Work Abroad but earn in USD

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

My Apartment is Finished!

After four months of renovations, my apartment was finally finished today! Only a few details remain, but I'm happy that it was finally done. For the last 15 days, I've actually been living in my apartment as the construction was going on. When I bought my apartment back in July, I had the naive notion that maybe it would take a month or so to finish all the work. I also figured on spending about half of what I ended up spending.

In the end, though, I'm very pleased with the way everything turned out. Just like every software projects, construction and renovations hinge on three different variables -- time, cost, and scope. My apartment suffered from a very bad case of "feature creep", as we say in the software industry. I started with the expectation of adding wood floors in the bedroom, replacing the maid's quarters with an office, and buying decorations. In the end, I finally finished by:

  • Replacing & resurfacing everything in the master bathroom
  • Changing every surface in the kitchen
  • Tearing down and then rebuilding 1/5th of the apartment, which would become the office
  • Replacing the plumbing, hot water heater, etc.
  • Replacing every electrical outlet in the house, adding U.S. & European plugs to the Argentine ones
  • Adding a 5.1 surround sound system and home theater
  • Adding a home bar
  • Replacing all the lighting fixtures

The Cost of Renovations

Even though I spent about twice as much as I thought, in the end, I was very happy with how things turned out. Much of the expense was related to my home theater, which I was very keen on having here in Buenos Aires.

In general, the cost of renovations here was far less than what it would cost for something similar in the United States. There is plenty of labor expense that goes into a project like this and there is a big benefit of paying in pesos for that labor rather than in dollars. Throughout the project, I also tried to use locally-produced goods whenever possible, to avoid the costly imported furnishings.

I was very impressed with the work of my architect, who is also an interior designer. As such, she was able to manage the entire project, from the construction all the way through the purchasing of all the decorations. Having someone to take care of all this for me was a godsend. I couldn't imagine trying to do all this myself. If anyone plans on renovating a property they purchase, I can highly recommend her.

Pictures Coming Soon

I'm leaving on vacation tomorrow and I'll be gone for two weeks, but I'll try to have pictures online of the apartment when I get back, so you can all see how it turned out. By the end of the year, the apartment will also be available for rent, so if anyone is looking for a very nice place to stay in Recoleta, you'll be able to rent out my apartment.

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Monday, November 14, 2005

Banking / Insurance for Expats

I mentioned previously that for U.S. expats, I recommended banking with USAA Bank. There's a question that came up about how non-military people can become members, however, so I wanted to address that here as well as go over some of the benefits of USAA that are of particular value for expats.

Reader's Question

I checked the USAA website but it seems that they only allow military even though you mentioned they accept everyone. Can you tell me how exactly you managed to get in with them? It would be much appreciated!

Getting an Account With USAA Bank

If you're not current or former military or a dependent, you can't get insurance from USAA, but you can still open a bank account with them. I know this because I helped my girlfriend open an account with them and she's not military.

The way you do it is by calling 1-800-531-BANK. Speak to an operator and tell them that you want to open an account with USAA Bank and they will direct you to the right department. They will give you a USAA number and temporary password which will allow to to access the bank, brokerage, and "member services" part of their website. If you like, they will also send you a packet of information in the mail.

With your member number, you'll be able to then open a bank and/or brokerage account with USAA. USAA Bank is an FDIC-insured Federal Savings Bank, not a credit union, and therefore they cannot legally restrict access to their bank to a specific group of people.

It is important that you have a U.S. mailing address when you sign-up. Argentina is on a "restricted country list" and they will not open an account for you if you tell them you are living in Argentina. After you open the accounts, however, you can update your mailing address on your accounts with them and they won't close your accounts, but they won't open any new ones for you while you live in Argentina.

Benefits of USAA Bank

USAA offers a number of benefits for expats. The bank is geared for people who live abroad for extended periods of time and that's what makes it such a great choice for expats. There's no one thing that makes it the must have bank for expats, but instead there are a lot of little things that all add-up to making it the best choice.

  • Local phone number here in Argentina
  • All forms/documents/statements can be obtained online
  • Extremly full-featured online banking/bill pay service
  • No need to ever show-up personally in the bank for anything
  • Wire transfers to your account in Argentina can be requested over the phone and by fax
  • No foreign transaction fees on non-US Dollar credit card transactions (this alone can save you thousands of dollars if you use your credit card to pay for things)
  • No cash advance fee on credit card transactions, including foreign withdrawals from ATMs
  • Fast customer service, without long hold times
  • The ability to mail things out of the country (my old bank wouldn't mail my replacement credit card out of the country, "The computer won't let me," the rep said. I kid you not.)
  • You can mail-in checks for deposit

Benefits of USAA Insurance

If you qualify for insurance with USAA, you should call up right away and get a "US Touring Policy", which is a special insurance policy for expatriates and it covers you on any car you drive while in the USA. You may think there's no point in having insurance while outside the U.S., but it helps. If you ever go back to visit family or rent a car, you can be comfortable driving knowing that you are insured if something happens. The policy costs $5.00 per year, which is a whole hell of a lot less than even the rental car insurance costs.

It also maintains continuous insurance coverage, while is important if you ever move back to the U.S. and need to obtain coverage. You pay a lot more when you have a gap in your coverage.

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Wednesday, November 09, 2005

In Support of Free Trade For Argentina

The Summit of the Americas has come to an end, Bush has gone back home, and things are getting back to normal here. The summit produced virtually no results, with Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, and a few other countries refusing to set a date to resume discussions on the Free Trade Area of the Americas. Meanwhile, the FTAA is being championed by the USA, Mexico, Panama, and a number of other countries. In fact, Bush left the summit and went to visit Panama to discuss a bilateral free trade agreement afterwards, since the FTAA seems to be going nowhere.

Despite what everyone says about Bush, he's right on free trade. Free trade is not some "yanqui" imperialist plan to control the world. It's about creating jobs, growing economies, and making everybody more wealthy. Look at the two people at the summit that were most vocally opposing free trade -- Diego Maradona, the Argentine soccer star, and Hugo Chávez, the President of Venezuela.

Maradona became rich by exporting his services as a player to clubs in Spain and Italy. Imagine where the soccer world would be without the international movement of players. Venezuela is currently awash in money from selling its oil on the global market. The global oil market is financing Chávez' pursuit of his socialist agenda at home. Both of these men benefited from global trade, but somehow what's good for them can't be good for the rest of Latin America?

At the summit, Argentina threw away an opportunity to really press Bush on actual free trade. In the last few weeks, Bush made a bold proposal to cut Agricultural subsidies as a bid to restart WTO trade talks, which would have allowed farmers and ranchers in Argentina and throughout Latin America to compete in the world's largest market.

Even though Europe and Japan weren't so exited about dropping their own subsidies as part of the WTO talks, Argentina and Latin America should have pursued this further at the summit and made it a condition of going forward with the FTAA. The FTAA doesn't need to be a one-sided giveaway to the U.S. There's no reason why Latin America can't insist on getting a fair deal. However, if they aren't even willing to talk and they're only interested in chest-pounding, then progress will never be made.