13 September 2016

Stephanie De La Garza - Expat in New Zealand

Stephanie De La Garza - Expat in New Zealand

We’ve had the chance to talk to Stephanie De La Garza, 45, an American expat who has moved to New Zealand with her boyfriend. Ms. De La Garza who has been living there for one year and a half, now works as a web designer.

Read more about her experiences in the full interview below.


Q: Where are you from originally?

A: San Antonio, Texas.


Q: What made you move out of USA?

A: I travelled extensively in Central America and felt like I belonged there. In 1998 after my first trip to Belize, I felt the urge to move there. It wasn’t feasible at the time, but the seed had been planted and it became one of my goals in life. I wasn’t willing to wait until retirement age, though. I started getting tired of my I.T. career and had it with living in the States so in 2013 I decided to make the move by myself.


Q: Where are you living now? How did you come to choose this new country of residence?

A: I now live in Blenheim, New Zealand on the South Island. After living in Central America for nine months, I decided to travel around the world, and I started in New Zealand. I ended up meeting my now current boyfriend here and had to jump back and forth between here and Australia before securing a long-term visitor’s visa for New Zealand.


Q: How long have you been living in New Zealand?

A: A year and a half.


Q: Are you living alone or with your family? If yes, how are they adjusting to the Expat Lifestyle?

A: I’m living with my boyfriend who is originally from Wales but has been here for about 12 years.


Q: Do you miss home and family sometimes? How do you cope with homesickness?

A: Of course! I keep in touch with friends and family via email and Google voice. I sometimes make the trip back to the U.S. Although being so far away it’s not cheap or easy.


Q: What do you think about the locals?

A: I now have some mixed feelings about the locals. At first, I thought they were very nice and genuine. Of course, many of them are, but I’ve also felt discriminated against because I’m American and found that some people are just plain rude. I suppose you’ll find that anywhere you go, though. I’d like to say that many of them, especially the older folks, are very helpful and kind and a pleasure to be around.


Q: Was it easy making friends and meeting people? Do you mainly socialise with other expats in New Zealand? How did you manage to find a social circle there?  

A: I don’t find it easy at all to meet people here, especially living with my boyfriend. I tend to stay home, and I don’t go out by myself like I used to when I was single. When I was single, though, people were easy to talk to in pubs or out in towns. I’ve only made one friend here that I keep in touch with (maybe once every few months over email).

I had met a couple of expats in my town, but one I’ve never met in person and probably won’t due to her work and family schedule and the other one doesn’t seem like one that I’d hang out with very much. So basically I don’t have a social circle here which is ok, I suppose as I’m an introvert anyway. I think it would be nice to be able to go out with someone other than my boyfriend sometimes but this town is small, and there’s not much to do anyway.


Q: How does the cost of living in New Zealand compared to your home?

A: I’ll give NZ costs in US dollars since it’s a better comparison that way. Also, tax and tips are included in NZ prices whereas they’re not in the US. I won’t include tax or tip in the US prices.

  • Q: How much is a cup of coffee?

A: NZ-$3.05 US-$4.50.

  • Q: How much is a meal in an inexpensive restaurant?

A: NZ-$10 US-8.

  • Q: How much is a meal in an expensive restaurant?

A: NZ-$27.25 US-40.

  • Q: How much is a bottle of wine? How about a pack of cigarettes?

A: Wine (cheapest) NZ: $4.77 US-6 Cigarettes pack NZ-$13.75 US (cheapest) $5.50.


Q: Do you have any tips for future expats when it comes to opening a bank account in New Zealand?

A: I opened a joint account with my boyfriend so it wasn’t a problem for me. I’m not sure if you need to be at least a temporary resident to open one or not. Banks are horrible here when it comes to nickel and diming you (no pun intended). Most banks seem to charge a yearly fee for the account, a fee for using your debit card the first time and then yearly after that (around $10NZD), a fee for issuing you a debit card, a fee for doing an online transfer (yearly $5NZD) and who knows what else. I’ve fought some of these fees and was able to get the yearly fee waived, but that was probably only due to having the joint account. A new customer with only one or two accounts might not be so lucky. Banks are closed on the weekends and if there’s a holiday they can be closed for four straight days, unlike the US where they aren’t allowed to be closed more than two days in a row. The branches usually close fairly early on the weekdays too.


Q: How will you describe your experience with government paperwork such as applications for Visa and work permits? Why is that so?

A: As for any visa, you have to do a LOT of paperwork. My advice would be to get started on it right away. They will usually ask for a police report from your home country. I had to get mine from the FBI which took over four months to get to me. I also had to get my original birth certificate and find some very old doctor reports/receipts and other things too. You’ll usually have to get some kind of medical check-up in your new country which creates a lot of paperwork and expense.


Q: Would you say that healthcare in New Zealand is reliable? Any preferred clinics or advice for expats?

A: I’ve never used the healthcare system here but from what I understand in my town, it’s very strained. There were only two ultrasound techs for the public system, and they both quit so there was almost a year’s wait to have that done. I’ve read that expats who came over to be in the medical field were treated badly and were overworked and underpaid.

If I ever needed something done, I would have to pay out of pocket and go to a private doctor. The one I used for the visa felt like he was 30 years behind the times and the office felt like a cheap Planned Parenthood clinic. When I had to do a breast exam, I had to ask for a nurse to be present and then I wasn’t given anything to cover up with, and she just stood somewhere in the room, not even observing what was happening. The costs were probably around $60US for a visit, but I think they charge you for a referral to another doctor and charge you for filling out a form for a prescription refill! Yearly OB exams are done by the GP, not an OBGYN, but if you need something more done by an OB, you will have to get a referral from your GP. You can’t just make an appointment directly with an OB. It’s ridiculous.

I will say though that you can get things at the pharmacy that you would need a prescription for in the U.S. You won’t find things like yeast infection meds available over the counter though and you have to talk to the pharmacist and answer all of these questions (in front of other customers) and give out your contact information before they’ll sell it to you. It’s pretty embarrassing.


Q: Did you secure a health insurance in your home or New Zealand? What should be the essentials in the coverage for expats, in your opinion?

A: I haven’t had health insurance for almost three years now. I felt it was a waste of money even though it wasn’t that expensive to have, but the approved doctors were very limited in each town I’ve lived in if any at all. I’m healthy and would rather just pay out of pocket to go to the doctor if I need to.

I’d say if you were worried about it, you could get a decent plan through Ingle Insurance but check the list of doctors in the area you’ll be in first. The countries I’ve lived in cover tourists for free, I believe for at least the first 30 days of being there if something catastrophic happens like a car wreck or loss of limbs, etc. Check that out on the countries immigration site to see if they do.


Q: What was the most memorable about the packing and moving process to New Zealand? Which was the mover you chose and how was your experience with them?

A: Since I had been on the road for a year already, it was an unexpected “move” to NZ, and I carried everything I had on my back. I think the most shocking thing was the weather. I had been used to the heat of the tropics and came here during the winter. When the cold winds blow here, it’s from Antarctica!


Q: What is the biggest challenge that you have faced as a new expat?

A: For New Zealand, getting used to the weather and how it can change radically within a span of minutes. The summer season is very short and getting used to the opposite seasons is strange too. The lack of good food when dining out and the lack of quality appliances and the prices of such are outrageous. Fresh fruits and veggies aren’t very cheap and when they’re out of season, the prices are through the roof. Living in cold homes is a challenge and the lack of fun things to do on the weekends is a downer.


Q: What do you think are the positive and negative sides of living in New Zealand?

A: It’s a very beautiful country but it’s quite large and the cost of gasoline (around $8 a gallon USD) makes it prohibitive to go very far. Public transport is horrible if you can even find it, especially in smaller towns. Airfares aren’t cheap because there are only one or two local airlines and paying to stay somewhere is usually no less than $65US a night. The air is clean and the rivers and lakes are beautiful but the water is too cold to get into. Overall, I think it’s a great place to visit but not a great place to live.


Q: What are the best things to do in the area? Any particular recommendations for future expats?

A: The only touristy thing to do in Blenheim is to visit the wineries and maybe head to Picton for half a day to do walks or go out on a boat tour (again, very expensive). Every weekend they have a car boot sale (like a little flea market) and in the summer there’s a very small farmer’s market. All of this can be done within the span of an hour ½ though. You can walk along the rocky beaches as there are only one or two semi-sand beaches here or go fishing in the streams or oceans.


Q: Do you have plans to move to a different country or back home in the future?

A: I would like to move to Australia before the year is up, but I don’t plan on returning to the US anytime soon.


Q: What tips will you give to expats living in the country?

A: Well, if you already live here and have been here a while there’s probably not much you don’t already know. If you’re thinking about coming here to live, I would advise against it. Try Australia for a more civilized and exciting lifestyle. There’s so much more to do there and the weather is better. Expats coming to work here have a hard time fitting in, especially Americans and Asians as Kiwi’s seem to be behind the times and intimidated by new ideas and people who seem to know more than they do. They probably won’t make any more (and probably less) than they did in the States.

The housing is very expensive for what you get. Nobody seems to want to upgrade their homes and you feel like you’ve gone back 40 years. A lot of people don’t have dishwashers or clothes dryers…things we, as Americans, take for granted. This will take up a lot more of your time than you’re used to.

You won’t find good quality unless you’re willing to pay much more than it’s worth. For example, a toaster oven, which I was on the hunt for sells for around $100USD here!? Microwaves are around $100USD for the cheapest ones.

I shop at second-hand stores for clothing and the shoes here are horrible and expensive. TradeMe (Ebay equivalent) is pretty good although you’ll find people selling a lot of junk for a lot of money but it’s still cheaper than going out and buying it new. That toaster oven I finally found locally was on TradeMe and I paid $20 for it and it was about 6 years old which was a fantastic deal.

There are a few K-Mart’s here which doesn’t sound like anything to get excited about but believe me, it’s like Christmas when I go into one. Unfortunately, the closest one from here is over an hour away.

One other saving grace for when I’m homesick for American food is an American “grocery” store in Auckland that will ship things to me that I can’t get here and the prices are reasonable. They don’t have a gigantic selection but at least I can get corn tortillas or Rotel through them.

The Warehouse (a “discount” chain…my eyes are rolling) started offering pay as you go cell phone packages which start at $10NZD/mo ($6.50USD) whereas a cell phone package is typically about $20NZD/mo. If you don’t use your phone much, I think this is the best deal out there.


Q: Do you have favourite websites or blogs about New Zealand?

A: The American grocery store is marthasbackyard.co.nz and the auction site is trademe.co.nz. Those are pretty much the only NZ sites I visit.