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Retiring to ocean breezes and cheap rent: What’s the catch?

Retiring to paradise can be more difficult than

Retiring to paradise can be more difficult than some people imagine. Credit: Getty Images / deepblue4you

The world is full of tropical paradises and other exotic places where a couple can live comfortably on $2,000 a month or less. Plus, good health care abroad can cost a fraction of what it does in the United States.

If living more cheaply is the only reason you’d retire to another country, though, you’re likely to be unhappy.

Expatriate Dan Prescher says he’s seen such “economic refugees” suffer when they discover how different daily life can be in other places.

“No matter what else the United States is, it is probably the most convenient country on the planet,” says Prescher, a senior editor at International Living who currently lives in Ecuador. “You can get almost anything you want, almost any time you want, with a phone call or the click of a mouse. The rest of the world is just not like that.”

People who do well living abroad tend to have some things in common. Those include:

  • They have a sense of adventure — and humor. The best candidates are open-minded, unafraid of change and ready to embrace the new and unexpected, says Kathleen Peddicord, publisher of Live and Invest Overseas. Plus, she lives in Paris. “You need to be able to laugh it off when the repairman stands you up for the fourth time in a row,” Peddicord says.
  • They have a re-entry plan. Many expat retirees intend to return to the United States someday, and even those who expect to live abroad indefinitely can change their minds.

“At some point, they’re going to be 80 years old, and they might not want to be away from their family and friends anymore,” Prescher says.

A re-entry plan could mean renting the family home instead of selling it, or setting aside enough money to fund a return. Prescher and Peddicord also recommend signing up for Medicare at age 65, even though that government health care program can only be used in the United States. The reason: The part of Medicare that pays for doctor’s visits and other costs, Part B, has a hefty penalty for not signing up when you’re eligible.

  • They have a purpose.

After 20 years of living abroad, Peddicord is convinced that having purpose is key to a positive experience in a new place. Every unhappy retiree she’s known failed to find motivation and devolved into what she calls “the complaining expat.”

“You find these folks holding court on bar stools across the world,” she says.

The happy ones may take up a long-deferred hobby, learn a new language or start a business, but many expat retirees find their purpose by volunteering.

“I know dozens of expat retirees in different places who are volunteering as teachers, in orphanages, in single-mother facilities,” Peddicord says. “This can be the best way to become a real part of your new community.”

Often one member of a couple is more enthusiastic than the other about retiring to an exotic location abroad, and it may take a vacation in the proposed location to win over the uncertain spouse. But dragging a truly reluctant spouse abroad is likely to backfire. 

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