opinion

'When I won the Green Card Lottery, I had no idea I'd end up with a massive bill.'

Whenever I tell people I won a US Green Card, the response I usually get is, “Oh my God! You are so lucky!” But am I? Am I really?

Before I moved to America, I 100 percent thought it was something I wanted to do. I loved America. I still do, but for holidays. Living over there is an entirely different ball game.

I won the lottery the second time I entered it, and as nervous as I was about moving to a new country, I was also excited for a change. I was ready for it… Or so I thought.

As fate would have it, right before winning the lottery, I’d set myself up with a visa for the UK. My plan was to move to London for a year or two just for the experience.

Having lived in Sydney my whole life, I was ready to see what life was like on the other side of the world. In hindsight, I probably should’ve just moved to Melbourne.

And then I won the Green Card. The thing about Green Cards is that they don’t come around very often, so winning a Green Card is kind of like when Charlie won the Golden Ticket to go to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. And that’s how it felt at the time, too… until they started picking off kids one-by-one.

The other thing about scoring a Green Card is that if you have it and you lose it, you can never reapply. That’s it, it’s gone forever.

It seemed like a no-brainer. I mean, they even made a mediocre movie in the 1990’s, starring Andie MacDowell and Gérard Depardieu, about the lengths some people will go to to score a Green Card. Clearly, this was something I had to do. So, off I went to America, specifically LA.

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Now, I’m not going to sit here and tell you it was entirely horrible, because it definitely wasn’t. I had some really great times, too. But it was hard. Really hard.

Financially, I don’t actually think I was prepared for just how hard it would be.

My first discovery was that it felt like there was no real middle class in America, especially in a city like LA. There’s the filthy, ridiculously rich, and then there’s everybody else, who is generally working two jobs just to get by.

I’d never seen anything like it. Some people lived in literal castles, while others were out on the street just because they’d lost their job or had a ridiculous medical bill they’d never be able to repay.

Americans earn a hell of a lot less than we do here in Australia. Minimum wage in California is US$10.50 an hour. I was earning around US$22 an hour, and people would tell me I was a “high earner”.

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Despite this, I was literally just breaking even each month, after paying my rent, bills and other expenses. As soon as the money hit my bank account, it went straight back out.

Now, I don’t think I’m a particularly cheap person, but my dad is. (Love you, Dad.) He’s always been somewhat cautious with money, and as a result, I’ve learnt the value of it. I’ve always been a good saver, and I believe it’s important to have an emergency fund, just in case.

But in America, I literally couldn’t save a single cent. I found it incredibly stressful, and it caused me a lot of anxiety not knowing how I was going to pay for things. This was not what I had signed up for. I wanted an adventure, an experience, and here I was in my studio apartment eating eggs and avocado on toast for dinner most nights, which hadn’t been my experience in Australia.

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I had a vent to one of my American friends about it. He’d just had an accident on his bicycle and was paying off a US$5700 hospital bill for two X-rays.

“I’m sick of being broke!” I told him. “I work and work and work, and I still can’t get ahead. How do you stand living here?”

He looked at me completely dumbfounded.

“It’s just normal,” he said. That was the moment I knew I needed to come home.

As my stint overseas wound down, I knew I needed to get some things in order, like my taxes. I asked a few friends and colleagues how the US tax system worked, and literally no one seemed to be able to give me a straight answer.

“I think it’s due in April?” was as close as I got to a straightforward response.

No one had any idea. I even called an accountant who had been recommended to me, but he was away on holidays and never got back to me.

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There was a family emergency back in Sydney, and I needed to fly back early, so I resolved to sort it out once I was back on home soil.

Last Friday, I called an accountant here in Sydney who deals with US taxes, and I spent the rest of the weekend having a mini breakdown as a result of our conversation.

“Welcome to America!” he laughed down the phone, when I told him I’d won the Green Card Lottery.

“I can never understand why people are always so excited when they win a Green Card. I’ve seen people choose to relinquish their Green Card once they discover how much they’re going to have to pay in US taxes. Happens all the time.”

He then rattled off a list of all of the taxes I’m going to owe the US government. There’s a tax for living in California, there’s a tax for working as a “sole trader” since I was employed as a freelance journalist… There’s even a tax you pay just for setting up home in the USA.

“The IRS makes the ATO look like kittens,” he told me.

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The conversation went on for at least half-an-hour, and the more he told me, the more I felt like I was going to pass out. My head was spinning, my eyes grew so wide, I thought my eyeballs would just drop out of their sockets, and I kept looking up at the ceiling and mouthing, “My. God.”

Oh, and apparently I was supposed to have been filing tax returns from the day I got my Green Card, even though I didn’t move over there until a year later.

“But the good news is, Australia and America have an agreement in place, so you won’t have to pay America tax on your Australian earnings,” he told me.

“Oh! Well, that’s… something,” I told him through hyperventilation.

How Laura Brown became Editor In Chief of InStyle…

I got off the phone and began to try and calculate roughly how much I will probably owe in US taxes. At this point, I’m guesstimating $12,000, but I just don’t know for sure. It could be more, it could be less.

Apparently, as a Green Card holder, I am now considered a US resident, which means I will have to file a US tax return every year unless I decide to relinquish my Green Card. I was planning on keeping my Green Card forever, but now I’m thinking I’ll just hold onto it for a couple more years until I decide for sure whether or not I can ever see myself moving back to America. It’s honestly not worth the hassle.

“This is the first time I’ve ever regretted moving to America,” I told my sister once I got off the phone with the accountant.

“Financially, I am so much worse off than before I moved there.”

Although I’m trying not to let the money factor ruin the overall experience I had over there, it’s hard not to knowing I will have to go into debt just to pay for it.

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