Cat Holladay is a US-based family travel writer with a degree in Journalism and a Masters in Art Education. After more than a decade as a VP and operations manager in the corporate world, she stepped back to focus on working to live, not living to work. She now spends her time freelance writing, blogging, and traveling the world with her husband and their four year-old son.
Where are you living now and where did you live originally?
Originally from the US, after college, I moved to Paris, France to study and work. Learning French as I went (through intensive courses at the Sorbonne), I worked with an award-winning documentary filmmaker as a lighting and sound technician.
When Adam, now my husband, visited me overseas for his first taste of Europe, we decided that one day we would live abroad together. That opportunity came up 12 years later and we took it, selling nearly everything we owned and moving with our 4-year-old son to Finland. As the work assignment was only temporary, we took advantage of all the country had to offer – exploring every weekend and learning as much as we could about the country and its customs.
Now back in the US, we are currently in Charlottesville, Virginia for a brief time. We are in the beginning stages of our family’s next adventure. We purchased a motorhome and are learning the ins and outs before taking off on a US road trip for 10 months!
How long have you lived your current destination or last destination as an expat?
I lived in Paris for 8 months, Finland for 6 months, and just moved back to the US in July.
How may countries have you lived in as an expat?
I have lived in 2 countries as an expat, enjoying every minute of both places. Most recently, our family of three was living in Finland (in winter!).
What made you decide to move to the current country as an expat?
Though we are no longer in Finland, my husband’s work had an opportunity there that we were able to take advantage of.
What were your biggest fears of moving if any?
We had heard that Finnish was the second-hardest language for native English speakers, so before moving, we were most nervous about learning to speak and understanding others. We found that it IS really hard. Fortunately, most Finns speak great English so we didn’t have many issues, although we often felt lost. Our son had a tough time on the playgrounds with other children as they had not yet learned English and he only knew a few words in Finnish.
How do you keep in contact with friends and family and do you get to see them often?
Thank goodness for technology! While in Finland, we Facetimed and Skyped…A LOT! We didn’t see many of our family members the entire time we were gone. However, a couple DID come visit us. Now that we are back in the states, we keep up with our Finnish friends via WhatsApp and Facebook.
How did you decide what countries or country you would become an expat in?
Finland was one of our first choices for my husband’s work assignment as he was applying. We had visited briefly the summer before moving and found the country to be the cleanest we had ever experienced. Also, the people seemed very friendly. Couple that with our research that showed Finland to be one of the world’s safest countries, and the fact that being from Florida we had never experienced a true winter, we were raring to go! (Now that we’ve checked a true winter off the list, we probably won’t live anywhere that cold ever again!)
How do you make you living as an expat in Finland?
My husband’s job was our primary source of income while we were abroad. I worked part time remotely as a small business consultant as well.
Do you live the (nomad life or location independent life – work and travel freely) If so how easy or difficult was it is do? What challenges did you face? What type of nomad work do you do? Any tips for people that want to start this type of lifestyle?
This is something we are venturing into before the end of the year. It is a very difficult transition to say goodbye to a steady paycheck and a solid income, not to mention great benefits), but we’ve decided to work to live, not the other way around. Living in Finland showed us that you don’t have to work 12-hour days to be productive. But unfortunately, the American lifestyle encourages a heavy focus on work, rather than a healthy balance of work and family. We have saved for several years in order to be able to take a significant amount of time off. During the adventure, we are hoping to find our true passion that will double as a source of income. The blog is an initial step in this direction.
As and expat in the current country your are living in or any previous countries (did you speak the languages or learn any of the languages) if so what languages do you speak or did you learn? Any tips for people wanting to learn languages (self taught sites etc) or any other tips?
I did not speak French before moving to France but did study through an intensive course at the Sorbonne. This was a great way to learn a language and it also kep you accountable and practicing! We did not speak Finnish before moving either. We did try the language app Mango and found it to be really good, but for more than one person it was difficult to sit around the same screen to study it. Mango is best served for individuals. We found the best way to learn Finnish, for us, was to speak with locals and we had our friends double up our conversations – first in Finnish then in English so we heard it more often. Some languages are easier than others – we’d recommend learning the pronunciation of letters before trying anything else.
What are the approx costs of living where you are now or any previous place you have lived as an expat?
Finland is a fairly expensive country for nearly everything you need to buy. Housing was astronomical and so were shoes. However, organic produce was quite reasonable. We experienced about a 20% increase in loving expenses.
Rent + Utilities
Although the company took care of my husband’s portion of housing, we were responsible for the additional space (since it wasn’t originally a family assignment). As such, we had the opportunity to see local prices for rent. Finland (and all Scandinavian countries are definitely not cheap! The average 2 bedroom flat in town ran about €550 per week. Electricity, water, and trash as well as internet were included in most rentals we noticed.
We chose not to purchase a vehicle for our time abroad, opting instead to rent a car every weekend. Despite these costs, it ended up being far more cost-effective to rent every single weekend than it would have been to buy anything. We also used the trains quite often, and even a bus here and there. Flights throughout Europe are usually pretty inexpensive once you are over there.
Weekly food shopping
This was an area that we found was actually quite comparable in many areas to the US. Most fresh food items were actually similar in price to an organic or high-end market in the States. There were a few things you had to spend more for like Oreos and other imported goodies, but honestly, the Finnish selection of pastries and confections, as well as boxed food kept us busy and we didn’t find the need for comforts from home. Milk and yogurt seemed to be two things that were cheaper in Finland.
With the advent of Skype and FaceTime, we didn’t have much of a need for a phone.
Eating out can get pricey. On average, a bill for a family of three was between €65-85. One way to combat that was to eat a little earlier when there were specials on at restaurants. Sometimes they have a fixed price menu that is a great value.
Youch! This is where they get you in the Nordic and Scandinavian countries. Alcohol is HEAVILY taxed and therefore drinks out or at the Alko are really expensive. About double what you’d pay in the US.
Tea / Coffee
Tea and coffee were similar in price. A neat fact about Finland and coffee: 1 out of every 100 coffee beans picked around the world are shipped to Finland. The average Finn drinks about 24 kilograms of coffee per year! They drink more coffee than any other country (and they only have 5.5 million people!). We understand why – it’s cold as balls there!
We found most attractions like museums and castles to be similar to other countries. They didn’t seem to price gouge anywhere. One of the theme parks was even free to enter, you just had to pay per ride. We thought this was a great feature because you only paid for what you actually wanted to do.
How do rate the standard of living in Finland?
The standard of living in Finland is expensive compared to most cities in the US. However, the trade off is an amazing work/life balance. You work 8 hours per day, that’s it. You receive 24 vacations days per year in year 1. (Compared to 5 days in the US starting out, this is unbelievable.)
What is the tax system there like? Please add details if possible.
The Finnish tax system is based roughly on what you make annually. The higher your income, the higher the tax bracket, similar to the US. Most Finns pay around 25-30% in taxes. While this may seem high, it includes MUCH more than taxes in the States includes. For example – the Finns receive paid healthcare, a pension plan, 1 year paid maternity leave, 1 month vacation, excellent management of the funds (roads and cities are in great condition and the entire country is very clean), and there is a high level of trust in the system and its administrators.
What have been some of the pros and cons about living in Finland?
Finland is an amazing country to live in. On the plus side, the scenery is gorgeous, there’s always something to do if you live in a city, and government works here. We appreciated the fact tht Finns say what they mean and only speak when they have something to say. They are perfectly comfortable to sit in a room with you without speaking if they’ve finished talking. It was refreshing!
On the con side, if you don’t speak Finnish it can be very difficult to communicate outside of major cities. The Finns are selective in who they befriend – this can be a positive or a negative, but can make you feel lonely at times. Children can have a hard time on the playground if they don’t speak Finnish because they only teach English (in most schools) beginning in 3rd grade. Our son really missed having friends he could talk to/play with.
Do you have any tips for people that might want to visit or move to Finland?
You should DEFINITELY visit Finland! If you don’t have the ability to move there, it certainly deserves a visit of a week (or more if you can swing it!). Pay attention to the time of year though! It’s pretty chilly most of the time! Here are a few of our posts about palces in Finland we feel are MUST-SEE places:
The Best Place to Stay in Helsinki with Kids
The Art of the Sauna Experience & 5 Steps to Enjoy a Classic Finnish Tradition
5 Glass Igloo Fails & Solutions to Keep Them from Ruining Your Trip
5 Things to Do in Turku, Finland with Kids
7 Odd Finnish Sports & Traditions/Pastimes
10 Places in Finland You Must See
What to Pack for Winter in Finland (From Someone Who Lived There)
Can you give any insights into the local culture / customs where you live as an expat (either now you previously) How important is it for people to be aware of these when living here to visiting here?
Finland is VERY family-oriented. They love spending time with family and close friends. “I love you” or is only spoken to their partner and maybe their children and pets. Coming from the US, this was hard to watch for ,as we tend to say “I love your home!” or “I love French fries!” without a second thought. The Finns reserve this phrase and only use it when they TRULY mean it.
Do you travel around from this destination where you are living as an expat? What are some places you have visited from here / any countries close by that you recommend / what are the travel costs like to these places?
Finland was a great jumping off point to travel to other places. While living there we traversed the entire country, but also went to Sweden, Norway, Estonia, England, and more. Flights were always very reasonable out of Helsinki. Our round trip flight to London was only €75!
How are the locals where you live (were they easy to make friends with)? are there any expat clubs or similar that you have joined? How easy was it to make new friends or associates here?
The Finns value friendship and just as they don’t say something they don’t mean, they are careful in choosing friends. Most have only a few close friends they spend all their time with. If you are lucky enough to befriend them, consider yourself very blessed! There are expat groups you can find on Facebook, but in the town we lived in, there weren’t many options.
How is the nightlife where you live? Any recommendations?
The Finns like a good party and nightlife is a big part of the younger crowd’s lifestyle. There are numerous bars and clubs open until 5-6 am! Drinks are pricey though, so most people drink at home before going out. The town was very walkable so no car was necessary. Bus transportation was also great!
How do you spend your time off here or at weekends (any day time recommendations)
Weekends for us were filled with gorgeous nature hikes, spending time at a lake cottage, and campfires. The Finns love nature and any excuse to be outside, no matter the weather!
What is the climate where you live
COLD. Colder than cold some days. In winter, the average temp is -10. Coming from Florida, this was a shock to our systems. But, we found that if you were dressed appropriately, the cold wasn’t an issue at all. We published a guide on what to wear in winter because the right clothing is critical. Winter In Finland Packing Guide
The Compass Is Calling is a family travel blog with budget ideas, destination guides, travel hacks, and more! It was created in order to help families learn how to travel more on any budget. Travel is the only thing you can buy that makes you richer, and we believe that travel is imperative to gain broader knowledge of the world we live in, as well as develop tolerance and understanding. However, travel doesn’t have to mean taking your family around the world, it could be as close as your neighborhood park. However and wherever you like to travel, The Compass Is Calling can help you do it more often, on less.
Our family recently moved back to the US from Finland – you can read some cool things about Finnish life here and here. And also here. We have always had plans to travel wide and often, but life simply gets in the way sometimes. We make compromises, we put things off until next year, and we push our travel goals further down the line in exchange for things we deem valuable or important at the time (often monetary).
What our family has come to realize over time is that nothing is more important or valuable than the memories we make together. In the last year and a half, we have made some big changes – including selling nearly everything we own – in order to live with more freedom to do the things we want, when we want. In fact, we are in the very early phases of our family’s next big adventure which we can’t wait to share with everyone soon! Travel has always been our big passion and we’ve taken some amazing trips. We’ve done them all by following simple steps that you can follow too! We have made some mistakes which hindered our lifelong goals but you don’t have to make the same ones!
We also have a personal blog aimed at keeping our friends and family updated on the day to day comings and goings of our life which you can visit here: www.HotAshesForTrees.com.
Please share one quote you love.
Mark Twain has 2 of our favourite quotes:
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” Mark Twain
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” Mark Twain