“The loneliness of the expatriate is of an odd and complicated kind, for it is inseparable from the feeling of being free, of having escaped.”
Adam Gopnik (Paris to the Moon)
Creating the Life of Your Dreams Living Abroad Over 50
Interviews with Expat Retirees
In over three hundred interviews I conducted with Americans and Canadian living abroad over 50, only a few people regretted their decision. Many of these interviewees said their only regret is that they did not move earlier. Even most who seemed unhappy, I suspect, were not very happy with their lives in the US.
The reasons these Americans and Canadians living abroad over 50 cite for their happiness abroad vary immensely. Yet, everyone agrees that many things they treasure most about living abroad over 50 are not the same as they expected when they left home.
The most common benefit that expats living abroad over 50 cite is that they have learned to view the world and themselves differently. The interviewees also report that they have developed a variety of personality traits – especially flexibility and patience—that they did not have before. Many Americans and Canadians, particularly women, even report that they feel that now that they have managed to adapt and enjoy life abroad, they can accomplish anything in their life.
Most Americans and Canadian living abroad over 50 have been surprised at their quality relationships after leaving home. Many interviewees have created a sense of respect and sometimes genuine affection for their new culture. They have also found some of the closest relationships of their lives with other Americans and Canadians in their newly adopted home.
Tip #1: Go Slow
Though there are many benefits to living abroad over 50, it is not easy to decide to become an expat. Most expats consider the logistics (how will we move, where we will move, what will do once we arrive – I will talk about these issues later in this booklet) without considering any psychological motivations. However, most experts on living abroad agree that psychological readiness is the primary ingredient of success.
While there is no magic recipe for success living abroad over 50, after interviewing 300 expat retirees s in various countries and reading dozens of books, certain psychological traits repeatedly appear. These are flexibility, openness, patience, a sense of humor, and an adventurous spirit. Without a good mixture of these traits, life’s daily trials and tribulations in another county may tire you out quickly.
In addition, I also found some common factors among the few people (less than 10% of all the people I have interviewed) I have met who have not succeeded in making their new lives abroad work out. These factors are:
- They tried to forge a life abroad that was utterly different than that they enjoyed at home without being prepared for the consequences. Many people who do not successfully transition abroad try to do things abroad that would have been challenging for them to do in the US. The three most common examples of this that I have seen are:
- Couples who retired to another country immediately after spending their lives working and raising children in the US. Many of these people have spent so much time in the US just getting through their daily routines; they had not gotten to know each other well before moving abroad. When these people move abroad, they must adjust to a new culture and learn how to live together all the time. The combination of these two adjustments often causes so much friction that the couple decides to move back home or separate.
- Americans who build a house abroad without ever building a home in the US. Unless you have worked in the construction trades in the US, building a house in the US is emotionally draining. Add the cultural complexities of trying to build a home in another country, and you have a recipe for frustration. (That said, most people like the homes that build overseas).
- Expats who put together a business abroad in an unknown field. I have heard several stories of people investing their life’s savings in business that they knew nothing about, only to lose their shirts. (One particularly vivid tale is about a pair of sociologists from the US who went to Costa Rica to invest a half-million dollars in an organic pineapple farm, which failed. How they think they could have succeeded in a business as complicated as a farm with no previous experience or training is a mystery.)
- Stories of people so captivated by the dream of living abroad over 50 that they did something extraordinarily impetuous and stupid are legion. It is almost impossible to share a drink with any expat and not hear about some unfortunate expat fraud victim story. One of my favorites is the story of some American tourists visiting Costa Rica. He paid his taxicab driver $10,000 for a plot of land based on a contract written on a paper napkin that did not even have the name or contact information of the seller. While most people are not as clueless as this man, hundreds of Americans have bought properties in beach communities throughout Latin America after attending one presentation or looking at a website. Most of these people are told that they could make a fortune by renting the property, that they are getting in on the ground floor, and that if they do not act right away, they will lose the opportunity of a lifetime. While these developments are sometimes legitimate (and many people make money in these projects), Buying a property unseen after a tequila-filled sales dinner is risky. Even if the development is legitimate, how do you know that you would enjoy living there and are ready for the trials and joys of living in another country? You also have no recourse if it turns out that you are sold a bill of goods.
- They were not very functional people in the US before they left. Living abroad over 50 tests your psychological, financial, and physical mettle. It is not a good idea if you cannot function well at home. It simply takes too much out of you. On the other hand, many functional people report that one of the best benefits of living abroad over 50 is that by testing their mettle, living abroad has helped them grow.
For these reasons, every book and expert about expat life recommends that people spend some serious time in the place they want to live abroad before investing in a property or pulling up their stakes in the US. The amount of time necessary varies from person to person and depends on where you decide to live.
I have heard of people who successfully transitioned to a new life and bought a lovely home in Lake Chapala, Mexico, after only spending two weeks there. (Most of these people did a fair amount of research before they got there, however). I also met people who lived in Merida, Mexico, who spent a year exploring the area before committing to their new life there and felt that every day spent researching the place paid off in the long run.
While I do not think there is a magic rule of thumb, I believe that, at a minimum, you should live in a place with a significant expat community for at least a month before you commit to it psychologically or financially. And you should spend at least three months before committing to any place without a significant expat presence. These timeframes are a minimal suggestion; I recommend spending three times this time for most people, especially if they have never lived abroad.
Getting the necessary information to carve out a new life overseas from the US is impossible. You can only find the answers to your questions about buying or renting property; creating a happy, successful life in a new community; or setting up a business by spending some time and talking to many people about their experiences.
While doing this research, you will find that every expat has different opinions and experiences and that these experiences and views collectively seem contradictory. Some people find it hard to deal with various perspectives or the relative lack of clear answers to specific questions that this type of research entails. In my experience, if you cannot deal with this type of ambiguity, maybe you should stay in the US anyway.
Tip #2: Appreciate The Daily Joys of Living Abroad
In every interview I have conducted with expats living abroad over 50, the things they like best about living abroad are the small, daily rhythms of their new lives abroad. Most people do not wax poetic about the quality, pace, or cost of living abroad; instead, they talk about the people and places that together weave their daily existence. Here are some of the many examples of the everyday experiences that some of the interviewees treasure most:
- One of the expat retirees I interviewed in Lake Chapala reported that his most immense joy was listening to the church bells calling people to pray daily and watching uniformed kids and their parents happily going to and from school every day.
- One of the most commonly cited joys of living abroad over 50 is the friendliness and helpfulness of the locals. Many expats even return time after time to the same banks, restaurants, and taxi drivers simply because these people became friends.
- Expat retirees report that one of the most common benefits of living abroad over 50 is the level of close friendships that they make with other Americans and Canadians in their adopted community. Many people feel that the most intimate friendships they have ever made are with other Americans in their newfound homes. Some people find these friendships through various social and charitable organizations. Others find friendships by hanging out in bars and restaurants frequented by expats.
- I have also met many expat retirees, primarily men, who love living in beach communities in Mexico and Costa Rica. They can engage in their favorite water sports during the day and drink the night away with fellow Americans and Canadians in their newfound homes.
- My favorite part of living abroad over 50 is various trivial things, including long friendly discussions with locals about their lives in Spanish; learning about and trying out herbs, medicines, and fruits; and exploring ancient ruins.
- It is much easier to deal with daily health care living abroad over 50 than in the US. Most of my office visits lasted 45 minutes and cost around $35-45. I can generally get an appointment within a week of my call. In addition, many doctors typically have appointments available at night. Most also spoke good English. (I have had some appointments in Spanish. I suspect these doctors know some English; however, it has not been an issue because I understand and speak Spanish). Thanks to these professionals, I fought off a bout of depression and dealt with sleeping apnea. While I paid for all these services out of pocket, all -except the sleep apnea machine, some tests, and a brain scan- cost considerably less than in the US, and everyone seemed entirely professional.
- The cost of expat retiree living in most ways is around half the cost in the US. Here are some of my expenses in Merida:
- Taxi and Uber rides that in the US cost between $10-40 are $2 to $8 here.
- Food and restaurant costs average around 60% of the US.
- House cleaner service is $18 per visit versus $60 in the US.
- Fruits and vegetables are about half the price as in the US.
I spend around $2500 monthly and have no mortgage or rent. (I bought my house with cash in November 2015). I also don’t have a car. With this amount, I have a genuinely satisfying life in Merida. I can:
- Go on short vacations around the Yucatan.
- Eat out occasionally.
- Buy groceries (including high-cost imported luxuries like European cheese and alcoholic beverages).
- Have my chef, assistant (Juan Carlos), and house cleaner (Chucho).
- Take Uber and taxis around town and to Progreso (a nearby resort).
- See many medical specialists, pay for prescriptions, tests, etc.
- Attend cultural events and give parties.
- Give 5% of my income to charities in Mexico and the US
- Maintain my 100-year-old home (which requires more work than the US).
- Utilities including electricity. I use my air conditioner from April to November- water, trash, cell phone, internet, Netflix, and landline.
- Property taxes.
- Health and home insurance.
- Taxes and social security contributions on my US income.
Even though living abroad over 50 can be frustrating, when accompanied by a flexible and patient nature, these benefits far outweigh the inconveniences for most Americans and Canadians living abroad of 50, including myself.
Tip #3: Keep These Caveats in Mind
Once expat retirees settle down, they must become comfortable and well adjusted.
Apart from dealing with culture shock, many aspects of living in another country differ from moving within the United States. There are, however, some crucial differences between the US and abroad to keep in mind, including:
- Expat retirees will be moving to a small town even if you live in a big city abroad. Even though you may try hard to avoid it, you will become part of whatever expatriate community (note: this may not be limited just to Americans) that exists in your new town. You will become part of this expat community even in a city as large as Tokyo or Mexico City. Connecting to these expats is usually beneficial and can be a fantastic way to adjust to your new life abroad.
- It is not unusual for this small community of Americans and Canadians living abroad over 50 to quickly resemble a small town in the United States. They get into each other’s business and can be very political in the affairs of their expatriate community. (Usually, they cannot get involved in the town’s politics because they are not citizens, are not part of the communities’ political elite, and do not speak the language fluently.)
- Many expat retirees who choose smaller communities overseas (particularly where only a few foreigners live) become embroiled in the local affairs. On the positive side, they get to know their local neighbors and get invited into the locals’ lives for graduations, etc. On the negative side, they not only find themselves under the microscope for violations of American morals but also under the scrutiny of locals for not conforming to their behavioral norms. This can become particularly complicated when American and foreign standards conflict.
- Expats will have more opportunities for growth (and problems) living abroad over 50 than if they stayed in their home country. Many expat couples (if they are functional in the US) find that living abroad brings them closer together. Successfully adjusting to another country can be a powerful force for family unity. Living abroad also separates you from familiar routines and the powerful distraction of our consumer-driven society (like TV). This separation often helps you find more time to spend with your loved ones.
- Expats living abroad over 50 find traditions in their host countries that they treasure. (My favorite holiday is now the Day of the Dead; it has been years since I cared much about Halloween). In addition, people find that their stint abroad gives them an excellent opportunity to reexamine their priorities, boost their self-esteem, and even serve as an excellent career move. You meet more people when you live abroad, and sometimes you find a perfect business partner or boss you would never have seen at home.
- If expat retirees have marital or family strife, living abroad over 50 can exacerbate your existing problems. Since you are free of the distraction of living in the United States (which unhappy people often use to help escape from a troubled relationship), you are forced to deal with your issues somehow. Unfortunately, divorce, separation, alcoholism, and other destructive behaviors are often the result. Be incredibly careful about making life-changing decisions, especially during the first year of your stay abroad when everyone suffers culture shock. Ensure that your partner (or kids or job) is the problem, not your unfamiliar environment.
All these comments aside, it is essential to realize that some Americans even experience culture shock just moving between regions of the United States. I have even heard of people who adjusted quickly to living abroad over 50 who found that moving from the Northeast to the Southeast was hard!
Tip #4: Expect These Complications
Even as the world gets smaller, living in the US is more convenient than most other countries. Here are some of the conveniences you may miss abroad:
- Businesses keep more irregular hours than in the States. Many stores close in the afternoon for a two to three-hour break. Often stores do not keep the hours posted on their entrance very religiously. Many places in the world close on weekends or holidays. I once arrived in Jerusalem at five on a Friday at the beginning of the Sabbath. Everything in the Jewish section of town was closed. I felt as if I could hear a pin drop. I even had to walk three miles to the Arab neighborhood in the city to find a place to stay since no buses or trains were running in the Jewish section.
- Expats living abroad over 50 will need to spend more time dealing with bureaucracies and paperwork abroad. As a citizen in the US, you do not have to think about complying with visas and residency requirements. Many countries, particularly in Europe, will require you to get licenses and pay taxes (most of these are the same for locals) for various services, like trash service and televisions. Setting up a bank account, particularly for foreigners, can be challenging.
- It is harder to get things done than in the US. However, often things are done as well or better than expected. Workers often do not show up when they tell you. Sometimes they do not show up at all. Many times they show up at the last moment. Often several people show up at once. Yet, when people show up, they concentrate much more on enjoying the moment. People often seem to be more interested in their phones than their visitors in the US.
- Expect to pay more for many services than locals, particularly in developing (third world) countries. Over time, however, I have developed a strategy for dealing with this issue that works for me.
Tip #5: The Double-Edged Sword of Globalization
Over the past twenty years, the world has become increasingly like the United States. Hollywood movies (and Bollywood movies made in Mumbai) appear in the smallest towns in Afghanistan. Every day we read articles about the newest Wal-Mart in China or the opening of a new McDonald’s in some far-flung corner like Georgia (the Caucasian Republic).
Globalization is both a blessing and a curse for expats living abroad over 50. In many of my Big Blue Marble seminars in the 2000s, when I pointed out that there are now over 700 Wal-Marts in Mexico (it is, by far, the largest retail chain in the country), the universal response was exasperation. All the students seemed sad to hear that they could not escape from the highly commercial American spirit anywhere, and they yearned for a corner of the world that seemed exotic and fresh.
While this exasperation is understandable, I have seen globalization as more of a blessing than a curse for expats. Here is why:
- American stores provide an excellent place to find familiar goods at competitive prices (the Wal-Marts in Mexico offer as much variety as they do in the States). In addition, they make it easy to find products from the US and Asia, particularly electronic goods, in places (like Mexico) where previously these goods were expensive if they could be found.
- Globalization has created a strong demand overseas for high-quality goods and services. As more people visit and live in the US or Europe (as in the case of Mexico and Central America, have lived in the US), they will demand local services and products that are competitive with what they find abroad. Global companies will continue to expand their markets to serve this need. (Note: The percentage of people who can afford a Western lifestyle range from 20-25% of the population in a developing country to 80-90% of the populace in Western Europe. The population creates a large market for foreign firms, even in developing countries. Consider, for example, 20-25% of Mexico’s population (the total population is around 125 million people) is 25-30 million people (about the population of Texas), a market equivalent to the state of Texas.)
- The general level of knowledge and skills overseas is expanding rapidly, particularly in the developing world (third world) and former communist nations. Americans will soon take advantage of this increased skill level in new and unimaginable ways. The quality of complex goods and services, such as medical and high-tech industries, will be increasingly competitive overseas. More professionals are educated in places like the US and Western Europe, and they often elect to return to their native countries. In addition, there will be a day when some of the finest schools will be in developing countries. I expect that someday, Americans may go to schools like the Indian Institute of Technology in New Delhi as much as Indians elect to go to schools here.
- It is easy to find in other countries many of the goods and services that make our life convenient in the US, including
- high-speed, lower-cost internet access;
- professionally qualified doctors (many of whom received education in the US or Europe);
- decent quality, inexpensive phone services (I pay $45 a month in Mexico for my cell phone, land phone, high-speed internet, and Netflix);
- restaurants serving ethnic foods from the far corners of the planet. (in fact, one of the most significant changes for expat retirees in my new home in Merida has been the large variety of new Japanese, Korean, Italian, Middle Eastern, Indian restaurants and delicatessens).
As globalization takes hold, Americans will discover that living abroad over 50 is more accessible than living in the US in the next couple of decades. They will be able to find familiar US-style goods and services at competitive prices. Expats will enjoy many of the advantages of life overseas: the lack of “customer service hell,” convenient public transportation systems (it is straightforward to find a taxi, for example, even in small towns in much of the world), and shopping at local stores (many people worldwide do not have to get in their car to buy a loaf of bread).
A Look at the Shopping Opportunities Available in Larger Cities Worldwide
I am always amazed at the worldwide reach of many multinational firms. You can find familiar companies and services scattered throughout the large cities of every country on Earth. Some places have so many internationally recognized firms that it is almost difficult to distinguish specific suburban communities overseas from those in the US.
Take, for example, the North Side of Mérida. When I first visited thirty-five years ago, Mérida effectively ended where northern Merida begins today. Today, Northern Mérida is a sprawling suburban-like community with an astonishing range of multinational recognized businesses. In just the six years I have lived here, six major shopping malls cater to wealthy Mexicans escaping crime in Central Mexico and expats. I have noted all the following firms:
- PF Changs, Boston Pizza, TGIF, Texas Roadhouse, Carl’s Jr., Krispy Kreme, Little Caesars, and similar US restaurants and fast-food chains.
- Office Depot.
- Star Medico and El Farol Mayab, high-rise private hospitals
- Four Walmarts, two Costcos, and one Sam’s Club
- A couple of PetMarts
- Home Depot
- A wide range of international banks, including HSBC and Scotia bank. (Also, big international banks often own banks with local names).
- A couple of multiplexes, Cineplaza (showing several American movies with English subtitles).
- Ethnic restaurants representing Italian, Peruvian, Japanese, Chinese, Mexican, Vietnamese, French, Argentinean, and Thai cuisines.
- German and Italian delicatessens.
- Several large chain hotels, including Hyatt and Best Western
- A wide range of imported furniture and gardening stores; spa and beauty shops; and upper-end auto dealers (in fact, I saw many high-end, restored classics in the window of one dealership).
Merida is typical of similar communities clustered in large metro areas throughout Mexico and Central America. (Many Mexican cities have even more international firms because Merida is relatively small (12th largest city in Mexico)- 1.1 million people (about the population of Rhode Island) compared to places like Mexico City with 18 million people (about the population of New York)).
If you cannot find something you want in a place like Mérida, wait a while. It will come soon. Asia and Latin America have witnessed a significant proliferation of global firms. Almost every good-sized city worldwide will have every chain you will find in the US in the future. (Many locals in Mérida have lived or traveled in the US and, thus, are familiar with our chain stores).
Tip #6: Meet Other Expats and Locals
One of the most common blessings of living abroad over 50′ is the ease with which people form lasting friendships.
Most expat retirees find it hard to feel lonely in their new community. In fact, rather than complaining about the lack of opportunities to meet people, I have heard more expat retirees say they had to learn to say ‘no’ to invitations.
However, sometimes it takes time to find expat retirees in a community. Here are some ways to find and develop friendships while living abroad over 50:
- Every place I have ever been with more than 100 expat retirees has a couple of circuits of restaurants and bars that people frequent daily. Usually, there are two basic circuits: one is for men who seek out drinking partners (and sometimes local female companionship), and another is for couples and single women who congregate in places where the food is good and the ambiance comfortable. Hanging out in these circuits can be a clever way to get helpful information about living in a community. Like many other expat communities, the first stop on this expat circuit is an Irish bar- Hennessey’s- on Paseo Montejo in Merida, my adopted hometown. I have found such bars in some of the most unexpected corners of the world, including Tallinn, Estonia).
- Most communities with expat retirees have a local community center. Mérida is the English Language Library, and in Lake Chapala, Mexico, it is the Lake Chapala Society. The English Langage Library sponsors a weekly English-Spanish conversation club and winter season wine tastings, house tours, concerts, and lectures in Merida. In contrast, the Lake Chapala Society supports about one hundred such clubs.
- In my experience, volunteering with a charitable organization is the best way to connect with other expats. Every expat community I have seen – even small ones like Granada, Nicaragua– has excellent philanthropic organizations. In Merida, the most impressive organization is Yucátan Giving Outreach. These organizations provide great social opportunities and a chance to interact with the local people.
- Read guidebooks and newspapers: Almost any good tourist guidebook (i.e., Lonely Planet, Moon Handbook, and Let us Go) mentions expat-friendly restaurants and nightlife options. In addition, if there is a local English language paper, they will list social clubs and activities throughout the community. Once you go to a couple of these social clubs and expat hangouts, you will quickly find people who will refer you to the other expat organizations and be more likely to invite you to their homes than they would be in the States.
Tip #7: Understand How the Rest of the World Sees the USA
It is important to remember that the US is the most powerful empire the world has ever known. We are very reluctant to be an empire; thus, we send a mixed message to ourselves and the rest of the world.
On the one hand, we are generous and democratic; on the other, we meddle in the affairs of other countries and support cruel dictatorships. We profess our allegiance to individual economic freedom, yet our economic policies can make it hard for foreign companies to sell goods on our soil.
Stereotypes of America (and Americans) reflect these mixed messages. Some are kind; some are negative. Yet, like many stereotypes, they contain a grain of truth.
Here are some stereotypes about Americans that I have encountered while traveling overseas. It would help if you understood these stereotypes and figured out how to deal with these images. (Note: I believe that the best way to address these generalizations is to avoid criticizing other countries while you are on foreign soil):
- Loud: We dress (with large, almost phallic cameras, Hawaiian shirts, and ill-fitting Bermuda shorts) and talk loudly. When we do not think we are understood, we simply speak louder (as if the locals are deaf) instead of slowing down, enunciating clearly, and using more simple terminology, free from idioms.
- Generous: We leave big tips. We care about the poor. As Woodrow Wilson expressed, we are willing to put ourselves into wars (admittedly often misguidedly) to “save the world for democracy.” We give to other countries in the event of a severe disaster. (Note: On a per capita basis, the US government is one of the LEAST generous countries in the Western world. As the 2004 tsunami disaster showed, the Europeans and Japanese are always more significant donors in disasters than the US, particularly if you consider that the US is the third most populated country on Earth.)
- Free: Our economic and political systems allow us to make our own decisions. We care about preserving the rights of individuals in our own country. This freedom enables people worldwide to prosper if they immigrate or study between our shores. (Note: Most Americans assume it is easy to immigrate to the US. It is almost impossible for someone to immigrate here from Eastern Europe or the developing world unless they have family ties or a highly sought-after skill.)
- Overly friendly at first but cold and impersonal once you get to know us: Much of the planet is surprised how willing we are to talk to strangers and even offer to put people up in our homes. They are amazed that we often do not act on our promises. They also find it hard to get to know us because we have short attention spans.
- Imperialistic and arrogant: Local people often think we exploit their country without adding anything of value to the country. Most of the world does not understand how we can say that we are involved in Iraq for humanitarian reasons. They suspect our main reason for involvement is economic (oil) and political (domination of the Middle East) because we virtually ignore real humanitarian crises in Yemen, Sudan, Liberia, and Ethiopia.
- Unsophisticated: Many people are astonished by how little the average American seems to know about the world. I have heard foreigners complain that they “know more about American history and culture than the average American.” Much of the world’s elite are shocked by our poor manners and sloppy dress. They do not understand how rich people can look and act like paupers.
- Naïve. Much of the planet faults us for believing that most people are innately good. They think that this is a naïve perception.
- Some foreigners maintain Americans hold the rest of the planet in contempt. We are famous for continuously reminding locals that we are more prosperous and competent than they are. We are also known for proselytizing the benefits of our way of life before we take time to learn about foreign cultures.
- While democracy allows a dynamic economy to develop—by fostering creativity and the free interchange of ideas—it is not always seen as a force for good to many people. Many foreigners maintain the US uses instruments like the World Bank to force people to adopt democracies. Many countries have experienced a marked increase in crime since democracy. (Mexico, for example, has gone from being a country with a meager kidnapping rate 30 years ago to the country with the second-largest number of kidnappings worldwide.) In addition, just because someone is democratically elected does not mean they will support institutions that allow a dynamic economy or society to develop.
All these stereotypes have some truth. I have seen many Americans who conform to these stereotypes, particularly overseas. However, I have mostly seen intelligent, sophisticated, worldly, and sensitive Americans on the road.
Want a Distinct Perspective on American Culture Other than the Standard Media Images?
The Culture Shock Guide to the USA is one of the series’ most thorough and thought-provoking editions. Buy it to discover a well-balanced view of our quirks and strengths.
One of the most enjoyable looks at American culture I have read in a long time is Funny in Farsi by Firoozeh Dumas. Firoozeh, an Iranian American (Note: I knew the author vaguely in high school. We attended the same school in Newport Beach, California), captures a lot of funny stories about her family’s integration into American society that present a kind yet revealing, portrait of both life in the United States and the beauty of the Iranian culture.
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