Working for Uncle Sam overseas
This guest post from Mike is part of the “reader stories” feature at Get Rich Slowly. Some stories contain general advice; others are examples of how a GRS reader achieved financial success — or failure. These stories feature folks from all levels of financial maturity and with all sorts of incomes.
Traveling to exotic new places is a passion of mine. My wife reminisces fondly over a dinner conversation we had about nine years ago while we were still dating. I emphatically told her, “I am going to show you the world.” Sure, she probably took it as a pick-up line, but little did we know that those words would become prophetic for us.
At the time, I was a federal employee living in San Diego, California, working within the Department of Defense as a civil servant (non-military) employee. Over the next four years, we wed and my wife gave birth to our first child. Prior to marriage, we made the decision that having my wife stay at home with the kids was important to us. Anyone who has spent some time and money in San Diego knows that the city's cost of living makes choosing to be a single-income family difficult. As our family grew and our costs increased, we decided to consider looking for a more affordable place to live.
The Job Search
The U.S. Government's official website for job opportunities and information is www.USAJobs.gov. Most federal employees, including myself, maintain current resumes on that site in case a better opportunity comes along. Although I enjoyed federal employment, at the time I didn't want to limit my job search to federal jobs. I also looked into some of the non-government job search sites on the web.
Shortly thereafter, the resume that I'd posted on www.Monster.com was pulled by a company in North Carolina, who flew me cross-country for an interview. I flew over on a Sunday night to interview first thing on Monday morning. Although the interview went well, we couldn't agree on a salary, so I thanked them for the interview and flew home that night. When I returned to my office on Tuesday morning, I found an email in my inbox that changed my life.
Honey, How Do You Feel About Japan?
“Dear Applicant, your resume is under consideration for a vacancy with the U.S. Navy in Yokosuka, Japan”, the email began. After reading through the entire email and recognizing that the job description matched well with my career goals and past experience, I called my wife for her thoughts. “Honey, how do you feel about living in Japan?”, I asked.
She told me that she wouldn't consider it until I was offered the job. Within a matter of weeks, I interviewed for the position and received an offer, which I discussed with my wife and then accepted.
Federal Overseas Employee Benefits
Many folks are already aware of the benefits of full-time federal employment:
- flexible work schedules
- health insurance
- life insurance
- retirement planning and matching contributions through the federal 401k-like Thrift Savings Plan
- generous leave accrual policies
- and so on
But overseas, the benefits are greater. I didn't know it at the time, but by accepting the job offer, I was embarking on a wonderful personal finance journey, which included Living Quarters Allowance (LQA), Post Allowance, Home Leave, access to worldwide military Commissaries (grocery stores) and Base Exchanges (shopping centers), and one roundtrip Space A flight per year.
For those GRS readers that don't have previous military or federal civilian backgrounds, here's a brief explanation:
- LQA — Uncle Sam paid for my housing, gas/electric, water, and other utility bills associated with my living quarters off base in Japan. This money was provided as a tax-free allowance, with a value representing roughly 35% of my gross salary.
- Post Allowance — Uncle Sam provided an allowance to compensate for the difference in cost of living between the Washington, DC metropolitan area and the host nation locality cost, which amounted to a few hundred extra tax-free dollars per month.
- Home Leave — I earned an extra week per year of vacation time, in addition to my already generous vacation benefits. This benefit is provided in acknowledgement that home is more difficult to get to from overseas.
- Commissary and Base Exchange Privileges — Generally, military bases have grocery stores and shopping areas to meet the needs of the active duty personnel stationed to the base. We had use of these facilities, where purchases could be made without considering the typical sales tax many of us are familiar with in the USA.
- Space A Flights — “Space Available” flights are available from nearby Air Force bases. If your schedule is flexible, it is a terrific way to fly for really cheap back to the States.
And though I didn't mention it before, we also had access to the Department of Defense schools, medical and dental clinics, and free gym access on base.
Our Overseas Experience
We absolutely enjoyed our four years in Japan. It was a rewarding professional experience for me, and an enjoyable personal experience for the entire family. From central Japan, we were easily able to visit other parts of Asia, including South Korea, Thailand, Singapore — and, of course, much of Japan as well. We also took trips back home from time to time to see family, and enjoyed a couple of vacations in Hawaii.
Despite all the traveling, we were also able to save money more rapidly than at any other point in our lives. Without having the burden of a rent/mortgage payment and large utility bills to hammer our budget each month, our percentage of monthly income that went to pay for Needs plummeted. We were able to afford many more of our Wants and still save for both short and long term goals without hesitation.
We're often asked whether we'd consider moving back overseas again. We most definitely would if the right opportunity came along. In fact, at the time I'm writing this, I'm waiting to hear back regarding an interview I recently had for a position in Europe. My wife and I are both giddy about the opportunity!
How About You?
This opportunity may be a challenge for some people. First, there are federal employment limitations for folks who are not U.S. citizens — though it is possible. Second, some people won't necessarily feel the same way about international travel that my family does. If this story doesn't appeal to you, I hope you've stopped reading long before now!
But for those of you that wonder if it could work for you, there's a strong likelihood that it could. I've been told that the US Government is the largest employer in the world and that over 88,000 of those jobs are located outside of the United States, in over 140 countries worldwide. Available jobs include technical, administrative, educational, white-collared, gray-collared, blue-collared…you name it.
If you're interested, I suggest logging on to www.USAJobs.gov to explore the career opportunities available to you. There, you can create and post a resume, search positions currently available, and track the status of your job inquiries. You can also limit your search to certain geographical areas within or outside of the United States and to certain salary levels.
Who knows — maybe one day you'll find yourself traveling the world, courtesy of Uncle Sam.