My wife, Suzan, and I hear from a lot of people asking about the actual cost of retiring and living overseas. After almost 15 years of doing that ourselves, we can honestly answer, “As much or as little as you want.” A lot of these questions arise because of some extraordinary claims about how cheap it is to live overseas. Many of the people who ask us about this can’t figure out how a person could possibly live on a single Social Security check each month. And there are good reasons they can’t figure it out.
If it’s Spanish Colonial charm you’re after, you can’t do much better than Granada, Nicaragua. The place is steeped in it. It’s only natural… Granada was the first European city on mainland America, and historians have the official records of the Crown of Aragon and the Kingdom of Castile to prove it. Thanks to its location on Lake Nicaragua and its access to the Atlantic via the San Juan River, it was essentially a Caribbean port for the Spanish, and much of the gold, silver, and other wealth the Spanish sent back to Spain during the conquest was sent from Granada.
When you imagine moving abroad, you might imagine a day down the road when you “get it”—when everything about living in your adopted country finally clicks, and you can function smoothly, just like the locals. My experience was different. I did gain that comfort and confidence, but I didn’t wake up one day and say to myself, “Aha! I finally have this expat thing figured out.”
My wife and I celebrated our 19th anniversary last week. The length of our marriage roughly coincides with the length of our journey of discovery exploring the world (and ourselves) on behalf of International Living. Married in 1997, it took three years of anticipation, trepidation, and preparation before we actually moved overseas, beginning our expat lives in Quito, Ecuador, in 2001.
My wife, Suzan, and I were in the U.S. for a conference when Ecuador was hit by its biggest earthquake in decades. We learned of it immediately from our friends and neighbors in our hometown of Cotacachi in the Andes Mountains in northern Ecuador, where the quake was felt but caused no extensive damage. The story was different on Ecuador's northern Pacific coast. Entire towns have been flattened. Hundreds... perhaps thousands... of people have died, and thousands more have been injured or left homeless.
Certainly no expatriates I know have been forced to expatriate. They live somewhere besides their own country because they want to...because the weather is better, or the pace of life is slower, or the cost of living is cheaper, or they love the country and culture they've moved to, or they want to have an adventure. Or any combination of the above.
I am a bad traveler. That may seem like a strange admission to make for an expat. Travel is, after all, part of the deal...you can't really live abroad without traveling—at least to the country in which you plan to settle. And to be sure, I love to see and experience other towns, cities, beaches, mountains...the lure of foreign lands and exotic adventures has not diminished for me during my years abroad.
A recent British Airways survey of 2,000 baby boomers found that their biggest regrets in life are working too much and not traveling enough. This hit home for me, first because I’m a baby boomer myself. I was born between 1946 and 1961. It also struck a chord with me because, for the past 15 years, I’ve been working for an outfit that directly addresses both these issues.
When my wife and I moved abroad in 2001, we left a trail of what we thought were our life’s most important possessions behind us. In a storage locker, appliances and keepsakes we were sure we’d need when we “settled down” overseas. In the basements and spare rooms of several good and very patient friends, furniture, art, and books we thought were the stuff of our emotional and cultural lives, that we’d need to have around us someday, wherever we were on the planet.
Because my wife, Suzan Haskins, and I have been living and working abroad for 15 years, we're sometimes interviewed by other writers and reporters about being expats. I spoke with a reporter from Canada a few days ago, and I was reminded of one of the most powerful economic principles of expat life.