Being able to work while overseas is important for trailing spouses. Whether we need the money or not, earning an income signifies our independence, self-reliance, and contribution to our family and society. We need to show the world and ourselves that we matter, even though at this moment we choose to put our spouse’s international career as the top priority.
This insecurity makes many among us resent the label of “trailing spouse.” Personally, I feel strongly about being able to face the prejudice head on. Yes, we are literally trailing our spouses, because when we were forced to choose, we decided to go where our spouses were heading. As long as our spouse’s career continues to take priority, we will go wherever our other halves are sent. In that sense I think the term is accurate, but it does not define my value. I will continue to go with my spouse and work on what I believe is my purpose in this world, and they are not incompatible.
Make no mistake, sustaining and especially growing our income potential while trailing around the world is challenging. Most of us have been frustrated at the lack of direction, resources and support at one time or the other. When I started this journey, I knew many have built a successful career while being a trailing spouse, but at times it seemed they are just lucky and there are no proven ways to work myself into their league.
This is exactly the reason why I am starting this series called “Real Income Report for Trailing Spouses”. I think it’s time we have a dedicated space to share how we made it and how we failed, so our experiences can become collective wisdom for those who are new to this lifestyle and encouragement for all who are still working at it.
More importantly, income is the long neglected area of financial planning that deserves our focus. When we think about managing our finances, we almost exclusively focus on how to make the most of what we’ve earned. We budget, find deals, learn about investments, prevent catastrophe, and utilize debt. In other words, we are fixated on minimizing current expenses and growing our savings for future expenses. We rarely put the same energy into the other side of the equation – growing and protecting our current income.
Before we dig into all the possible ways of rebooting our earning potential, hopefully with input contributed by you, I’d like to share some high level income strategies for trailing spouses that are relevant to any career path. Specifically, here are four areas you should be thinking about when you design your income plan:
#1: Diversify your income
More than just increasing your income, globally mobile families need to be aware of the risk of relying on one income, no matter how stable it is. It’s the equivalent of putting all your family’s financial wellbeing in one basket. If that one source dries up, maybe due to an employer’s cutback or your spouse becoming unable to work, your family would scramble to get back on your footing.
Your household income, just like your investments, requires some diversification. While staying in the US allows you to at least diversify to two salaries if you so choose, hopefully in different industries, your financial wealth may still be highly influenced by the local economy. Living overseas actually gives you a great opportunity to think outside of the box and venture into different geography, mediums, and markets. Yes, one spouse’s income may not be as secure in the short-term, but you are building an income profile that is not dependent on any one employer or location.
Regardless of whether you are meeting your full earning potential, working towards a career or a combination of income sources where you can utilize your skills and pursue your interests is one of the best decisions you can make for your family’s financial future.
#2: Treat trailing as an opportunity
While I had to cut my previous career short when I joined my husband overseas, it was a conscious decision. I had been working professionally for five years at that point, but I was still searching for a purpose. I felt that I hadn’t found what I’m supposed to do with my life.
Trailing became my opportunity to regroup and really seek what I want. Of course I had my panic moments about two months in with no real direction. I applied for potential jobs like many, but luckily nothing came about. If any had, I would not have gone down the road of financial planning and building my own practice.
I will be forever thankful that my husband gave me the opportunity to trail for a bit and figure out what I want to do with my life and career without pressure. I never felt that I gave up my earning potential. Instead I believed that it’s an opportunity to refocus my income on a fulfilling career path, not just a paycheck.
No matter what your situation is, I want to encourage you to see your trailing status as a positive for your long-term trajectory. You are given a chance to explore new opportunities and be creative. Embrace the possibilities! It’s not to say that you won’t face setbacks as you go down various paths, but I can say for sure that you will find the trails, and even failures, rewarding. Just remember that your income is not your worth. Your effort is.
#3: Build your brand
Almost all income sources come from selling yourself. In order to do so, you need to have a clear definition of your value and be able to communicate it. It’s about who you are, why you are doing this, and how you can benefit your potential employer and customers. In other words, you need to build a brand for YOURSELF.
Without access to a traditional employment market, it’s all the more important that we learn how to go on the offense and put ourselves out there. But before we can do that confidently and fruitfully, what is very important is knowing ourselves really well and distinguishing ourselves from others. As I mentioned, the trailing status doesn’t define our value, but it can actually differentiate us. We are now location-independent experts of global living and cultural exchange. How can you not make that a positive on your resume or for your marketing effort?
In addition to our commonality as trailing spouses, we are also individually unique. We all have different skills, knowledge, experience, expertise, interests, and goals. How can we make this clear to people we want to work with and bring value to places that need what we have to offer?
Sometimes it has to be one step beyond what you are comfortable with. When I was looking around for local employment opportunities in a previous post, I introduced myself as an advisor from the US. I didn’t mention that I had just received my license and would pretty much work on anything that would get my foot in the door. It got people interested in me and they also treated me as peer. As a result, I was given an opportunity to work locally while building my business. Now I can further brand myself as a US advisor with experience in other countries that actually have the expertise to solve your problems.
What this isn’t is keeping the net wide, and just hoping something will fall in your lap. Nothing will if you don’t drop your net at a specific place at one point of time. You don’t want to keep an attitude of “I will do anything.” It’s okay in the short-term to take any work if you need the income – I definitely don’t think any job is below me if I need the money. However, in the process of earning you still need to look for the opportunity to further focus yourself for a niche so you can’t be replaced.
Branding is a continuous process. As we keep honing in on our value through taking on different opportunities, we will get to know ourselves better and differentiate ourselves better. Even if you feel like you failed at an assignment, it just gives you better understanding of the path to take and how to improve yourself.
#4: Build a network
Our trailing lifestyle gives us a unique opportunity to build an in-person network overseas. Taking my example in point #3, I could have focused on building a remote business since I didn’t really need the short-term income; however I choose to work locally part-time so I can learn more about how people do things differently in another country, and build a local network for the future. The income may not be for long, but the people I connected with and relationships developed through this experience will be valuable for the rest of my life.
Moreover, as the internet becomes a commodity, we are better able to build a global network of people even if we are located far away from all the action. There is no excuse to be disconnected and feel like we are all alone. This is exactly the reason why I am starting this series.
It’s not to say that you are only networking so you can build a career and income stream. However, building your own network is essential for whatever income plan you have, whether it’s looking for jobs, customers, buyers, or collaborators. Although we are working for our dream life, I truly believe we exist in this world for other people, not for ourselves.
In the coming weeks and months, I hope to gather many of your experiences and insights on how to build the income while moving around overseas. They will fall into the following categories of income sources:
- Start a business
- Teleworking for an employer (independent of spouse’s employment)
- Contract / Freelance work
- Internet-based income stream
- Actively managing investments (such as rental properties)
- Work in country (independent of spouse’s employment)
To encourage diversifying your household income, I want to stress the categories that are not dependent on the spouse’s employment. For example, even if you find positions in the local economy wherever you go, your ability to work locally may be dependent on your spouse’s visa, unless you can independently apply for a separate work visa in a timely manner. This may be a valid option, but it comes with its own risk and cost.
You can bring income from several sources, within one career path or not. It’s totally valid to work a traditional job and add creative internet-based income stream or investments. Only you know what is the best combination for you and your family. I personally only have experience with three out of the six categories, so I look forward to your contributions!
If you wish to contribute, please fill out this contact form, and let me know whether you wish to be attributed or stay anonymous. I am also happy to link back to your website or blog post if you have already written about similar topics. I will create one post per category to house all the contributions.
It will help if you can focus your contribution on the four areas I’ve shared. You can share in one or all areas, what worked and didn’t work.
- How do you diversify your household income?
- How did you make trailing a positive and an opportunity?
- How did you build your brand? (What worked and what didn’t work?)
- How did you build your network? (What worked and what didn’t work?)
I am excited to see what we can come up with together!