Ever dreamt of a luxury retirement with your own maid, a gardener, and dining out in gourmet restaurants, but thought you could never afford it? The good news is you can in the right locations.
We highlight five locations outside of the U.S., where you can automatically upgrade your retirement to one of pure luxury…and it’ll cost you far less than a comparable retirement back home.
Read on to discover how expats are living in luxury in Colombia, Ecuador, Malaysia, Panama, and Thailand.
Johor Bahru, Malaysia
Johor Bahru lies at the tip of the Malaysian peninsula. On the other side of the Straits of Johor, less than a mile to the south, is the wealthy island nation of Singapore. Two bridges connect the countries, and a great deal of daily traffic flows in both directions.
“Almost everything in Johor Bahru is one-third the price that it would cost back home. Those savings are represented in your bank account at the end of the year,” says expat Jodie George who lives in Johor Bahru.
Expats are coming in increasing numbers to the city and surrounding areas. Expat Christine Hakkaart learned about Johor Bahru by accident from a fellow passenger on a flight she took to Singapore. “It’s quite a secret—no one tells anyone about it,” she says. “It’s a fabulous little place. The people are really friendly— everybody will help you. I just like it here.”
A couple can live comfortably in Johor Bahru with a monthly budget of around $1,700. That includes renting a modern and comfortable Western-style apartment, owning a car, eating out several times a week, and all incidental expenses. Expats here can have a high standard of living on a very modest budget.
A typical example of what is on the market is a 936-square-foot, furnished, two-bedroom apartment. It’s on a high floor, with a good view of the city. The $460 monthly rental includes a swimming pool, gym, and security. It’s within walking distance of the KSL City Mall, which has some of the best shopping and restaurants in Johor Bahru.
Jodie said, “We’re a 90-minute flight to Thailand and Vietnam, and the budget airlines are so inexpensive. We’ve been to seven countries since we’ve been here. The budget airlines are all amazing and travel is so affordable.”
Chiang Mai, Thailand
Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second-largest city, is well known as being one of the top places for retirees to settle—a place to upgrade their lifestyle.
With its hundreds of golden temples, a wide variety of international restaurants, stunning surrounding countryside, and a large choice of outdoor activities, this northern Thailand city has something to offer everyone. And the year-round tropical climate is a bonus.
Markets scattered throughout the city offer locally grown fruits and vegetables along with a variety of prepared dishes for as little as a dollar apiece. Those who seek more familiar foods can find a wide selection of imported goods at any of the large supermarkets in town.
Some expats prefer to live along trendy Nimmanhemin Road, with its upscale condos and eateries, designer boutiques, and popular bars. Others prefer being in or near the old gated city. But for many, living in the nearby countryside is the ultimate retirement lifestyle. There, they can have a big garden, grow their own fruits and vegetables, and often have a spectacular view of the nearby mountains.
“The chance to live an opulent, resort lifestyle is at your fingertips,” says Rachel Devlin, an IL contributor living in Chiang Mai. “You’ll find the top resorts offering gym memberships to local expats—they’re a bargain. For just over $500 a year, you can have a membership to the Rati Lanna Resort & Spa. Getting fit and healthy has never been so easy and so competitively priced—not to mention the heavenly salt-water infinity pool overlooking the river, just waiting for you to cool off in after your workout. A further 10% discount on meals means that you can eat under a traditional Thai pagoda, while water features splash and golden fish swim in the surrounding water gardens.”
One of the great joys of retirement is the freedom it brings to indulge your passions—just like golf. And here, you can do just that for a fraction of the cost of back home. Rachel’s mother, Pam, who also lives in Thailand has been indulging her passion for golf.
“My lessons cost me $15 for an hour, and my coach was a professional golfer,” says Pam. “But it’s not just the golf that has appealed to Pam “The lifestyle here is vibrant, friendly, and rewarding. There is no way I could afford to get out so much if I didn’t live in Thailand. I can afford to go out every day, enjoy golf, lunches with other expats, and enjoy many local events. You can’t help but feel very alive here.”
Chiang Mai has always been known as one of the main cultural hubs of Thailand. This coupled with the fact that it is a university town, results in many art and cultural displays throughout the year both at local galleries and at a large number of annual festivals. The more than 30,000 expats in the city have given rise to an active expat club that holds monthly meetings. It also acts as the umbrella for many local interest groups that meet regularly, to partake in everything from hiking to computers to photography.
Southeast Asia is justifiably famous for great street food but what’s less well known is that luxury dining options in the region are becoming more and more inviting, too. “Chiang Mai is now rivaling Bangkok for elite dining experiences,” Rachel says. “The Shangri-La Hotel has been hiring Michelin-ranked chefs to offer divine culinary meals at very affordable prices.”
In Chiang Mai, a couple can live the good life from $1,165 a month.
Located on the southern shores of the Pacific Ocean in Ecuador, the quiet fishing village of Olón is a place where you’ll find wide, sandy beaches on one side of the main road through town, and lush, green hills on the other.
Most tourists stop at the flashy, party town of Montañita, and never realize that beautiful Olón is just on the other side of a bluff.
The east side of Olón is a place where bamboo forest and fruit trees grow on the rolling hills. It is not unusual to see horses or cattle slowly grazing their way across fields where tropical flowers like Bird of Paradise grow wild.
On the west side, there is an incredible seven-mile stretch of beach where you can swim, surf, or just relax in a beachfront restaurant with your toes in the sand, enjoying a fresh seafood meal, favorite beverage, and incredibly colorful sunsets.
Bill Stanley and Caroline Belfour moved to Olón from Dallas. They live in a 2,800-square-foot duplex that they bought for $240,000, within walking distance of the beach. “In Florida or California,” Caroline points out, “it would have cost us millions.”
Olón has a little of everything: English-speaking doctors, international cuisine (including excellent Indian cuisine at South Indian on the waterfront, and Mediterranean options at Almacigo on the inland side of town), laundry services, bars, restaurants, fish market, pharmacies, grocery stores, an excellent beach, and a wide range of property for sale or rent.
A couple can live well in Olón (and other small communities along Ecuador’s Pacific coast) for as little as $1,700 a month.
Medellín is a cosmopolitan city with a neighborhood feel. Set in the middle of the Andes Mountains, Colombia’s second-largest city is known as the City of Flowers. Enjoying a spring-like climate year-round, Medellín is always in bloom—bright exotic flowers stand out against the lush green trees.
It is strategically situated practically equidistant from Colombia´s other major cities of Bogotá, Cali, and Bucaramanga, making it an excellent hub for both commerce and tourism. Although the greater Medellín area has nearly 3 million people living there, the city really feels more like a lot of neighborhoods connected to each other by green spaces. Accented with green parks, flowers that are always in bloom, gurgling brooks, and hundreds of birds in brilliant colors, Medellín feels smaller than the metropolis that it is.
The city offers super high-end living for significantly less than what it would cost in the States. You can find expats living in most areas of the city, but the highest concentrations are in the neighborhoods of El Poblado and Laureles. El Poblado, is known for its terracotta high-rise apartment buildings and steep hills. It offers some of the most impressive mountain and city views.
Bruce LeMaster, traded life in Raleigh, North Carolina for Colombia’s second-biggest city. Medellín’s proximity to the United States too was a factor in Bruce’s decision, with easy access to his family an important factor. “I have two daughters in the U.S., and I wanted it to be easy to go back to visit them or have them come to see me, so Medellín was a good choice in that respect.”
While the former software engineer says he was “reasonably happy” living in the U.S., the thought of stretching his Social Security to the limit in retirement was not something that appealed. “I was going to be living on my Social Security, and there was no way that would allow me to live anywhere in the United States that I’d want to live.”
Bruce, like many, is taking full advantage of Medellín’s favorable cost of living. “I’ve got a furnished one-bed apartment in the Laureles neighborhood for which I pay $465 a month, so that is obviously a big saving in comparison with the States—less than half. I have a housekeeper come to my apartment once a week—it’s $14.50 for the day.”
With over 30 universities, an array of art and history museums, theaters, restaurants, and several sports complexes, Medellín has a very cosmopolitan vibe. The Metropolitan Theater presents a varied program of international classical music, jazz music, and dance performances. The Museo de Antioquia, located just off the Parque Berrio Metro stop, is home to a large collection of paintings and sculptures by Medellín native, Fernando Botero.
Medellin’s cost of living is remarkably affordable. Including rent, internet, a healthcare plan, and a maid, a couple can live a great life in Medellin for $1,394 to $1,994 a month.
Panama City, Panama
Panama City is the capital and largest city of Panama. If you’re looking for inexpensive cosmopolitan living—but with many of the conveniences you’d expect in New York, Miami, or any other major First-World city—you owe it to yourself to take a serious look at Panama City.
Panama City boasts a skyline of skyscrapers, modern office buildings, condo complexes, and hotels of shining glass and steel, with world-class views of the Bay of Panama. The city is a major international commerce and banking hub, home to more than 80 of the world’s largest banks, scores of international non-profits, and giant multi-nationals.
While it’s the most expensive part of Panama, no matter what your taste or budget, you’ll find that the cost of living in Panama City offers plenty of high-quality options.
IL Panama Editor Jessica Ramesch is another example of how changing location can lead to so much more than a deeper suntan or a more active lifestyle.
Jessica has been enjoying the gourmet restaurants, art galleries, attractive parks, and bayside promenades of Panama City for over 10 years. But the city’s low cost of living has recently inspired her to wonder if it’s time for a lifestyle upgrade, as well.
Jessica’s also tempted by the hip city-center zones, with all those happening bars and restaurants. “In my favorite areas, El Cangrejo and Obarrio, I’m seeing listings for as little as $1,100 or $1,200 a month,” she says. “These may not have ocean views, but they’re central neighborhoods on the metro line, walking distance from cute little cafés and tapas bars. In what other world capital can you get this kind of value for so little?
“Another thing I’ve taken advantage of here is the good, reliable hired help. When I lived in the green Clayton sector of Panama City, my gardener charged me just $15 for a full day’s work. I had him come by once every two weeks to help clear fallen mangos, cut the grass, and prune or weed as necessary. He even helped care for the delicate orchids.
“And while my dad was living with me here, I also had a maid. She was a sweet, hard-working lady who was always kind to him. We paid her $20 for a day’s work, once a week. She did laundry, made the beds, dusted and mopped, helped with cooking, and even ran the occasional errand.
"While back home, having a cleaner come around for just an afternoon every other week in the U.S. would cost upward of $130."
In Panama City, a budget of $1,800 to $2,800 (housing included) is plenty for a couple to live comfortably and enjoy a truly cosmopolitan life, no skimping required.