Living on a razor’s edge

As US expat missionaries and nonprofit workers, it often feels like the slightest change of the breeze could bring our entire house of cards falling to the ground. While everyone is subject to changing circumstances, it certainly seems that we’re living on the razor’s edge.

The stuff we can’t control

There are so many things that we cannot manage at all: War, security risks, illness, abuse, expulsions, and the list goes on. I’ve seen organizations change directions and essentially send long-term workers packing because they didn’t fit anymore. Faithful servants have left the field because a key church gets a new vision or a key donor passes away. These are often dramatic events which send us fleeing back to the US with no choice whatsoever. Those razors cut, but in some ways, they may be the easiest to accept.

The stuff we can control

There are, of course, things we can control: Moral failures, relational failures, financial failures (which we’ll talk about below), and so on are often within our control. Like a shamed politician, a moral failure can quickly bring down an expat nonprofit worker. Poor mental health, conflicts in relationships, lack of self-awareness, issues with anger and such can often be helped with counseling, proper rest, healthy relationships, and training.

I know a worker who left the field over infidelity, another who lived to regret an angry letter to supporters, and several who have left the work or changed locations due to conflicts with colleagues. I’m sure you could add your own stories of problems which were, for the most part, controllable. These issues can sometimes be less dramatic in the short term but more traumatic over the long term. “If only I had” or “If only I hadn’t” are tough words to get past. Those cuts are hard to heal.

But the hardest “stuff” for me to get past of late is…

Living on a razor's edge

The financial stuff

I understand making financial mistakes (I’ve made several big ones!) and I understand that we can’t help it when amazing donors pass away or just turn away, but the impetus behind Vagabond Finances is all of the financial “stuff” that we see others going through or that we ourselves are going through simply because we didn’t take some simple financial steps. Do any of these missteps along the Vagabond Path sound familiar to you?

Earnings: Do you know colleagues who have left the field, been distracted by money problems, or left their children in poor circumstances because they didn’t earn a livable wage? Unless you are tracking your net worth on Personal Capital or in some other way, this can sneak up on you. However, when we realize that we cannot continue ministry this way or that we are damaging our children’s future, we need to act. There comes a time when we need to ask for a raise, plead for more support, find some outside earnings, or even leave one organization for another that will give us a sustainable wage.

Savings: Many US financial experts will tell people to set aside at least 15% of your gross income. Dawn Reiss, writing for US News, says,

While many financial planners suggest saving 15 to 20 percent of your income, some push for higher.

The article actually recommends Carrier, Maurice & Webb Wealth Advisors’ advice to save 25%. Seems like a lot, right? Well, while their clients may be saving for a higher priced college or a more affluent retirement, it is pretty likely that they are also receiving a higher income. Their 25% will be a lot more generous than our 25%. We must be aggressive savers to keep from being cut by this razor.

Investing: To make up for a sub-average income, for a sub-average dollar amount in savings, and for what is often a late start, we need to be investing rather than just saving. However, instead of carefully investing in low-cost, widely diversified funds, our desperation might cause us to throw money into ill-advised products. Stock picking, annuities, IRAs, the new, hot, high-cost fund, foreign partnerships, and speculative investments (think cryptocurrencies and tech IPOs) can be risky in terms of returns, losses, and taxation. Sometimes we sharpen that razor all by ourselves by needlessly increasing our risks.

Taxation: Try not paying your taxes abroad when you are supposed to, not filing your US taxes, or not properly reporting your overseas financial accounts or partnerships to the US, and you might just find yourself back in the US with a huge tax bill in your pocket. It has happened to others. The tax regulations are complicated and often seem self-contradictory, but one slip-up will cut deeply. We’ve got to stay vigilant in this area as well.

Retirement: Would it surprise you to find out that some US expat missionaries and nonprofit workers woke up one day to suddenly realize their retirement savings (or college savings or other) were not going to be enough, so they felt compelled to return to a higher paying job in the US? Better to save a bit more month-by-month than to leave the work, country, and people we love.


Winning: Arriving at financial freedom with the opportunity to give recklessly requires a long, careful walk along the razor’s edge. We can’t leave this kind of planning to our organizations, to our donors, to our churches, to financial advisors, or even to well-meaning websites like Vagabond Finances. Many of them can help, but the decision to plan and act and progress toward financial freedom ultimately falls on our shoulders.

The razor on which we walk is sharp, but our lives overseas are certainly worth every perilous step. Getting our financial house in order is like setting up handrails on either side of the razor’s edge. We can, should, and want to do all we can to protect our blessed lives abroad both for our sakes and for those we serve.

Mark Mason

Missions is my calling. Finances is my hobby. Helping you is my pleasure. "Mark" is my ultra-ego.