other words you won’t be getting one off the golf course in your time of need if there’s a junior member available.  Probably not even then.

 

And let’s talk about emergency or trauma care, or even the sort of standardization or organization, which allows a consistent high level of standards during all hours of the night and day.  It’s very poor.  Doctors throughout Thailand look at themselves as very special and very privileged and the vast majority won’t be coming in after hours to treat your acute or emergency needs.  The junior doctor on duty, most often unsupervised, will do what he can until the next normal working day when the privileged doctors can make it in.  Seriously.

 

And let’s talk about emergency or trauma care, or even the sort of standardization or organization, which allows a consistent high level of standards during all hours of the night and day.  It’s very poor.  Doctors throughout Thailand look at themselves as very special and very privileged and the vast majority won’t be coming in after hours to treat your acute or emergency needs.  The junior doctor on duty, most often unsupervised, will do what he can until the next normal working day when the privileged doctors can make it in.  Seriously.

We also know there are no trauma centers and “emergency” care is severely lacking.  Not to mention qualified paramedics or ambulance staff to get you from the point of your accident to the ‘right’ hospital in the first place.  And the “right” hospital is very important in Thailand.

So yes, there might be lower levels of medical care available at affordable prices under the best of circumstances.  But when circumstances go bad, as they often do, I feel you’re opportunity costs now become your life.  Or the life of your wife or children.  I feel strongly about this.  I’ve read of others on the Thai-Centric forums who have had more serious procedures at inexpensive public hospitals and claim they received great treatment.  Perhaps.  But is this them being glad they’re alive speaking, and how would they know if they didn’t get great care?  It’s a crap shoot at best.

I’m not a doctor, but I did serve two years as a department head in a major VA facility responsible for two successful JCAHO accreditations, I’m EMT qualified, and my mother and sister made their careers working in hospitals, and I have a fair amount of time being a patient.  With such experience you learn to evaluate such things with some accuracy and I really feel one of the major risks you voluntarily accept, is risking your life with substandard medical care.  In many cases non-existent medical care.  The older and more of a medical risk you are, the more this applies.  If you have any type of serious accident I shudder to consider the odds of everything going right in a third world country.

With all the above considered, why did I become an expatriate in the first place?  Because I’d prepared, earned a lifetime government secured retirement, amassed personal savings and investments, prepared with skill sets which were unique enough to be fairly certain I could still eek out a comfortable living while keeping myself busy doing something I love, and because for a large part of this time I had my family with me, and the times I didn’t couldn’t have been changed.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had clients and friends tell me “man, you’re living the dream life, I want to do this someday too..”  My response is to think this through very carefully and try not to fool yourself.  I spent decades preparing, I had a single goal in mind and I never lost track.  I worked hard to prepare myself for this lifestyle choice, yet as I demonstrated above I still gave up much for my time as an expatriate.

Like I’ve said above, I’ve watched hundreds return home in recent years, most because they weren’t well prepared and a turn of the economy and/or shift of exchange rates caught them flat footed.

There’s little so sad as watching a man late in his career or of retirement age take an economic beating and return home humbled or perhaps more accurately humiliated.  Now sentenced to a much lower lifestyle than when they left, or more often to take their place alongside their countries poor.  I wouldn’t be surprised if this single factor is responsible for the swelling ranks of the Pattaya Flying Club in recent years.

 

There’s little so sad as watching a man late in his career or of retirement age take an economic beating and return home humbled or perhaps more accurately humiliated.  Now sentenced to a much lower lifestyle than when they left, or more often to take their place alongside their countries poor.  I wouldn’t be surprised if this single factor is responsible for the swelling ranks of the Pattaya Flying Club in recent years.

 

Will I be back?  Sure.  When circumstances allow, perhaps as early as 4-6 years from now.  I love the expatriate lifestyle.  But while there are certain financial and professional opportunity costs I’m willing to endure, I am not willing to pay the costs involving family.  If I can’t make both work together, then I’ll stay in America with my family.

Everyone needs a code to live by, a set of priorities.  It’s when you stray from these priorities or deviate from your personal code..  that your life becomes off-balance and less than complete.

Is it your dream to be an expatriate?  Does the exciting and romantic lifestyle appear to you?  Great if it does. But never lose sight of your opportunity costs.

Until next time..

 

Is it your dream to be an expatriate?  Does the exciting and romantic lifestyle appear to you?  Great if it does. But never lose sight of your opportunity costs.