Today, we're talking with Mark Wallace, a serial entrepreneur and investor who lives an international lifestyle with his wife Danielle. He is an American by birth but, in his own words, “a mutt by ethnicity,” who spends time on at least three continents a year and in more than a few countries-always on the lookout for new social, business and lifestyle opportunities.
International Man: Where are you originally from?
Mark Wallace: I hail from the windy city, Chicago. I was born and raised there and went to university locally as well. However, I lived in Southern California for about 15 years prior to our move out of the States, so I really consider that the “home” that we left.
IM: How old are you? How old were you when you cut anchor?
MW: No one's quite sure. I'm told I am in my early 40's, but I don't believe it. As far as I'm concerned, I'm in my late 20's! We left the States full-time about 2 years ago, so we are relative newbies to the expat scene. We did travel extensively before we made the decision to leave however, which I think is VERY important.
IM: Did you head out alone or with family?
MW: I am married, but we don't have any children and don't plan to.
IM: What made you decide to internationalize yourself personally through expatriation?
MW: We didn't like the way things were heading in the States. We weren't fans of the previous administration and we're definitely not fond of the current one. Like our friend Doug Casey often says about Rome – just when you thought it couldn't get any worse! We don't agree with what our tax dollars are being spent on (I say “don't agree” because we are still tax-paying US citizens, as is our responsibility no matter where we are in the world).
We have not formally expatriated yet through renunciation of citizenship, and we're not sure if we will take that drastic step or not. It's a very personal thing giving up ones citizenship. I am an optimist, so I still believe that sanity may still yet be restored. If it's not, we're very comfortable living as expats forever, and possibly surrendering our passports if it gets bad enough. I can't tell you what the tipping point might be at this point.
I want to emphasize that I think it's important for everyone to have a “plan B.” Even if you think things aren't getting any worse, isn't it prudent to have options for you and your family.
IM: Have you internationalized yourself any other way (i.e. financial diversification, second citizenship, buying property overseas, etc)?
MW: Yes, mostly financially. We're pretty much out of the dollar with our investments. Our business is virtual, our banking is international and we spend time in 2-3 different countries. Currently we rent wherever we go. We believe property is going to get cheaper in the places we enjoy, so we're just keeping our eyes open and waiting for that perfect opportunity.
IM: What do you do for money? Or were you independently wealthy before pulling up stakes?
MW: Independently wealthy; what's that? No, definitely not independently wealthy just yet. I built a few small businesses – nothing very large – and made a few good investments. Now I continue to consult, which is very transportable. I write a couple blogs, my wife writes and I trade our accounts. We live frugally. We don't own a car, we don't own a home and we carry most of our “stuff” with us wherever we go. It's very cathartic when you purge yourself of material goods and endless installment payments!
IM: What do your family and friends think about you becoming a citizen of the world?
MW: It's mixed. Our friends still ask when we're coming “home.” We assure them we are not. Our family understands, although they would likely never do it themselves. However, we have been able to convince pretty much everyone in our family to either renew or get a (new) passport, which is a huge step. You would be surprised how many people don't even have a passport in the US, it's shocking.
Overall we're looked at as the “eccentric” vagabonds. Most of our “people” say they are living vicariously through us.
IM: How did you get started at finding your new home? Did you examine a number of countries first before settling in?
MW: Yes, we traveled quite a bit. All over North America, South America, parts of Europe, Australasia, and Southeast Asia.
We liked South America quite a bit and decided to spend some time on the ground. We have visited Ecuador, Peru, Uruguay, Argentina and Chile. On our first trip to Uruguay we just got the lay of the land, so to speak. We were really impressed, so we planned a second trip to start the residency process. It happened pretty quickly from there. We hired a law firm and got going!
We also visited New Zealand, which is a place we have wanted to go forever. We missed the boat in the late 90s when the exchange rate made it embarrassingly cheap for foreigners, so we wanted to finally get over there and see if our instincts were correct. They were! We immediately felt comfortable in New Zealand. We loved the food, the people, the landscape and the culture was familiar. It truly is like the US in the 50s in some places. It is NOT perfect, and it is socialist in many ways. There is a great can-do spirit in New Zealand though, and it's really appealing. We plan to start our residency process as soon as we get our Uruguayan passports sorted.
IM: Why did you choose this one?
MW: As I said, we quite like Uruguay and now have our residency. We'll get the passport shortly as well. Uruguay was an easy choice because it's a tranquil little country that hasn't pissed anyone off (laughing). We want to be in those types of places. No one is gunning for Uruguay so to speak. It also has a solid political and banking environment. It's relatively clean compared to some other South American countries and it has a growing expat community full of interesting people from all over the world.
There are some disadvantages. It isn't as cheap as it was a few years ago. The government is stepping up law enforcement, which is good and bad, depending on your perspective. Property, for the most part, has to be purchased with cash, and cars are very expensive. But overall, Uruguay is one of the nicest places we've spent time.
Our next “home” is likely to be New Zealand. We just can't (or don't want to) overcome the language barrier to stay in South America permanently. What a lot of people don't seem to realize is that learning a language is one thing, but as a non-native speaker, I don't think you ever really get the subtle cultural nuances that are necessary to develop strong bonds in the community. Some may disagree. But, I will tell your readers that recently we were speaking to a friend of ours in Uruguay. She's a native – grew up there, went to school, her family still lives there, etc. She left to travel in Europe and ended up marrying a foreigner. Now she feels somewhat like an outsider in her own country. She says her friends treat her differently. This is troubling to us.
That experience could happen anywhere, but in a country where your native language is spoken, it is much easier to learn how to fit in. Without a really sound grasp of the language I don't think it's possible to be fully immersed in the culture and understand it. Again, this is just my opinion and my experience. I may be lazy in my old age… oh wait, I'm only in my late 20's!
But we wanted a second residency quickly and Uruguay was a good option for this. It's an easy process and it's relatively quick – about 3 to 4 years for a married couple. It's a politically stable country, non-violent and privacy oriented. They lack the resources to be too intrusive, especially when it comes to foreign residents. It's geologically stable (seemingly becoming more important these days!) and fairly unspoiled with beautiful beaches. The main factor however was the residency program and the relative speed at which we could become nationalized. I will say that it's getting a little stricter because of the volume of people wanting Uruguayan residency and citizenship, but we seem to have gotten in at the right time.
New Zealand is also politically stable, English speaking and geographically remote. Those are three things that were important to us. It's probably the most beautiful place in the world. The geographic remoteness appeals to us. It's a far away country with a very benign government that hasn't pissed off the rest of the world. No one hates Kiwis! It's not a tax haven like Uruguay, but you can't have everything.
We feel that New Zealand is our best option for the reasons that are important to us. We don't have children, and we really just want to own a little farm somewhere outside of a small town where we can raise animals, grow our own food, fish a little, have some dogs and just grow old together. The socialism aspect doesn't bother us. The advantages to us outweigh any of the negatives.
IM: How important is it to know the local language before you move there?
MW: I kind of answered this one earlier. It's very important. You need at least a working knowledge of the language so you can function. If filling up your car or getting groceries takes you half the day, you quickly wear yourself out. Get Rosetta Stone or a “pillow tutor” if you're single.
IM: How often do you return back to your country of origin?
MW: We spend about a month a year in the States, just long enough to stay within the “expat” definition for taxation purposes (no more than 35 days in any 365 day period).
IM: What's the biggest difference between the life you used to live, and the life you now live?
MW: Freedom and opportunity. My mentor told me a long time ago that once I became a “citizen of the world,” all kinds of opportunity would come my way. I didn't see how just leaving and going elsewhere with no plans and no contacts could possibly result in that outcome, but he was absolutely right. I am inundated with opportunities! I can't explain how it happens – it just does. If you are an entrepreneur, there are much better places than the US right now. South America, Asia, Africa (if you're really intrepid!). Australia is booming, and New Zealand has opportunities if you're intrepid and patient enough to join the community and become part of something.
IM: What do you miss most about the country you came from that you can't find locally?
MW: Nothing when it comes to living in New Zealand; we can get everything we want with the exception of certain vitamin and herbal products, which are more regulated than in the States. In South America we miss some “comfort” items like English-speaking media and some food products, as we love to cook. We miss our friends and family – I won't lie about that. But, we get a lot of visitors and we return once a year so it isn't that bad. The reality is that as you get older you spend less and less time with your old friends anyway. Life goes on, and especially when there are children and grandchildren, etc. If you're the “vagabond” couple, as we are, you're “out of sight, out of mind” most of the time. You get used to it.
IM: Are there a lot of expats living in the area you are now in? Do you tend to hang out with them, or with locals, or both?
MW: In Uruguay we know of hundreds (and there are thousands strewn about) of fellow expats and lots of English speakers, which is good and bad! In New Zealand not as much; perhaps they just blend in more. Having an expat community is important in a non-English speaking country because you have a support system that you can turn to when problems arise (and they will). You are better off trying to mingle and mix with the locals as much as you can though. You'll find that getting things done can be easier with a local friend who can help you with things like buying a car, renting a property or hiring staff or contractors. If you want to “immerse” yourself in the culture, local friends are a necessity, obviously. I will say that we know a lot of expats who don't mix at all with the locals – they stay to themselves and within a group of expats they are close to. I find that these people tend to be a bit unhappy. In general, it's not a good strategy.
IM: How difficult is it for you to live where you are, in terms of things like getting residency permits, doing business, that sort of thing? Any special hoops you have to jump through?
MW: Uruguay is very pro-immigration and they want productive people. We used a local attorney in Montevideo for our residency process in Uruguay and it was painless. Others have used the same attorney and reported having issues. You have to be diligent – you just can't pay someone and take off back to your home country and not remain engaged in the process. It's a BIG decision getting a second residency and/or passport. Take it seriously
New Zealand is not as easy. You have to prove you can add value (they tell you what your value is utilizing a points type system or a desired skills list). My business partner Chris and I co-wrote an eBook on immigrating to New Zealand. The process is a bit tricky, and you'll need to either hire an immigration consultant (attorneys) OR really study up on the process.
It's possible to do it yourself in either country, but if you don't speak FLUENT Spanish I would recommend hiring an attorney to assist you in Uruguay. It will save you a lot of grief. I met a lot of people who have done it themselves in New Zealand, and (shameless plug coming up…) the eBook we wrote can help you with the process.
IM: How difficult was it to find a bank and access cash, pay bills, trade stocks, etc., locally?
MW: Not difficult in New Zealand at all. In fact, it was easier to open an account in Christchurch than it was in the States! Go figure, right? They love foreigners and will gladly take your money and have you walking out with a shiny new account in under an hour (if you have proper ID, etc.). You can even set up to trade stocks (NZ and Aussie stocks primarily) and buy bonds. Precious metals are easy to purchase and store as well.
In Uruguay, it's a bit tougher. The “State” bank is the way to go, as I believe they have the lowest deposit minimums. It's a state-owned bank, but in our experience the private banks have much higher minimum deposits. Buying precious metals is a bit tougher as well, and you'll likely have to have them order what you want. Be careful taking coins in and out, as there are reporting requirements in Uruguay. I have no experience with brokerage accounts within the country, and I wouldn't even consider it an option to be honest. The Uruguay bourse has few listed companies, and, in my experience, it seems the only thing local brokers really trade are government bonds.
I tend to keep only the cash I need to pay local bills in a bank where I reside. Most of my banking is done elsewhere (Asia mostly).
IM: How cheap is the cost of living where you are now, versus where you came from? For example, what would a nice dinner out, with wine and all the fixings, set you back?
MW: In Uruguay you can eat well for much less than in the States, although like I said earlier, things are getting more expensive. We live in the area around Punta Del Este, which is a resort town, so it's more costly. We can get a nice meal with appetizers, salads, entrees, wine, coffee and dessert for about $100 for two, including tax and tip. If you go out into the smaller towns however, you can cut that by 2/3 easily.
And, if you want to cook yourself, you can get really high-quality local and organic produce and meats for next to nothing compared to what you are used to paying in North America. Organic eggs are a third of the price of organic eggs in North America, and milk is basically free. We buy organic veggies from a local farmer for $12 a week and we can't eat them all!
We find New Zealand really affordable as well, but that is changing too as the US dollar continues to evaporate. Of course that is happening everywhere. The great thing about eating out in New Zealand is that the GST (the local goods and services tax) is included in the prices, so yes it's there, but you don't notice it since it's “built in.” I know that sounds lame. There is also no tipping (although sometimes we will anyway). We find that we can have a really nice meal for two with entrée, salads, main course, wine, dessert and coffee for about $100 US dollars. As I said earlier, we love food, so we are NOT your typical budget travelers. With no kids and no real expenses to bear, we tend to go overboard when we dine out. When you drift out into the country the prices come down a little, but not like Uruguayan small towns.
IM: Now that you have expatriated, if you could go back and do it all over again, what are the big mistakes you would avoid?
MW: I think we were very cautious actually, and we didn't make many mistakes. The only thing I would have liked to have had was a better grasp of the Spanish language (for Uruguay). We had a good immigration attorney and a good expat network, so it was relatively painless for us. New Zealand is pending, so I'll let you know.
IM: Are you happy?
IM: Have you ever seriously considered returning to where you came from?
IM: Would you recommend your country choice to people just like you? What other kinds of people would be a good fit for this?
MW: Both Uruguay and New Zealand are far from North America, so if you have family you want to see regularly, forget it. The retired couple that wants to visit the grandchildren need to choose somewhere else. Uruguay fits for those looking for a tranquil and simple lifestyle. There are no mortgages, no credit cards and no car payments – it's really a cash-based society. Family is first and foremost, and a strong sense of community exists in most places.
New Zealand is a great fit for the outdoor lover and the English speaker who isn't quite ready to immerse themselves fully into a foreign culture. It's not quite USA-lite (as Canada is), but it's very easy to adjust. You can find work there if you need to create an income, and you will make friends more easily because you likely share similar values and culture.
IM: Any other words of advice you could give to someone thinking about expatriating or even internationalization in general?
MW: I'll tell your readers exactly what my mentor said to me… “Just go Mark, just go and do it now or you'll never do it. You have no idea what opportunities await you.”