The Darker Side of International Retirement – 6 Reasons Not to Do It

Category: International Retirement

February 3, 2014 — You have probably seen the ads with the alluring promises – live in luxury on your Social Security income, kick back while a maid and gardener toil away for just a few dollars a week, enjoy great food and fresh fruit, and experience wonderful medical care complete with inexpensive house calls. While all that might be true in some instances, there is a darker side of international retirement that the ads aren’t going to tell you about. This article will show you the other side of the coin, so you can make a more educated decision.

International Retirement Is Great for Some Folks
For some people an international retirement is a terrific idea. These are the folks who spent time abroad in the Peace Corps, armed services, or live for the thrill of international travel. They know what to expect – and what they aren’t going to get – when they retire abroad. Most of these people are going to be very happy living abroad after their working days, and they will usually live much better than they would have in the U.S. or northern Europe. We celebrate their choices and wish them well.

1. A Big Problem – The Wrong Reason
The big thing that’s wrong with aggressive international retirement marketing is that it promotes the wrong reasons for doing it. Most of those reasons are financially oriented, which we think should not be the primary driver in your decision to retire internationally. Sure, it is possible to live more economically in Mexico, Uruguay, Ecuador, or Panama than you can in the United States or Great Britain. But your life is a whole lot more than just money. If you are not happy with the lifestyle and the details of daily life, so what if it’s cheaper there! We will explain this further in the paragraphs to come.

2. Too far.
Many people retire to South America or Southeast Asia only to realize a few years into it that they are just too far away from family, friends, and familiar things. The trips back home turn out to be expensive and difficult. Children and grandchildren are busy with their own lives and don’t have the time, money, and inclination to make pricey trips to Belize or Columbia. So then international expats have to make a decision – either move back home – or lose the regular contact of family and friends.

The coast of Nicaragua

3. Too isolated.
This reason relates to the one above, too far away. But it also has another dimension, particularly when the expat retiree lives in a small, protected community in a foreign country. In that situation you tend to be living in a small circle of friends without much outside interaction. The things you do for entertainment tend to be limited by the range offered as well as your ability to understand things in a strange language. If you don’t speak the language well, you won’t be able to interact with that many people. In short, your world might tend to shrink smaller than you would like.

4. A target on your back.
See the list of “Further Reading” at the end of this article for more detailed explanations of what can happen with locals view your money as something they would very much like to share. The problem is that you are the outsider – many people view you as a rich vein to tap into. Those include builders, handymen, servants, police, taxi drivers, shopkeepers. Of course it is a terrible generalization to say everyone in a foreign country has sinister motives – of course they all don’t. But, some do, and as a visiting Yankee without your usual protections you are a lot more tempting target than the locals. Bad things do happen, sometimes even when the most careful precautions are taken.


5. Overpromises.
Don’t believe everything you hear about what your new life overseas is going to cost. We have heard too many stories that involve bait and switch tactics – the dream home in the ads actually costs something closer to what you would pay in the USA. You might get pressured into making a decision before you really want to. Or the renovations you thought would take a few months drag on for a year or more, as bureaucratic delays hold up permits, phone lines, roads, and construction.

Harbor in Knysna, South Africa (courtesy of Wikipedia)

6. As you Age The Magic Fades
Here’s a hypothetical couple’s situation. They retire to Ecuador and all is well for 15-20 years. They enjoy a richer lifestyle, and certainly a better climate, than they would have if they had stayed in Ohio. Perhaps they are childless and have few relatives, so that was not a problem for them. But then he gets sick – very sick. The illness is complicated and they realize that his chances of survival are going to depend on access to some terrific specialists and a top hospital. That usually means some difficult choices, like extended stays and frequent, expensive trips to a strange city. When the first person in the relationship dies the other person is now completely alone – but who wants to make a major lifestyle move in their 80s or 90s?

Your Comments. We hope you find these thoughts useful and a good counterpoint to the usual optimism. As always, we look forward to your wise and interesting comments. Please share your thoughts, joys, hopes, experiences, and fears about an international retirement in the Comments section below.

For further reading:
10 Best International Places to Retire
Why This Gringo Can’t Wait to Move Back to the USA (with 49 comments!)
The Pros, Cons, and Considerations of an International Retirement
Topretirements Country Guides to International Retirement

Posted by Admin on February 3rd, 2014

28 Comments »

  1. Very we’ll written article! Point 6 is a bit of a kick in the gut, but definitely needs to be considered. Currently my husband and I share a home with his sister and her husband. This is a long term commitment, we are all childless and realize that at some point the four of us will become three. At that point, we are still safe as a group no one has to make a decision or lifestyle change. We are all in our 50s and still working. This arrangement allows for great flexibility regarding travel, there is always someone home to take care of the house, pets, etc.

    by Bkgal226 — February 4, 2014

  2. My husband and I currently live in Shanghai, China. We have been expats since 1994, so I have experience with living overseas (not on vacation). The article has all the true points to consider. One thing that I might add is to remember you are living in a different country than the good ol’ USA. You don’t have the rights that go with living in the US. There’s never any mention of the country’s tax laws that you are living in. The language barrier can be very frustrating, but also funny as you try to express yourself in a very childish way, usually with hand gestures. The food that you buy doesn’t have the protection of the FDA. Last year 30,000 sick or dead pigs were thrown into the river, which unfortunately serves as the drinking water. so go forward slowly before committing to living in a foreign country.

    by Maria — February 4, 2014

  3. I also wonder about access to quality medical care #6. How your medical insurance works when you live overseas?? Also, I’ve understood that taxes can be problematic. Finally, just dealing with problems with your social security, renewing your passport, banking etc. I have had trouble dealing with my bank just traveling over seas. The internet is wonderful, but sometimes walking through the door of the social security office is the best way to solve something. (on the phone I’ve found that if you call back three times you get three different answers)

    by betti — February 5, 2014

  4. Excellent article and very true. We have lived in . Mexico for six hears and we are ready to leave…..the only problem is we cannot sell our house. Since all is in cash, the buyers are few as we have a fairly expensive house. Also, what was enjoyable in your sixties is just annoying in your seventies!
    Maryanna

    by Maryanna Merchant — February 5, 2014

  5. Glad this is finally coming up for discussion. For a long time I considered this and then I talked to a couple that had tried it………..a real eye-opener for sure. Not that it wouldn’t be a great experience for a few years……but long term is another story. Especially some of the countries that have been described. The couple I talked to did not like Costa Rica, Panama at all……some very iffy experiences…..and they lost quite a bit of money in one scam. They suggeted Europe but also said it is very expensive. If you have the income, rent somewhere for 2/3 months…then come back to the US. Come back to what and who you are familiar with. It’s hard to make all the adjustments to a foreign country when we are older that we need to…….there is some things we have to admit that we are too old for. Travel, vacation, fun times are one thing…..day after day, year after year living is another thing altogether.

    by Susan — February 5, 2014

  6. IMHO a good life is about quality, not quantity.
    If you want sacrifice a gorgeous lifestyle and surroundings to spend 10 miserable years in bed hooked to tubes, then by all means, move next door to the mayo Clinic.

    by Dennis Gelinas — February 5, 2014

  7. Thoughtfully written article. I have thought hard about all these things.

    by Roberta — February 5, 2014

  8. We retired to a small village in Spain. The people here have accepted us into their community and we have been amazed at their generosity and kindness. Even with the unfortunate exchange rate, we manage to live very well…not a luxury lifestyle, but comfortable. We really love it here in spite of the sluggish bureaucracy and rising taxes. We bought private health coverage which is quite reasonable and have been very happy with the treatment so far. There are several good hospitals nearby and Madrid is only a few hours away.

    The downside is definitely the distance and cost of travel back to the States. We had originally planned to vacation in the U.S. for a few months every year or two but that’s no longer possible with airfares per person over $800. Family and friends can no longer visit us here very often for the same reason. I guess at some point we will think about moving back to the States, maybe when we’re older (mid-60’s now).

    by i graham — February 5, 2014

  9. Dennis said…””If you want sacrifice a gorgeous lifestyle and surroundings to spend 10 miserable years in bed hooked to tubes, then by all means, move next door to the mayo Clinic.””

    This article helps to solidify our decision to move our winter home to St. Augustine, FL. Mild winters, near the beach, out of the usual hurricane paths, and there is actually a Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville!

    by Dave McKay — February 5, 2014

  10. #6… This happened to friends in Ecuador… An urgent illness, lack of close by emergency care, frequent 3 hour trips to the largest city Hospital… and now moving back to the states for the “proper” care. Make sure you “look behind the curtain” before making this decision …

    by gail — February 5, 2014

  11. My husband and I are 60 years old and live in Cebu, Philippines. We have lived here for almost 8 years with my husbands work. I agree with everything the article says! We are lucky in that we get to go home twice a year and it’s paid for by the company!

    As far as cost of living, it depends on how you live. If you only buy like the locals, yes, it will be cheaper. But most Americans are not willing to do that and it will cost you double! The locals do take advantage of foreigners and you are fighting it all the time.

    I have a maid and a driver and at first sight it sounds great but when I lived in the states I was working, taking care of my children, running a household and driving. Here, I do none of that! You do have limited friends and even in a big city there is nothing to do on a day to day bases. I have gotten involved in several organizations but it doesn’t keep you busy 7 days a week. The weather is extremely hot and utilities are VERY EXPENSIVE you can only afford to run one air conditioner at a time so even going to other parts of your house that is not running the air conditioner is very uncomfortable!

    I would not take anything for the experience that we have had living overseas, we have traveled all over Asia and have seen and done things that I never thought I would do in my life time, but even so I would never choose to retire here. It truly is more frustrating than relaxing and that’s NOT what you want in retirement!

    by LZA — February 5, 2014

  12. Great article, Like the comments of the local taxes.. through a point not very often mentioned..
    I think deciding to live outside your comfort zone is not about retiring from it but to make an informed move for a new experience and it should for a better quality of life .. and most important unless you are ready to accept to die in a foreign country (still preparing your way out so your children and grand children won’t have trouble to get you back) you should have an exit strategy.. Because we are living longer it is very reasonable to consider living for 10-15-20 years in an exotic destination and then go back to the your native country if you feel more comfortable for the last stretch..
    Make sure you choose a country not to far from the US, a community with working expat and not only retired expat for diversity of contacts…and be open minded..

    by armand — February 5, 2014

  13. This article is as the British would say: “Spot on”… My wife and I have had the opportunity to experience most of the dark side factors outlined above having spent numerous years abroad. That said; we being in our 70’s are looking forward to retiring overseas…
    Let’s face it; international living is not for everyone…In many respects it depends on one’s attitude and acceptance of reality. When people ask me about our international living experience, I say it boils down to this:
    “If you have water for your morning shower, it will be a good day.”
    “If the water is hot, it will be a great day”.
    It is what it is and if one cannot accept the fact that foreign utilities oft times seem to function with a mind of their own, then maybe living in another country may not be a viable solution to retirement.
    We have found over the years that certain traits vastly increase the success factor in an international move. They are:
    1. Being flexible and not worried about time.
    2. Having and maintaining a sense of humor…
    3. Possessing a sense of adventure…
    So while international retirement is not for everyone, many have found that exposing oneself to a new country, a new culture and a new language can be the start of a new life.

    by Roger Van Parys — February 5, 2014

  14. Here’s a fun acronym FANBY (Find a New Backyard). FANBYs are what I call “serial relocators.” People who move around several times before finally choosing a “last place” to live.

    So, if you find the idea of moving abroad intriguing, consider being a FANBY. The experience of living abroad doesn’t have to be a forever decision. Many FANBYs rent instead of buy.

    by Jan Cullinane — February 6, 2014

  15. Great article. We are 60+ and have a place on the beach in Antigua. Our plan was to work then retire there but after two years that evolved more into a FANBY experience and we are back in the states. Whether you are a bucket list, check the box or life experience chapter person, nothing replaces the opportunity to build relationships, experience sights and sounds or just have a great time in an environment that takes you a little outside your comfort zone. For us it allowed us to write a great life experience chapter and we look forward to writing the next. If you pick the right place and can afford the investment, renting out a home or condo will not cost (net) you anything to maintain and gives you a place for extended stays abroad. Do not let the article keep from doing what you want, just be smart about it as it suggests.

    by Larry — February 6, 2014

  16. Finally…an honest assessment about international retirement. No doubt, some well-traveled, experience expats will find happines, but I imagine those are the exception and not the norm. I was investigating moving to ‘paradise’. Luckily, I made several visits before a final decision. It took me awhile to realize that open, friendly people saw me as a source for a hand out. I discovered the hard way that their concept of repaying a loan is to repay half. They feel offended if you expect anything more. Friendship disappears quickly if the perceived money tree goes dry. You aren’t well thought of being a foreigner who isn’t willing to ‘share the wealth’ regardless of what you can conceivably afford.

    by Sandy — February 6, 2014

  17. I live in paradise, and it’s called the United States of America. I feel very strongly about being American. This is something I don’t take lightly, and will always be appreciative of the fact that I live in the best country in the world.

    by Bubbajog — February 6, 2014

  18. I have, once out of the army, lived by the general rule, if the primary language spoken in a country is not English, I don’t go there. My main reason is not bigotry but cultural. In an English speaking country usually the legal system is similar to the UK, Canada, and the US, although there are exceptions. Point simply being, if I can understand the language, I can generally understand the culture, even in Australia – just kidding guys.

    by Paul E — February 7, 2014

  19. It’s unfortunate, but there are many places in the US that will provide you with bad experiences. The key to any endeavor is to investigate before, not complain after. There are more people living outside the US than in and I don’t read too many articles about those people coming to the US to retire.

    by Rick — February 7, 2014

  20. Those are excellent points really all six of them and these points play into any discussion of Where should we retire? in the same house we have always lived, down the street, to a condo, to Florida or Arizona. These points are a conservative way to look at change. There is risk to anything you do. If you live in New York or in Canada even a relocation to Florida or Arizona would have the same risks as moving to Panama, Ecuador or the far east. I think staying in your own house forever through your retirement is kinda stale or to put it another way ginger ale without the fizz. I often hear people say I want to live near my kids or close to my grandkids so I can keep an eye on them and support them. In this day and age that can be difficult. Kids move and their jobs change, are you ready to move whenever your kids move? You can wind up in a financial mess that way too. Number one is important, you need to do your homework or what they now called due dillagence. There is risk with any retirement choice and you are sure to get old, incapable and a party of one someday. We moved to Florida when we retired from our work in western New York state at age 56. We are now in our seventies. Our kids are currently in Manhattan and Princeton NJ. Sure glad we didn’t move where they are just to be close to them. Only 2.75 hours away by plane and can see them whenever we choose. We have survived the 15 years quite well in Florida. Will this always be the right place for us? Who knows?

    by David M. Lane — February 7, 2014

  21. I don’t like your #1 reason – “the wrong reasons”… financial reasons should be the biggest consideration for retirees. Who wants to have money worries in old age? Not me!

    by LifeANT — February 14, 2014

  22. Some of our members mentioned healthcare, and that is a valid concern about retiring abroad. This NY Times article provides excellent background on making sure you have good health care insurance when you retire abroad. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/22/your-money/the-dream-of-retiring-abroad-with-good-health-care.html

    by Admin — February 23, 2014

  23. I am retired planning to move to myrtle beach in july..want to rent a house 2.5 miles from the water I need to know who contact

    by Virginia sanders — February 24, 2014

  24. 😐
    Well written article.
    The choice to live in a foreign country depends on what you want to do with your life. Reasonable expectations,assessing risks ,making a list of pros and cons all very important before making a move.
    USA is the best country in the world . Leaving the harbor and facing challenges and possibly making a deference in another part of globe sound very enticing to many.

    by Thomas Mathew — March 26, 2014

  25. Virginia contact Cherry Temple and tell her Liz Cerri sent you. She is THE BEST realtor in that area. She has extensive knowledge of the area and such things as insurance hoa fees etc. We worked with her but had to put ourmove on hold

    by Liz — March 27, 2014

  26. Moving oversees is like a love affair–some turn into long term committed relationships, some are mere adventures. My grandparents were immigrants from Germany, New Zealand–great grandparents from Ireland, Scotland, and England. They loved their native lands, but were compelled to immigrate to find a better life. When the cost of living and the “invisibility of age” become a reality for retirees–why not move abroad? I can’t see myself moldering into my golden years with no more adventures–why not keep your eyes open, do your homework, and go native? If it’s just an economic move you may regret it–if you crave cultural enrichment and new experiences–go for it!

    by Patty Madigan — April 4, 2014

  27. Beverly wrote us and asked:

    Are there any safe places in Mexico?
    (we would say yes, away from the border). But those of you with experience in Mexico, how would you answer her?

    by Admin — April 8, 2015

  28. The whole world is experiencing turmoil so just REMEMBER = WHEN and IF the SHTF = Gringo’s will be the first on the list for coming after “your stuff”. How do I know? 10 years Military told me so!

    BTW- Why are so many Mexicans crossing over into our Borders? And you want to go there?

    “Io non capisco”

    by Robert — April 9, 2015

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