Like many in the US right now, I am starting to stare down the barrel of my taxes, in stark contrast to the single bill for taxes I got in the UK, which I paid online and that was that. In any case, collecting tax documents has been a trip down memory lane of all the weird things I did last summer in order to cover the costs of immigrating across the ocean—the consequences of which I am now having to confront.
I’ve gotten a lot of questions since moving over here about the logistics of that process, so I thought I would write up a bit of what it was actually like for me and how I finagled it after living on a grad student stipend for six years. I’ve divided this post into two parts: the first lays out the various things I had to pay for as part of migrating, while the second details how I paid for those things.
I write this for three reasons. First, in the service of transparency. We talk abstractly about how difficult it can be to make do during the summer between finishing grad school and starting a new job, but abstraction doesn’t drive the reality home. My situation is a bit different than most because I moved countries, but minus visas, the basic categories of expenses are likely to be the same for you, and the level of expenses might even be comparable based on your circumstances. Second, as a belated apology to my immigrant friends in the US. When an international student without generational wealth tells you they can’t afford X, and this puzzles you because you can afford it and the two of you make roughly the same amount of money, believe them. The extent of immigration costs, and their legacies, are long-term.
The third reason is because I truly think numbers move some people, and so I hope some senior faculty with power read this and go, right, this is what we are asking new faculty to take on; what can I do to make this easier, and how might I advocate for department or university-wide policies on that front?
The costs of moving
I haven’t given specific amounts for any of these, in part because looking up all of these figures would be mildly traumatic and also because my point is to illustrate the extent and variety of expenses, rather than the amount. For those interested, the most expensive things were a) the NHS immigrant surcharge, b) temporary housing for a month while apartment-hunting, c) moving my things across the ocean, and d) visa fees. Oh, and I suppose “general living expenses for the five months between normal paychecks,” which is too overwhelming to think about in finer-grained terms, honestly.
If you are immigrating to the UK from the US, or even if you’re not, I am happy to answer questions about what any of this means.
- paying to file my dissertation (yes, I had to pay the university in order to graduate!)
- paying a moving company
- and then paying a different company over here to cart all of their trash away (long story)
- visa stuff
- actual visa fees
- the NHS immigrant surcharge
- mailing my passport to New York to have my temporary entry visa inserted (a real thing you have to do) and paying for tracking (only to have UPS dump my passport on my stoop in the rain while I was out)
- driving to Milwaukee to get my biometrics taken
- transportation costs
- flights to the UK
- baggage fees
- local transit from the airport once I got here (luckily not a problem at my origin airport; my parents drove me)
- COVID test in the UK (these were still free at pharmacies in the US when I left)
- buying out my US phone contract
- buying a bunch of new things in the UK:
- furniture because it was cheaper to get new things than ship old things
- electronics that wouldn’t work over here (i.e., lamps and kitchen appliances)
- pots and pans because the ones I brought wouldn’t work on an induction stove (ughhhh)
- things you can’t ship, like my extremely extensive pantry and cleaning products
- replacing things that got broken in transit
- security deposit/first month’s rent on a new flat
- credit check/background check fee
- various Airbnbs and hotels while I was flat-hunting
- startup costs of setting up electricity/water/gas/internet
- the silly BBC TV license (jk, the BBC is great, but it was still more money)
- the general cost of living in Madison while planning all of this
- the general cost of living in Nottingham before I got paid (food, incidentals, transit)
What I did to make ends meet
Let me preface this by saying that I had numerous advantages, which will become obvious in a moment. If you want to make money on short notice, you need either well-off people in your orbit who can help you, in-demand skills that require minimal marketing, or things of value you can convert to cash. I was extremely lucky to have all three. I needed all three. Lots of grad students don’t, and “credit card debt!!!” is only an option if you have access to a shit ton of credit. (Make no mistake, I also used this option.)
tl;dr: There are 11 things on this list. I’ve divided them into “Things I Would’ve Done Regardless of Job,” “Things That Are Part and Parcel of Moving Internationally,” and “Fun Extras (Sarcasm).”
Things I Would’ve Done Regardless of Job
No matter where I landed in the fall, I needed to find my own sources of income for the summer, since my graduate program didn’t pay students over the summer by default. In past years, I’d done a combination of TAing, RAing, and applying for grant money, and I’d gotten pretty good at gaming the system to extract the maximum amount of money possible from my institution, about which I have absolutely zero guilt. (Do note that international students in the US face work restrictions and cannot do this.)
My continuation of these practices last summer looked like:
- TAing: For the previous two summers, I’d worked on an online summer course through our International Studies program. Having played a large role in building the course, this was easy work to do again—and thanks to some finagling from the wonderful primary instructor, I got paid for prep work as well, which made the whole thing worthwhile financially.
- Dissertation completion grant: By chance, my department started offering completion grants for the first time last summer. I was all over that. (In a different year, I would’ve applied to different internal grants for research-related expenses. I’ll save my rant on why the ability to pay rent should never be linked to the ability to do research for another time.)
Together, these two things amounted to a few thousand dollars—enough to cover rent and very basic living expenses for three months in a normal year. Had this indeed been a normal year, I likely would’ve stopped there. Alas.
Things that are part and parcel of moving internationally
There’s only one thing in this category, and it’s selling my car. There was zero point in paying to ship my piece of crap car across the ocean to a country with functional public transit when I wouldn’t even be able to drive it on the right side of the road. So I went to CarMax, filled out some paperwork, and was rid of the thing in an hour.
I made about $3,800 doing this, which was honestly shocking given the condition of my car and the ease of the process. This covered the cost of shipping my other belongings. Yay! (Side note: would highly recommend CarMax if you need to sell a car and do not have the time or mental capacity to vet potential buyers on Craigslist, deal with the bill of sale yourself, etc.)
Fun extras (sarcasm)
To be clear: with the possible exception of editing my friend’s book, none of this was fun. Much of it was time-consuming and/or stressful, and some of it required depleting safety nets that I now don’t have for the next time I face a rash of large expenses (wheeeeee). And, as mentioned, it had long-term consequences, the full extent of which I still don’t understand—see Owing Taxes on Things and Oh Joy, My Credit Score Took a Hit and We Live in a Capitalist Hellscape Where This Matters.
It was all also completely necessary. In the week before I finally got my first paycheck in the UK, I was turning down dinner invitations with new colleagues because I couldn’t afford to eat out (or, realistically, to pay them back if they covered my meal, because that first paycheck went to paying off credit card debt and buying, like, sheets). Things were tight, friends, and I honestly don’t know how other people without generational wealth do it aside from racking up further debt. So, I want to be transparent about the resources I had access to and how it was still hard as a way of sending “pay people more!!!” energy out into the universe.
Liquidating an old retirement account
Before grad school, I worked a salaried job for two years. A perk of that job was a retirement account into which part of my salary went every month to collect interest for the future farce of retirement. (Side note: I don’t believe retirement will be a real thing for most of my generation, which did, admittedly, make closing this account easier.) In short, I had about $5,000 sitting in an account that I wasn’t using. That seemed, in the moment, pretty silly.
Closing the account and getting some money out of it was much harder and took much longer than I’d expected. I took a massive penalty for closing it before I’d actually retired, so in the end, I got not quite $3,000 out of the deal. That was, in turn, not quite what it cost to live in Airbnbs and hotels for almost a month while apartment-hunting in Nottingham. Still, it was about $3,000 more money than I would’ve had otherwise, so I stand by this decision 100%.
Every year since I was born until he passed away, my grandfather bought me a Treasury savings bond for Christmas. They were not huge amounts—usually $100 a year—but they’re worth more the longer you wait before cashing them, and that money has made an enormous difference at several junctures in my life where I needed cash quickly.
This only netted about $800, which is a few hundred short of what the security deposit on my new flat in Nottingham cost me. But every little bit helps. And isn’t it convenient to have had a grandfather who could both afford to do this and wasn’t estranged from his family or anything like that. ~cLaSs PoLiTiCs~
Whenever I’ve desperately needed money since, well, college, I’ve prodded friends and acquaintances into paying me to edit their work. I am good at this, I do it quickly, and I enjoy it. In other words, I have a body of work at this point that I can leverage into income.
By pure coincidence, a good friend of mine was finishing her book manuscript this summer and had obtained some grant money to pay an editor. Because she is awesome and we look out for each other in my chosen families, she offered to pay me at a rate that roughly covered my visa application fee.
Was it stressful to have additional work to do while I was trying to adjust to a new job and new country? Kind of, yes, but it was also grounding. I didn’t know how to set up utilities, which felt infantilizing since I had done this who knows how many times in the US, but I knew how to excise Hannah’s many unnecessary adverbs! In any case, grateful for this work.
Complaining to my advisor
I firmly believe no grad student should ever feel, or be made to feel, ashamed for sharing their financial situation with their advisor, but, well, I did. I was so tired and so anxious and it came spilling out—I hadn’t planned to say a word. In retrospect, I’m glad I did from a purely functionalist perspective, as it resulted in him pulling some strings and finding some money in the department for me. This helped defray the cost of my NHS immigrant surcharge.
Complaining on the internet
In contrast, I felt no shame about complaining on the internet, which anyone who knows me knows that I do all the time anyway. A couple of very kind people Venmo’ed me what they could to help—but more significantly (and this part I find hilarious) some stranger flagged my tweets to one of my committee members, who then rushed in with some additional money.
I have a significant presence on Academic Twitter, so my complaints had reach. I also have a large network of friends on the platform, and we all support each other when we can. Obviously not everyone can draw on these things, and that’s before we get to the complete lack of any guilt dissuading me from airing my woes online. Again, I don’t believe we should be embarrassed about discussing such things—embarrassment is for those who perpetually underpay us—but many of us are socialized that discussing these things is tacky and taboo. It’s not. Yell on the internet! If it helps you survive, I’m all for it.
Living with family and friends
Giving myself enough time in Nottingham to find housing before work responsibilities kicked into high gear while also minimizing how much I would have to shell out for temporary housing was a delicate balancing act. To make it work with the timeline of my lease in the US and when I had to ship my belongings so that they might arrive before winter, I ended up spending one week with a friend in Madison and about two and a half weeks at my parents’. I probably saved $1,000 by doing this, and my mother was happy to see me. Win!
I had some. I slashed them. This helped with a bit more of my NHS immigration surcharge. Wheeeeee.
Credit card debt
Confession: I hate credit as a concept. The uncertainty attached to maybe possibly having money in the future is far too much anxiety to wrestle with on a daily basis. I have two credit cards, and I’ve had at least one since I was 20, but I hate their temptation and barely used them until I had to start traveling for conferences and fieldwork. Even then, I paid off the balance in full every month—even if it meant taking on another side hustle, cutting expenses elsewhere, or dipping into savings.
The inadvertent benefit of this is that I have (had?) very good credit, so when I put multiple thousands of dollars’ worth of debt on one card in a month and didn’t pay it off, I got hit immediately with an onslaught of emails from my credit card company and various credit score services yelling “MASSIVE CHANGE IN YOUR FINANCIAL HEALTH” and “ARE YOU DYING WE THINK YOU MIGHT BE DYING.” I have now paid off that debt, mercifully, but it took multiple paychecks at my new job.
You might be thinking: Anna, you did an okay job finding ways to reduce your main immigration-related expenses while also covering your costs of living over the summer. (Thanks, babe.) Why did you need to take on so much debt? Well, because timing never works out like you need it to! I obtained the money to pay off my moving debts about two months after I had to give my moving company money, for example. (I couldn’t sell my car while I still needed it to drive to a different damn city to do my biometrics for my visa.) And any new job does not spontaneously result in more money in your account; that shit takes at least a month, if not longer. So even though I had some means, I would not have been able to make this work without the ability to take on debt, which not everyone has.
I’m trying to think of a way to end this that’s a bit more eloquent than “abolish capitalism” or blasting Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money,” so here is my attempt:
- Pay people more. Pay grad students more.
- Stop with reimbursement and cover your employees’ expenses upfront. Reimbursement is better than nothing, certainly, and it helped me a bunch. Reimbursement is also like credit: you might get some money down the road, provided you submit the correct forms by the correct deadlines, which change all the time, so no one really knows enough to help you. And most significantly, reimbursement does not solve the problem of not being able to pay for things initially. I went with a cheap moving company (a saga for another time) because it’s what I could afford, even though my university “covered” my moving expenses through reimbursement. Stop! It! (And for every person who says “university bureaucracy, blah blah blah,” there is another university that does pay for these things upfront, so this is an instance of institutions not caring enough. It’s not rocket science. Figure it out.)
- Set up institutional channels for sharing advice on the logistics of starting out. My current university had a few of these, but they were all out of date and most of the information was incorrect. I benefited immensely from the generosity of a couple US folks in the UK who went through this process a few years before me. If such people don’t exist at your institution, or if you would like to implement a more systematic solution, get some folks together, do some research, compile resources, and then pay someone to keep them updated.
- Pay people more in general. For fuck’s sake.