retirement planning

How to Live Large by Retiring Abroad

golfing on Mexican golf course
Mark D. Callanan—Getty Images

The lure of low costs, warm winters, and adventure has many Americans looking abroad for retirement. Husband-and-wife experts and authors talk about their own move more than a decade ago.

In 2001, husband and wife Suzan Haskins and Dan Prescher turned their passion for foreign travel into a lifestyle—and a career. They sold their home in Omaha, quit their corporate writing gigs, and moved to Ecuador, one of four different countries they’ve since called home.

For them, this wasn’t exactly retirement. Then in their 40s, they began editing and writing for InternationalLiving.com and became experts on the topic of relocating and living overseas. Their book, The International Living Guide to Retiring Overseas on a Budget, covers everything from finding the right spot and applying for residency to navigating healthcare.

In many respects, retiring to another country isn’t as daunting as it was just a decade ago. “The internet has changed things,” says Prescher. “Fifteen years ago you could move to Honduras, say, and nobody would hear from you at weeks at a time. The world is a much smaller place today.”

Meanwhile, some countries, particularly in Latin America, have put out the welcome mat to foreigners. Many offer residency—and in turn access to inexpensive healthcare—to anyone with a regular, but modest, monthly income.

Here Haskins and Prescher, now 58 and 60 respectively and living in Cotacachi, Ecuador, talk about what is gained and what might be lost. Hint: Pack your own peanut butter.

MONEY: What prompted your move 13 years ago?
Haskins: A lot of people have different motivations, but ours was we wanted the adventure and wanted to look back on this time of our lives with no regrets. We loved to travel, especially if it meant getting out of Omaha in the winter. We’d been subscribers to International Living and started pestering them for jobs. It happened, and in November 2001 we moved to Quito, Ecuador with our 90-pound chocolate lab.

MONEY: More Americans seem to be making, or contemplating, the move. Is it easier today?
Haskins: I think people are less intimidated about this idea of living overseas. They can do more research because of the internet, and they can keep in touch.
Prescher: When Suzan and I left the United States, instant messaging was just starting. Now we can do Skype call with our daughter and see our grandchild at the drop of the hat. That has changed the whole experience.

MONEY: If you had to generalize, why are people retiring internationally?
Haskins: For most of our readers, it’s more about the adventure, but certainly the lower cost of living and lower cost of healthcare is a big motivator.

MONEY: Just how low are we talking?
Prescher: In the book, we use our own budget as an example. We’re in Cotacachi, Ecuador living really well on just about $1,500 a month. We own our condo, and there are no heating or air conditioning costs because we picked a place where the weather is perfect. Our property taxes are just over $50 a year. Our healthcare situation is a little different because we travel so much, but if we used local healthcare it would be $50 to $100 a month. The food is fresh and cheap, and we don’t have a car because public transportation is readily available. So you can live on $1,500 and not sacrifice anything at all.

MONEY: Really, nothing at all?
Haskins: We say there are no sacrifices, but that’s for us. We’re very flexible. Other people, if they can’t find their brand of peanut butter on the grocery shelves are totally unhappy.
Prescher: A lot people seem to have the idea that these places are just like the United States, only cheaper. That’s just not true. If you move to Panama or Belize, for example, and expect it to be just like America, you’ll be disappointed.

MONEY: Healthcare is affordable, but is it any good?
Haskins: Just like in the United States, your level of care is going to depend on where you live. In the major cities, there are world-class hospitals. In Ecuador there are three different options. Public healthcare is free, but those public hospitals are often lacking. Then there is what they call the social security system, which many expats are using. That’s about $70 a month and then $11 a month for dependents. Finally, there is private healthcare.
Prescher: Most expats we know use a combination of public and private. It’s not cost prohibitive to pay out of pocket for private healthcare.
Haskins: You can’t use Medicare outside the United States. So as a retiree you have to decide if you’re going to keep it and keep paying for it. Some people keep it so they can use it when they travel back to the United States, or fly home for care if they need to.

MONEY: A lot of focus is on Latin America. What about the rest of the world?
Haskins: Our demographic, by and large, is attracted to Latin America because of proximity, cost of living and the ease of being in the same time zone and traveling back and forth. We are seeing people interested in Europe and Asia, but Europe tends to skew toward the more affluent since it can be expensive. I do think Southeast Asia will become more popular, especially for people who are more adventurous.
Prescher: There are incredibly affordable places in Southeast Asia, but the idea of picking up Thai or Vietnamese is more daunting to some than picking up some Spanish.

MONEY: What’s your first piece of advice to anyone thinking about retiring abroad?
Prescher: Spend as much time on the ground in the place you think you want to retire in. We loved to vacation on the beach, but after spending some time there, we realized we didn’t want to live there. Six years ago we bought a place in the mountains, and we’ve been here about five years.

More from MONEY’s Best Places to Retire:
9 Great Places to Retire
The 3 Best Ways to Boost Your Spending Power in Retirement

 

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