An Expatriate Guide to Shopping in the USA

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For many expatriates living overseas a trip to the United States is an occurrence that comes once every 2 to 5 years. The trips are short, and packed to the gills with friends, family, unhealthy foods and sucking up every last drop of nostalgia that your home country has to offer. And of course, while you're back, there's the shopping.

Squeezing two to five years of shopping into a short visit can be a real challenge for expats who visit their home country infrequently. This is especially true when your home country is the USA, where shopping is a national pastime, the advertising is flawless, and the Jones are beautiful, happy and look fabulous with all their new material possessions (the imaginary Jones family is the point of comparison and source of perpetual jealousy for the standard America. We’re all trying to keep up with them. The Jones are also hopelessly in debt, living paycheck to paycheck, but that is a post for another time…).

You can easily drop a ton of money on a mountain of items that seemed indispensable in the moment, only to find that they don't really fit in your return suitcase, you paid too much for them, and they may not even meet your needs of your home overseas. And for many of us, since it was all bought on credit, we’ll be paying for it all for a long time.

The Challenge: How can an expat stock up on the necessities and the hard-to-find items without totally breaking the bank?

Trips to the US (as well as the UK / EU / Australia, etc) come with the risk of overindulgence and the associated financial hangover which can take months of recover from (and if we’re honest, a lot of people live in a perpetual state of financial hangover, without real recovery in sight).

 Expats are an odd bunch. They love where they live, they love their communities and the exotic nature of their chosen home, however they also long for the comforts of home. This is especially true for expats living the developing world. Once we can admit that it is our emotional responses that drive our financial decision making is the first step to taking control of the financial run-away-train that a trip to the United States can quickly become. Keeping in a healthy place mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually is the best thing that you can do to make sure that a trip to the US doesn't spiral out of control financially.

So how can you shop strategically in your home country? First, you HAVE to start before you ever get back to your home country.

You're going to either have a plan, a budget, patience and self-control, or you're going to be making emotion-driven spending decisions as you trust your gut and the vague intuition that you'll be able to somehow pay off your credit card when you get back overseas (a sentiment which is every marketing person's dream). Doing some prep work to can be the difference maker for your shopping experience in your home country.

In Brief - here’s your shopping strategy:

 Before you go to your home country:

  1. Know you budget.

  2. Know what you actually need (make a list).

  3. Know what you really want (make a second list).

  4. Do your research.

  5. Search locally for items on your needs list.

  6. Start Price Tracking early.

  7. Signup for Mailing Lists, Coupons, Apps, Sales Info.

Once you're in your home country:

  1. Determine your sizes by visiting physical stores.

  2. Wait for the Sales.

  3. Leverage the Internet.

  4. Make use of the return policies.

  5. Investigate the Used Market and Consider Last-Years Models

  6. Use your credit cards to capture the perks, but make sure you feel the pain of cash.

  7. Stick to your budget & your list with religious intensity!

  8. Remember why you’re in your home country - It’s not to shop.

 

Shopping Strategy - While you're still overseas

Set your budget. Know what you can afford, and make your plan accordingly. If you start with a list of what you want without regard to cost, you’ll end up wasting a lot of time thinking through the things that you’ll never actually purchase, and often feel sadness over the fact that you can’t realistically afford everything. Don’t even go down this road! Start with a budget, and think through what is the best use of those resources.

  • Remember:

  • Quality over quantity. As an expat with limited trips to your home country, you need what you buy to last. This is actually good advice for anyone, but holds especially true for expats. You need your gear to be reliable and .

  • Dead-on Right over Close-Enough. Be pickier than you might normally be. Make sure whatever you buy you love. Jeans? Make sure you’re delighted with them. Computer? Make sure it’s built to do the job you need it to. Shoes? Make sure that the’ll last.

Make your "needs" list before you go. The U.S. has marketing down. They’ve had to. If you’re going to get people to buy things that they don’t actually need, you’ve got to be a heck of a salesperson. And they are. Your best bet is to know exactly what you need and why. Focus on completing your "needs" list at the best possible price, and then being done.

Remember:

  • Do your research - The internet is your friend on this item. Research which brands provide high quality, durable goods (clothes, shoes, jeans, swimsuits) and which models provide the best bang-for-your-buck (computers, phones, cameras). 

  • Leverage price tracking - The last thing you want to do is to show up to the U.S. and decide to do all your shopping in a day, regardless of price. Be smarter then that. Know what a good deal on a good product is (and remember, a great deal on a bad product is always a bad deal!).

  • Try online price tracking. Check out CamelCamelCamel (here) - and yes it’s a real site - the site provides price tracking over time from companies like Amazon. It’s really helpful to know what the best prices are for cameras, laptops, shoes, etc.

  • If you prefer to rock the old-school method, build a price book so you know what is a good deal (check out Simpledollar for a detailed explanation - they’ve used a price book to save money on groceries, but the concept applies to any shopping).

Make your "wants" list before you go. These are the things that you would really like to get in your home country, but you can get buy without if push comes to shove. I'd recommend making this list six months before going to your home country. See if your desire for whatever on this list fades away after a month. If you still really want it after six months and you can do so in within your overall budget, then go for it. But make sure you're not compromising your budget, and making sure that you've already weeded through all the impulsive desires our fickle hearts so easily generate.
 

Know what deals are best found in your home country. Taxes and regional pricing can vary greatly, and you should try your best to make use of those differences.

  1. Electronics are often extremely cheap in the United States. Be sure that you don't run afoul of any import / tax laws in your countries while bringing items back to your overseas home.  

Know what cannot be bought overseas, and focus on buying those items. This varies from locale to locale, but there are some things that keep coming up from the expats in my neck of the woods (South East Asia):

  1. Quality Underwear - You hear a lot of complaints about the lack of quality underwear that really fits expatriates. Also, your underwear wears out much faster here since we sweat a lot the time, that means multiple changes per day, and your underwear is ironed after nearly every washing.

  2. Electronics - There is a limited selection, and prices tend to be higher. Also, there are a lack of authorized dealers, so authenticity can be an issue.

  3. Toiletries / Medicines - People tend to have products that they’ve become come to love, and those often aren’t available. Stock up, but only at the best price possible.

  4. Snacks - People tend to have their personal favorites. Mine include Original Doritos and Triskuit crackers (not at the same time) and good cheese. These can be either impossible to find (Triskuits) or insanely expense (Doritos / Pretzels).

Find what can be purchased domestically.

  1. With the increasing prevalence of online shopping, the items that can be purchased in-country have increased exponentially from a decade ago. Be savvy as you shop! You have to weigh the cost / benefit of paying a marked up price locally for an item vs. the difficulty of transporting said item from overseas.

Find out what can be ordered from your home country and shipped to you overseas.

  • Amazon, iHerb and others have made pushes to expand their overseas shipping. This means that a number of items are available for purchase, if you’re willing to pay the $25 in shipping. Sometimes, it’s absolutely worth it.  Sometimes you suck it up and wait.

    Remember:

  • Be sure that you know the price limits on import taxes in your country before you start ordering!
     

Lower the Price Strategically by signing up for Apps, Email, Sales Notifications, etc:

  1. Create an email account for all your shopping needs.

  2. Sign up for sales information. Doing this causes a marketing feeding frenzy and a deluge of sales, specials, and limited time offers start to show up instantaneously.

  3. Download Apps tied to the stores you want to shop from

  4. Leverage your Credit cards to get the Rewards / Points (but keep your budget in mind)

  5. Consider Used (or last years model)

    1. Electronics - The latest model always renders last years model obsolete and unbearable. This is 95% marketing. Often last years model is fantastic, and totally functional.

    2. Clothing - Styles are a constantly changing. Buy classically styled clothing and escape the need for constant upgrades.

    3. Shoes - Shoe retailers release new colors, styles, limited editions that you clearly cannot live without. Find last years model on eBay and save yourself a ton of money.

  6. Leverage eBay. Americans love their stuff, and feel a constant need to have the latest version of whatever it is. That means the slightly used market is robust. Let them take the financial hit for initial ownership, and then you use the item for the remainder of its useful life.

  7. Timing - Prime Day, Summer Holiday Sales, Last Seasons Clearance. There’s always a reason for a sale. Use this to your advantage. Be patient, then be decisive.

  8. Leverage Temporary Memberships for Deals. Many bargain shopping stores offer short-term memberships, or go shopping with a family member who is already a member. Often when you’re buying for 3-5 years, you’re buying in bulk. Be sure to check expatriation dates, but find the deals.

Shopping Strategy - Once you're in your home country:

Determine your sizes by visiting a store.

  • It turns out that every stores uses the same sizes and yet the all mean completely different things. Even the number-based measurement system doesn't yield any consistency whatsoever. So go try on some clothes at clothing stores with a good reputation for quality.

    Remember:

  • Take notes on what size / styles work for you for each store you visit. There’s no way you’ll remember later.

Wait for the Sales. Even in a limited time window, most large retailers are going to have multiple sales / specials / limited time deals. If you've been tracking prices, you'll know just how many of these "deals' really aren't deals, but when an actual deal is offered, you'll be ready to jump on it.

Leverage the Internet. Being able to compare prices and shop across your entire country means that you can find the lowest possible prices for the items you are seeking out. Make note of which retailers tend to offer the best prices, and keep an eye on them.

  1. For clothing, you might consider online consignment shops like www.swap.com or thredUP (an app and website), both of which offer new clothing from name brands at huge discounts. If you know your sizes, you can shop confidently.

Make use of the return policies. If something doesn't fit, doesn't seem like it's going to work for you, just return it. Don’t hope it’ll fit someday, or you might somehow be able to make it work. Don’t do it. Get the right item.

Investigate the Used Market / Last Years Model. This idea is taken from the classic book, the Millionaire Next Door (seriously, if you've never read this book, get it on you list, especially if you don't think you're "millionaire" material. It's financial common sense in a world where financial sense is anything but common).

Use your credit card, but make sure you feel the pain of cash. So when people pay cash, they tend to spend much less than if they're using credit cards. So why do I recommend using a card? Because prices at large retailers already include the price of the credit card transaction in every item. By paying cash, you're actually paying a bit more that you need to. So use the credit card, but make sure you feel the pain. Transfer the payment at the end of the purchase.

Stick to your budget & your list with religious intensity! Keep track of just how much you've paid, and where you stand relative to your budget. Keep in mind the wins and losses. Somethings you'll find cheaper than you expected, but others will be more expensive. When good deals present themselves, grab them.

Remember why you’re in your home country. It’s not to shop. The stuff will never make us happy in the end. It's just stuff, and happiness is beyond what it can offer the human heart. Spend time with the people you love and miss. Enjoy your limited time with them. You've got to shop, that's a given. So do it as shrewdly as possible, as cheaply as possible and don't let it consume your time in your home country.