Friday, August 14, 2015

Our Money Struggle: The Long Story

Alright, so as previously mentioned, our bank back home (we're calling it Fells Wargo) made it extremely difficult for us to access our money when we first arrived and needed to pay our deposit and first month's rent on our apartment. Here's the long version of how it all went down.

Thursday: We found a great apartment and told the real estate agent that we would like to call dibs. All we needed to do was sign the paperwork and transfer our deposit and rent over to the agency so it could officially be claimed as ours. We set an appointment for 2pm on Friday to take care of that.

Thursday afternoon: Just to be sure, I called Fells Wargo to update the travel warning on our account so no transactions got blocked and to make sure there would be no funny business with transferring our money over to Australia. Lo and behold, there would be funny business. The extremely friendly and concerned call center lady (no sarcasm there, the folks over a Fells Wargo actually are friendly and as helpful as they can be) put me on hold while she polled the audience to figure out a work around.

So as it turns out, if I were living in a country in Central America, southeast Asia, or India I could have easily transferred money to myself. Fells Wargo has a system set up so workers in America that are supporting family back home can easily send their monthly wages to what most of us would consider developing countries. But because I am currently living in a stable economy, I was bum out of luck. I could transfer the money to myself, but I would have to go to a Fells Wargo branch in person.

"...I'm in Australia."

"Yeah. That wouldn't work, would it."

"Could my father-in-law go into a branch for me? He has power of attorney over our estate."

"That only works with regards to your bank accounts if you have died."

"Welp. I'm not willing to do that in order to get this apartment."

"Can you charge it on your credit card?"

"No, I've already asked because that would get me some AWESOME points for airline miles."

"Are you interested in signing up for the Fells Wargo traveller American Express credit card?"

" That still wouldn't help me."

"Could you write yourself a check using a Fells Wargo check and deposit it into your Australian bank account?"

"Yes, but it would take 28 days for the check to clear here in Australia."

"Can you go to the ATM and withdraw money?"

"Well, yes, but I can only withdraw $400 at a time and we need over $4000."

"You can't just go a bunch of times?"

"Nope. You only let me max out my ATM withdrawal once a day and I need to pay this deposit tomorrow."

"Hold please."

[Really obnoxious, shrill Fells Wargo promotional hold music]

"Ma'am, you have a $400 limit on your ATM withdrawals, but you can spend up to $5000 a day on your debit card."

"...uh. That's good to know..."

"So can you just charge it to your debit card?"

"No, it doesn't work like that. I have to transfer the money over to a bank here. Money doesn't actually change hands here. The money is deposited straight into a government-monitored real estate trust so that there isn't any funny business with landlords. The system is set up to protect me."

"And you can't charge it to your credit card?"

We weren't getting anywhere. Finally, after about 2 hours on the phone with Fells Wargo, the solution we decided on was that I would buy a cashier's check for the deposit and rent and turn around and deposit that into my bank account so I could transfer money over to the real estate agency.

Friday mid day: I head out to the post office to buy a money order (they don't sell money orders or cashier's checks at grocery stores here), only to find out that my Fells Wargo card was being blocked.  The less than sympathetic people at the post office say it must be a problem with my bank. Or maybe it's a problem with their system. Maybe I could go to another post office. Or maybe I should try to buy a bank cheque.

"...what is a bank cheque?"

"It's like a money order, but you buy it from a bank."

My blood pressure spikes and I angrily call Fells Wargo as I head toward a bank close to the real estate agent. I am assured that Fells Wargo didn't block the transaction and they don't know why it didn't go through.

Friday 2pm: I'm supposed to be sitting in the agency office signing my lease right now. But I'm not. I'm standing in a branch of my Australian bank trying to buy 2 bank cheques. The transaction is once again blocked. I am once again pissed. The helpful lady at my Australian bank calls Fells Wargo to see if she can talk to them bank-to-bank, but they won't disclose anything about my account to anyone but me.

I storm out and call Fells Wargo again. I am fuming at this point. I'm embarrassed. I've been to two different establishments to try to do a simple transaction and I can't. I'm supposed to be an upstanding renter and yet I can't even be on time with signing my lease.

Friday afternoon: After literally an hour on the phone with Fells Wargo, I find out that the banks in Australia run the bank cheque transaction as a cash withdrawal as opposed to a debit transaction (I have NO idea what the difference is between the two), so could they just not do that?

Nope. Turns out they can't. I am defeated. I go to the real estate agency, apologize profusely to our agent and explain my embarrassing story. He is very polite about the whole thing and says that if we can at least get the first month's rent to him by Monday he can take it off the online listings and we can move in.

Ok. New goal.

I get back on the phone with Fells Wargo. Can they please increase my cash withdrawal limit just once so I can do this one transaction and be done?

"We have a maximum cash withdrawal limit of $2,000..."

"That would be perfect! If you can up my limit to that right now I can still pay my first month's rent today!"

"Hold please."

[again with the shrill hold music]

"Ma'am, I'm very sorry but I cannot increase your cash withdrawal limit at this time."

All the bad words. I wanted to say all the bad words at that moment.

"Why not?"

"I...I just can't."

"Ok, is there a supervisor or someone I can talk to? You realize that this is MY money? I have worked and saved for months so I could use MY money for this exact purpose and Fells Wargo is now holding MY money hostage while I am in a time of need overseas."

"I am sorry ma'am. We cannot increase your cash withdrawal limit at this time. It might be an issue with the system. Maybe if you try tomorrow?"

"Ok, see it is already tomorrow where I am right now. It is coming up on the end of business on Friday here in Australia and it's not even midnight where you are Thursday, so 'tomorrow' is not going to help me over here."

"Right, but if you call back after midnight here, maybe the system will let us increase your limit."

At this point I have NO idea why "the system" hated me, but I was reaching my BS limit. I waited exactly 20 minutes for it to pass midnight on the west coast and called Fells Wargo again.

This guy, bless his heart, had no idea the snark he was signing himself up for when he answered my call. I explained my situation for the millionth time ("I'm in Australia, yadda yadda yadda") and he checked if I could increase my withdrawal limit. No dice, but he did have a recommendation for something that might help me since I am a frequent traveller.

"Seth, I'm going to stop you right there because I know you're going to try to offer me the Fells Wargo traveller American Express credit card and I am not going to sit through that sales pitch again. It is not a solution that is going to help me and American Express is literally not accepted ANYWHERE in the world but America these days and I don't want a credit card."


After much hemming and hawing, Seth asked if my husband was around because maybe he could increase HIS withdrawal limit.

A glimmer of hope!

That quickly fizzled. No dice. Maybe if I tried back after the open of business on Friday?

I stayed awake until 1am Saturday morning and called Fells Wargo probably 4 more times trying to see if I could trick someone into upping my withdrawal fee. I had the pleasure of a brief conversation with Jeff, a trainee in Charlotte, North Carolina who was very stumped with my situation and I could hear his supervisor feeding him Fells Wargo approved answers over his shoulder.

Finally, before going to bed defeated, I was able to get a hold of one of our close friends who lived on the eastern seaboard and he agreed to go to his own Fells Wargo branch and transfer the money over to us. I was able to send him reimbursement quite easily because THAT is something Fells Wargo is happy to let me do online. According to the teller at his branch in DC, the money would leave Fells Wargo immediately and it would be up to my bank in Australia as to how long it would take to arrive in my account.

Surely an American business day and a whole weekend would mean the money would be waiting for me as soon as business opened on Monday morning in Australia.


Monday morning: Monday rolled around and in our account sat the same $100 we'd used to open it a week before.

I called my Australian bank and was told it could take as much a 10 business days for an international bank transfer to go through.

TEN BUSINESS DAYS!? I timidly call our real estate agent again and tell him that I still don't have the money but I was still working on it.

I call Fells Wargo again just to see if I would get lucky and up my withdrawal limit. I beg my Australian bank to let me buy bank cheques on debit or credit. I plead with the post office. And finally the Mister says it: "Maybe you should call your parents."

It's the nightmare of any full grown adult. I hate having to admit money troubles to either set of parents, but technically this wasn't a money problem so much as a bank problem. I called my parents to see if they could quickly go to a Western Union and wire us money. I would reimburse them immediately. They were happy to help.

Western Union, however, was not. All branches were closed in Nashville. It would have to wait until my evening when North America woke up again for business. So while I slept that night, my parents went to their local bank branch, which also happens to do Western Union transactions, and wired me a buttload of money.

Tuesday morning: I had already been advised to go to a major post office to pick up my wire transfer because the smaller branches wouldn't have that kind of cash on hand. So I trudge up to the biggest post office branch near the airbnb we were staying in and explained my situation. They will definitely be able to help me, but not until 3 or 4pm this afternoon because they don't have that kind of money on hand at the beginning of the day.


I start to panic. I had checked my Australian bank account when I woke up and the Fells Wargo transfer still hadn't gone through. I compulsively checked my account again as I walked out of the post office and THE BANK TRANSFER GODS HAD SMILED DOWN ON ME! The money was in my account!! All of it!

I danced my way to my nearest bank branch, bought the bank cheques and FINALLY delivered the money to our agent!

The photo I sent to Tyler when I finally got in to the apartment for the first time. 

At the end of it all, it was only a 4 business day saga, but considering we went from "never late with the rent" tenants to "I promise we're good for the money" tenants in the eyes of our real estate agent, it was humiliating and very stressful.

Lesson learned, kids. Don't bank with Fells Wargo if you ever plan to move overseas.

I told you it was a long story.

Vicariously yours,

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Melbourne: SOOO many lessons learned already

Lesson #1: American banks are NOT easy to work with when you aren't in America or in a developing country.  So when you move overseas from America you get mixed messages about what to do with your American finances. Keep the bank account? Close the bank account? The Mister and I decided to keep our bank account Stateside because it would allow us to transfer money to friends and family (a la group Christmas gifts, etc) and we could maintain some form of credit while being overseas.

HOLY CANOLI is it ever difficult to get your money out of those American banks once you have left! Well, I can only speak to the difficulty I had with our bank which will remain un-named. Let's call it Fells Wargo.

So I had transferred all our money from Kuwait to our Fells Wargo account before we left and figured I could easily transfer it to my Australian bank account once I had established one (see lesson #2). Nope. It was a FOUR DAY ordeal to get OUR money out of our Fells Wargo account and to us so that we could pay the deposit and first month's rent on our apartment. In the end, we had to have a friend transfer the money to us while we simultaneously had my parents Western Union us the money because the bank transfer was going to take too long. The full story will get its own blog post for those that want to hear it.

Lesson #2: You can't get a bank account without an Australian address. You can't get an address without a phone number. You can't get a phone number without a bank account.  To say the first couple of days in the country were maddeningly confusing is putting it lightly. I mean, I get it. You don't want to do business with just anybody. But are we seriously the only people that had come to this country with nothing but big dreams and the promise of a grad school program starting in two weeks?!

Thankfully the owners of the airbnb we stayed in were super cool and allowed us to use their address to establish our bank account which got the ball rolling on everything else. I don't know what we would have done had we stayed in a hotel!

Lesson #3: The trams lie. In general, the public transportation in Melbourne is not designed for out-of-towners. There is one phone app that can be handy when planning your trip from point A to point B, but if the trams are included on any part of that journey, you need another app to help you navigate that part of your trip and heaven help you if buses are involved!

The bus lines don't show up on Google maps, so you could be standing 10 feet away from a public transportation point but never know it.

The trams don't stop at every stop during non-peak hours, which seems to just be a tacit understanding among tram users here 'cause it sure ain't posted anywhere!

Sometimes there is construction at an existing tram stop, so they move the stop to a temporary one like 25 feet BEFORE the original tram stop and you don't realize it until after you have passed both and you're screwed.

As previously mentioned, the trams don't stop at all the stops during non-peak hours, so you have to keep an eye on where your tram is and pull the cord or push the button to let the driver know you want to stop at the next one. That means you have to know what the stops before yours look like so you can recognize your surroundings and pull the cord at the right time. But what if you've never lived in this city before? That's where the TramTracker app comes in handy, unless you're wanting to stop at a temporary tram stop and you don't know it because YOU'VE NEVER LIVED IN THIS CITY BEFORE.

Lesson #4: Random things don't play on YouTube here. In Kuwait we could watch all the Comedy Central clips with no problem, but they won't play here. I wonder if it's because you can get Comedy Central on cable television here so they're trying to force you to buy it instead of watch it for free? Eh, either way, we just kick ZenMate into gear and enjoy unfettered YouTubing via VPN.

Lesson #5: Everything works on the left side. I had never noticed it before because this is my first time living in a country that drives on the left, but we tend to follow the rules of the road even when we're not on the road. On a sidewalk in America, if someone is coming toward you, you go right so they can pass you on your left side (unless you're on a super crowded sidewalk; then it is a toss-up and things get awkward). On the escalators in America, you stand to the right and let people pass on the left. Same generally goes for bike paths and things like that.

Not here! You stand on the left of the escalators because when driving on the highway you pass on the right (I assume). It took us a couple days to realize we were being Those People.

Lesson #6: Rentals don't come with a fridge here. They also don't come with a washer or a dryer, but that's also not assumed in American rentals, so we weren't surprised by that lesson. Also, dishwashers aren't always a given (not unusual by American rental standards), but often times there is space and the hookups for a dishwasher, you just have to bring your own (unusual by American rental standards). But no fridge?! Really!? Australia is the place to move if you're in the refrigerator business!

Thankfully we found a delightful business that specializes in refurbished and factory second-hand appliances and were able to get our fridge, washer and dryer, and microwave for *just* under budget!

Learning the Lessons after moving to a new place is, strangely, one of my favorite parts of living overseas. Even though it can be very frustrating and lonely at times, its lessons like these that separate you from the tourists and get you one step closer to being a local.

Vicariously yours,

Friday, August 7, 2015

I think I'm gonna like it here

My fascination with Australia is long standing. We did a unit on Australia when I was in elementary school. The father of one of my classmates was Australian and he performed "Waltzing Matilda" for us and explained that hearing that song is enough to make every Aussie "want to swim back home." I had a pen pal from Orange, New South Wales when I was a kid and I remember getting Australian currency and a Christmas card from her as she described having Christmas in 45 degree heat. It was one of my first lessons in Fahrenheit and Celsius.

I have always had Australia on my List. I still can't believe that the Mister and I are actually living here.

It's been a tough introduction to the land down under. Two weeks after we got here, Tyler's grandmother died. Then as soon as he got back from the funeral he came down with a horrible stomach flu which I promptly also caught. Getting into our apartment was an ordeal deserving of a blog post all its own.

Even though it has not been completely smooth sailing, I can tell that we are really going to like it here.

There is so much interesting architecture. This is a train station!

 We LOVE our apartment, even though it is the smallest place we have ever lived. We don't need much, and it makes cleaning SO easy. There is a grocery store literally 20 steps from our back door and a fresh vegetable market two doors down. The neighborhood we live in is very international, with a large Asian population, so there are tons of yummy Thai, dumpling, ramen, and Korean restaurants just steps away. We won't be able to frequent them very often because food is expensive here!

The urban street art is great in this city! As I understand it, there are streets dedicated to street artists where graffiti gets left up permanently as an ever-changing gallery.

And, of course, my personal favorite:

GREEN!! There are PARKS! And they're HUGE! And there isn't a wall surrounding them! And people can take their dogs there! And they're in the middle of the city! With an array of flora and STATUES and public performances and...and...and...

It's wonderful! When Tyler and I decided to leave the Middle East, we said that where ever we go next in the world from now on need to have PPB: pork, parks, and bars. It's not like we eat bacon with every meal or go drinking every weekend, but we just missed being surrounded by green, being able to meet up with friends for a happy hour every now and then, and the divine joy a perfectly grilled bratwurst can give you on a warm summer evening.

We have been able to partake in two of those three things since we landed. We're working on the whole make-friends-to-meet-up-with-for-happy-hour thing.

I live in a place with FAIRY TREES, y'all! I don't even know what that is but I am SO EXCITED!

I am really looking forward to exploring this city more and finding new favorite hang outs. More updates to come with photos of the apartment once everything has been put up. Our shipment from Kuwait is in the country, we are just waiting on it to clear customs and get delivered. Hopefully that'll happen soon.

Till then I remain

Vicariously yours,