How I’m using Geographic Arbitrage to Fast-Track My Way to Financial Independence

As of 2017, and according to the British Channel 4 TV Program, ‘How to Retire at 40’, there are 58% of folk in the UK who retired last year (before the official retirement age) and 55,000 of under 40-year-olds in the UK have given up work. Like the program, maybe some of you are super saving or trend spotting already?

But what if I tell you there is an alternative way. Something I’ve been using for 3 years on the trot. They call it geographic arbitrage…

geographic arbitrage

The Channel 4 program gives the impression there are only 3 ways of ‘retiring at 40’; super saving, trend spotting and taking a risk. But it’s not as black and white as that. There are other routes to retirement or financial independence as I mention above.

This program also portrays the route to financial independence in a poor light. We don’t necessarily have to scrimp on food and live miserably. Hopefully, I set out to change your mind…

What the Heck is Geographic Arbitrage?

Geographic arbitrage is a practice of taking advantage of different costs, in different countries. As in currencies, accommodation, taxes, food, medical and transportation etc.

 

Geographic arbitrage is maintaining the same standard of living while spending less... Click To Tweet

 

Let me tell you, it’s not for everyone. It require’s considerable planning and effort.

It’s a major life change. Perhaps a little too extreme for some.

I’ve been ‘on the road’ for the past 8 years and fully committed to geographic arbitrage over the past 3 years.

The Big Three – Food, Accommodation and Transportation

Sourcing a contract/ job overseas is a whole different topic on it’s on. However, if you’re a contractor or expat and have the opportunity to work overseas, then go for it. The chances are, your food, accommodation, and transportation will be paid for. This aids significantly in your savings rate and you can fast track your way towards financial independence.

It’s not always the case though. Fortunately, I’ve had the big three paid for consecutively, over the last 3 years.

Before you do jet off into the sunset, there a few things to organize to ensure you maximize the return on your assets.

Rate/ Pay Increase

Ensure your agent gives you a rate increase to reflect ‘the upheaval’ in working overseas. Or your employer gives you a significant uplift in salary. Remember, you’re doing them the favor. Even though you’re going to have an incredible experience, it should be portrayed as an inconvenience.

geographic arbitrage

Rent Your Own Place Out

If you happen to own a property, then you’re wise to rent it out. It’s one less expense to think about and you’ll have someone else paying off a major piece of debt in your life.

Perhaps it’s time to get rid of any clutter from your life and sell anything you don’t need anymore. Because it’s kind of difficult to carry around in a suitcase or backpack. If you can store any excess items at a relative’s house, then you’re sorted.

Sell Your Car

It may be your pride and joy, but it’s only going to sit there and depreciate (unless it’s a classic)…if not rust. Then there’s the paperwork to the DVLA to explain why your car is off the road. Again, it’s another expense wiped off the list and another headache avoided.

The money could go towards reducing any other debts you may have accumulated or towards your investment portfolio.

Currency Rates

Payment and Banking

Is your agent/ overseas employer paying you in Euros or Sterling…or maybe some other currency? This can make or break a project. Although, you can have protection in place. Such as overseas, foreign currency holding accounts aka offshore banking.

geographic arbitrage
My bank is the 2nd building from the left. Photo taken from the rooftop pool, from the Marriott Hotel in Singapore…

I have personal and business accounts in GBP, EUR and SGD. This weathers me from any currency combo. i.e. My default currency is GBP. However, I’m currently working in Europe, so I’ll use my Irish (European) debit card to pay for expenses or withdraw cash from an ATM. I’ll invoice using my overseas EUR Business account. And when it’s time to pay myself, I’ll transfer to my personal Irish (European) account.

Transferring EUR to GBP is very favorable at this point, because of the weak pound (Brexit uncertainty amongst other things). However, transferring EUR to EUR keeps everything clean and absolutely minimizes currency losses.

My hourly rate has been increasing with the weak pound, but it can so easily go the other way. You need to make that call when you pick a project overseas. Having overseas/ offshore banking in place will mitigate this currency risk immensely.

Selling Foreign Currency

You can make big gains, by selling foreign currency if the timing is right. You know that already but let me give you a reminder.

Analyze the relationship between your default currency and your actual payment currency. Sometimes it’s luck of the draw.

For instance, the agent paid my company in Singapore Dollars when I was in South Korea. But I paid myself in pounds sterling. The pound weakened against the Singapore dollar during my tenure there. Hence, my hourly rate rose over time. I kept as much as I could in the Singapore account, over time.

Fast forward to Brexit. Currency conversion sites crashed all around the world. I was at lunch when the dust settled. When I eventually got an FX quote on my smart phone, I nearly spat out my beef bulgogi.

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Needless to say, I sold a feck load of Singapore Dollars that very evening through an FX broker. I paid off a property (mortgaged in British pounds) I own soon after that.

Keep your eye on exchange rates and be prepared to transfer large sums of money at any given moment (through a reputable FX broker).

Weak Currency

You can take advantage of weak currencies and live cheaply. Again, not ground breaking but if you’re rate/ salary has been increased, the big 3 are paid for and living is cheap…then boom!

I happened to be living and working in one of the most expensive cities in the world at the time. Well, the 9th most expensive in 2014 according to CNN Money.

Lets say a bit more rural than Moscow but I spent most of my time in the Capital.

It was a balmy evening in May 2014 when I got a taxi from my hotel in central Moscow to a rooftop bar and restaurant.

I was meeting a beautiful Muscovite woman I had just met on Tinder.

The 10-minute taxi ride cost me 1000 Roubles. That was the equivalent to 18gbp. Crazy. I could put the costs behind me for obvious reasons. But I used the taxi journey as a marker. 1000 roubles was 18 pounds sterling and engrained in my mind.

A few months later the sanctions hit Russia and the rouble got weak. Very weak. Around Xmas, it was only costing me 8gbp for 1000 roubles. What a turn around. Hence, Moscow has dropped out the top 10 rankings for expensive cities to live/ work in.

geographic arbitrage
Just one of many restaurants I took advantage of in Moscow, due to a very weak rouble…

I more or less got another year of taking advantage of this weak rouble. Sure, it strengthened a bit after Xmas, but I got to enjoy Moscow, save more (and date their incredible and very talented women) at a fraction of the price.

If you can get all your expenses paid, then even better. Again, you can boost your savings rate in the process. Best to check out cost of living rankings  to ensure you stretch your hard earned cash.

Food

Food can work out waayy cheaper by living abroad. Depends on where you are in the world, of course. There is always a way to save on food though.

When I was in South Korea, I ventured to the markets every Saturday morning to buy my fruit and veg for the week. Shopping at the markets i.e. food and clothes is a significant saving straight off the bat.

Korean food is unbelievably tasty. You were served at least 3 Korean side dishes e.g. Ojingeochae Muchim (Spicy Dried Squid Strips, Musaengchae (Spicy Korean Radish Salad), Kimchi (fermented cabbage) are typical side dish examples served with your main meal e.g Beef Bulgogi.

geographic arbitrage
Got to cook udon noodles and other treats, at a local restaurant in Gangnam…cost 3gbp

Cooking at home is a good option if you don’t get any food allowance. But, with local food at these prices – why would you.

Even in one of the most expensive cities in the world such as Singapore, you can eat cheap. I used to do visa runs there, as my company was hired through a Singaporean agency.

geographic arbitrageLocal food courts in beautiful Singapore

If you eat local e.g. food courts in Singapore, you will save big time.

It worked out between 2.50gbp and 3.00gbp for the above setup, for both South Korea and Singapore. Some of the food I ate at my works canteen in Korea would rival any restaurant I’ve eaten at. At a fraction of the price.

Sure, a Korean BBQ would work out more expensive. However, there was a client budget to pay for that.

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Melt in the mouth beef at a Korean BBQ…

If you have some sort of allowance/ daily subsistence for food, then even better. You can pocket the margin. Because you’ll be hard pushed to spend it all in a continent like Asia. Asia is only one example though, you can do this almost anywhere.

Paying less for food doesn’t mean to say the quality suffers (as I’ve proven above). You just have to shop around. Using a cost of living index will help you on your way.

Accommodation

The real killer of your savings rate. Alternatively, get that contract/ expat gig overseas and this could be all paid for. If staying in a Hotel, choose one where you can build up points and loyalty rewards. A free night at a 5* hotel for you and your better half – oh, yes please.

If your company isn’t going to shell out for your board, then check out Air BnB. You can always rent a room in a house to bring your costs down, so it’s not all bad.

Transportation

My rule of thumb is; I’ll take public transport over hiring a car (or bringing your own one overseas). It’s super efficient and relatively cheap. I’ll choose accommodation close enough to the work place and walk/ use public transport/ cycle in.

In some cases, the project/ your employer will provide some sort of shuttle bus to get you to your place of work. Sometimes, they will provide a car (and fuel card). In all other cases, just use public transport or a bicycle.

When I was in Israel, we were provided a car to get to work and anywhere we wanted at weekends…It had a smart tag, a chip installed at the car’s fuel inlet. You literally just ‘fill up and go’. Everything is registered on that chip and billed to the client.

In the Russian Federation, I had a driver to take me to the airport/ hotel and a shuttle bus for work.

Regardless if I get work transportation provided or not, I always get a bicycle. If I don’t get a daily allowance, I will buy a 2nd hand bike from Craigs List. If I do get an allowance, I will rent one for a few euros a day and stick it on expenses.

geographic arbitrage
This is the actual bike i’m using on a project in Germany…out for a Sunday cycle

In other instances, you would get flights as part of the overseas package. So build up those frequent flyer points. You may get the opportunity to use flight allowance on really exotic places that would be otherwise expensive to fly too. So do please take advantage.

And if you’re reeeallly lucky, someone will pay for your travel time. Now, that’s the holy grail of expenses.

Taxes

If you work outside your home country for a specific period of time, you should be paying a little less tax. For instance, you’re not paying for the roads, schools or hospitals etc. You can opt to declare non-residency and use another tax efficient solution/ pay cheaper tax in your host country.

I built up my pension before winding down my UK company. So, if you’re planning an alternative payment solution (long term), build up your pension first.

Do your homework on double tax treaties i.e. ensuring you only pay tax in one country.

We can do a deep dive on legitimate offshore company solutions in another post.

Medical

Medical tourism is on the rise. Maybe you can proceed with that full-body check up you’ve been putting off for so long?

I happened to take the plunge in Northern India after my project finished in Himachal Pradesh. There, I booked into Max Hospital, a specialty hospital that caters for International patients. Where I received the Gold package (based on my age) which included blood groups/ stool samples/ ECG/ X-Ray Chest/ Ultrasound of Abdomen, to name a few.

geographic arbitrage
The ECG is just one of many reports, for a full body check up/ annual health screening in India

Full days screening with breakfast and consultation cost around 80gbp (equivalent of 500gbp + in the UK). Same medical equipment, practices, and level of competencies. Just a different cost.

So, next time you’re traveling/ working overseas, maybe you can incorporate that health screening
into your stay.

Geographic Arbitrage – Random

Dig a little deeper than the world cost index. For instance, Seoul is the 6th costliest city in the world according to that source. Sure thing, but that doesn’t stop you from living in one of it’s newer futuristic, cities such as Incheon and the likes. Where living expenses are a fraction of the Capital. There’s always a way…

Takeaway

Geographic arbitrage is a bit of an upheaval in your life with regards to leaving your old one behind. But fortune favors the brave. You will supercharge your way to financial independence with this technique. You can potentially save up to 90% of your income. I did.

The thing is, you can always come back to your old life. It will always be there – but it might not seem the same, as you once left it. Maybe you have moved on? Ready for pastures new. Only time will tell.

Geographic arbitrage will certainly change you as a person. It may even change your life…

Now I would like to hear from you.

Is anyone else using alternative techniques to pursue financial independence?

How is your journey so far?

Let us know in the comments…

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