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.
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.
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.
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