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Manufactured Spending – a Rookie’s Tale

The biggest selling point of doing college abroad, besides the opportunity to live in another culture and experience it as an insider, is the cost.  As I’ve said many times, most countries in the world do not charge nearly the level of tuition that America does, and some don’t charge anything at all.  So simply by relocating you can save tens of thousands of dollars on tuition.  And while this in my opinion is already worth it, this doesn’t mean that there are no costs whatsoever.  The first cost that most people ask about are flights.  Indeed, the cost of flying overseas at least once a year can add up.  I’ve successfully flown for cheap and even free over the course of the past seven years between various destinations and the United States, and I go into detail on how I made that happen in the book.  However, up until now I’ve never really delved completely into the world travel hacking, whereby people find ways to quickly rack up frequent flier miles without spending too much money, and then use those miles for free flights and hotel stays.  But now I wanted to go to Toronto at the end of March for a conference, but the budget simply isn’t there to afford the trip.  So I decided to give the art of travel hacking a try and see if I’m able to get a free flight to Toronto as easily as some on the various blogs claim (check here and here).

Travel Hacking 101

After reading tons of blogs on racking up frequent flier miles quickly and cheaply, I felt confident I could pull it off.  Essentially, most of the blogs out there recommend what they call “manufactured spending” to take advantage of credit card bonus miles.  Many credit cards tied to an airline offer signup bonuses that are usually enough for a free round trip domestic flight.  The catch is that in order to get the miles redeemable for a free flight, you usually have to spend a certain amount of money within a certain amount of time.  Now, if you have money in the bank or a steady income, these thresholds can be easy to meet just by using your new card for everyday expenses.  BUT some credit cards, especially those offering really enticing signup bonuses will have rather large spending requirements, and for those of us without a regular income (like potential college abroad students!), even small spending requirements can be difficult to meet.  So the travel hackers out there have devised several techniques that allow you to charge the minimum amount on your card without actually spending the money.

The Manufactured Spend

Most of the blogs out there recommend some variation of the following system to spend money on a new credit card with a signup bonus without actually spending the money:

1.  Use your card for either a Visa prepaid debit card, an Amex prepaid gift card, or some sort of reload package that allows you to add funds to an account (see next step).

2.  Open an account that allows you to use a prepaid debit, gift, or reload card to add funds.

3.  Add funds to that account.

4.  Use that account to pay the credit card bill.

5.  Use the bonus to get a free flight.

6.  Keep the card open and make occasional charges.

7.  Close the account before the annual fee comes due, or negotiate to get the fee waived, or keep the account open if the continued rewards are worth it.

Manufactured Spend- caveats

But before I go any further, a few serious caveats:

1.  Travel hacking almost always involves applying for a credit card.  This in and of itself can be a risk, since it involves a credit check and this can have a negative impact on your credit rating.

2.  Having a credit card, especially for first timers, can be tempting and risky.  It is easy to charge purchases that you don’t really have the money for, and suddenly find yourself in deep credit card debt, which is probably the worst kind of debt to have due to high interest and other fees.

3.  Only attempt a manufactured spend if you have the money to cover the expenses in case it doesn’t work out.  New cards often give you a 0% introductory rate, which you can take advantage of if you aren’t able to liquidate your purchases into cash to pay down your bill right away.  But be VERY careful.  Do your best to pay down the bill every month, even if you have a 0% rate, and DEFINITELY pay down the entire balance before the introductory rate is over.

4.  Don’t apply for a ton of credit cards at once and don’t keep a ton of credit cards open at once either.

5.  This post is not meant to recommend or endorse manufactured spending.  Most of the travel hacking blogs usually only talk about successful experiences, so I thought a rookie’s talke would be a nice addition to this literature.  I am simply reflecting on various ways to try to travel or do college abroad in the cheapest way possible, and an opportunity for you to learn from my mistakes in trying to save money on flights.  And as you will see below, my manufactured spend was not entirely successful, and therefore, follow my lead at your own risk.

Manufactured Spend- A Rookie’s Tale

So after researching the most successful techniques online for more than a month, I dove in.

Choose an appropriate credit card

First, I researched the cheapest airline between Denver and Toronto, and I discovered that the cheapest and most frequent provider was United.  So I began looking for credit card offers that involved a miles bonus that can be used on United.  Most airlines belong to a larger network of partner airlines, so you can use your miles on other airlines within that network (United is in the Star Alliance with other airlines like Lufthansa).  However, sometimes your miles don’t go as far when you use them with partner airlines.  Therefore, researching the best mileage program for the trip you want to take for free is essential.  You also want to make sure that the bonus is big enough to make it worth it.  Look at the redemption charts before signing up, so you know how far the bonus miles will go and how much more you’ll need, if any.

Fortunately, I quickly came across an offer than involved 50,000 bonus miles on United’s frequent flier program, MileagePlus.  The minimum spending requirement was $2000 in the first three months.  This is enough for a free round flight within North America, so with those bonus miles, I could get to Toronto.  The only problem with this offer is that I applied at the beginning of January, and needed to have the miles in my account to get the flight at the end of March.  This is a tight schedule to spend the $2000 in enough time to get the miles credited and use them to get to Toronto for the conference.

I applied for the card and although I don’t have a steady income at the moment, I was approved due to my rather good credit history I suspect.  If your credit isn’t great, you may be turned down for these offers.  If you think you might be turned down, another option may be to have a very trusting friend or family member with better credit apply for the card, and then have them add you as an authorized user.  (Sometimes, adding an authorized user gets you more bonus miles.  I added my mom to my account even though she has no need to use my card, and I was awarded 5000 bonus miles in addition to the 50000 offer).

Use your card for some basic spending so it doesn’t look like you’re only interested in the mileage bonus

My card arrived in the mail, and I immediately began using it for everyday expenses.  This is, of course, the easiest and perhaps most honest way to earn your bonus miles.  However, I knew I wasn’t going to spend $2000 in everyday expenses, and certainly not in enough time to get the miles credit.

The Gift Card/Reload/Bluebird Technique

So I started following the advice of the travel hacking blogosphere.  I purchased a Visa prepaid debit card through GiftCardMall.com.  I connected to Gift Card Mall through the online portal called TopCashBack, which gives rebates for online purchases.  The rebate was only .5%, but every little bit helps.  The maximum dollar value I could put on the Visa prepaid debit card was $500.  Unfortunately, the card came with a $3.95 purchase fee and shipping.  The total cost was $507.95.

Shortly after, I discovered that TopCashBack was offering a 3% rebate on Amex prepaid cards, and for a limited time Amex was waiving the purchase fee.  So I attempted to purchase as many Amex prepaid cards as I could to reach the minimum spending requirement.  However, Amex limited each card to a maximum value of $200, so I needed to purchase a ton of separate cards.  I’m told that there is a way to increase the limit on each card so as to minimize the amount of cards you buy, but I wasn’t able to make that work (rookie mistake number one).  A few days later, I had several prepaid Amex cards in my possession.

The next step according to my blog sources was to add a PIN to the cards so they can be used like traditional debit cards.  This was easily done through GoWallet for the Visa card, but it is impossible to add a PIN to Amex prepaid cards (rookie mistake number two).

The next thing I needed was an account that would allow me to add funds using a PIN-based debit card that also has a bill pay function.  Nearly everyone in the travel hacking world seems to be using an account called Bluebird, which is an arrangement between Walmart and American Express (and for the most part, is free to use).  I signed up for one online, and a few days later, it was good to go (no credit check required).

I then attempted to add funds to the Bluebird account using the Visa debit card.  There is a limit on adding funds this way, which is set to $100 a day.  So I planned to send $100 a day for five days until the value of the card was gone.  This worked wonderfully for the first two days, and then on the third day, I got an error message with a 1-800 number to call for help.

When I called the 1-800 number, I was informed that only debit cards that are connected to an actual bank account are allowed to be used to add funds to Bluebird, and that the account number on the debit card I was using to add funds was flagged as a gift card rather than a debit card.  The woman warned me that if I tried to use the card again to add funds, my account would be shut down.  Fortunately, however, the $200 I had transferred remained in the account, $199 of which I used at the end of the month to pay down my credit card balance (Bluebird requires you to keep at least $1 in the account to keep it active, apparently).  But now I was stuck with a $300 Visa card that I had to find a way to turn into cash to pay back my credit card bill (not to mention the American Express cards).

The blog I was following was advising people to use Amex cards (with their higher rebate and no purchase fees) to turn around and buy a Visa card, and then add a PIN number to the Visa and use the Visa to pay the credit card bill via Bluebird.  I already knew this wasn’t going to work because I had already tried to add funds using my Visa “debit”card, so it didn’t make sense to use my Amex cards to buy more Visa cards.  How people are making this work is still a mystery to me.

My rookie mistake here might have been that I opened the Bluebird account and tried to add funds to it with a debit card right away, rather than letting the Bluebird account “marinate” for a while and add some funds in a more legitimate way.  But if what the operator told me is true, the days of using Visa gift cards and Bluebird to manufacture spend might be coming to an end.  Since this was by far the most popular technique discussed by the hacks, I really wonder if I did something wrong or if Bluebird simply hasn’t caught up to them yet.  My recommendation for anyone thinking about a manufactured spend is to avoid this strategy entirely.

The Gift Card/Money Order Technique

But never fear!  The travel hacks had another suggestion if Bluebird failed.  Apparently, all you have to do is go to Walmart and use your debit card to buy a money order for $.70 to pay your credit card bill with.  However, this didn’t work for me either.  I tried to use my Visa card to purchase a money order for $275.  But, my card must have been flagged by the Walmart system (since Walmart operates Bluebird), because my card was rejected.  Rookie mistake number three.  I wonder if I had purchased another Visa debit that wasn’t flagged by Walmart if it would have worked.  But purchasing Visa cards through Gift Card Mall costs $7.95 each, and I found another way to manufacture spend that would save me a trip to Walmart and would cost about the same out of pocket, so I decided not to buy more Visa debit cards (also trying to buy high value Visa cards with my $200 Amex cards was probably going to turn into a nightmare).

The GreenDot/Visa Rush Technique

So I began a new technique.  I signed up for another account that has free bill pay and can be loaded with money via “reload cards.”  This account is called VisaRush.  Blogs that discuss this technique recommend finding a store that will allow you to purchase these reload cards such as Green Dot Money Paks with a credit card.  Apparently many stores won’t allow you to purchase these things with a credit card, and therefore it can be hard to find a store that will.  I thought I was in luck because I actually DIDN’T want to use my credit card, because I had already charged a lot on my card and I needed a way to use all of the various gift cards I had accumulated.  So I began to search for GreenDot Money Paks.

According to the GreenDot website, I should have been able to find these Money Paks at my local Walgreens.  The first Walgreens I visited didn’t have them.  After several days, I went to a second Walgreens, and there they were.  I took them to the counter with Visa debit card in hand to pay for it.  I was immediately told by the cashier that I could only pay for those with cash.  Rookie mistake number (where are we??  four??  five??).

Using Amazon payments

In the meantime, I thought I would try another technique that is talked about on the travel hacking blogs, although with much less frequency.  This one is actually the most straightforward, so I was hopeful.  It involves using your credit card to send someone money using your Amazon payment account.  You send the person the money, and they turn around and give it back to you which you then use to pay back the credit card.  But again, I didn’t want to use my card for this purpose again, because I was looking for ways to liquidate my gift cards.  (In hindsight, I should have tried this first, and used the actual credit card to send a large sum of money, rather than the gift cards…rookie mistake number six or whatever).  So I tried to use one of my AmEx cards to make small purchase online to see if it would work for internet purchases.  The charge was denied.

I called the 1-800 number on the back of the card.  The menu of options didn’t include anything involving online purchases, and so I had to sit through several minutes of automated messages before finally talking to a human.  The operator explained that internet purchases require “registering” the card, and apparently unlike the Visa prepaid debit card, you cannot register an Amex card online.  You HAVE to call, listen to the automated message go through unwanted menu items until someone finally picks up the phone, and then give them the card number, CSV code, your name, address, and phone number orally over the phone before you can use the card like a credit card online.  That is extremely annoying and time consuming, especially if, like me, you have more than a couple of Amex cards.  Sigh.

I then attempted to make the online purchase again with the Amex card.  Success!  Now that I thought the card would work much like a credit card, I proceeded to my Amazon payment account to try to use it to send money to my sister, who also has an Amazon payment account.  However, when I tried to send her the money, it was denied.  I read through the terms and conditions rather carefully and it stated that there is sometimes a hold on newly registered credit cards.  So I decided to wait a few days before sending her the money again, but I wasn’t optimistic.   I’m also fearful that my account might get flagged or shut down if I send money to someone with my same last name living in the same city as me.  I was never able to successfully use my gift cards to send money through Amazon payments.

The Gift Card Churn and Burn Technique

Meanwhile, I began yet another project to liquidate my gift cards as recommended by travel hackers.  I began to research the used retail gift card market.  There are 6 or so websites that offer used retail gift cards at a discount, and also allow you to sell your retail gift cards for cash at slightly below their value.  According to the travel hackers, if you find a card being sold at a deep discount, you can buy it and then turn around sell it back to the used gift card market for a profit.  I quickly discovered that this wasn’t going to work very well by buying used from an online market and selling it right back.  The pricing on these sites make it so that if you do this, you would actually lose a few bucks on each transaction.  This can be acceptable if you don’t lose too much on each transaction, because it helps turn your credit card purchases into cash and pay for much of your credit card purchase, but not all.  Before doing so, I did some research on the gift cards that were fetching the largest returns.  Gas cards were the highest at 92%, and Walmart was the second highest at 89-90%.  To test this technique, I used one of my Amex cards to buy a $200 Walmart card for $193, a 3.5% discount.  I would then sell the card back to the used card market (a different website, of course), for 89% cash back, or $178.  In fact, I sold the card to CardPool, through TopCashBack again, which was offering 4% cash back for each card you sell on CardPool.  I haven’t seen this rebate show up in my TopCashBack account yet, so I’m not comfortable saying that this worked, but if it does eventually, I actually earned an additional $7 on this transaction.  Excluding the rebate, this worked quite nicely (buying and selling gift cards are all free to ship) but of course it represents a loss of $15 (only $8 if I get the rebate), and it left me with an Amex card with a balance of $7.  (The smaller the balances are on these prepaid cards, the more difficult it gets to liquidate them into cash to pay back your credit card).  Furthermore, if I did a similar thing for all of my Amex and Visa cards, this would have resulted in a loss of approximately $120 (again, excluding the rebate), plus a bunch of gift cards with small balances.  Now, if the rebates show up, that price will be reduced to approximately $64.  Add to this loss the cost of the purchase price and shipping of my Visa and Amex cards, which totaled $17.  Of course, I was also using the card for everyday expenses that I was going to spend anyway, but since I got something I needed or wanted for that money in addition to meeting my spending requirement and getting bonus miles, I’m not counting that money as a loss.

While researching the gift card market, I had another thought that I haven’t seen discussed on any of the travel hacking sites I consulted.  I set up a craigslist RSS feed which alerted me whenever a gift card was posted for sale locally.  When a card was posted, I would check how much cash back I could get, using the site Gift Card Granny.  If the seller was willing to sell his/her card for a very deep discount in the hopes of getting cash fast, I discovered that in some cases I would be able to sell the card back to the used card market at an actual profit.  For example, I found someone who had received three Starbucks cards for Christmas, each worth $100.  His craigslist ad said that he really needed the money and wasn’t much of a coffee drinker, so he was willing to sell each $100 card for $70, or for $60 if someone purchased all three.  According to Gift Card Granny, Cardpool would purchase $100 Starbucks cards for 75%, or $225 (again, excluding the possible rebate from TopCashBack).  So if I bought the gift cards for $180, and sold them back for $225, that is a profit of $45 (which may increase to $54 if the rebate comes through).  Now, considering that I had to “borrow” $180 from myself in cash, arrange for a time to meet and confirm the balance of the cards, and then wait for a check to arrive from Cardpool, a profit of $45 may not be worth the trouble for some people.  This particular transaction worked well because the seller and I are were motivated and honest.  However, when I attempted a similar scheme with another person advertising a J.Crew gift card, which I could have made another $40 profit on, the seller insisted on meeting at an extremely inconvenient time and location.  I tried to get someone else to sell me their Lowe’s gift card for what would have been a $56 profit, but he demanded that I meet him right away and wasn’t so flexible.  While my first transaction worked, I’m not sure how much time or energy I’m willing to put towards this technique in the future.  I also wouldn’t go to this trouble for only a $10 or $20 profit.  I think the least you should try to make is $30 or more.  Of course, for this to work, you also have to have to cash to front the transaction (which I tend to not have since I do as much spending on a credit card and hate carrying cash around with me).

I also posted my own gift cards on craigslist just in case someone was willing to bite.  I advertised each AmEx card for $185, and said that I would negotiate if someone would buy more than one.  I figured if I got $185, this would represent a total of $75 loss if someone bought all five of the cards.  (At this point, you can tell I was getting a little panicked).  But no one contacted me, and I’m not surprised.  These AmEx cards are a pain in the ass.

While most of the used gift card sites don’t accept Visa or Amex cards (which would have made this process much easier), Cardswapper does.  However, they only offer 86% of the value.  For some, that might be an acceptable loss.  I decided to hold out on this option and use it as a last resort if I couldn’t possibly find another way to reduce my losses.  (I would have lost around $140).  At this point, I’m really questioning whether it is truly possible to manufacture spend an recover most, if not all of your credit card spending.

Furthermore complicating the issue, some of the gift cards I bought using my Visa and Amex gift cards were rejected by the used gift card sites.  I got a call from one of them asking where I got the cards from.  In a slight panic, I told them the truth.  Knowing that I was churning and burning, they sent the cards back to me.  Therefore, I had to sell them to other gift card sites.  The other gift card sites didn’t have a TopCashBack rebate, and some of them didn’t offer the same high rate of return.

I won’t break down exactly what I ended up spending out of pocket with churning and burning almost $1500 worth of gift cards, but eventually I got rid of them all and turned them into cash using a combination of used gift card sites as well as craigslist.  I was able to get about half of the $2000 before my first credit card bill was due, so I had to front myself the other $1000 before the cash slowly started to trickle in from various used gift card sites.  In addition, there was an unexpected cost which none of the travel blogs mention, is the fact that when you book your flight using miles, you still have to pay surcharges out of pocket (there is no way to use miles for these fees).  Call me ignorant, but this was an additional out of pocket expense I wasn’t expecting.  So much for “free” travel.  But considering that a flight to Toronto normally costs between $450 and $600, I can confidently say I ended up paying much less than that out of pocket for the 50,000 bonus miles.  Still however, it is far cry from getting a truly free flight, the way many travel hacking sites claim.

My conclusion

My rookie foray into manufactured spending was by no means smooth and I certainly did not end up paying nothing out of pocket.  It was also very time consuming and because I’m risk adverse when it comes to money, it was  very stressful knowing I was charging several thousand dollars on my credit card.  I have yet to check my credit score after this, but I’m afraid it might have negatively affected it, although hopefully not by much.  Because of the trouble I had with the “classic” hack techniques that seem to work well for so many others, I can neither recommend manufactured spending nor can I completely dismiss it.  Perhaps you will have a lot less trouble.

However, I think in the future I might use some of the techniques not to earn bonus miles but to save money and earn miles.  For example, all of my online spending will go through TopCashBack or other rebates sites from now on.  I will also make use of discounted gift cards more often as well.  Since I plan purchases ahead of time, I know when I’m planning to go to a certain store.  Even though it doesn’t save a ton of money, I will try to buy discounted gift cards for an upcoming purchases, saving 3% or more on every purchase, and getting cash back as well.

Now that I have the various accounts such set up such as Bluebird, VisaRush, and GoWallet, and I know better what NOT to do, a future attempt may be more successful.  But I don’t think I’ll try this again anytime soon.  I’m going to continue to be on the lookout for deeply discounted gift cards on craigslist but I won’t focus on it.  Instead, if I come across a good offer for bonus miles, I might try one of the following techniques to earn those miles:

 

Other possible ways to manufacture spend or earn enough miles for a free flight

Microlending

I am no way endorsing the microlending industry.  A lot has been revealed lately about how it can be just as predatory as payday lending corporations here at home, but I thought I would mention it solely for the purpose of manufacturing a minimum spending requirement.  You can use a credit card to make a loan, and the repayment rate for Kiva loans is upwards of 90%.  Therefore you can have a reasonable expectation to see your money back, but it will take time, so you have to be willing to front the money.

Square

Another similar option discussed here and there by the travel hacks is using Square to transfer money from a gift card (or more directly from the credit card) to another person, who can go ahead and transfer it back to you.  Square is a smart phone application, and when you create an account they ship you a credit card reader that can be attached to your smart phone.  Square takes a 2.75% fee for every transaction.  This could be an acceptable loss–for a $2000 minimum spending requirement this would be $55, resulting in a $55 round trip flight.  I might consider this option in the future, but it isn’t clear to me if Square would flag your account if someone you obviously know (same last name) swiped your card for a large sum or series of smaller sums.

Amazon/Ebay Selling

I sell a lot of stuff on Amazon, and less often on ebay, but I have done so in the past.  One way you could potentially meet minimum spending requirements is to buy a high value item that might fetch a high price on Amazon or ebay (Apple products are always a winner here).  This is a risky technique though.  On both forums, you’ll probably have to sell your item for a slight loss, and you also have to pay various seller fees.  On ebay, you risk not getting the price you want and on Amazon you might have to wait a very long time before your item sells.

Gift Card for everyday spending

Although I didn’t see much discussion of this on the travel hacking sites, another way to meet a minimum spend requirement would be to buy a general gift card like the Visa or Amex cards, load these cards with enough money to meet your spending requirement, and then use those cards for your everyday shopping over the course of time.  This has the benefit of meeting your spending requirement quickly, and effectively using your credit card for everyday spending without doing so on an accelerated schedule.  Of course, to do this you need to have enough cash to cover the rather high credit card bill upfront, but after that, you probably won’t use your card much for the coming months.

Time your credit card application for a large purchase

In the event that you’re planning a large purchase and saving up for it, you could attempt to apply for a bonus mileage card before you make the purchase.  Then, simply use the card for the purchase, pay it off, and reap the benefits of the bonus miles.

Arrange with a trusted friend or family member to use your card for your everyday spending as well as theirs

Use the card to make everyday purchase for both you and others, and have them pay you back with cash or check OR through Amazon payments.  For example, you could offer to pay for a group dinner on your card and have everyone else give you their part of the check in cash.  Since a lot of people are playing the points/mileage game on their credit card, a person who owes you money for something you charged on your card could send you the money through Amazon payments using THEIR credit card.  This way, they also get the credit for their spending on their card.

Look for other offers through your card to earn extra miles

Most cards have “category” spending bonuses.  For example, you might double miles for gas purchases or triple miles on dining.  By signing up for United’s dining program, I simply registered my credit card and was awarded 1000 bonus points for using the card at a participating restaurant.  You can also get additional points by spending money through your credit card’s online portal.

 

Are you an experience travel hacker/mileage collector?  Are there manufactured spending techniques that would work well for a young person going abroad who doesn’t have a ton of credit? 

I would love to hear from you in the comments on what you do to collect miles for free flights, what I did wrong, why the classic manufactured spend didn’t work for me, or whatever useful information you might have on this topic.

Do we have the right skills to be globally successful?

Today I’m reblogging a post from Southeast Schnitzel, a great blog about the cultural differences between Germany and the US, as well as general tips on cultural communication. One of the major themes of my book, College Abroad, is the disadvantage facing American students in terms of international and cultural experience. This post makes this point quite clear. If you’re concerned about being left behind in the global marketplace, you should consider not only traditional study abroad programs in college, but also high school exchanges or directly enrolling in a foreign university.

Southeast Schnitzel

In my line of work I talk a lot about cultural competency and intercultural skills as a prerequisite to a successful career in international business. In this context regular readers of this blog may have picked up on one of my pet peeves: the fact that school systems rarely provide our students with enough opportunities to develop cross-cultural skills. Some of you might remember me writing about this four years ago.

During the last two decades businesses throughout the United States have been increasingly adapting to the reality of a global economy. Being prepared for this changing market environment means not only being able to speak other languages, but also knowing how to work comfortably in other cultures. There’s one problem though: Not all U.S. school systems kept up with the changing demands, as you’ll see on the research-based website called Mapping The Nation. Today, to find out…

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Jury Summons and Obamacare–things you don’t think about when moving abroad

I got an email today from my mom who said that I received a jury summons in the mail.  I suppose most people would be glad that they had the excuse of being abroad to avoid jury duty, but I was rather regretful.  I’ve always wanted to serve on a jury since I worked as a Legal Assistant at a Chicago law firm and I assisted with mock jury exercises.  But well, they wanted me on November 19th, and I most certainly don’t plan to be in the US at that time, so I won’t get that opportunity.  This is something I never thought about when moving abroad.  When you move abroad, I recommend keeping some sort of address in the US even if you don’t really plan to return there–a parent’s address or a close friend.  Someone you can be sure will stay at that address and is willing to receive your mail and communicate with you when something important comes that needs your attention.  You can therefore receive mail there that can’t be sent overseas.  But of course doing so means that local officials will think you actually live there, especially if you use this address to register to vote.  Most states use voter registration rolls as their “database” from which to draw jurors.  I thought getting out of jury duty might turn into a big deal and with unreliable internet here in Spain, I was initially nervous that a simple email to the county wouldn’t suffice.  There are rather strict rules for getting out of jury duty, and if you’re not in town when you are summoned you have to postpone your summons and serve when you get back, unless you can prove you will be a non-resident for the foreseeable future.  I suppose not all counties will react the same way, but in the end an email was enough for my county where I am registered.  They didn’t even ask for proof of living abroad.  If you get a jury summons while living abroad, I suggest you immediately consult the website of your state’s secretary of state or judicial branch and see if you can find information about how to officially remove yourself from the obligation to serve.  It is here you can also find the names, phone numbers, and email addresses for the people you should contact in order to get out of jury duty.

 

On another note, when you live abroad you may realize somewhat quickly, particularly if you’re political junkie like myself, that many new laws and legislation rarely take Americans living overseas into account.  The best and most recent example of this is Obamacare.  I’m in favor of health care reform (not exactly the way Obamacare does it, but that is for another post), and were I in the US I would probably be one of those that would immediately benefit from the program.  But I am here in Europe where I have insurance that covers me throughout the EU.  I don’t need American insurance, Obamacare or otherwise.  But as far as I can tell, there is no exception for Americans living abroad with locally provided insurance from the individual mandate.  I’ve read parts of the law, submitted requests to my Senator and representative to look into this issue, searched the web, and I even heard someone ask the same question on one of my many podcasts I listen to (have I mentioned how great podcasts are for keeping in touch with whats going on back homeas well as where you liveas well as to help learn a foreign language?).  The caller asked an expert on Obamacare and health delivery systems in America more generally, and he didn’t know.  So I can only assume that this is not covered in the law, and therefore Americans living abroad who also file taxes with the American government will probably have to pay the penalty for not buying insurance.  This is a real problem, because unlike most people in the world, Americans are required to pay taxes to the US as well as to the country in which they work.  This is yet another tax that (in my view) unfairly punishes people living overseas.  However, if you’re a student abroad and therefore not working, you may not need to file taxes as your income may be too low.  If that is the case, you won’t be subjected to the Obamacare tax.  (For more on the individual mandate and the various exemptions from it, see the FAQs here). 

Fortunately, there are a few organizations that specifically represent Americans living overseas and their interests, and it appears that the Association for Americans Resident Overseas is taking this issue seriously and is actively lobbying to get an exemption placed into the Affordable Care Act for Americans abroad.  I’ve also attended events by Democrats Abroad, during both elections I’ve been abroad for, and the Overseas Vote Foundation is a great resource to help you vote from abroad.  Many of these organizations provide local meetups and other events so this is also another great way to meet other Americans in your area (if you’re so inclined).  It is also a great way to stay connected with the US and the issues that are of most important to you as an American living abroad.

The lesson is that things come up while abroad.  Laws change that may directly affect you, and no matter how much you planned before leaving duties will call in the US that will need to be dealt with.   Usually these things can be easily taken care of from abroad but there might be things like Obamacare that may seriously impact your finances.  The best advice I can give for these situations is to stay connected with organizations working on your behalf and well…roll with the punches.  The penalty for being uninsured under Obamacare will only be $45 the first year, but it is going to increase the more time you spend “uninsured.”  Hopefully before that happens an exception will be written into the law. 

Use this website for finding out who your representative in Congress and your Senators are, and how to get in touch with them.

My book and its themes are gaining popularity!

My book and its themes are gaining popularity!

A quick post to circulate that another study abroad organization as reviewed my book, College Abroad, my guide on how to go overseas for your education.  The nice people at Milibee Global, who are behind the Better Abroad project, gave my book quite a nice review on their website.  I’m glad they highlighted the part of my book where I talk about some of the personal challenges when choosing to live in a foreign country for a long period of time, such as gender, race, and sexual orientation.  I personally thought this was the strongest part of the book and the part that I spent the most time researching.  They also highlighted some weak points of the book, a weak point that I tend to agree with: the lack of personal stories or quotes from other students other than myself.  Well I did conduct some interviews with other Americans who chose to do college abroad but unfortunately in the final edits a lot of those stories and quotes didn’t make into the book.  Maybe something to include in the second edition?!?  Or perhaps I’ll consider including an interview or Q&A with some of the people I interviewed on this site. 

At the same time, the website loans.org did a story on the fact that international students as a rule are not charged tuition to study in Norway.  The author advertises this fact as if it were a new “program” aimed at getting more international students, when in fact, as far as I know, Norway has had its tuition-free doors open to international students for a long time.  This isn’t a “program;” it is just the way it is.  And of course, as readers of this blog know, and readers of my book know, this is the way it is in many European countries.  In fact, I talk in much detail about Norway as a potential destination for the would-be American international student than the article offers.  It is tuition-free, the quality of life in Norway is extremely high, the quality of education is also excellent, and many of the programs in Norway are taught in English.  And linking back to the personal aspects of college abroad that Melibee talked about in their review of my book, Norway is certainly extremely tolerant so there would few concerns for women or LGBT living there.  The author features me, my book, and a few quotes of mine about my experience studying in Germany.  I appreciate loans.org reaching out to me to ask for more details about college abroad!

But here’s the rub: while tuition in Norway is certainly free for international students, Norway is one of the most expensive countries in Europe in terms of cost of living.  The article doesn’t mention this (I seem to remember paying something in the neighborhood of $15 for one beer).  I’m not trying to discourage Americans from considering Norway as a viable college abroad option…in fact Norway is one my most favorite European countries and I would love the opportunity to spend more time there!  But even though Norway and other cities in Europe are very expensive (Barcelona comes to mind after I spent the day taking advantage of a 48 hour period of free admission to some of the city’s sites since I normally cannot afford the entrance fees to these places), there are ways to live cheaply if you’re willing to be flexible, like waiting in long lines during free admission times.  I talk about how to live cheaply even in an expensive city in the book.  Of course, you could also choose to study in a cheap city, like Budapest, Berlin, or Bremen, just to name a few from my own experience.  If you can find a country that doesn’t charge tuition and whose cost of living is still under control, you can really save.

All Things that Go Around, Come Around

The first time I came to Europe, I was on tour with my college’s choir to Spain.  It is tradition for the Knox College choir to go to Spain once every four years and put on performances all over the Catalonia region.  At that time, I truly thought I may never come back to Barcelona, to Spain or maybe I would never see the European continent again.  I feel very lucky that almost exactly 10 years later, I now call Barcelona home (temporarily).
My attitude back then reflects a more general American attitude towards travel:  it is difficult, it is expensive, it takes too much time, and once you do it, it is a once-in-a-lifetime thing.  But travel and expat life are only these things because we say they are, not because they MUST be that way.  If I could tell my 2003-self in Barcelona that by 2013, I will have studied and lived in Germany, Israel and Hungary and traveled all over Europe, I probably would have either laughed or asked my future self how I came into so much money.  Travel doesn’t have to be nearly as expensive as most Americans assume, especially if you’re willing to give up on some luxuries.  (This post on traveling for 12 consecutive years puts this into perspective).  And living abroad is probably less expensive than living in the US, especially if you’re not paying taxes and if you don’t have a car.  Truth be told, all it takes is the will.  I found the will in 2007 to go abroad and I haven’t looked back.

At the same time, however, I’ve become a bit spoiled.  When I first moved abroad, after doing lots of research, I was prepared to live cheaply and to sacrifice some of the things I had taken for granted in the US.  I was armed with my backpacker’s pack and came with the attitude that I really need is a roof over my head and an internet connection.  Over time, I moved to Berlin and my choice of apartments got more and more expensive and with more and more perks.  I got spoiled with the low Berlin rent and the luxuries I could afford with my rather generous PhD fellowship and the low cost of living.

Moving to Spain has reminded me what it is like to be that “fresh off the boat” international student with little to no money, and having to sacrifice a bit on the creature comforts.  My apartment in Barcelona is a mere 25 square meters (270 square feet).  It has no stove, which I’ve come to realize is rather common in Spain.  There is one pot and one pan provided in the kitchen.  The hot water runs out after 10 minutes in the shower.  It is located in a popular party district which means I can hear just about every motorcycle and passerby that travels down the narrow street.  There is an internet connection but it has only really worked one day out of the two weeks I’ve been here, and my Spanish is not good enough to ask the maintenance man of the building if he can fix the WiFi repeater.  These are all somewhat reminiscent of my first days in Germany, trying to find a hotel where I was supposed to meet with fellow students with my backpack and heavy suitcase and doing my best to piece together a sentence in German from my college courses several years previously.  Waiting for weeks for someone to install internet and not understanding the bureaucracy involved.  Coming home to a very minimalist apartment and bribing one of the few locals with a car to take me to Ikea.  Constantly feeling a little silly and stupid and even infantile because of the inability to communicate and not understanding basic daily routines.  Yesterday I wondered around a very open public square for an embarrassing amount of time, my hands full of bags of trash and recycling, first trying to locate the public trash bins and second to try and distinguish based on my poor Spanish and non-existent Catalan what bin was for what.

This is what it is like the first few days and even weeks of studying abroad.  The learning curve for the most basic routines is steep.  The waiting time for things you normally take for granted is long.  The creature comforts at first are few and far between.  Doubt creeps in and you ask yourself, “why the heck am I here again?”

ImageThe answer to that question is not always immediately clear.  All I know is that I remember standing on the main platform of Park Guell in 2003 looking out over the amazing and completely strange architecture of Gaudi as it faded into the waters of the Mediterranean and thinking I may never see this sight again.  Returning to that spot again after so many years and with such a different perspective on myself and my life has been certainly worth the small apartments, the lack of kitchen stoves, and the strange looks from locals as I try to figure out how to recycle plastic bottles.

The surprising lessons you learn when living abroad: Becoming a decent cook

Yeah, that wasn't me.

I was never the kid who stood next to her mom and watched intensely as she threw together ingredients in preparation for dinner.  I would occasionally help my mom and dad with minor meal prep, but it was always a chore rather than something of interest.  As a child, I wasn’t really interested in how food got to the table as long as it did.  My mother wasn’t one of those moms who lived in the kitchen, but she cooked dinner pretty consistently and would also bake special treats regularly.  Food seemed to just appear on the table magically, and I had at least one childhood friend who always insisted we play at MY house because she knew there would be cookies or twinkies there.  I had some sense that my mother as well as others were behind this endless food parade, but I never imagined myself as someone who would ever enjoy cooking.

When I went to college the endless food parade become even more convenient..  If I wanted, I could simply walk across campus at nearly any time of day or night and have a large selection of food to choose from.  (Shout out to the Gizmo!)  I didn’t even really have to pay for it, because it was all somehow being paid for by student loans (I guess I’m actually paying for those meals NOW).  It was all so fantastically easy: walk in to the cafeteria, scan a meal card, eat, drop dirty dishes on a conveyer belt.  The most difficult part about the whole thing was whether to have pudding or cookies for dessert.  Sure, there were kitchens in all four buildings where I lived, but even if I had wanted to pursue dreams of culinary mediocrity, the kitchens weren’t well equipped (or were littered with empty dixie cups with leftover vodka-infused jello clinging to the insides), and I didn’t have a car which would have been necessary in Galesburg to get groceries.

Then I graduated and moved to Chicago, and the endless food parade became less convenient.  I would come home at night and open the fridge and stare into the arctic tundra that was my refridgerator, save for a carton of yogurt and days-old slices of pizza. It was relatively easy, especially in a city like Chicago, to activate the food parade by calling for pizza, Thai or Chinese delivery.  But I would have a small pang in my stomach every time I’d make that call, which was a combination of my body telling me to stop ingesting this calorie-laden grease pool as well as the regret of having to pull out a wad of dollar bills to actually PAY for this health hazard.  One of my most vivid memories in the first year of living in Chicago was coming home one night and finding a HUGE vat of spaghetti in the fridge.  It was my roommates–he had family living in the suburbs of Chicago so his mom was constantly bringing him leftovers.  Thinking there was no way this amount of noodles swimming in the red sea would ever be consumed before it turned into a science experiment, I asked my roommate if I could have a small plate.  He was reluctant, explaining that it was supposed to be lunch for work the next day, and it became immediately clear that I wasn’t the only one unable to cope well with the end of the food parade.

When I moved from that first flat, I moved into a place with a dishwasher, which made trying to cook a little more tempting.  There was a grocery store next door to my building.  I began experimenting with some very basic recipes.  And I discovered that although cooking isn’t my passion, it wasn’t as much of a chore as I had thought in my childhood.  What I liked most about it was taking responsibility for what I eat and how I eat it, rather than putting such important decisions in the hands of others.  There was a sense of independence and power associated with this.  If I wanted, I didn’t need to rely on the fast food chain down the street to get me through the day.

I feel as though this led me to the decision to become a vegetarian, to be more in control of what I put in my body, where it comes from, and the effects of those decisions.  (Perhaps I’ll discuss more on my decision to be vegetarian in a later post).  This ultimately meant cooking for myself on a more regular basis.

Tomato and Penne Salad was my first favorite veggie-friendly recipe

But it remained a chore, and I found myself casually inviting myself to friends houses for dinner in order to avoid my own kitchen.

Then I moved to Germany.  The move was in no way inspired by German cuisine, since I’m still rather underwhelmed by Currywurst and grüne Soße.

Currywurst

Grüne Soße

There was no reason why living in Germany was going to increase my culinary skills.  I didn’t live on campus, so I couldn’t go to the cafeteria for every meal.  I had a relatively well-equipped kitchen, but no dishwasher and no microwave (yes, I regularly cook and reheat food without a microwave), and the nearest grocery store was a long walk away (no car in Germany!).  Furthermore, the grocery stores in Bremen weren’t anything like the massive warehouse of a supermarket I was used to in Chicago.  I no longer had any income, I was living off of my savings, and I was forced to find cheaper ways to feed myself.  I had to make do with just a few pots and pans, find substitutes for familiar American ingredients that weren’t available in Germany, and constantly convert my recipes from American measurements to metric measurements (is that an American cup? An Imperial pint? Why is this liquid measured in milliliters and that liquid in grams?  How hot is 325F in Celsius again? Is gas mark 6 about right?).  I found myself craving a hamburger and needing to find a way to make a veggie burger with the ingredients at my local market (no ready-made veggie patties here, I was forced to make my own).  To be sure, there were days when a frozen pizza was thrown into the oven,

An "American" style pizza in Europe...

but I also found myself wanting to host the international students who couldn’t go home for Christmas and cook them a dinner worthy of the holiday.  (I made vegetarian eggplant gratin).  Seeing even omnivores enjoy my meals, improvised as they were, gave me a sense of satisfaction I hadn’t really felt before.

Had I stayed in Chicago, I’m not sure I would have ever really gotten out of the rut of ordering delivery more often than cooking myself.  Working 40, 60, 80 hours a week doesn’t really allow for that freedom.  But living in Germany has given me the flexible schedule I needed to discover that I actually really enjoy cooking.  But not only has living in Germany given me flexibility, it has forced me to really consider how flavors work together because more often than not I’m not able to find the exact ingredients I need to follow a recipe, or I simply don’t want to spend €4 on a bottle of white rice wine that I may never use again.  And because I’ve never lived in an apartment with a kitchen containing proper measuring devices, not only have I had to convert American measurements into metric measurements, I’ve had to estimate those amounts, a skill that I’m constantly honing.  This has certainly produced some recipes that fell short of culinary greatness, but all this experimenting, improvising, and substituting has really taught me that cooking isn’t just about following  a recipe, it is more a journey you take with the resources you have on hand.  Cooking is about providing for yourself and the people around you, and truly taking responsibility for how your food choices effects the world around you.  It is about combining fun, experimentation, health and satisfaction (not to mention cost effectiveness) all in one shot.

I’m now beginning to experiment more and more with baking, particularly vegan recipes.

Vegan Carrot Zucchini Cake. Made with no measuring cups.

I’ve quickly discovered that baking is a whole different ball game than cooking- the measurements and the temperatures are much more important and need to be treated with exactitude.  With no measurement cups, I’ve needed to rely on good old-fashioned eye-balling, and thinking through a recipe to try to determine how the ingredients are supposed to balance and work together.  Having a gas oven definitely makes finding the right temperature problematic, and therefore I’ve resorted to using my instincts and babysitting my cupcakes as they rise (no muffin tin!).  For some reason, Europeans don’t seem to use baking power or soda in their recipes, because it is very difficult to find these ingredients, and when you do, you have buy small, individually wrapped teaspoon-sized packages.  Taking out the milk, eggs and cheese from most recipes further complicates the process.  But this has resulted in some very rewarding treats, the likes of which I’m certain, even with all the eggs, measuring cups, precise recipes and electric ovens, I would not have even attempted were I still in Chicago.  I’m certainly not on the path towards Top Chef, but my food tastes good to me, tastes good to others, is healthy, ethical, and satisfying not only for the stomach but also the mind.  Life abroad is full of surprises.

Vegan Thai Curry Soup. Ready in 30 minutes or less.

Some ramblings about loneliness…

It is 2 am on a Saturday night and I’m by myself in my new apartment in Berlin with a rather large open bottle of wine, and it seems as good a time as any to contemplate loneliness.   Loneliness is surely one of the most pronounced emotions one feels when living abroad.  But while loneliness is often painted as the ultimate negative condition, there is something to be gained from simply “being.”

I’m struck by the fact that nearly all of society’s patterns, traditions, and standards are meant to “fix” loneliness.  I’m also struck by the fact that many of these “solutions” may inadvertently produce more loneliness. I’m struck that our lives are a constant negotiation between ourselves and the people around us.  I’m wondering if most of what we do is meant to connect- in any way possible- to another human being.  Our loneliness is what drives us, and it is loneliness that kills us.  Loneliness is both fantastically liberating and yet makes us devastatingly dependent.  Our need to be touched by others, to be heard by others-despite the consequences, is what is REALLY at the root of human nature.  Perhaps this is why I find myself moved to the point of tears on the subway whenever I think of this poem by David Rakoff:

The scorpion was hamstrung, his tail all aquiver;

just how would he manage to get across the river?

“The water’s so deep,” he observed with a sigh,

which pricked at the ears of the tortoise nearby.

“Well why don’t you swim?” asked the slow-moving fellow,

“unless you’re afraid. I mean, what are you, yellow?”

“It isn’t a matter of fear or of whim,”

said the scorpion,

“but that i don’t know how to swim.”

“Ah, forgive me. I didn’t mean to be glib when

I said that. I figured you were an amphibian.”

“No offense taken,” the scorpion replied,

“but how about you help me to reach the far side?

You swim like a dream, and you have what I lack.

Let’s say you take me across on your back?”

“I’m really not sure that’s the best thing to do,”

said the tortoise, “now that I see that it’s you.

You’ve a less than ideal reputation preceding:

there’s talk of your victims all poisoned and bleeding.

You’re the scorpion — and how can I say this — but, well,

I just don’t feel safe with you riding my shell.”

The scorpion replied, “What would killing you prove?

We’d both drown, so tell me: how would that behoove

me to basically die at my very own hand

when all I desire is to be on dry land?”

The tortoise considered the scorpion’s defense.

When he gave it some thought, it made perfect sense.

The niggling voice in his mind he ignored,

and he swam to the bank and called out: “Climb aboard!”

But just a few moments from when they set sail,

the scorpion lashed out with his venomous tail.

The tortoise too late understood that he’d blundered

when he felt his flesh stabbed and his carapace sundered.

As he fought for his life, he said, “tell me why

you have done this! For now we will surely both die!”

“I don’t know!” cried the scorpion. “You never should trust

a creature like me because poison I must!

I’d claim some remorse or at least some compunction,

but I just can’t help it; my form is my function.

You thought I’d behave like my cousin, the crab,

but unlike him, it is but my nature to stab.”

The tortoise expired with one final quiver.

And then both of them sank, swallowed up by the river.

The tortoise was wrong to ignore all his doubts —

because in the end, friends, our natures wins out.

So: what can we learn from their watery ends?

Is there some lesson on how to be friends?

I think what it means is that central to living

a life that is good is a life that’s forgiving.

We’re creatures of contact, regardless of whether

we kiss or we wound. Still, we must come together.

Though it may spell destruction, we still ask for more —

since it beats staying dry but so lonely on shore.

So we make ourselves open while knowing full well

it’s essentially saying, “please, come pierce my shell.”

Is this all so very cynical?  Perhaps.  But the lesson I draw from this is not only the fact that we always risk getting hurt every time we connect with another human being, but that there is value in being alone.  Not always, of course.  But if you spend your lonely time reflecting about yourself and who you want to be, how you can avoid being the scorpion and rather be the tortoise, than perhaps loneliness, in spades, isn’t such a bad thing after all.  When you’re living abroad you will inevitably feel lonely.  Rather than trying to remedy this by seeking out people, try to revel in it.  It will go away eventually.