Category Archives: Expat

Ganesh immersion in Chennai

Today was the culmination of Ganesh Chaturthi (I believe yesterday was the end of the Muslim celebration of Bakra Eid and tomorrow is the height of Kerala’s Thiru Onam — India has no shortage of festivals) and that meant immersion of the Ganesh figures in the ocean.  Jacob and I didn’t spend much time there but I captured this…


 

Cost of living comparison for Chennai

I ran to the close and convenient store to pick some things up tonight.  Many of their items are imported though there are plenty of local items.  We like that it is close, never too busy, they let us charge all month and then just pay after payday, and most of the staff say hello to us.  They even do free home delivery.  We know that shopping there is probably resulting in slightly higher grocery bills than if we were a bit more frugal.  I wondered how their prices compared to similar items in the US and was able to price check against the Wegmans in Fairport, NY.

Note that the Wegmans prices do not include any applicable taxes, while the 5 Stars does.  I did not expect so many things to be less expensive than they would be while not on sale in a big American grocery store.

Doorsteps decorated for Pongal

This is a long weekend because of the Tamil festival of Pongal — the winter harvest festival.  Friday morning (Boghi) people burned their old and unwanted items which creates quite a heavy amount of smoke throughout the area.  On our drive in to the school we could see the smoldering remains of the fires people lit early in the morning.

Considering that the air in Chennai is generally very good we’re fine with dealing with a half day of bad air pollution.

Here is a video of part of our drive in that morning while an appropriate song played on our stereo.

On Saturday people decorated their doorsteps with elaborate kolams to celebrate Pongal.  These were a few from my neighborhood.

Yesterday was one of those “best days”

School starts back up tomorrow after our three week winter break.  So on Saturday I set out to try and have a really great day knowing Sunday would have a lot of things going on that I had to do instead of wanted to do.  Sunday wasn’t all bad though…

Saturday

  1.  Slept in
  2. Watered my plants and did some repotting and pruning
  3. Went on a walk and did some beach combing and came back with two handfulls of treasures
  4. Ate pancakes, sausages and muffins that Pepper cooked.
  5. Got cash!  (See: India demonetization.)
  6. Picked up totes (actually Indian milk crates) to use to sort Lego.  (For a future project.)  Spent more than an hour with the boys scrubbing them clean.  Then went about filling them with Lego.
  7. Worked on a video from our summer travels.
  8. Went to a friend’s for dinner and drinks and to catch up on their travel during the break.

Sunday

  1. Woke earlier
  2. Went on a walk and beach combed again.  Saw one dead sea turtle.  This time brought home two small grocery bags of treasures including a dolphin skull.  Yes, a dolphin skull.  (Perhaps a porpoise?)  I’m sure that it will excite our biology teacher as much as it did me!
  3. Cooked potatoes, bacon and eggs for brunch.
  4. The family got haircuts.
  5. Went to Amadora for ice cream.
  6. Wrote up a project on Instructables and entered it in an appropriate contest.

BOOM! I made Silver membership on Jet Airways.

That was pretty fast.  In October, after realizing that I was flying Jet airways quite a bit with vacations, coaching traveling sports teams, and the occasional work trip I joined Jet Airways incentive program.

It’s free to join mileage programs and a smart move when an expat in an area that you’re likely to be for a bit.  Unfortunately the airline that is connected with Star Alliance and flies out of Chennai is the worst — poor record for on-time flights, lots of cancellations, friends that have flown have experienced cockroaches on-board, lost baggage, etc.  So I have tried my best to stay away from that unnamed airline and stick with Jet Airways.

I have been doing regular reviews of hotels, restaurants and attractions on Trip Advisor like I suggested a while back.  I flew with them to Dhaka, Bangladesh for our fall break.  Then a flight to Bombay for volleyball.  In February I flew with them to Kathmandu, Nepal for soccer.  Then for our spring break it was a flight to Delhi to be tourists.  And last week we flew with Jet to Muscat, Oman.  Five flights and the reviews that I wrote (I’m not sure that they counted toward the attainment) landed me at Silver on their six month quick route.

The Silver status gives me benefits like checking in at dedicated counters, priority standby, 10 kg of extra baggage allowance on flights within India, an extra piece of checked luggage, 15% extra mileage accrual, and an upgrade voucher.

Tax service for expats

For my entire “adult” life I have done my own taxes.  I have dealt with marriages, a divorce, buying and selling homes, sole proprietorship and partnership business taxes, moving expenses, dependents, college expenses, owning rental properties, foreign earned income… I feel like I have become pretty adept at dealing with the IRS codes and figuring things out.  I’m sure I have made mistakes along the way, but all I have ever paid for is the $10-$30 for tax filing software.

This year I used the services of H&R Block.

hrblock1

I used their portal for expats in India to upload my tax documents and pay records and to answer some pretty basic questions about our circumstances.  I had a number of followup emails with the staff member that was working on my account — our situation with Jacob’s adoption is a little tricky since we do not yet have a Social Security Number for him.

taxes2

After everything was uploaded (it was a long wait for my forms from my mortgage) I pretty much just had to wait, answer some questions, and then print, sign and send back to H&R Block the second page of my return.

Was it easier than doing my taxes on my own?  Definitely.

I can make it a little easier on myself in the future by naming our payslips better and storing them in the same place… since they are emailed to us I had to search through plenty of old mail and then download the slips only to then upload them all individually.  Next time I will store them all in a spot and then combine them to make one payslip file for me and one for my wife.  I’ll also keep better track of any expenses for the rentals we have because trying to find them amid our credit card statements is tough.  I might use a feature in Mint to label them all.

I would definitely recommend H&R Block for expat tax services.

Our fruit and vegetable shopping for the week

 

Here is a photo of the two grocery bags of produce that we bought on Sunday.

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From top left, watermelon, pineapple, cucumbers, mint, grapes, cilantro.  Middle starting left, dragon fruit, sweet potatoes, carrots, bananas, strawberries.  Bottom from left, green peppers, apples and oranges, tomatoes, broccoli, potatoes, and little potatoes.

Our total cost for this haul was 872 rupees, or about $14.  The most expensive thing were the apples at about $2.60 for four (162 rupees) because we picked the Washington apples.  The dragon fruit was almost as expensive (by weight) at $1.20 (74 rupees).  The strawberries cost just $1.20 for the package — not too bad.

The least expensive items really make me reconsider any thoughts of gardening here.  That bundle of mint cost almost 7 cents and the two bundles of cilantro came to 20 cents.  The five cucumbers cost nearly 30 cents.

It’s Tuesday night and we’re already out of bananas (that pile cost us 83 cents).  The watermelon turned out to be overripe (what a waste of 90 cents).  The dragon fruit and pineapple ($1) are also gone – devoured in our fruit salads.

It was the ability to fill our refrigerator with produce that helped convince us to choose to live and work in Chennai.  I should have taken a picture of the $14 cut of “beef” that feeds the whole family.  Maybe next time!

“Savings potential” for teaching overseas

I’ve been asked by a couple of people that are looking at working in Mongolia and they have asked about the savings potential.  Savings potential is sometimes listed on school profiles.  Here is our truth about the “savings potential” that might be available in various places while working overseas.

First is the tax burden — or lack thereof.  US citizens must pay income tax even on foreign earned income if they spend more than 30 days in the US that year.  That’s right, just 30 days in the US and suddenly you’ve got to pay federal taxes on that income.  There is another qualifier – the bona fide residency test.  We are exempt from taxation because of that rule.  We have nearly our entire collection of worldly possessions here in India.  We moved here with a two year contract but with an indefinitely time span in mind.  Be very aware of your federal tax status.  Friends of ours that have lived and worked overseas and qualify for the bona fide status but still are careful to not remain in the US for more than 30 days had to get a $10,000 loan from their employer to cover an unexpected tax liability because of collecting on a US based retirement account.  I’m not a tax professional, so please seek a professional for clarification about these issues.

Second is the standard of living you intend to keep.  We had a friend in Mongolia that almost always used the public bus instead of getting a taxi.  She was saving up to ten dollars for every trip to the city she took.  Not that much when you get the comfort of a guaranteed seat, no pickpockets, and other benefits of being in a taxi.  But it adds up.  Just a couple of times a week would have added up to $500 or more in transportation charges.  Her same frugality made her eat out very infrequently.  She doesn’t drink.  She cleaned her own apartment.  Her cost of living must have been very low.   We, on the other hand indulged in our favorite restaurants regularly (they were less than in the US at least) and needed a ride to and from the school each  day because we lived off campus.  We had a woman clean our apartment twice a week for $120 a month.  We didn’t live an extravagant lifestyle, but it was more expensive than our friend.  We have friends here with $1,000 a year memberships at the most exclusive gym/spas and then they spend well over that on meals and massages.  They get a slice of heaven but pay for it.  Other friends have used auto rickshaws for a year and a half for all of their transportation needs, though they finally have decided to purchase a car yet plan to drive it themselves.

Third is travel.  A coworker said to me the other day “that potential savings bit is really bullshit, isn’t it?”  Well, with the travel that he’s done, yes, it’s hard to achieve.  It’s important to realize that teachers working overseas seem to almost all travel for breaks.  A week off for fall break, three weeks off for winter break, a week for spring break… flights, hotels, dining out, tours… that’s not cheap.  We’re on our second winter break of staying home.  It saves us money, we get plenty of rest.  If we were really wise, we’d even stay in India for the summer.  Our school is willing to give money worth the value of our return ticket instead of booking it for us.  If we skipped returning to the US each summer, our family could save $8,000 per year on flights!

So, when looking at the savings potential you have to keep in mind your own choices.  Will you stay overseas to meet tax requirements?  What standard of living do you want?  How frequently will you travel far?  I think that often the advertised potential savings is accurate if you’re on the frugal side of those choices.

A sampling of our medical costs as expats in India

One of the benefits that I documented in my extensive spreadsheet when we were considering moving to India was the price and quality of the medical care.

Last weekend the whole family went to the dentist for our six-month cleaning.  It cost under $25 each for Pepper, Jordan and I, and under $12 for Jacob.  It was under 90 USD for all four of us to have our teeth cleaned.  I’m submitting the receipts to our insurance company right now.   I suspect that in the US we would have paid about $90 for each of us while in the US.

This is significant.  If we can save money from out of pocket for our medical bills — especially now that we have four of us — we’re better off.  Unfortunately, our insurance provider (Global Benefits Group or GBG) denies coverage for pre-existing conditions for one year for adopted children.  That’s been against the law in the US for many years.But in about six months, when Jacob is eligible,  I’m sure we’ll be spending a bit of money on determining if we can do anything to help Jacob with his symptoms from cerebral palsy.

Pepper has had and been ignoring pain in her shoulder and back for many months.  a week and a half ago she finally got in to see a doctor.  Four and a half hours later, with blood work, x-ray and multiple MRIs conducted, she had created a medical bill of just under $500.  In the US, that $500 might pay for half of one of the MRIs she had done.   We submitted the bill for that work to our insurance carrier and they paid all of it.  Every cent.  The prescriptions she purchased cost a total of $12.44.  It really almost isn’t worth the 20 minutes that it takes me to file a claim!

I have been pretty disillusioned with medial insurance for a long time now.  I don’t know how much my employer pays for our insurance, but I suspect that I would rather have that money in my pocket rather than paid to an insurance company even with as much as we seem to be using insurance right now.  I think it is probably better off that I not know how much they pay.  I know that for 12 years while working for the city that I came nowhere near 1/10th of the benefit out of the fees paid by the city for the insurance.  The insurance company was being paid at least two thousand dollars a month for coverage for the three of us.  The policy in Mongolia was so restrictive that nothing we had done in those two years was covered.

Would I rather be uninsured?  Honestly, probably not.  At least, not with the insurance that we have now, it does seem to cover much of the things we need covered.