After graduation is only a memory, you finally accept that job that will launch your career, the opportunity you always waited for. Finally you made it: a salary of six figures that will fix everything, right? Wrong!
First thing: don’t make the mistake to translate that sum of money into the buying power in your own country. Everything in fact must be contextualized in the area you work and live. The paycheck is big but you must consider the whole package. Sure, the number on paper looks impressive but take into account the area where you live: if you are based in New England, NY City or California (or better Silicon Valley), probably that is a median income, where the cost of living is very high; from basic expenses like grocery shopping, to entertainment and culture. A big factor to consider is accommodation, which plays a major role when assessing what you can afford or not.
Don’t be fooled, rents are very expensive; if they tell you otherwise, there must be something wrong with the place. You have a few choices: you can opt for those wonderful residences that most of the time include utilities (you will definitely need heating in the cold winters of the North East, as well as air conditioning for those hot humid summers). If you decide to look around for something cheaper like a single house or apartment, most likely you will have to pay all utilities out of your pocket and heating oil is also very pricy, a couple or maybe more paychecks to keep you nice and warm. Do your research and ask the right questions before signing anything you will regret later.
Don’t want to spend too much? Share an apartment with other people. But then, is it worth it? Do you really want to go back to the college life you left behind? How much are you willing to sacrifice in terms of comfort, quality of life and privacy to earn money? Probably in your early twenties you are willing to do it, less so in your thirties and over.
A conservative estimate of rent and utilities will cut a nice slice of your income, and this can be as high as 40%.
There are other things to consider when you are married with offspring. If you have children, probably you already know you will have to pay tuition from kindergarten on…the right name always makes a very good impression, especially in a country where money talks. Europeans take for granted their public school system, especially their equivalent of the American K-12 grade. Posh places in the US have their own Ivy Leagues of primary schools and you will have to register your children in such schools, so be ready to disburse a lot of money!
Whereas it is acceptable for Europeans to conceive investing in a higher degree conferred by American universities, it isn't so for basic education which is granted to everyone for free in their home countries.
Another crucial issue is health care. If you are fit, there's nothing to worry about but if you need regular health care, be warned: medications as well as check ups come at a price. You will be obviously covered by your health insurance (mandatory in some states), which means some expenses are paid by the insurance but the rest comes out of your own pocket, like the so called co-pay. The American health system is one of the most expensive in the world, and also the best, which is surely the case, but again it doesn’t come cheap.
Last but not least, if you find yourself at odds with your current employer and decide to look around for something else, be extra careful with the immigration law which can be very tricky. In fact, the passage from your F1 or J1 visa to an H1-B visa is pretty smooth, and the company, you will be working for, will take care of it. However, you cannot change your current employer unless the new one, who will hire you, is also willing to sponsor you. Job mobility is a prerogative of Americans and not yours.
America is a great place to start off when you are young and healthy. You must be young to be flexible and put up with things you wouldn’t in your later years (for instance sharing apartments and using coin op laundries placed in dark basements); and definitely be healthy because in a country where the right to be cured is a privilege, you can't afford to get sick.
To wrap it all up, consider all these aspects because they will determine your everyday life abroad. Think about the type of life you want to have, things you are willing to give up and things you won't renounce to. There is always a trade-in you have to make, it doesn't matter how fabulous they are going to make it look like from the outside.