“I’m Worried About Moving to a New Country…”

You don’t have to choose a country, sell everything, and then live there forever.

My wife and I recently received a note from a woman who wanted to know if Cuenca, Ecuador was the perfect place for her and her husband.

They were planning to sell their house and all their belongings when they retired and moved to Ecuador. She wrote she had never traveled south of Puerto Vallarta, and “although excited, I’m worried about the grief of making a move to a new country permanently.”

If this sounds like you (or your spouse), maybe it’s time to step back and add in one more step: exploration. There is an easier, less-stressful way for you to move into your new life—and it’s fun, too. I call it the 6-3-6 Discovery Year Formula, and it encourages you to “try before you buy” or, more importantly, “try before you sell.”

Making an international move is a unique chance to step out of a lifetime of habits (for me, going to McDonalds) and create a fulfilling new life full of intrigue and energy. An international move is a rare opportunity to pick and choose what makes your life the most satisfying, and to live it that way.

So how can you get yourself into the international living mindset, without selling everything? The answer is simple: The cost of living in South America is so much lower than what you’re used to, you’ll find you can swing a test move without cashing out on your current life.

An easy way to do this is to add a “6-week/3-month/6-month discovery year” to your planning. While still working, take the longest vacation you can. Muster up six weeks (more if possible) and explore a new destination. Don’t stay in a hotel. Rent an apartment, take language lessons, meet the expat community and stay in one place for the entire time. It will be an enjoyable and eye-opening experience. You may be amazed that your first choice may not be the perfect place for you after all.

Like your mother’s advice on your first puppy love, it really is better to play the field a little until you have the knowledge and experience to compare. Some of the people we know who fell in love with Ecuador have since moved on—finding new homes they liked even better in places like Uruguay, Brazil, and Argentina. You’ll never know how you will react to life outside of your home country until you try it. The next step in the 6-3-6 process is three months of exploring other places in depth.

People who are interested in an expat life are usually highly successful. Use that success and support to work with your boss to schedule a three-month leave of absence. Once you’ve arranged the time, choose three new places to stay (I’d suggest small cities like Cuenca, Ecuador; Sucre, Bolivia; Salta, Argentina, Granada, Nicaragua; Bologna, Italy; Rovinj, Croatia).

Arrange to take language lessons while there. Experience the culture, the rhythm of life and the everyday. After a month or so, move on. You will come home with a much better understanding of which culture and place is right for you.

Bill O. from Arizona, who is retired and looking to move overseas, has taken it a step further; he is spending three months apiece in six different countries. He’s been to Belize, is now here in Cuenca, and is next heading to Colombia. He’s been amazed at what he has learned and tells me it costs him less (including the flights) than staying at home. And he’s having a great time.

The final step is to choose one location and stay for six months. This is where the rubber meets the road. You are truly living internationally but still with an escape clause. This time you will need to deal with issues such as visas, banking, bringing your pets and even renting your home.

At the same time, six months will allow you to avoid the onerous requirements of residency, and your friends and family will know that you have a return ticket at the end of the stay. Six months is the perfect amount of time to discover if this is really the place for you, and whether you are ready for longer stays abroad. After this time you can return home and make more permanent decisions.

Of course, the discovery experience doesn’t have to end then, either. We found that renting our home in Colorado, fully furnished, for three years has been a great way to keep an anchor in Boulder, while allowing us the freedom to explore the world.

We fell in love with Canoa, Ecuador, until we found Cuenca. Lately, Bariloche, Argentina, and Sucre, Bolivia, have smitten our roving hearts. We found places in each we could easily call home for a while, and that’s exactly what we are doing.