Tag Archives: Expat finances

Eight Percent of Zero

With Chiang Mai’s beautiful but very short “winter” now behind us, it means temperatures begin climbing, skies get hazy due to inversion layers that occur during the hot and dry season and many expats begin their annual bitchfest known as “The Burning Season” all over social media. For us it means the end of day tripping and a short break before a one week beach vacation at a moderately priced Koh Lanta resort. After that we return home for a week and then hit the road for four weeks for a month-long escape from the bad air. Given Thailand’s low-cost of living, we’re running about $3,500 under our annual fiscal year budget so it’s affordable to overlap monthly rent if we stay away from the more popular Andaman Sea beach destinations where everyone else goes. Searching for a more low-key area still far enough south to escape the haze, we found a three bedroom house for rent on Airbnb at a ridiculously low rate of about $21 USD per day in a sleepy beach community half way between Hua HIn and the gateway town of Chumphon. Planning on driving, we’ll be able to cart more stuff than flying and see a bit of the country as well.

So for now, let’s talk finances. Depending on your situation, some of you may have noticed the one and only positive aspect of the  Trump Disaster is a rather fast rise of the stock market. Simply put, Wall Street loves billionaires and while very few of his moron supporters will ever see one penny since they’re mostly financially ignorant, underemployed and too stupid to understand why trickle down economics always fails miserably, those of us in the “sweet spot” (invested properly but not wealthy) are doing well. Finally seeing an enormous albeit very short correction that brought the markets down to earth last week, I thought I’d post a follow-up to my recent financial comments.

Having received an unexpected amount of positive feedback when I briefly touched on asset allocation and diversification, let’s get the disclaimers out-of-the-way. Most importantly, I am not a licensed professional and nothing I say should be taken as a solicitation or endorsement of any financial products. But I did spend 32 years working in various administrative and support roles for some very well-respected financial institutions in New York City and San Francisco. Not intending to make this an economics lesson or online college class, I’ll keep the teaching down and include an educational link when I use financial terminology. With lots of great blogs focusing on how to retire early, not that many focus on what to do once you’re there so I’ll give it a shot. While never wanting to manage anyone else’s money, I’ve been a “self-directed investor” for over 20 years and that’s enough time to analyze all the graphs and after almost three years of early retirement, I can say we’re ahead of the curve so if you don’t mind some boring graphs to make my points, read on. Please also note that since we’re both American citizens, some strategies I discuss only apply to U.S. residents but the concepts are universal and can be applied from almost anywhere.

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Multiple Entry Expats

Feeling like we’re perfecting the Experimental Overseas Early Retirement a little more each day, Diane and I are now holders of valid retirement visas in two Southeast Asian nations at the ripe old ages of 52 and 46. Despite the guy in Penang that literally followed every word I wrote to secure his MM2H Visa in Malaysia, I’m certainly no genius as shown by this blog which doesn’t even include hashtags, revenue generating advertising or commercialization of any kind. But I did read an article on Marketwatch.com this morning that discusses a new IRA rule allowing Americans with 401k plans to make penalty free early withdrawals at age 55 in cases of “job separation”. (No, you can’t quit at age 54 and then withdraw money the next year and if you roll your plan into an IRA as we did, the rule doesn’t apply). Intentionally designed to catch your eye with a headline, first they discourage this rather foolish act and then explain how most Americans can’t afford to retire at age 55 proving why you should probably get your financial ideas from those with no vested interest in watching others make mistakes.

Our first visitors came from China

Rarely talking about our personal finances because the boss in the relationship insists we keep the specifics private, I’ll share a few tidbits that illustrate how we’re doing after almost two and half years with no employment income. Planning a budget of 40-45K USD annually including rent and travel, Malaysia was an easy place to meet the goal because there’s nothing to do in Penang and we mostly cooked our own meals since we didn’t like the food other than duck rice and inexpensive noodle soups. Spending most of our cash travelling to places like Cambodia, Myanmar, Bali and Australia, we skimped on the non travel months and ate in almost every night. Relying heavily on our “no foreign transaction fee” U.S. dollar credit card, we also took advantage of a plummeting Malaysian Ringgit and saved thousands since almost every business other than food courts takes credit cards in Malaysia with no merchant fees.

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Malaysian Math

Having figured out most of our Malaysian bill payment chores, last month we received our first electric bill. Unclear why they print certain utility bills only in Malay when almost everything related to business is in English, we figured it’s because the utilities are state-run and it wouldn’t look good printing bills in a language other than your own. Describing the process to us before we signed the lease, our property agent told us online bill pay was probably the best option so I used my little security token and logged on. Attempting to add a payee, I scrolled through the list of available options and happily, I found Tenanga Nasional on the list of thirty odd choices. Uncertain what the account number was, I Googled every line of the bill and typed “in Malay” after each one and surprisingly, I deciphered it thanks to the translation skills of the greatest American company ever. Breaking down each line and assuming the important lines were near the top, I determined the bill read as follows:

The Amount to be paid (straightforward enough)
Arrears ( I assumed this meant “previous balance”)
Current Charge (assumed that meant electricity used in the current bill period)
Rounding (no cents used for payment purposes: convenient enough)
The Total Bill (assumed it meant total of the above)

Right underneath the above lines, there was a darker shaded area with lines that translated into the following

Previous bills (this had a date of 14.07.2015 and a cash amount of RM 4.25)
Final Payment (same amount but dated 18.07.2015)

Uncertain what that part meant, I assumed it had to do with the previous tenant which in our case hadn’t lived there since the spring so perhaps the small balance due was the amount of electricity used during our showings in early July. Since our tenancy began on July 15th it seemed reasonable that the last payment would’ve been made by the landlord or property agent and covered a period ending around our occupancy date Calculating the bill, it came to about $80 USD which didn’t seem unreasonable since we sleep with air conditioning. Using the bill pay function, the bank debited the ringgit from our account and it all seemed fine.


The other day the next bill arrived. Maybe we are missing something so help us out. Listing the previous month’s bill as a credit, they the somehow added the current month’s charge to the negative number that represented what we owed (and paid) last month and came out with a credit balance because the amount of energy we used in August was RM 76.66 less than in July (And this makes sense because we were in KL for a week in August finalizing the MM2H so that explains the lower energy consumption).


Although I haven’t been to university in over 30 years and I’m no math scholar, it seems logical that you don’t calculate a current month’s charges by adding/subtracting the amount paid in the prior month to whatever the current charges are. According to this method, they gave us 30 days of free electricity because we happened to use less than we used in the prior month. Alternatively, had we used 10% more and the bill was RM 338.30, it appears we’d be paying only RM 30.75 since they seem to be giving a credit towards the current month based on what we paid the month before even though that was the amount payable. Wow. What a great system. Confident I would’ve flunked math in this country we showed the entire bill to our property agent who came back with something to the effect of “it must be a credit from the prior tenant” despite the obvious facts to the contrary. If you understand something we don’t, by all means please enlighten us.

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