Minimalism the Key to Living in Two Countries
Living in two countries is something I always thought you had to be fairly wealthy to do. The few people I knew who did it were quite well off. They kept entire second homes left empty in other countries and cars not driven for months at a time. They didn’t worry about air fares.
With time I learned that with a simpler, more minimalist lifestyle, I could lead basically the same expat life, one remarkably similar to theirs, for a fraction of the cost. In fact, I could make it cost less to live in two countries than living in one.
I've read that a rich existence means life, rather than lifestyle, should be complicated.
As a "soltera" in Mexico (single women in Spanish, a single man being a soltero), it was particularly crucial to develop a streamlined system if I was going to be going back and forth between Mexico and Denver, as no one would be backing me up with, "You got that passport, right?"
Middle age is already a perfect time to simplify your life. For most of us, life conditions have changed substantially, even though people sometime resist seeing that. A lot of "our" articles discuss how to decide what to give up, and should you, although the trend is toward simplification.
For example, maybe you bought a big house because it was in the good school district and your children left the nest years ago. Maybe you're recently single again.
Our lives change and our living quarters, our environmental footprint if nothing else, should change with them.
If you are divorced, maintaining all you might have maintained as a couple drastically cuts into the time you need to rebuild your life. I have seen divorced friends enslaved by the world they built as a married person. They are unable to let go of the familiar even though the work to maintain it has effectively doubled.
Over the last ten years of shucking off many of my possessions, first after a divorce and then as I made the transition to living in Mexico, I always think about this story.
A man went to visit an influential rabbi’s home for a few days. He was shocked by the paucity of belongings and by how simple the rabbi's home was.
When the visitor expressed his surprise, the Rabbi said to the visitor “But you yourself only have a small suitcase with you to visit me.” The visitor said yes, but that it wasn’t his home, “I’ll only be here a little while,” he told him. The rabbi said “Me too.”
I have never read an article or study that said possessions bring happiness. Numerous studies indicate people are happier when they invest in experiences rather than things. Millennials have absorbed the lesson. Consumer goods manufacturers note with dismay their different buying patterns, their doing rather than having.
Eventually things, big houses, expensive cars, recreational toys, electronics, clothing and objects d’art have to be packed, cleaned, maintained, carried and worried over. Not that having things is bad, but whether you live in two countries or one, if you hear yourself saying no to spending time with the people you care about because you have to clean the garage, it’s time to take a look at whether you own your things or they own you.
In our work lives we learned about discarding the non-essential in order to be better at our jobs. We either learned how to prioritize or our bosses sent us to workshops and conferences that taught us.
One exercise I remember from one such productivity class is to take the tasks you have to do and give each task a 1,2 or 3 ranking. Then throw away the threes. That can apply to possessions too.
Nothing forces this issue of prioritizing and simplifying down to the ones, twos and threes like living in two countries. When you have to put things into storage twice a year, you see them differently. How many times do you want to pack and move that pair of roller-blades you haven't used in 15 years?
When an experienced expat opens a box for the first time in two years of international living and realizes she hasn’t even thought about it’s contents in all that time, she throws away the box (or another idea is to take pictures of what's in the box, if it triggers a memory you want to keep).
For me, the most radical simplification I made to live economically in two countries was getting rid of my car. If you live in a city with Lyft, Uber and maybe a little public transportation, you absolutely don’t want to worry about owning a car if you live most the year in another country.
In addition to being chauffeured around by some really fascinating people, not having a car means I don’t have to worry about parking tickets, parking places downtown, car maintenance or having all the tags and permits. This is one of ways expat life has simplified my life substantially.
Not only did I save a lot of money and simplify my life, participating in the sharing economy is more fun. Exploring it has made me feel part of a movement. These exchanges connect me with a larger and younger world.
I've always taken minimalism as a matter of common sense. When you live in a smaller house you make everything smaller; smaller yard to maintain, smaller electric bill, fewer furnishings to buy and fewer Saturdays cleaning gutters rather than spending time with friends over margaritas or hiking a mountain.
Having a smaller (but well-loved) place has given me the freedom to come and go to Mexico with only a few days preparation. Even worst case scenarios of renting my place out while I am in Mexico raise hardly a blip on the fret-o-meter. Security is not an issue like it would be leaving a larger home behind. The smaller your U.S. place, the lighter the weight around your neck.
But living in two countries is not about (a nod here to Tom Petty) living like a refugee. I still come home to things I love in both destinations. What I choose to leave behind in each location symbolizes which side of my personality dominates while I'm there.
In Denver, I come home to a few pieces of art that have special meaning and my shearling coat. In Mexico, it’s my boogie board and my creme brulee torch. Different possessions, different worlds.
If I get tempted to buy something, I know that I will have to throw away something to have room for something new. With the money I save, I can afford better quality when I do need to replace something.
On top of the more simple life you can carve out by living in two countries, living in Mexico costs less because you find you desire less. Any expat will tell you that for some reason, you don't feel like buying as much when you're here. Consumerism is less in the culture you're absorbing more of every day.
The U.S. has the most sophisticated marketing expertise in the world. You won’t realize just how relentlessly you are being sold to in America until you live in Mexico a while and then go back to the U.S.
We have become completely numb to the bombardment. After even six months in Mexico, you will be hyper- sensitive by how incessant the sales messaging is - while you are on hold on the phone, the extra charge for every little add-on, the placement of things in stores.
"You can’t take it with you" certainly applies to being a part-time expat. I try to use a little of the extra money I save by being more generous; treating people, hosting things, helping people out a little.
It's a great feeling to go back to exhibiting some of the generosity I remember having in my twenties and I felt I could still afford in my 40's, but in the years since had become a trait I saw less and less of in both myself and others.
Living in two countries as a single person simplifies your life, and through that simplicity enriches it, paring it down to what matters.
A Tiny Life provides resources for tiny homes and simpler living.
Before you go, best to examine your relationship with your stuff - Ventanas Mexico
A songwriter who has basically written the soundtracks of our lives under the radar and keeps his life simple, the story of Max Martin by DiWeek-End - a great read on simplicity and art.
Next up - Living in the so- called "tourist zones" don't mean you sacrifice the feeling of being in Mexico, especially since the tourists happen to be, uh, Mexican.
Most recent post: Mexico may be the place to find your true purpose in life.
Hi, I'm a partner with Ventanas Mexico and the author of the "The Interactive Guide to Learning Spanish Free Online," and "If Only I Had a Place," for the aspiring expat renting in Mexico.
The Interactive Guide is an interactive tool combining the best of internet based tools into lesson plans for all levels. Conversational Spanish takes time. Get started before you move to Mexico!