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The Ultimate in Travel: Retiring Abroad

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Tami Fincher dives into projects head first. Two years into a 5-year plan to retire early in Central America, her short list – so far – is Boca Chica and El Valle de Antón, in Panama, and Guanacaste Province, in northern Costa Rica.

She and husband Stephen Fincher are making their plans to join the growing number of Americans-turned-expatriate retirees. In 2016, more than 603,200 Social Security checks were mailed to retirees, their spouses and widows living abroad. They are moving as much for the adventure as for the lower cost many countries offer.

An exotic retirement isn’t for everyone. Even if they could save on living costs, people who’ve never been keen on international travel might prefer to remain close to home and grandchildren.   But the baby boomer wave is pushing up the number of U.S. retirees living abroad – by 11 percent in five years, according to the U.S. Social Security Administration, which tracks its pension checks sent overseas. Ex-pat’s favorite countries include Japan, Mexico, France, Thailand, and Colombia. (More are listed on the next page.)

To assess the pros and cons of Costa Rica vs. Panama, the Finchers made their first exploratory trips, to Costa Rica last June for their 20th anniversary and to Panama over the New Year’s holiday. If Tami, age 53, has her way, they’ll retire in about three years and sell their Houston home to relocate.

Steve, 57, would like to work at least one year after that.  He’s a dog person, so much so that he got a job 13 years ago selling invisible electronic fences to keep dogs from wandering away from home. He feels this is important work and wants to keep doing it.

But both agree on this: it would be fun to get away. Tami’s employer, an international oil company, once stationed her in Paris for a year. She also has worked for short periods in Belgium, Venezuela, Singapore and Bolivia.  As a world traveler, she knows it is essential to carefully plan such a dramatic change. “I read about people changing their minds after they move, because they didn’t plan.”

retirees by countryBut it’s okay, too, if they move to Panama or Costa Rica and things don’t work out. They’ll try another country – why not Ecuador? Once they leave the United States, “we’re going to be gone,” Steve said, as will their Labradoodle, Labrador-Pit Bull mix, and Black-mouth curs.

While money is not their sole motivation, a much lower cost of living abroad will facilitate their early retirement. Experts generally encourage baby boomers to work as long as possible to put themselves in the best financial position in retirement.

Aware of the risk, the couple wisely consulted a financial adviser extensively to make a sound plan.  “If something catastrophic happens, I believe we can learn to live without,” Tami explained. “Some of the happiest people live with much less!”

She has a traditional pension, and together they’ve saved “more than the average American” in their 401(k)s and IRAs, she said. “We didn’t have kids or college or cars to buy.”  They’re being smart about Social Security and will delay filing for their benefits until they’re at least 68. Claiming benefits at 70, rather than 62, increases the size of monthly Social Security checks by 75 percent.

On the other side of the money equation is Central America’s low living costs, particularly for medical care. As International Living Magazine explains about Panama, “you can find the best of care at a fraction of what you’ll pay back in the U.S. Your doctors will often speak English, and they are far easier to access than back home, too.”

Tami’s research indicates they can buy health insurance for $80 a month in Costa Rica. In Panama, paying for medical care out-of-pocket would be cheaper than, for example, staying in Texas and signing up for post-employment COBRA health benefits for the 18 months allowed under federal laws.

The Fincher’s bottom line: lower expenses mean more fun. Steve expects to “drastically” cut their spending by relocating, without sacrificing a comfortable lifestyle. He likes to fish and belongs to a shooting club, activities he’ll continue overseas. Tami enjoys off-road cycling, and they both hike and want to “hop around to Ecuador or Columbia or Peru,” she said.

(Tami made a video of their Panama trip on YouTube.)

Steve does worry about getting bored in such small towns, after 18 years in Houston. While they are planning to stay abroad for the long term, they’ve agreed to come back together if either doesn’t like living overseas.

On their trip to Panama, they learned that the fishing village of Boca Chica is “nature’s haven. Beautiful, water, the scenery, the green,” Tami said. El Valle, nestled in the mountains, is cool though not cold. It’s also a larger town with amenities like coffee and bicycle shops and a two-hour drive to Panama City.

Panama is “completely different” from Costa Rica, she said. Whatever country they choose the Finchers view living abroad as their own version of paradise.

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18 Responses to The Ultimate in Travel: Retiring Abroad

  1. Pamela Foust says:

    We’re the first year of Gen Xer’s to turn 50, and we’re looking at the expat option as well! We got a later start in getting serious about our careers but between a traditional pension, 401(k), personal savings and (eventually) Social Security, we believe we can have a very comfortable life abroad in paradise! Being from working class backgrounds, we know how to economize and enjoy simple lifestyles. But, as professionals, we also know how to research and plan appropriately for such a big change. Our move, likely, won’t be for another 6-7 years; however, we already have our first tour of Panama scheduled for this summer! If it’s not what we’re expecting, then we’ll start looking at the next country — but we feel quite certain our future is in Latin America <3

  2. Gayle Dedelow says:

    This is very interesting and I have never given it much thought. But alas I am no longer at an age to entertain the idea!

  3. Mike says:

    Interesting. I did not think that Social Security put any checks in the mail anymore, not even within the U.S. They had to be electronically deposited into a bank. And they would not deposit them into a foreign bank outside of the U.S. I was under the impression that you would have to have your check deposited into a U.S. bank and then have that bank transfer the funds to a foreign bank. This is news to me. I am on Social Security and the only option I had was an electronic deposit.

  4. Karen says:

    This is definitely on our radar. We’ve been studying the idea for the last 5 years and we’ve traveled to France, Germany, England and Ireland, but Central America may fit the bill a little better. I retire next month so the plans are ramping up. It’s an exciting time of life!

  5. Lonnie Julian says:

    My wife and I have lived in Spain and Scotland. We liked Scotland better for some things and Spain for others. I didn’t think it was cheap nor economical.

    We lived well in both but live well here in Tennessee on our mountain top. Medical and dental are better in the USA and hospitals (not saying others are better) are just better and when you get old you are sure to need a doctor or nurse.

    • Mark Gall says:

      I cannot state that you’d like life everywhere else (and as a retired federal law enforcement officer, I’ve lived in about 10 places in the U.S.: north, south, east, and west) but U.S. healthcare is NOT the best by a long shot, and more expensive than anywhere on this planet.

      “Don’t forget that the U.S. placed number 11 or lower in valid research for medical effectiveness! HOW BAD IS U.S. HEALTH CARE? AMONG HIGH-INCOME NATIONS, IT’S THE WORST, STUDY SAYS

  6. Jaime Jerez says:

    How about Nicaragua. It is up and coming. It has come a long way in the last 10-15 years. People are nice, happy, easy connections to the States, and there is affordable health care. I have my sight on it for when the time comes.

    • Mark Gall says:

      Read my comment below. Nicaragua sounds great, although we’ve only spent a short time there. Also Costa Rica is far more first worldish, but also more expensive. Maybe we’ll see you in Nicaragua? Don’t forget, if it doesn’t work out (give it some time!), you can always return.

      I’d rather die in a place that I like, than live for years in a dreary environment that is boring.

  7. Mark Gall says:

    For some folks, including us, retirement to a third world country has been great, and although we returned to the U.S. for a couple years now for my wife’s school, we’ll be heading back soon. We lived in a several countries for at least 6 months, Thailand (being the longest at 4 years), and also Cambodia, Ecuador, and Belize, and soon Nicaragua. In addition, we’ve traveled in 15 other Central/South American and Asian countries for around 4 years, so we’ve seen some of the good and the bad. None were truly dangerous, only too annoying.

    When someone says that a third world country is dangerous, I’d take that with a huge grain of salt, as it’s unlikely they’ve even been there. In our years in these countries the WORST that has happened is someone stole our rain jackets (Ecuador, and probably a foreigner) and they stole our lunches from a rented motor bike.

    Also, we’ve used medical care in several places, and some are, in our opinion and my wife is a U.S. registered nurse, equal to the U.S., such as Bangkok. Don’t forget that the U.S. placed number 11 or lower in valid research for medical effectiveness! HOW BAD IS U.S. HEALTH CARE? AMONG HIGH-INCOME NATIONS, IT’S THE WORST, STUDY SAYS

    See for yourself, and DON’T listen to know-it-all folks, as they often DON’T!

    • Stephen Wilson says:

      After seeing health care in many countries during my Fed years, I, too, am less impressed with U.S. health care. For 12 years my ex was given stronger and stronger antacids and other meds for chronic acid reflux and other stomach ailments. On her FIRST EXAM in Germany, the doctors discovered a hiatal hernia which, they said, no amount of medication would help. She had surgery and said afterward, “For the first time in 12 years, I can eat [without pain.]

      U.S. medicine seems focused on treating the symptoms rather than the CAUSE of the symptoms.

  8. Steph Young says:

    My husband and I have also considered life abroad. We are interested in the islands after our first cruise two years ago. We are in the planning stages to do our first move in about 10 yrs or so. We’re still pretty young in our career fields and have a ways to go before retirement.

  9. Elizabeth Baierl says:

    Most of us have direct deposit. Get a bank that doesn’t kill you with ATM and foreign transaction fees.

    Daily ATM limits are $300-500 typically, and that is more than enough cash for any day…

  10. Dennis D. says:

    We recently took early retirement from the US Government and moved to Australia. I was fortunate to receive a scholarship to pursue my PhD. Between our retirement, scholarship, and veteran’s benefits, we’re living the good life in Oz. The weather here is incredible, the people are fantastically friendly, and the scenery is wonderful. We took the minimalist route for our new life and it significantly changed our lifestyle and increased our happiness. There are also some tax advantages to being an ex pat abroad that folks should consider when the relocate. Good on you for your decision and congratulations!

  11. Lastminuteinfo says:

    In Europe, Spain is a popular country to retire. The region around Benidorm / Calpe is great! The weather is almost always sunny.

  12. Mike says:

    What about buying land? If I were to move abroad, I’d want to buy a house instead of renting. I know Europeans have it easier as they can buy property in other EU nations without citizenship, but US citizens have other hoops to jump through. Any thoughts?

    • Mark Gall says:

      We’ve spent several years in third world countries, and always rented because there is so much to see in new places. The most we’ve spent per day on rentals is about $20, sometimes much less if it’s 1 month or more. $5 rental amounts are not unheard of, even now, in some areas. Renting gives us peace of mind and flexibility without concerns about the land.

  13. Wm. Pederson says:

    Be careful; many horror stories. We have 5 friend couples who have moved back to the states. You get what you pay for and that is most definitely the case is safety and cleanliness. Many drawbacks now with the uprisings. Venezuela was considered great, now their people are fleeing the communist nation due to starvation and the money in their banks is gone. Many reasonable places in the US that are equal to 3rd world countries. Be careful.

  14. I love this piece because it describes what I have been up to. In 2011, I sold everything I owned, took early retirement and began traveling the world. My idea is to base in different places, immerse myself in the culture and explore. So far I have lived in Mexico, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and now I am living in Portugal. I am loving the new lifestyle and plan to continue this method of seeing the world for many years to come.

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