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A fantasy of retiring abroad

By Barbara Whelehan ·
Friday, May 27, 2011
Posted: 1 pm ET

At a minimum, most people have some retirement expectations. Higher up are retirement hopes and dreams. At the helm are retirement fantasies, which are like dreams in a runaway car with no brakes to stop them.

I asked my husband where in the world he would want to retire outside the U.S., and his answer was Costa Rica. He loves to surf, and the Pacific side of the country offers a perfect playground for surfers.

It's a nice place to visit, I told him, but I wouldn't want to live there. Someone disappeared from a big national park near Liberia, I warned him.

It's a true story, mentioned in Carole Moore's book, "The Last Place You'd Look." In August 2009, a Chicago-based doctoral student "parked his rented car at the entrance to the Rincon de la Vieja National Park outside of Liberia, Costa Rica, then entered the rambling 34,800-acre park and vanished like a drop of water on a hot sidewalk."  

Moore's compelling book is all about mysterious vanishings -- hundreds of them -- and even though most focus on disappearances within the states, she devotes a scary chapter to Americans who disappear abroad. In any case, the anecdote about Costa Rica came in handy for purposes of redirecting the conversation.

What about France?

Ahh, France. The sing-song quality of its mother tongue is enchanting. The cafe au lait is as delicious as dessert. Art is everywhere. And the country is steeped in history. You can even buy a piece of it, with some castles for sale at reasonable prices -- relative to real estate in, say, New York City, that is.

For a vicarious thrill of day-to-day living in the south of France, I indulge in Anne-Marie Simons' book, "Taking Root in Provence," where the country's joie de vivre is apparent in every tale.

I emailed the author, asking a dozen personal questions about the cost of living there to put a fantasy plan in place. Simons obliged, telling me that in 1997, she and "fellow traveler" Oscar bought an apartment in the center of Aix-en-Provence for about US$200,000. It has 80 square meters, or roughly 860 square feet, and consists of large living and dining quarters, a sizeable library, and a big bedroom with fireplace, a full bath and a small, efficient kitchen. It sounds charming, with high ceilings, some 18th century touches "such as a carved marble fireplace, trumeaux and gypseries," she says. "Ancien in good condition is more expensive than nouveau."

They got the place cheap because they paid cash and the real estate market was soft at the time.

Cost of living in France

Gas costs about three times more in France than in the states. Dining out can be expensive. But, Simons says, "If you do not live like a tourist but do as 'they' do, you buy your fresh foods at the open markets, every day, from the farmers, fishmongers, etc. This is cheaper than the supermarket and of superior quality."

Sounds wonderful, n'estce-pas? While clothing and gas may be tres cher in France, "education is free and health care is very inexpensive," Simons says. "I cannot stress enough how excellent and affordable the French health care system is, and that applies to prescription drugs as well. Prices are government-controlled, which only in America seems to have a bad connotation."

Simons concedes that the disparity in the value of the dollar versus the euro means incurring a loss north of 40 percent for every buck spent -- a big cut no matter how you look at it. But she says the quality of life for them is worth it.

Reality check

So it was for partly selfish reasons that I assigned the story, "7 financial considerations for future expatriates," to Barbara Diggs, who lives in Paris. A move abroad requires careful preparation, whether it's part of retirement planning or an adventure for younger folks.

I asked Diggs if she enjoys life in Paris.

"My feelings toward Paris are a bit complicated," she says. "I do enjoy living here -- the quality of life is fantastic -- but it's not an easy place to live. You'd never believe how different the French are from Americans! But we are definitely happy here."

I wondered about those differences. Did she mean that the French know how to enjoy life, unlike Americans? They're known to take a month off in summer. I asked Diggs about it, and she replied:

"I hardly know how to start describing the differences between the French and Americans. Sometimes I feel as if I live in 'Opposite Land.' The French definitely know how to enjoy life in terms of wine, food and relaxation. But despite all their philosophers and intellectuals, they're not a forward-thinking people. 'Yes, we can!' is not a phrase that would motivate the masses here -- they just don't think that way. As Americans, we take for granted the attitude that we can do anything if we just put our minds to it and add a little elbow-grease. Maybe it's not true, but that's what we are taught to believe. That philosophy doesn't exist here. At all. And it's frustrating when you need someone to think outside the box to solve a problem. ... This 'can't do' attitude exists on every level and makes life endlessly and needlessly difficult." 

Whoa! That does slow down the fantasy train somewhat. And come to think of it, I kind of glossed over the chapter in Simons' book called "A scarred beauty," which revealed in the most tactful way possible that the people in France are serious litterbugs.

C'est la vie. The fantasy ride was fun while it lasted.


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Michael Creel
July 18, 2011 at 8:08 pm

I've worked abroad for several years and many expats have enjoyed retiring to countries such a Thailand and the Phillipines. The reality is that the U.S. is so expensive to live in at this point, most will work all their life and have little to show for it.

With 100k in Thailand you can retire in style and enjoy life on your Social Security check. I Spent 3k in France just enjoying a weekend there; it's the last place I would choose for retirement.

July 18, 2011 at 1:55 am

The writer doesn't want to retire to Costa Rica so now she's trying to convince all of us not to retire in our dream country...gimme a break.

Franklyn Dunne
July 16, 2011 at 10:38 am

And what about Mexico? We enjoy a comfortable and affordable lifestyle here in Guadalajara. We live on the outskirts of the city(not Chapala, where the largest expat community of Americans in the world thrives), but close enough to downtown to enjoy the mant cultural advantages(we attended the Philharmonic yesterday evening). We like shopping the the vastly varied Mercado for fruits and vegetables, etc. Twice yearly trips to visit family and friends in New York area,when we marvel blithely at prices since we know that we don´t have to pay them in Mexico. Now all we need is for Medicare to extend benefits to expats here...and we are working on that.

July 14, 2011 at 4:24 pm

Reading this and other articles about retirement in faraway foreign lands is fun, but not without risk. Do your homework before thinking about moving ANYWHERE abroad. Immigration is complicated, and paperwork MUST be done before departure at the local consulate or embassy. Bureaucracy can not be handled after arrival, you will simply be sent home. No country, including ours, wants to be burdened with elderly foreigners who may not be adequately covered for healthcare (french healthcare is AWESOME, for the French,but YOU might not be covered!) Getting a job, even part-time is near impossible without sponsorship from a local company. Purchasing real estate can be difficult, Costa Rica for example requires cash transactions.
We Americans tend to assume that everyone speaks English, but this is simply not the case, and most foreign countries want you to speak their language. You especially may not have much of a choice outside of the more popular tourist areas. I ended up needing an emergency appendectomy in a far north suburb of Paris, the day after Christmas. Thankfully I had a rudimentary understanding of French, but not medical terms. It was a frightening experience, and I can't imagine how much more so if English were my only language. That said, my bills were a small fraction of what they would have been here in the U.S., and included follow up home health visits by registered nurses to dress my wounds.

Barbara Whelehan
July 14, 2011 at 8:13 am

Wyllys -- You're right, it's not fair to cite one incidence of a disappearance as a reason not to live someplace. The truth is, I really don't want to retire in Costa Rica, which I explain in a subsequent blog:

Thanks for writing.

July 13, 2011 at 7:32 pm

We live in Guatemala 6 months a year. The land of eternal spring.
Costs there are 1/3 those in our home in Maine.
It is unfair to cite one instance of a "disappearnce" in Costa Rica. Just like living in New york or any other city (including Paris) you need to know where to go and where not to go. Open mindedness is the best trait for living abroad.

July 10, 2011 at 10:21 pm

My father was stationed in Poitiers for about 10 years after WWII. Of all the countries he visited during his 30 year career in the US Army, he says southern France was where he would most like to live.

On the other hand, maybe the dog poop everywhere explains common French exclamation of "Merde!"

Andy Davison
July 05, 2011 at 8:59 pm

A growing number of Europeans and Americans (and a lot of other nationalities) are choosing to live in Malaysia. It is now a major tourism destination (recently joined top ten most visited countries), English is widely spoken, there are continuous upgrades in infrastructure, they encourage religious freedom and income is tax free with no inheritance tax. It is also one of the world's cheapest countries to live. They offer a ten year renewable visa to qualified applicants. You can find out more at which has a free, no obligation help desk.

July 05, 2011 at 8:17 pm

I am from San Francisco and I have lived in Paris for 14 years. I love living, working and raising my family there but it is not easy. To come from the US and just retire here would be quite difficult. Depending on your income you will be taxed at both ends. There are generous allowances but most people still have to pay US taxes and french taxes based on US income. There are many great things about living here like the health care plan, public transport, , lovely farmers markets everywhere, the relaxed life style (outside of Paris), the parks, cultural life, etc.
The negatives are the dog poop everywhere, the litter, the smokers, the attitudes of many stressed out and self entitled people, gas, housing prices, restaurant prices...
I would rather stay at my home in the US and travel until I could not do so anymore. At least you are hopefully close to friends or family. If you moved abroad you would be on your own.
The grass is always greener isn't it.

June 30, 2011 at 10:08 am

Try the Dominican Republic. Cheap cost of living. There still is affordable beachfront. Compared to the US Dominican food, rice, beans, protein, fruit, veg are cheap at restaurants and from farmers. Supermarket prices are double. Restaurants 1/2 price. Don't drive so can't talk about gas but don't need a car either. Transportation is cheap. Buses are very modern and cheap throughout country.