Fashioning a Secure Life in Cuenca on $1,700 a Month

So many of us have been there. We work 50 hours a week. Exhausted, we drive through Taco Bell and drop crunchy tacos all over ourselves as we eat in the car on the way home, because we worked through lunch and are starving. At home, we plop on the couch and watch non-stop CNN just to tune out of our day before we take an Ambien to sleep.

This was not the life I envisioned during my carefree college days at the University of Florida, where I dreamed of a future in journalism. Like most of my fellow baby boomers, I thought life would only get more idyllic as the years went by.

Forty years later, I was pushing the end of a career in fundraising, looking at a near-barren savings account, and with a monthly $1,700 Social Security check as my financial future. That’s what my monthly check is after 40 years of work. And even with a paid-off home in Florida, I could see that I wouldn’t be able to live on that amount during retirement. Like many retirees in the U.S., I don’t have a pension from work, and my savings were close to depleted.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had fun. I’ve backpacked through Europe on $5 a day, swum with sharks in the Bahamas, and ridden the Canadian railroad through the Rockies.

So what went wrong? Nothing, really. I just did what many of us have done. I worked, put a little money in my IRA and then pilfered it, gained a mortgage, drove a functional used car, and ordered up enough internet to pay for the Louisiana Purchase. (With extras we ordered, like Pay-per-View movies and services like Netflix and Hulu, we were paying $250 a month in Florida.)

I didn’t think that medical costs would exceed my house payment. That the cost of car insurance would dictate that I’d have to drive a 10-year-old car. That the sweltering 90 F summer heat, boosted by Florida’s stifling humidity close to eight months of the year, would mean that I’d have to choose to stay cool and be poor (my bill averaged $300 in summer). I worked long hours with stressed-out people.

And then one day I woke up and realized I was dying a slow death; this life was sucking the breath out of me.

I quit my job more from desperation than anything else. It started on a February day in 2014, when I woke up, pulled myself out of bed, and went to work. That day, as I was being reprimanded over trivial work problems, I just snapped. I had had enough. I didn’t want to live one more day held hostage to a life that was bleeding me financially and emotionally. I realized I no longer wanted to work for mortgages, cars, healthcare, or to cool my house. I wanted the freedom of my college days.

Two months later, my husband Rowland and I were unloading five dogs and four bags of luggage into a three-story house we’d rented for $450 a month in Cuenca, Ecuador.

Now when I sit on my front porch, which looks out at the city of Cuenca, I have to pinch myself to make sure I’m not dreaming. The view from that front porch is of Cuenca’s three-domed Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, which looks like a building from Renaissance Italy. Out our house’s back window, I see the Yanuncay River one block away. It’s one of four rivers that come cascading out of the Andes Mountains into our town; all four resemble white-water mountain streams in Colorado.

I sigh in relief—and almost in disbelief—that I have landed so firmly on my feet. In Ecuador, my U.S. Social Security check alone gives my husband and me enough monthly income to make us upper-middle class. And while money isn’t everything, having enough money to live on makes a huge difference in our quality of life.

We found Cuenca in 2013, when my husband and I went on a press trip to Ecuador for a publication we worked for. When I stepped off the plane the first time we landed in Cuenca, I just knew this could be an answer to our retirement dream.

My husband and I have traveled to many developing countries, where the poverty, stray dogs, and beggars sometimes have turned me off. But Ecuador wasn’t like that. It was a lot like the simpler life I grew up with as a baby boomer, when you didn’t have to lock your doors, you knew your neighbors, and your extended family gathered for Sunday dinners. We fell in love with Ecuador’s simplicity, the kindness of its people, and—after living in Florida’s sweltering heat for years—its spring-like weather.

One thing we like about Cuenca is that you can’t look down any of the main streets without seeing the Andes looming over you in all directions. It’s quite a different view from what we had in the flat lands of Florida. Cuenca is considered the most European city in Ecuador, replete with Spanish-colonial architecture, cobblestone or brick streets in the center, and hundreds of homes with quiet courtyards inside them. Combine that with readily available broadband internet service that keeps you plugged into the rest of the world, and you’ve got the core of our new home’s appeal.

When two U.S. citizens bumped into us on the street and invited us to their home on our first visit to Cuenca, we fell in love with the expats living here, who opened their homes and hearts to us. It felt like home…as though we were supposed to be here.

Becoming an expat wasn’t easy for me. I was leaving behind my parents, my siblings, my nephews, friends I’ve had since high school, a neighborhood I loved, and a job. I was not even on Social Security yet—I was only 59 years old when I arrived.

So nearly three years later, how did it turn out? Well, I’m free. I had to totally rearrange my life to do it, and for the most part, it’s worked. For my friends and countless acquaintances that ask about my life here, I can now rattle off the ups and downs in minutes.

Healthcare is $82 a month for my husband and me, compared to the $535 to cover us both in the States. When my husband accidentally did his own manicure with his table saw, it only cost us $60 for a surgeon to sew up his finger in the emergency room of one of the cleanest and most modern hospitals I’ve been in.

The rent in Cuenca averages around $450 for a three-bedroom, three-bathroom house. I don’t need a car, as buses are a quarter a trip, and a taxi anywhere in town costs $3 a ride. I don’t need air conditioning or heat, because it’s pretty much 75 F every day. Food is farm fresh; Ecuador doesn’t import much food here, so what you get is generally grown locally. I walk everywhere and I’ve lost what the expats call the “freshman 20 pounds,” the reversal of the college trend.

I do things I never thought I would be able to do—simple things, like waking up late and loitering over coffee. I’ve taught a class on writing your memoirs and now write for magazines and blogs. (Remember, I went to college for this—and I’m just now reaping the benefits.) I take long walks by the Tomebamba River with friends, without the heat driving me back inside, and I stream Netflix long into the night. I rarely drink alcohol; the stress just isn’t there. Did I mention a generic form of Ambien can be bought over the counter, without a prescription, for $3 a month (but I don’t need it, anymore)?

I am finally starting to feel strong—both mentally and physically—again. And I have found the courage to try things I never would have tried at home. As a case in point, last Friday I tested my fitness and bravado by grabbing a zip line at Cuenca Canopy, where I did a Tarzan-like jump off a cliff-top ledge and sped suspended down tree-covered hills and across a couple of small valleys. I felt like a kid for the first time in years. This is nothing like the “thank God it’s Friday” life I used to lead.

Cuenca is a culture living in the naive ‘50s, but with better technology. Women walk cows down the street while talking on their smartphones. But this country is much more civilized than I’m used to. The Ecuadorians are about as nice a people as you can meet (unless they’re driving), and the culture has a pleasant mix of “slow,” along with the burgeoning development that comes with being one of the world’s top retirement destinations. And because of the city’s high altitude—8,200 feet above sea level—there are no mosquitoes or roaches (a big plus for this Florida girl).

Many expats do revert to a college-like lifestyle. Because there are only 3,000 to 5,000 expats among the half-million Ecuadorians in the city, we North Americans all seem to know each other—it’s like living in a small town in that regard. But I prefer a quieter life, piling in the bed with my husband and dogs, streaming Stranger Things on Netflix.

My goal was to fashion a life where I could live off $1,700 a month comfortably, in case I needed to survive on my Social Security alone sometime in the future. And I’ve done that. Currently, with my husband’s Social Security, we have a little more than $3,200 to live on. So for now, we have enough income to put money in savings each month—and we live comfortably off our monthly outlay, which is just under $1,700. I have many expat friends who are single and live on $1,500 or less a month.

Yes, I don’t have Taco Bell, and I don’t have a car to go through the drive-in. But I don’t have car payments, insurance, and carburetor problems. When I get bored, I volunteer or take a Spanish class. When I miss Florida, I now plan vacations with friends rather than visiting them at their homes.

It’s not the same life I had—I can’t hop in the car and drive 20 minutes to see my parents or my sister—but it’s a secure life. One that all the long hours at work in the States could never provide me.


Editor’s Note: This article was taken from a past issue of International Living’s monthly magazine. Delivered straight to your door each month, we delve into the details you need to take action. We share our contacts. We lay out the pluses and minuses. And we keep you up-to-date on the latest developments with the best havens abroad, including…7 Great Retirement Towns You’ve Never Heard of…

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