Old-World European Living for a Third of U.S. Costs

Although my husband, Keith, and I considered moving abroad in the past, it wasn’t until I retired that we began to look seriously. My Social Security and Keith’s income were not enough to continue to pay the mortgage and living expenses back home.

So, we rented a furnished two-bedroom, two-bathroom cottage with a fireplace and a swimming pool in northern Portugal for $790 a month—a far cry from the $2,100 we paid back home. It wasn’t the plan to stay…but that was five years ago, and we’re still here.

It’s a mystery why this intoxicating country has been so often and so long overlooked. We’ve traveled through all of Europe and can’t imagine living anywhere else. The weather is hard to beat.

A temperate climate (although rainy in winter in the north) allows plenty of time for outdoor activities. Healthcare, both public and private, is widely available, inexpensive, and excellent.

And it’s the most affordable country in Western Europe. In Portugal, Keith and I immediately saw our expenses fall to between one-third and one-quarter of what they were back in the U.S.

For example, a couple can easily live in a suburb of Lisbon in a comfortable apartment, without a car, and enjoy a moderate budget for entertainment, in addition to necessities, for $1,500 a month. Try doing that in any other Western European capital. A lunch for two at an inexpensive restaurant runs $16; pay double that for a mid-range eatery. A round-trip public transportation ticket is about $3.25, but you can travel on a pass for an entire month for less than $40. A one-bedroom rental in town averages $690, and outside the city center you’ll pay $450. Utilities average about $110, and internet usage about $27 for one month.

But low costs are just part of Portugal’s appeal. You won’t find saudade anywhere else…with no direct translation, it’s a kind of joyful melancholy the Portuguese enjoy. Writer Aubrey Bell called it “a vague and constant desire for something…other than the present.” It’s at the heart of Portuguese culture—just listen to some of the country’s soulful fado music.

There is a magical undercurrent that pervades Portugal…a sense of a carefully preserved past. Golden beaches with sparkling clean waters line the western and southern coastlines. Flower-filled meadows stretch toward sloping hills, then rise to mountain bluffs crowned by a 12th-century castle. You can picnic amid a ghostly city abandoned by the Romans, or explore the old palaces and summer retreats of royalty, and hike through forests famed for poets.

But what’s really made us fall for Portugal is the people. There’s a chivalry and politeness in day-to-day life that’s been lost elsewhere. In Portugal, you can sit for hours at an outdoor café nursing a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, and no check will appear unless requested. The locals are polite from a distance—it’s normal for a person on a crosswalk to wave “thank you” to the driver who stopped—and willing to help if asked, but content to keep their lives separate from yours. Until you become friends, that is, and then you will have gained a trusted ally forever. And because of long-standing trade ties with Britain, English is widely understood almost everywhere.

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