What Does Luxury Mean to You?

Ever since my wife, Suzan Haskins, and I wrote our book, we’ve been getting the same question from book reviewers and interviewers.

The name of the book is The International Living Guide to Retiring Overseas on a Budget: How to Live Well on $25,000 a Year.

And the question is: “What do you mean by ‘well’? What kind of lifestyle could you possibly have on just $25,000 a year?”

Suzan and I address this question in the book. We show our budget and give examples of how far $25,000 a year will go in various expat destinations around the world. But interviewers and book reviewers like to personalize big ideas like “living well” for their own readers. And since the idea of living “well” means different things to different people, it’s often tough to illustrate this big idea.

We just did an interview with a writer from New York, where $25,000 a year doesn’t go very far. He imagined us living on rice and beans, washing our laundry by hand in a plastic tub, and playing dominos by candlelight each evening for entertainment…even though we were talking to him over a high-speed Internet connection while our housekeeper was doing the weekly cleaning and a pork roast simmered in the oven.

We feel that we live “well”, and so did the interviewer the longer we talked…which led us to believe that he probably hadn’t read the book before the interview. (That happens more than you’d think.)

The point of the book is precisely to explain how we and hundreds of other expats we know live safe, happy lives on $25,000 a year or less and still enjoy all the amenities and comforts of modern life—with some perks and luxuries we couldn’t afford back home thrown in to boot. (I don’t think we’ll ever be able to go back to scrubbing and cleaning now that our housekeeper has spoiled us.) So when an interviewer asks us if we have electricity and running water, we’re pretty sure they haven’t read the book beforehand.

I think another stumbling block for a lot of the reviewers and interviewers we talk with has to do with overhead. In some cases, products we buy out here in the non-U.S. world aren’t really that much cheaper than back home…and if they’re imported luxury items like electronics, appliances, or vehicles, we often pay more.

But our overhead—the monthly expense items in our budgets for utilities, taxes, health care, insurance, and rent—are low compared to back home. Often ridiculously low. Living in the U.S. and never having lived anywhere else, those overhead expenses are just a fact of life for many of the reviewers and interviewers we talk to. They don’t think about them anymore; they just assume that they’re the same for everybody everywhere.

But when we tell them we pay $5 a month for gas, $2 a month for water, $24 a month for electricity, and $53 a year (a year!) for property tax on our condo…then they start to get it.

And when we add that we self-insure our health care for half what it would cost us in the U.S., and that doctor’s visits and many common health procedures cost half or less than they do in the U.S., and that expats who join the public health systems offered by some of these countries pay even less or even get health services for free…that’s usually when they see the light.

Luxury means different things to different people. We don’t ride around in a limousine or dine on caviar and foie gras or attend a lot of black-tie affairs. Heck, we don’t even own a car anymore, because public transportation where we live is plentiful and insanely affordable.

But we and hundreds of expats we know do live what we consider the life of Riley on a budget that, back in the States, wouldn’t go very far at all. And that’s the whole point of the book—to show how it’s possible to live better for less in beautiful and exotic places where the weather won’t kill you.

And that’s really the luxury we savor the most: the luxury of time and peace of mind that comes from living in a gorgeous place that is more comfortable and more affordable than the place we came from.

In that sense, we truly live like kings.


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