Living and working abroad: cash issues

IMG_20160616_204029Trip update: For most of this week, I have visited the Darvell Bruderhof in Robertsbridge, East Sussex. This is open countryside, a land of rolling hills, green fields and woodlands. This is also the area of the famous battle of Hastings, when the Normans under William the Conqueror landed in England 950 years ago on the 22nd of October. The towns of Senlac (now called Battle) and Crowhurst claim to be the site of the battle, but there is more than enough history to go around.

IMG_20160611_092657My brother David and his wife Sally have lived in England for 18 years. The Bruderhof Community is a Christian group, living the Sermon on the Mount in community. They have communities in Germany, England, the USA, Australia and Paraguay (www.bruderhof.com). DSCN0679Our mother lived in one of their communities in New York for the last nine years of her life. Although I had visited family in several different Bruderhofs, I had never stayed in one long enough to “earn” the right to work there. DSCN0680This time, I was able to contribute by working in the shop, where the brothers and sisters manufacture Community Playthings®. I assembled dozens of subassemblies, and thoroughly enjoyed the relaxation of using my hands, following a routine of work and prayer, and breathing the freshest air in England.

Battle Abbey

Battle Abbey

Last Saturday, David and I walked into Robertsbridge and took the bus to Battle, the town with the longest claim to being the site of the battle in 1066. While David picked up his new safety glasses, I took some pictures of downtown and the Abbey – and used the WiFi at the Pilgrim’s Rest, a 600-year-old pub.

HasitngsfFishing fleet from East Hill

Hasitngs fishing fleet from East Hill

On Thursday, my nephew Corwin drove us to Hastings, where he works as a dentist. David and I did the touristy thing, walking the beach, visiting the Fishermen’s Museum and the Shipwreck Museum (very interesting), and eating fish and chips. Hastings does not have a harbour, so the boats have to be pulled up on the shingle (pebble) beach every day. After lunch, we took the train back to Robertsbridge.

Fans celebrating England's win

Fans celebrating England’s win

On the way back, we got off the train at Battle, and caught the second half of the Wales-England match at the pub near the station. The crowd was as entertaining as the game (2-1 England, though Wales led 1-0 until late in the second half). Yesterday, I bid my family goodbye, and rolled out when everyone went to work. DSCN0677It was a damp, grey and dismal day, so I was not inclined to follow the scenic recommendations of Google Maps (“public bridleway”). I rolled up the A-21 toward London, stopping at the White Hart free house in Sevenoaks to spend a few hours catching up email and writing. Reconnected to the internet, I booked a room in Sidcup, a suburb SE of London, and an apartment to support my roaming around the great City next week. The ride from Sevenoaks to Sidcup started in a downpour, partially sheltered by overhanging trees so thick that even I had to turn on my lights. I took refuge under an acrylic awning in a strip mall, then slogged to the room. An electric room heater dried everything while I slept. Today, I continued to London, to spend the weekend with my friend and colleague Francesca. It will be exciting to experience the big city again after more than a month of pastoral countrysides in France and England.

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Old Town, Hastings

Old Town, Hastings

Cash: many of us are using less of it every day, as credit and debit cards replace hard currency in our commercial lives. When one moves to a new home, one normally opens a new bank account, applies for new credit card(s) and the other accoutrements of finances at home.

DSCN0724However, when living on the road, and especially when travelling outside one’s home country, one has to use cash more often. Sometimes local merchants won’t take credit cards or (formerly) state-owned companies won’t take foreign cards. When bargaining, one can often ask for a discount for paying in cash. One has to keep a steady flow of cash available for the myriad small purchases involved in travelling.2016-ownatmmachinesForeign exchange fees, automatic teller machine (ATM) fees, and terrible exchange rates mean that one should draw cash as infrequently as possible, which means drawing large enough sums that one has to worry about the security of carrying the cash.

This week’s article will hardly be a bible on the subject, but I will share a few thoughts, based on my own experience travelling by car, ship, plane, train, and bicycle in many countries. Let’s look at security, amounts, and sources of cash.

Security: I try not to carry more than a few day’s worth of cash on my person unless I am on my way to a specific purchase. For me, “a few days” is USD 100 or the equivalent: your tolerance may be lower or higher. When forced to carry more, there are several strategies to use, so that encountering a pickpocket or worse does not leave you penniless. 2016-moneybeltSome like money belts that can be worn under clothes. There are wallets than can be worn around the neck and under a shirt. Belts that have zipper compartments for cash. At the very least, I put the cash in more than one pocket on my body. You can use your vehicle and your luggage to carry the cash you don’t need immediately; just be sure that it is not easily seen or found. And do learn how to use the safe in your hotel room if you have one; then keep your extra cash and passport in there.

DSCN0729

St. Mary’s and Castle Hill, Hastings

How much? This is almost always a function of the limits imposed by your bank or the institution operating the ATM where you are withdrawing money. You pay every time you withdraw cash: an ATM fee, the exchange rate that your bank will apply, and often a “foreign exchange transaction” fee. Some ATM’s don’t charge a fee; some banks or cards don’t charge a foreign transaction fee; and the exchange rates applied vary widely. But withdrawing cash is never free. I have seen limits as high as USD 500/day, and when I find them, I draw that much. I have not hit an ATM since my second day in England, and I am hoping to make it well into next week before I hit another.

Sources of cash. By this, I mean the institution or service holding your money and paying the ATM operator: bank, credit union, credit card company, etc. Almost all of these give you the cash through an ATM. In remote areas, you may be visiting a Western Union office or a post office to receive cash wired from home, but I have not had to do that yet. I have found that my credit union (Navy Federal Credit Union) has the best deal when I use my ATM card. The exchange rate is not great, but better than the others. The foreign exchange transaction fee is 1%, while credit cards and major banks charge 3%, and the ATM fee is a fixed one-dollar, which is waived when using ATM’s belonging to certain networks. Banks tend to charge the same fees, but they are higher. DSCN0691The most expensive way to hit an ATM is with a credit card, because in addition to the usual fees, the transaction is considered a “cash advance”, so the card company charges interest from the date of the transaction, regardless of whether you pay your credit card balance in full or not. On the other hand, some credit cards do not charge foreign exchange transaction fees (American Express and certain other cards, for example). For this reason, I will use one of those cards to charge my purchases, but still not use them in an ATM.

Conclusion: it pays to read the fine print. It is tedious to read those numbing leaflets that come with a new card, or which are mailed out when changes are made, but that is where you can find out whether your card or bank charges one of the fees I mentioned, and how much it is. You can find the fine print in the “terms and conditions” of the bank or card website, if you no longer have the paper leaflet.

IMG_20160612_135433When preparing to travel extensively, it pays to do some research about fees, exchange rates, grace periods, etc. This would be a good time to apply for a different card that will support your travel, or to open a bank account in a bank or credit union that has a more favourable treatment at foreign ATM’s. You can keep the old cards and accounts; the money won’t go anywhere unless you move it. I keep some credit cards that I don’t normally use on the road in my luggage or somewhere separate from my person. When my pocket was picked or my wallet lost, I have used those cards to keep moving until the replacement card(s) caught up with me.

What experiences have you had getting cash on the road? Any lessons learned you could share?

Next week, another sea story. Until then,

Smooth roads and tailwinds,

Jonathan.

2 thoughts on “Living and working abroad: cash issues

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