I’m in the middle of a dream trip to Amsterdam right now. What a vibrant city! It is walkable and bikeable, and it has a magnificent menu of great restaurants to choose from (my friend Lily and I are doing our best to try them all!). It’s a truly cosmopolitan city that is accessible to all of Europe. The Dutch are tall, healthy, handsome people who all speak fluent English. There’s great public transportation, museums, a symphony... what’s not to love?
Our visit has been so spectacular that I keep finding myself playing the perennial travel game called “could I live here?” It doesn’t seem so far-fetched. Lily and I rented an apartment for over a week, and after a few days of being tourists and checking off the boxes of must-see attractions, we’ve now settled into a leisurely pace. It’s easy to imagine staying longer, combining work and travel and even (dare I say it?) joining the ranks of the growing number of Americans who have chosen to retire abroad.
But would it be my retirement dream?
Because I’m having fun with my little fantasy, I did some googling and read differing opinions about the feasibility of retiring abroad. In this Ric Edelman article, he writes that “retiring abroad is inappropriate for almost everyone.” Despite the plethora of articles on the joys of international living and lists of the “best international cities to retire,” it seems that turning the dream into reality is often thwarted by things like higher-than-expected real estate costs, lower-than-expected tax savings, unstable currency exchange rates, missing your family and friends, and more. Ugh. My bubble burst before it had begun to float.
But not everyone agrees with Ric’s dismal outlook. According to the Social Security Administration, more than half a million people who live outside the United States receive some kind of Social Security benefit. Plus, many retirees living abroad have their checks mailed to a US address, so the total number of American retirees is believed to be much higher. Even more surprising: those numbers are nearly twice what they were a decade ago. Awhole lot of people are finding a way to live the life of an expat retiree. I decided more research was in order.
Next, I came across this article in Money magazine, The Secret to Retiring Richer Than You Actually Are. It highlights Bob and Rose, a couple from Fairfield, CA, who retired to Ambergris Caye, an island off mainland Belize where I went diving in 2017. The numbers were compelling—their housing costs dropped from $6,000 a month in California to $1,100 a month to rent a two-bedroom condo with a “million-dollar Caribbean view”—and they apparently couldn’t be happier. “Bottom line, we’re spending easily half of what we were in the States, and in return we have our lives back.” As I read those words, I found myself gazing over the Amsterdam treetops from my balcony and drifting back to my expat daydream. That could be me!
Of course, like most life decisions, there are a million pros and cons to consider before leaping to life in a foreign country. Some considerations are purely financial. What is your budget? What is the cost of living in your dream destination, including housing, healthcare (a significant consideration for any aging retiree), and local income taxes? Like all financial planning puzzles, most criteria are less about money and more about how you want to live. Here are just a few questions to ponder if you’re considering such a move:
Are you ready to pack up—and give up—your life where you live today?
Moving to a new, exotic location can sound thrilling, but packing up the life you’ve built can be cataclysmic. If your life includes spending time with your adult children or grandchildren, will you be happy so far away? If you have a strong circle of friends, are you someone who can easily rebuild that vital network in a new community?
Are you comfortable living in the “new”?
New experiences can be wonderful… for a while. And yet I know how great it feels to finally climb into my own bed after a long and exciting trip. Sure, it’s likely you’ll be able to rebuild that sense of “home” after some time, but it’s important to be confident that you’ll be happy enough even in the midst of the transition—and that your new adventure gives you enough joy to outweigh the longing for your old life.
Are you prepared to become an expat?
I recently heard an interview with a university professor who had retired in the south of France. While her French was passable, she said that one of her most significant hurdles was the fact that she may never be accepted as a true local by her new friends and neighbors. That’s just one aspect of becoming the resident expat. There are also the practical aspects. Can you get a residence visa? France, Ireland, and Canada are just a few places clients have told me don’t issue residence visas. Are you able to buy real estate? Can you maintain your US passport? And will you miss July 4th picnics and Thanksgiving dinners more than you could have ever imagined?
I love imagining retiring abroad. Yet, for me I know it is not the right choice—at least not for the foreseeable future. Maybe I’ll go to Europe for an extended stay, perhaps for a month or three to work and play and experience a different culture. I expect that Southern California will always be “home.” If you feel differently, I urge you to do your research, look closely at the financial pros and cons, and look inward to determine if life as an expat is the life for you.
Have fun exploring your dream, and if you want some guidance to help decide if you really could “live here” for good, we’re happy to help!