Planning and preparing for our return to the U.S. the past couple of months has forced me to return to a most dreaded topic: the financial aspect of living in the U.S. I've had to confront certain facts that I haven't had to think about the last two years: how costly it will be to live in our area of the U.S., how little our money will buy at home, and the adjustments we're going to need to make to our lifestyle. Not that we live lavishly here, mind you. I've always been frugal, and always will be, regardless of how low the cost of living is where I live and how much money I have.
But here are the depressing facts: Currently, both my husband's and my income total less than half of what we earned back home prior to our move here. Even more startling is the fact that both of our current earnings amount to less than what my husband's income alone was and will be back in the U.S. Yet, our comparatively small incomes still allow us to live here comfortably and pay our bills at home all on one income, hire household help, and travel, all with little to no effort. Even though we were able to save almost as much back home as we do now, we had to watch our pennies carefully, we weren't able to travel nearly as much as we do now, whether domestically or internationally, and we rarely hired household help. And did I mention how little we make now compared to when we were back home?
Recently, I came across this infographic showing how much income is needed to be middle class in each state of the U.S. I noticed several things right away: 1) Maryland, where we call home, requires the most income of all the states; 2) the median household income in MD is not much lower than what my husband and I earn currently in Thailand; and 3) we used to make considerably more than the upper end of what's considered middle-class in MD; yet, our quality of life was not even half as good as it is now.
The differences are shocking. I realize that there are huge differences between Thailand, a developing country, and the U.S., a first-world country. Yet, the idea of making a decent living and supporting one's family in the U.S. feels close to impossible while the possibilities seem endless here. Whereas the U.S. used to be the land of hopes and dreams, where people with less fortunate circumstances headed to make better lives for themselves and their children, it now seems neither appealing nor conceivable to do so. In short, America is no longer the land of opportunities.
In contrast, it seems easy to make a living and support oneself here. Even those in the lower economic class making only a few hundred dollars a month seem to struggle much less than those similarly situated in the U.S. Moreover, one can make a living doing almost anything; there seem to be many more opportunities for people to make a living here -- if you have a skill or talent, smarts, and creativity, you can make a living. For example, many people are able to open small restaurants or sell food or crafts from their own homes. Then there is the taxi driver who has a side business, making a ridiculous amount of money, doing paperwork for expats and taking them to the immigration office to help them with their visas. We also know people who make a great living as private drivers. And it's been suggested to me to start an online English tutoring business, which would allow me to work with Thai students while living in the U.S. Here, it seems if you see a need and have the skills to fill the need, you're set.
In addition, food and healthcare costs are a fraction of those in the U.S. As a result, while the poverty rate is pretty high, the rate of hunger is very low. And even if one has no insurance here, one can still afford health care and will not be bankrupted just because of one catastrophic illness.
There are also not the exorbitant childcare costs here, it seems. Extended families still live close to each other, spend their free time together, and watch each others' children. It is also very common for many people to have household help, which also helps to reduce the unemployment rate.
Of course, Thailand is far from perfect and definitely has more than its share of problems -- including corruption and a rigid social hierarchy that prevents upward mobility. And maybe it's easier for farang who are outside this rigid social system to make it here. I also know I'm over-simplifying things. Still, returning to one's home country to live and work should not be more of a financial feat than moving to and working in a foreign land where there are so many barriers to overcome as a foreigner -- language, cultural, social, political, just to name a few. Perhaps, as one of my colleagues says, Thailand is the new wild west, waiting to be discovered and transformed.