Grocery Money



A few years ago, a girlfriend of mine was coming out of the baby haze of three children in as many years. Over coffee with friends she suggested she was ready to return to the office. Actually, she was ready to return anywhere, as long as it was out of her house and someone was prepared to pay her.

“I just want something part-time, just to dip my toes back in the water, and that extra grocery money would be good.”

It was then that I noticed the side eye glance between two other friends in the group.

“What was that about?” I asked my side eyed friend later on.

“Some of us don’t have the luxury of extra grocery money, some of us have to go back to work – you know, to eat and pay the mortgage?!”

In the expat world the notion of grocery money comes in a more sinister form.

When your career is transient and work permits or visas come before job offers and employment contracts, more often than not it’s women who find themselves and their careers as the after thought. And when I say after I mean after the children have places in school, after you’ve found a house, and after every day life doesn’t feel like a game of Survivor. Yes, there are plenty of men who travel with their partner’s career, but sadly they’re still in the minority.

I’ve noticed a theme when asking an expat mother for a quick resume breakdown. It’s likely you’ll receive geographical markings with each pregnancy or birth.

“I was a banker in London when I fell pregnant with our first, the job opportunity for my husband came up here and it made financial sense – that was two babies and three years ago” said a friend.

“We were both working for the same oil company in Norway when we met, but we moved here for his job, I figured it would be easy to find something once I got here.” said another.

“I worked in a market in the States that just doesn’t exist here, and no-one would ever pay me as much” said a girlfriend over the phone.

“Why?” I knew the answer, but I wanted to double check.

“Because when I go for the interview they know I’m already here on my husband’s visa, they know that my choices are limited and I need the job. Often they’ll actually say out loud that they want a travelling spouse, that they’re not offering housing, school fees or sponsorship, and the salary isn’t as strong.”

“Do they offer those things to other people in the office?”

“Of course they do – they’re just taking advantage of the talent pool on the ground.”

I sat outside late yesterday afternoon with a girlfriend, she’d just finished a rather harrowing day at work, a day which required a strong cup of coffee at its end.

We talked of the conference I went to over the weekend. Of how dodgy the industry can be because PR companies won’t openly discuss how they calculate payment to Bloggers. There’s no fee per word, or algorithm based on stats.

Every day I am asked to work for free. Every day a PR company comes to me representing a huge international brand asking for access to this page. Every day there’s another insulting offer that’s way under market value.

“I know that it makes good business sense to offer as little as possible, but it just feels shady.” I can’t help but feel I’m being manipulated.

My girlfriend offered an opinion. “I think it’s probably because they think of bloggers as mothers at home, just trying to earn a bit of extra cash”.

And there it was again. Grocery money.

With over 15 years of recruiting experience I know how this works. I’ve written the job descriptions while clients have given me their “ideal candidate”.

“This would be a nice one for a Mum” a suit will say with a wink.

“If there was an expat wife out there with the right skills, this would be perfect”.

What this usually translates to is this is a job that pays less, offers no chance of promotion, and requires exceptional analytical skills.

I realized that I’d helped perpetuate this problem. I thought of all the times I’d sat with friends while we talked about returning to the workforce or starting a business. How many fantastically entrepreneurial girlfriends had I watched set up thriving businesses only to describe it as “something I do on the side” or “something to keep me busy.” We were our own worst enemy.

It’s not extra money. It’s not every little bit helps. It’s not my way of contributing.

It’s my income, my salary, my market value.

Don’t devalue yourself.

It’s not grocery money.


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  1. We’re our own worst enemies aren’t we? Although not an expat, I work part-time in a corporate area and still catch myself sometimes describing my job as supplementing my husband’s income, even though it’s MY career.
    Your whirlwind trip to London sounded amazing. Hope you got a lot out of it 🙂

  2. I can so relate to this post. We have lived in 5 countries including our home country as a married couple. In each country I have had to reinvent myself. While the extra “grocery money” comes in handy, earning even a small salary helps me feel like I am making a contribution.

  3. So well said Francesca.

  4. You are so right! When I started consulting 13 years ago to have flexibility around my kids, I used to worry about what to charge for one type of work over another. A wise woman told me that your time is worth one price, regardless of how significant or mundane the work the client asks for. You never want to get stuck doing a 1/2 priced job when a full price offer comes along. Our experience sets our value and not the number of hours we choose to work. It’s that same experience which enables us to choose the flexibility of when we work or not. No mom-lawyer ever cut her billing rate when working flexible hours even when she hangs out her own shingle. I wouldn’t have gone to university and continue to educate myself if I was looking for grocery money. Companies who assume one demographic or another are prepared to accept less than their full professional value just because there is a second bread winner in the family need to rethink their business model.

  5. I am in the thick of exactly this myself, at home here in Adelaide, so I can only imagine how torturous it must be in expat-land. I feel like I am prostituting myself for a relatively shite salary in recompense for family friendly flexibility. It’s fucked and come 2014 I will not tolerate it any more…xx

  6. Spot on! I don’t view my paid work as grocery money but I am surrounded by people who do treat it that way. So far to go still.

  7. Yes, exactly. This whole idea of a “supplementary” income???

  8. Go Lucy!!!

  9. Just love this comment,

    “I wouldn’t have gone to university and continue to educate myself if I was looking for grocery money”.

  10. Off to finish getting my resume all shiny! xx

  11. Awesomely put – but a huge hole to try dig oneself out of!

  12. Absolutely – and the great thing about blogs like this is providing a forum for this to be talked about. Like many things, it won’t change as long as the investment in the status quo (generally dominated by men) begin to see things differently – and that means women must stand up and tell them! Good for you, Kirsty.

  13. I have encountered trailing spouse positions when the annual salary was my weekly net take home in England.
    Worst of all ,the remuneration is only whispered well after you have jumped through various hoops and waited ages for a response .

  14. Guess that’s why the gender gap exists: employers still think of us as being supported by husbands.

  15. You damn right it’s not grocery money. It’s money. Hard earnt and to be proud of.

  16. This is the session that resonated most with me too. It sounds like your children have a wonderful life in Doha. Lovely to meet you on Saturday.

  17. Brilliant! Brilliant! Brilliant! I’m sharing this on my FB page for all of my friends to read. This is a huge problem in society today. Our kids don’t know how to do anything on their own or even “who they are” because they’re not allowed to have any time to themselves to just test things out or figure it out by themselves.
    Two weeks ago my 3rd (& youngest, who is 5 yrs) fell off his 2-wheel bike that he had just learned how to ride the week before. He fell in the street because he was doing what he calls “swirling” with the steering wheel & lost his balance. Anyhow, he knocked his front tooth out (thankfully a baby tooth) & bloodied his chin & mouth up very nicely. I felt very guilty because neither my husband nor I was outside with him. But my oldest son was across the street playing basketball & came running when he heard the first screams from his little brother. Everyone survived & my husband & I have decided that everyone should have a good “face-plant on the bike” story…& now our youngest has one too. If we had been hovering, he might’ve made it to adulthood with no great stories to share. 🙂

  18. I thought all 3 speakers in that sessions were brilliant, Jon Ronson had me crying with laughter. Loved our chat over lunch. Same time next year??

  19. That was the single most memorable quote of the day for me too. Prof. Tanya is my new Icon. We don’t have kids yet but our lives are geared towards exploring the outdoors and enjoying our freedom, I would hope that when we do have kids, this would extend to them. The Project Wild Thing movement has really truck a chord with me on this issue.

    Really interesting to hear your about own personal ‘captivity,’ how ironic that this inpoundment is the very thing that is enabling you to give your kids their freedom. Sounds like they’re having a blast.

    In terms of kids and captivity in the context of technology, it’s fascinating to me that kids are penned up indoors to keep them safe and yet these captive children are exposed to equally (far worse?) disturbing horrors via technology….

  20. They were, it was an unexpected gem of a session. Loved spending time with you at lunch and I will definitely see you next year.

  21. I think it sounds great. We live in the country now, and one of the clear benefits is the kids have a bit more freedom. The streets are wide and safe, there are footpaths for them to walk on or ride their bikes, and lovely parks nearby. Everyone knows us. They can walk to the park with their friends – or ride – and come home at a time I set, and half that little bit of freedom and responsibility I had as a tween. I know exactly where they are and who they are with and it’s just down the road. If they were to go anywhere else, I would know, because someone would tell me. But they don’t, because they are thrilled, just to be trusted. And I can pop down there to check on them at anytime, with the ruse of bringing snacks or drinks! It’s so nice to have a community watching our backs and vice versa. Not exactly compound living but I get the advantage of it. My kids are getting a taste of the freedom I had as a child, and I think that’s invaluable.

  22. I knew that conference would be a good one!

    Now I want to move to Doha too…any room for us?

  23. Ah, summer days spent climbing the big pear tree behind the house, or roaming in the fields as hay was being harvested, or jumping off roofs into those huge metal bins to land on the tiny metal shavings they contained, building “cabins” in the woods, falling not off but with my bike down the nearest creek… Happy memories now I look back on them!

  24. When I was living in Lapland and thought that was where my children would grow up I was perfectly happy with the idea of free range kids and the freedoms they would have roaming around the countryside. Now that we live in the UK I’m less happy about it. Less sure. At least at the moment, at their ages. It’s the roads that bother me – those cars speeding through housing estates the driver only caring about being late for something. the way no-one stops to let you cross the busier roads. Gah. and yet I want my kids to have all the freedoms I had as a child.

  25. So, so true! Well said indeed. Particularly the crap truth about mummy bloggers who will “happily” work for free. Do you know the Australian writer Catherine Deveny? She’s so feraking awesome. Here is her blog post on a similar topic, including a fabulous letter explaining why she won’t work for free:

  26. Sorry…freaking…got a bit carried away there…

  27. I’ve just watch the Prof Tanya thing today. I wanted to be her! Your compound sounds great, like the road I grew up on. I do think it’s a bit of shame our kids (well mine) has replaced the freedom of roaming outside with a gang of kids and all that negotiation, laughs, losses and imagination in that kind of play for technology which often spoon feeds kids.
    was fab to meet you even if briefly.

  28. This is so true. I am not an expat but certainly at a turning point in my life where what has been and what is to come are potentially going to look very different. Now I have to find the what is to come and work out how to turn that into an income!

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