Right now, I’m in Tokyo, possibly relaxing at an izakaya with a glass of sake and a plate of sashimi. This is the culmination of a saving adventure that began two years ago; the successful result involves stuffing a family of three into a 290 square foot apartment.
Any time I leave town, especially on an international trip, I make a checklist. I’ve written about financial checklists before, and the concept is simple: a checklist is a list of dumb, obvious things that you know you’re supposed to do, but in the hustle and bustle of real life, you will forget one or more of them. Even doctors use checklists with items like “wash your hands” and “double-check that you’re not leaving surgical tools inside the patient” to make sure they don’t forget anything. If they can do it, so can we.
Here’s the checklist I used before skipping the country this time around. As promised, nothing here is rocket science, but I encourage you to steal my checklist and make it your own.
Did I leave anything out? Since I’m actually writing this column before I go, guess I’ll find out the hard way. I’m trying to restrict this list to items with an obvious financial impact. Yes, I’ll try and remember to turn off the oven.
Pay the rent
Twice, I’ve been out of town on the first and forgotten to write the rent check early. This time, I put it on my calendar with an email reminder, but it’s going on the checklist, too, just in case. If you have any other bills that need to be paid manually (via online bill pay, of course), put them on the list, too.
Sort out your wallet
Chances are, I’m not going to need my “Frequent Slicer” card from my favorite Seattle pizza chain in Tokyo. Same goes for my bus pass, Safeway club card, and a couple of debit cards that don’t need to accompany me overseas. If I’m not carrying it, I can’t lose it. I’m also making sure to bring the cards that charge the lowest international fees.
Call the card issuers
If I don’t call my banks’ fraud prevention departments and tell them I’ll be out of the country, my credit and debit cards won’t work when I get there.
Exchange some cash
Unfortunately, sometimes I call the banks and tell them I’ll be out of the country, and my cards still don’t work, if only for a day or two. So I’m bringing a couple of days’ worth of yen with me. Even though there isn’t a way to buy foreign currency in the US without paying an exorbitant fee, the peace of mind is worth it.
Check the freshness date
If you’re like me, you’ve forgotten that the expiration date on your credit card is anything other than a four-digit identifier. If your card expires while you’re on a trip and the bank sends a new card to your home address, you’re hosed. Check those dates and call the bank ahead of time to figure out a solution.
Write down bank and credit card contact numbers
If I do need to call my card issuer—either because my card isn’t working or because I dropped it on the subway—I’ll need the phone number printed on the back of the card. Great, I’ll just pull out the card and—dangit!
So I made a list of those numbers—not just the 800 numbers, but also the long-distance numbers, because you’re allowed to call those collect from outside the country. June Walbert, an experienced traveler and certified financial planner with USAA, has a tip for making this easy: “I make a physical copy of the front and back,” she says. “Leave one at home and carry one with you.”
Turn it off
This one is less about financial services and more about old-fashioned conservation: I’m turning off the power at home to everything except the fridge. (Now that I think about it, I wonder if we could literally eat everything in the fridge before we go?)
I’m planning to use Skype over wi-fi if I want to make a phone call to the US, but I definitely plan to use 3G data on my smartphone, because most streets in Tokyo are literally nameless, but Google Maps knows them all. To avoid larcenous data charges, I’m buying a block of international data usage before we go and turning off automatic email checking and other background services on my phone.
Avoid a financial car crash
“If you rent a car,” says Walbert, “make sure you understand what’s insured and what isn’t: your credit card and your own auto policy might cover a car rental on international turf or they might not. Assume nothing.”
Keep that wound covered
You probably understand reasonably well how your medical insurance works at home, but when you travel abroad, the rules may change. Find out before you come down with disco fever or whatever the local ailment is.
There, that should do it. Oh, one more item: have fun and try not to worry about the stuff I left off thechecklist. Check.
Matthew Amster-Burton is a personal finance columnist at Mint.com. Find him on Twitter @Mint_Mamster.