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Living the Dream of Retiring Abroad

Dec. 20, 2012
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There are plenty of good reasons for setting up housekeeping in another country when you have the freedom to travel. You can enjoy a lifestyle that would be out of reach in the States and leave those cold winters behind, your medical care may be significantly cheaper, and maybe you can rekindle that sense of adventure you put on hold while you raised a family. Many people find that if they sell their home, they have a chunk of cash that, along with Social Security income and possibly a pension, they can live very comfortably in many places in the world.

If you haven’t already set your sights on a specific town in a particular country, there’s no shortage of tempting destinations online. A list from AARP is comfortably weighted toward locales where the weather is warm and rum drinks are not unheard of, but it also includes cities in western Europe where the cost of living is admittedly higher, but the proximity to Paris and Rome is much improved. The locales that Lynn Martin describes in the Wall Street Journal and on her blog are more cosmopolitan but extremely well documented: Dining out for a month in Paris: $2,250; in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico: $800. Transportation in London: $1300; the same in Paris: $500.

The possibilities are endless, but for every enticement there’s a flip side that bears thinking about before you’ve made a commitment to a new, carefree life. Take your pick:

Stretching your dollars?

Sure, when you can get your hands on them. Without a stateside address, it can be hard to maintain a U.S. bank account, and the same anti-terrorism laws that are responsible for that annoyance also make foreign banks reluctant to open accounts for Americans. And for what it’s worth, you’ll be paying taxes in both countries. When you’ve picked a country, you’ll want to talk to a reliable local attorney to find out how their laws mesh with your expectations.

Cheap healthcare?

Very likely, but remember that, unlike Social Security checks, Medicare won’t follow you when you leave the country. Your strategy will depend on the country you’re interested in. Of course, you can buy private (or sometimes public) health insurance, or fly back home if necessary, but there are many countries large and small that boast top-notch hospitals with well-trained doctors. Fees are often so low that you may decide not to bother with insurance, and just pay for drugs and treatment as they become necessary.

Warm sands, grass huts?

A remote, beachside destination may sound good in theory, but before you commit, try it out for several months to see if that’s really your long-term desire. Are you comfortable living with a whole new set of animals and insects? How far would you have to go for top-notch medical care? Or to visit the kids? The farther you are away from civilization, the more expensive it is to get back when you need to.


Be really honest with yourself about how many surprises and challenges you actually want at your age. As we get older, many of us are increasingly willing to trade comfort for a voyage into the unknown. Remember that in many budget-friendly places in the world some things we take for granted, from air conditioning to ketchup, are difficult or impossible to obtain. A brief vacation may conceal that uncomfortable fact from you. As indefatigable travel blogger Martin wrote after his recent, and aborted, stay in Buenos Aires: “We understand now that tourists have an entirely different experience from travelers who choose to live like locals.”

But if adventure is part of the attraction for you, why think of settling down right away?

Janet Groene, a travel blogger and author of Living Aboard Your RV, says, “Why settle for one retirement spot when you can travel for a year or two before deciding where to settle down? You might fly to, say, England in the fall and buy an RV when prices are low there. Then tour England and the continent, starting with winter in the south of France. You’ll have a far richer ex-pat experience, and save yourself from the financial disaster of settling down in the wrong place.”

Whether or not RV living appeals to you, try thinking of your travels from now on as research trips. Spend enough time in a place to get an idea of what it would really be like to live there far from friends and family – and perhaps even quality medical care. Don’t be discouraged if you decide that several months were wonderful, but eventually you were ready to move on.

There’s no law that says that retiring abroad has to involve buying property. People like Lynn Martin and her husband prefer three- or four-month stays in different attractive destinations. They settle down in a comfortable home or apartment, get to know the locals a bit, do a lot of their own cooking, and enjoy even the most attractive and cosmopolitan cities for a fraction of what it would cost to actually put down roots there.

If your mind keeps coming back to a place where you’ve spent many months – hopefully on several different trips – and it seems perfect for you, maybe it is. But you’ve approached the idea of putting down roots with the best of advantages: you’ve seen a place in good conditions and bad, you know the people, you like the food . . . hey, you’re practically a local already!


Beach drinks image via Shutterstock