How we moved a family of 5 to one of the most expensive countries in the world
Hello! Are you interested in making a big move? Here is how Jill and her family moved to Norway (one of the most expensive places to live), without jobs or dipping into their retirement savings. Enjoy!
A lot of people point out (and rightly so) that moving to a low-cost location is one of the best financial moves you can make.
With much cheaper living expenses, the money you have saved can just go a lot farther.
But what about when the place that you want to move is NOT cheaper? What about if it is consistently ranked as one of the most expensive countries in the world?
AND what if you are planning to move there on a student visa, leaving two solid salaries behind with no guarantee of income? AND what if you have three kids who like to eat daily?
Well, that is exactly what we did in 2019 when we left a midwestern city with a relatively low cost of living to move our family of 5 to Stavanger, Norway.
It took several years of planning and included lots of unknowns and delayed plans.
But almost 3 years after our initial move, we know that we made the right choice for our family.
So how did we do it, and how did it work out? Here’s the low down.
A Normal family, a normal life
First, let me tell you a little about myself. Before we started this big adventure, we lived a pretty darn normal life in the Midwest. I was a public-school teacher and my partner was a consumer advocate working for the state government. We lived about an hour south of his family and an hour north of my family, so we had lots of help from our parents and loved being so close to them.
As the kids got older, though, we wanted them to experience a bit more of the world. We had both lived overseas in our younger years and it was an experience that really shaped who we were. It changed the way we saw the world and how we saw ourselves.
Giving our kids a similar experience became more of a priority until we were both convinced it was something we absolutely wanted to do. The question was, how could we make it happen?
It took 2+ years of planning, total commitment, and lots of sacrifice, but when we think, “Was it worth it?” the answer is a huge YES!
In the beginning: setting ourselves up for success
Even though I am a planner, and we planned carefully before our move, we could never have done it if planning was our first step.
Before we ever had any idea we would leave the heartland of the US, our choices put us in a good place to be able to be in control of our money and our lives.
My partner and I were married in 2009. I came into the marriage with no debt other than real estate (about 12 rental units and my own home), and he had a mortgage on his historic home that he was renovating. He also had about $50,000 in student loans from grad school, but neither of us had credit card debt or car loans.
I guess we’ve always done things a little differently because we actually lived in two different cities the first year we were married. I was a teacher and had a young son, so although we got married in October, I finished out the school year in the small town where I lived. I planned to sell my house and move in with my partner over the summer.
Funny how things work out. After getting married in October, I got pregnant in November. Since I was 35 and he was 42, we were thrilled, but it meant that I would be taking a year off from teaching.
(Interviews for teaching positions don’t go well when you tell them that you can’t actually start teaching at the beginning of the school year because you are due mid-August.)
So during that first year together, we lived on my partner’s salary and didn’t pay off anything we didn’t have to. We wanted that cash cushion. But when I got a job in August 2011, we took the equity from my house and started slamming his student loan. We had it paid off the same year.
From then on, our financial plan was slow and steady. We bought used cars and paid cash, saved for retirement each month, and put anything extra toward paying off the house we lived in.
Action step: If you have big dreams, way to go! They make life fun and exciting. But big dreams that are built on a shaky foundation often lead to frustration and sometimes heartache. If you have big dreams, you owe it to yourself to build a solid base. Pay off the debt. Build up your savings. Get your money in order. It’s not fun, but it paves the way for lots of fun in the future.
We have a nutty idea
By 2015, we were able to live on his salary alone, and I wanted more time to spend with our kids (we added another little one in 2012, so we were up to 3) and build a language business that I had started. So I resigned from my teaching position.
We had no idea that we would be moving to a totally different country in less than 5 years, but we were on really solid ground financially. All the money from my rentals was going back into the business and they were getting paid off quickly, and we had no credit card debt or car payments.
We had talked about moving overseas, but it was mainly just at a “Wow. That would be fun to do some time, wouldn’t it? Could you pass the ketchup, please?” level of seriousness.
In 2016, we started to give it more thought. We had both lived overseas when we were younger and wanted our kids to experience a different culture. We investigated Canada but kept coming back to Norway for several reasons.
My husband’s grandfather was Norwegian, and his family had always kept Norwegian culture as a big part of their identity. We were also both attracted by the fact that Norway is a great place to raise a family and one of the best countries for women. Finally, Norway has a strong connection with nature. Hiking and “friluftsliv” (outdoor lifestyle) are a big part of the culture.
On the other hand, Norway is also one of the hardest countries to immigrate to, which presented an obvious problem. After a lot of research, we decided that our best bet was for my husband to go back to school for a Masters’ degree.
Higher education is free in Norway, and most graduate degrees use English as the language of instruction. Plus, we both love to learn, so he was excited by the prospect of going back to school.
That still left the problem of it being one of the world’s most expensive countries. While a student visa would get us into the country, it also meant that he would be limited to 20 hours of work per week, IF he could find a job without speaking Norwegian.
And while I would be legally able to work, there was no guarantee I’d find a job, especially since my Norwegian wasn’t so strong, either.
Action step: Focus. A Facebook friend saw a post about our odyssey and commented, “We really wanted to move out of the country, but we just bought a new house. I guess we got distracted.” Make sure you know what you want, and don’t let other, smaller wants distract you.
A trial run
Before we committed to moving the entire family to a new country, we wanted to have an idea of whether we would actually, you know, like it. We also wanted the kids to have concept of what Norway was, so in the summer of 2017, we planned a family trip.
That sealed the deal.
My husband was pretty sure Norway was the place for him before we went, and I was open to the idea. But I truly fell in love during that visit. Now, Norway isn’t perfect, but choosing where you want to live is kind of like choosing a partner. Perfect doesn’t exist; you are looking for what is perfect for you (or as close to it as you can get).
Norway was pretty close to perfect for us. The people were laid-back and kind to children. It seemed there was a playground every 50 yards, which the kids loved.
We even got the chance to spend some time with distant relatives and learned more about how Norwegians view the world. All in all, it was a great match for what we wanted. And the natural beauty. Unbelievable! This was it, and we were all in.
Action step: Take a baby step. If you want to quit your job and be a blogger, try it on for size. Write out what you think a day as a blogger would be and commit to trying it out for 4 or 5 Saturdays. It will either confirm that this is for you or help you further clarify your dreams.
The first big disappointment
To put the plan into place, we needed 1) an acceptance to a Norwegian university and 2) money.
As luck would have it, I ran into one of the assistant principals from my former job, and she asked me if I would consider coming back to teaching.
It hadn’t really been on my radar, but when my partner and I talked it over, it made a lot of sense. Our youngest would be entering kindergarten, and while my business was profitable and growing, it wasn’t portable. (And profitable doesn’t mean WILDLY profitable, just not in the red.)
Moving would mean I would need to sell the business or close it anyway. Was it worth all the extra work just to give it up? Also, I would be making more money faster if I went back to teaching.
So in the fall of 2017, I was back in one of my favorite places: a classroom full of high school students.
But before I ever got my first check, I stopped at a bank we never used and opened a new account. My entire paycheck went in that account, and we didn’t touch it.
That was the Norway money, and if we hadn’t taken that step, we might not have had the confidence to really follow through. However, seeing that number grow with every paycheck reminded us of our dream and kept us from getting distracted.
That left the issue of a student visa. My partner applied to two or three programs that year, but in April, we got the news that he hadn’t been accepted. Higher ed in Norway is free, but it is extremely competitive. In many programs, only 1 in 10 applicants are accepted, so it wasn’t a huge surprise, but it was a disappointment.
Luckily, we are both pretty stubborn, so the setback only intensified our determination.
Action step: Prepare yourself for setbacks. Before I start any new venture, I sit myself down for a little heart to heart and tell myself I’m going to fail. (I haven’t been wrong yet!) But I also remind myself that when I fail, I’m going to get right back at it. Failing does NOT equal quitting. I can fail a hundred times, but as long as I don’t quit, I’m still on the way.
Getting real: We put some specific numbers on it.
As it turns out, that disappointment was a really good thing. We could have made it financially, if we had moved that year, but we probably would have had to dip into my rental equity. And after a lot of years of paying those rentals off, I didn’t really want to take a step backward.
At the end of the first year, we had saved only about $40,000 in the Norway account. If we didn’t have income, that amount might not even last for 1 year, much less 2!
I had run the numbers, and figured out that to be really safe, we were going to need about $120,000 to pay our expenses for the full two years. (And I like to be really safe when it comes to money!)
We were a very long way from that, so things started to get real.
Here is the monthly budget, as I figured it at the time. In every case, I tried to overestimate expenses because I knew that little things would come along that were unforeseen.
- Monthly rent: $1600-2200 – We needed a 3-bedroom apartment that would accept a dog, so we weren’t going to have a ton of budget options.
- Food for a family of 5: $1500 with NO eating out and very few splurges – Luckily, I had a habit of cooking a lot because even a couple of pizzas from Dominos will cost you about $40.
- Transportation: $50 – Mainly biking, with bus passes only when necessary.
- Cell phones: $200
- Clothing: $200-$300 – I never spent this much on clothes in the States, but kids need LOTS of outdoor gear here. While I would try to find secondhand clothes, I knew we would have to buy at least some clothes new. With 3 kids, that would add up fast!
- Utilities: $200
- Other incidentals: $300
- Travel within Europe: $400
One of the reasons we wanted to live in Europe was for the kids to get to experience some culture and history. We didn’t want to move to Europe and then not see anything. (Irony: global pandemic hits after 8 months in Norway!)
The estimate was based on real numbers, but there were a lot of unknowns. For example, we were saving US dollars, but our expenses would be in Norwegian Kroner, and there was no way to predict what the exchange rate would be.
After looking at exchange rates over the previous years, I used 8 NoK to the dollar to figure our expenses. Since the rate was 8.5+ at the time, that gave a bit of wiggle room, even if it dropped.
Also, since my partner was applying for programs in several cities, all with different costs of living, we didn’t know if we would be paying Trondheim prices (Yikes!) or Oslo prices (SUPER Yikes!).
Action step: Research. Research, research, research. Listen to people who have done what you want to do (FB groups are amazing for this. You can learn a ton from just lurking.) Find reliable sources on the internet. However, you do it, get some facts on what it will take to make that dream a reality. You wouldn’t believe the number of people in our Norway Expats group that state they are going to move and don’t even know immigration requirements. Don’t be that person.
The final year: ramping up the savings
So in the fall of 2018, we continued the plan, but I knew we had to increase our savings rate.
Luckily, the real estate market was heating up, so I began selling some of my rentals. I had planned to keep them forever, but with us moving to another country and prices skyrocketing, I decided that this was the time to at least reduce my holdings.
With the money I got from those sales, we paid off the remaining rentals, AND our home mortgage. We were officially debt free.
Since I was no longer paying the mortgages, our income increased by about $2000 a month. I didn’t withdraw any of that money from the business account. It just built up and added to the “Norway money.”
We also increased our savings rate by having my husband use his 457b account. A 457b is a retirement account that is available to some teachers, firefighters, and public employees. Basically, it works similarly to a 401k, but you can withdraw the money at any age, as long as you have left the job where you accumulated it. For more information, you can check out this blog post, which I wrote about it.
By using a 457b, we were able to save pre-tax dollars instead of post-tax dollars. We would pay taxes when we took the money out, but since we figured our income would be much lower at that time, it seemed like a good plan. It also allowed us to save about 30% faster, since we weren’t paying taxes on the income before it went into savings.
Action step: “Always look on the bright side of life.” -Monty Python
Facing a whole other year of wishing, dreaming, and preparing was hard, and I did allow myself a little pity party. But I also actively turned my thoughts to the benefit of waiting an extra year: more financial stability and another year near our families. It didn’t take the sting away, but it helped to keep me from wallowing in disappointment when there was still so much work to do.
Go time: things get real
The next year, we weren’t taking any chances. We were ready to be in Norway and willing to do what it took to get there. That winter, my husband and I both applied to grad programs in Norway, a total of almost 10 between the 2 of us.
In March, I got my acceptance letter. I was accepted at the university of Tromsø. While that meant that we would definitely be moving, we were still hoping my partner would get accepted. As a teacher, it would be much easier for me to find work in an international school without Norwegian credentials than it would be for him to find work without a Norwegian degree.
Even unsure where we would be, we shifted into high gear. We started sorting stuff, minimizing our possessions and getting our house ready to put on the market. We told our families, and I started mentioning it at work.
One of the defining moments of my financial life happened when I mentioned our plans to one of my colleagues, who happened to also be a fellow FIRE (Financial Independence, Retire Early) geek. “So you’re really doing it, huh?” I looked at him, puzzled. “You are really doing it. You know, FIRE. Moving to where you want to be. That’s awesome.”
It hadn’t ever occurred to me that I was taking a step toward FIRE in moving to a more expensive country. But when I thought about it, I realized I was. Even though we weren’t ready to retire early, we had planned and saved enough to take two whole years off work, with absolutely no income and not taking money from retirement.
And since I truly love teaching, I didn’t want to retire forever, nor did my husband. We both love being active and enjoy the camaraderie of a job – if we aren’t working ourselves to death. (Another benefit of Norway is a much healthier work/life balance, by the way.)
It made such an impact on it that I actually wrote an article on my own blog about it, calling it Financial independence, Temporary Retirement.
Action step: Give yourself some credit. Often, when we have big goals, we don’t realize how much progress we have made. Take a few minutes every week to list the things you have accomplished, and also to think about the progress you are making toward the life of your dreams. It seems woo-woo, but it will help fight the urge to give up.
Final decisions and moving expenses
Finally, in April, my husband got the news he was accepted to a program in Stavanger, Norway.
With an actual city, I could start making real decisions. We found an apartment for 14000 Norwegian Kroner (NoK) per month, which ended up being about $1650, based on an exchange rate of 8.5 NoK to the dollar.
We traveled to Chicago for the day to get our visas and continued dealing with the 1001 things we had to do to be ready to move.
The expenses of moving were significant. I had hoped to cover them from the sale of our major possessions like cars and a lot of the furniture we wouldn’t be taking. This is the one part of the plan where I was too optimistic.
Related content: Downsizing Your Home? Here’s How I Went From A 2,000 Square Foot House To An RV
Despite starting to purge possessions and pack early, it was so hectic during those last few months that we ended up donating and giving away a lot of things. We also had to sell our car for less than it was worth because we needed it for our own transportation until the very last minute. Luckily, since we always drove used cars, it wasn’t a massive loss.
All in all, we had about $5,000 income from the sale of major items.
Moving and selling the house cost us about $22,000, which was a big chunk, and might have been disastrous if we hadn’t been lucky in so many other areas. Here is the moving expense breakdown:
- Painting and other prep for putting the house on the market: $10,000
- Shipping container: $6,000
- Plane tickets for family of 5, plus my sister who traveled with us to help with the kids: $5,000
- Other incidentals: $1,000
Of course, we also had to pay the realtor’s commission for selling our house, but that came out of the proceeds, and we still ended up making a profit.
How the budget worked out
Good news! Thanks to some amazing good luck, we spent very little of that $120,000 we had saved. Unbelievable, but here is how it went down. First, let’s look at how accurate the numbers were, especially given all those uncertainties.
One of the most important numbers was the exchange rate because that influenced all our other numbers until we had Norwegian income. I figured everything on an exchange rate of 8 NoK to the dollar, a bit lower than what it has been in the past few years.
However, from the time we arrived in July 2019 to today, it has never fallen below 8.5 NoK. For a very short time, it even went above 10. That meant that during the entire time before we had Norwegian income, we basically paid about 10% less for things than we thought we would.
Don’t get me wrong, things are still plenty expensive, but it sure helped to not have the money flying out of the account quite as quickly as we thought it would.
- Monthly rent: $1560-$1625 – We found a small but comfy basement apartment in a great location. It meant that we could walk or bike and had almost no expenses for transportation.
- Food: $1200 average – I have re-learned how to cook. I was raised in a meat and potatoes family, but meat is super expensive here. While we are not vegetarians, our diet in Norway is much more plant-based (and healthy!) than it was in the US.
- Transportation: $20 average at first, then $100 – My husband biked the 45 minutes to his classes every day, and we were able to easily walk to shops and the kids’ school, so the only expense was for bike maintenance and a few bus tickets. When I got my job (I’ll talk more about that below), I did need a monthly train ticket, but that only cost about $80/month. It also allowed the entire family to travel on my card during the evenings and weekends, which was great for family outings.
- Cell phones: $70 – Again, when I started working, I needed a phone, so that went up to about $100
- Clothing: $150 average – We were able to get most things second hand, but a few we had to buy new.
- Internet: $100 – BLAZING fast internet here. We love it. And it’s not too expensive, considering what you get. TV is included.
- Electricity: $225 on average
- Water and trash collection: included with rent
- Other incidentals: $150
- Travel within Europe: $0
By the time we had gotten the kids settled in and were ready to travel, the pandemic cancelled all our plans, so there’s that.
As you can see, our actual expenses worked out to about $3500 a month, quite a bit under our estimated expenses. Part of that is due to the fact that we didn’t have to pay Oslo rents, part to the favorable exchange rate, and part to just plain old thriftiness.
Action step: Plan for worst-case. When you are estimating expenses, ALWAYS leave a cushion. Then cushion your cushion. I learned this when managing my rentals. There will always be expenses you couldn’t predict. But you know there will be something. So do yourself a favor and account for that in your planning.
Income comes early
Even though we had planned to be able to afford 2 whole years without income, both of us found jobs before that time was up.
In a huge bit of luck, I was hired mid-year to teach at an international school. The position she left was 3 ½ days a week, which was absolutely perfect for us since we were all still adjusting to a new culture.
I started in October 2019, just 3 months after our arrival. My take home pay didn’t cover all our expenses, but it left us with a shortfall of only about $1500 a month.
My partner was also lucky to land an internship during his third semester of the program. It was unpaid, but such a good fit that they offered him a part time paid position starting in January 2021. That meant that we were paying over 90% of our expenses from our income instead of from savings.
A happy ending – and a global catastrophe
Today we have been in Norway for 2.5 years. One of the events we could never have foreseen was the global event that hit just 8 months after our move. Besides meaning we didn’t travel Europe like we had planned, it also meant we didn’t get back to the US to visit our families for quite some time.
Even though it has been hard in a lot of ways, we are so glad we made the move.
We are both happily un-retired. My husband is working full time at the same company where he did his original internship. It is an energy start up that we hope will help to revolutionize the grid and contribute to saving the planet.
I am working 4 days a week at an IB school where I have tremendous freedom. It is what I dreamed teaching would be, but never got to experience in American schools.
As a matter of fact, I love it so much, I have started a money and dream mentoring business to help other teachers rediscover the joy and dignity in their professional lives.
In June, we used the proceeds from the sale of our US house to buy a house here in Norway. We do have a mortgage, but plan to pay it off early and be back on the road to our next temporary retirement.
Author Bio: Jill Wiley is a money and dream mentor for teachers, as well as a teacher with 21 years classroom experience. Her goal is to help other teachers rediscover their joy and regain their dignity by taking control of their money. She knows that we all come from different places and have different experiences with money, and she meets teachers where they are, whether that is trying to pay the monthly bills or working toward financial independence to retire early. In 2019, she and her partner moved to Norway with their three children, where she currently teaches French and English on a part-time basis. To connect with Jill, check out her blog at classroomtohome.com/blog/ or join her Facebook Group at https://www.facebook.com/
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