BBC Capital

Want to retire in paradise? How four couples did it

About the author

Alina Dizik is a freelance journalist who covers consumer trends, careers, lifestyle and small business for national publications. Her work appears in the Wall Street Journal, Entrepreneur, Men's Journal and BBC.

  • Retire comfortably on less than $40 a day?

    As retirees in many countries struggle to live off savings that likely dwindled during the downturn, moving abroad to a cheaper locale is a promising proposition.

    With the low cost of medicine, English-speaking retirement communities and affordable housing, many are heading to tropical destinations, including South America and Southeast Asia where it’s doable to live on less than $40 per day.

    “It’s pretty easy to cut expenses in half,” said Dan Prescher, an Ecuador-based special projects editor for International Living magazine. And retirees who move to communities with others from their same country often don’t need to know another language.

    Prescher has seen more retirees from North America and Northern Europe moving to warmer countries climates in the past few years, he said, adding that At International Living’s Fast Track Your Retirement events, attendance has doubled in the last five years.

    More than one million Britons now live abroad — a number that has doubled since 2006, according to the Institute of Public Policy Research. More than 3 million Americans and Canadians have retired abroad, according to estimates from retirement sites.

    Prescher recommends testing the waters before committing to living in another country full or part-time. Though seemingly idyllic, life abroad can have significant drawbacks including poor infrastructure with power outages, corrupt law enforcement and lack of adequate healthcare. Returning to your home country to visit family can mean costly airfare and long flights. Many countries also have slow mail service, which means essentials from abroad can take weeks to arrive. “If you’re going to make the move, there is no guarantee that you will like it in six-to-12 months,” Prescher said.

    Here’s a look at four retirees and their lifestyle abroad. (Photo: Thinkstock)

  • Panama… for $1,250 per month

    Kris Cunningham, a retired registered nurse, moved from Sarasota, Florida, to Panama with her husband David in 2012. So far, Cunningham, 61, loves the affordable quality of life and the proximity to her children back in the US. The pair lives in the country for just $1,250 per month.

    “If I stayed in the States, I’d be working until I was 70,” she said. Her home is near a river with a wooded area — a serene setting, she added. Panama has long been a top choice for North American retirees because of its proximity to their home countries and affordable beach living.

    Housing: Setting up the home cost $4,500, in large part because the couple had to purchase new furniture. There are fewer options to choose from and it costs more than in the US. “It took two months to buy a sofa,” she said. The couple pays $385 per month to rent their three-bedroom two-bathroom home.

    Eating: Panamanian food tends to be more affordable than US fare, and the Cunninghams tend to buy local and limit purchases of pricier imported food, she said. The grocery bill is about $300 to $500 per month, with another $100 on liquor and dining out — about $400 less than the pair might spend in Florida.

    Essentials: The couple didn’t sign up for health insurance, which is available to non-citizens. They pay doctors out-of-pocket, Cunningham said. So far, she’s found the medical services to be of good quality and affordable. A trip to the dentist for a crown, for instance, cost Cunningham just $250, one-third of what she would have paid in the US. Regular trips to the physician cost less than $40. “We’ll take our chances and pay as we go,” she says. The pair bought a used car for $4,000 and they spend another $30 per month on gas. (Photo courtesy Kris and Joel Cunningham)

  • Argentina… for ARS13,222 ($2,300) per month

    Living in Argentina’s wine region means Robert Berg, 67, has plenty of access to great food and wine at affordable prices. A former assistant manager in the payroll division for the City of Toronto, Berg moved to Mendoza with his partner in 2006. His monthly budget for two: ARS13,222 ($2,300).

    Housing: After moving to the area seven years ago, Berg purchased a three-bedroom home for ARS632,000 ($110,000) in cash in one of the town’s gated communities. Financing is difficult for foreigners. “There’s no such thing as mortgages,” he said. Maintenance fees in the gated community where he lives cost ARS2,298 ($400) per month.

    Eating: With late-night dining a part of the Argentine culture, Berg spends ARS4,596 ($800) on food and drinks per month. While many grocery items are cheaper than in Canada, some basic products such as evaporated milk are not available at the local grocery. That means Berg often can’t make his favourite cheesecake.

    Essentials: Flights to Canada can total more than $1450 round trip, said Berg, who takes yearly trips. Paying in dollars goes further than paying in pesos because businesses give a more favourable exchange rate, so Berg tries to use dollars whenever possible. Government changes can create unexpected currency fluctuations, he added. (Photo courtesy Robert Berg)

  • Thailand… for 39,562 baht ($2,000) per month

    After spending the last 20 years in Seattle as a computer programmer, Hugh Leong, 67, moved to Chang Mai with his wife Pikun four years ago. Before permanently relocating to Thailand, the couple spent six winters in the country to make sure it fit their needs. Thailand’s low cost of living — the couple lives on a budget of about 39,562 baht ($2,000) per month — and natural beauty is appealing to expats.

    Housing: Leong owns an acre of land and a four-bedroom house in the suburbs of Chang Mai, a city in the country’s north about 700 km (435 miles) from Bangkok, which he bought for 4m baht ($125,000) six years ago. The couple are also making the most of their land, and could earn about 20,572 baht ($650) per month on rental income. “We have planted over 200 trees, built two bungalows and a garden pavilion,” he said.

    Eating: The Leongs spend about 18,990 baht ($600) on groceries and dining out per month, less than half of what they might have in Seattle. Though a typical Thai lunch costs about 63 baht ($2), “food is becoming more expensive every day,” said Leong, who tries to keep expenses at 39,562 ($2,000) per month, the amount of social security income he receives.

    Extras: Leong pays for medical services on an as-needed basis. A recent physical cost about 3,165 baht ($100). Leong says currency fluctuations can impact lifestyle. Owning a car can get expensive because of import taxes, which can more than double the price. Leong bought a car for 269,025 baht ($8,500) and owns a small motorcycle, paying 4,747 baht ($150) for gas each month. He keeps in touch with his grandchildren via Skype. (Photo courtesy Hugh Leong)

  • Ecuador... for $1,100 per month

    The South American country has long been the top choice for North American retirees because of its climate and affordable quality health care. Mary Beckman, 57, a retired graphic designer, and her husband relocated to Cuenca — where the majority of foreign nationals moving to Ecuador like to retire — last year. Their budget: just $1,100 per month.

    Housing: After selling their Northern California home for $240,000, about $75,000 below purchase price, and retiring to Ecuador, Beckman and her husband now rent a one-bedroom apartment above an almuerzo, a lunch restaurant. Rent is $300 per month, including utilities; Internet and cable costs $106.

    Eating: The cost of dining out and fresh produce are one-third less than what they’d pay in the US, said Beckman. “We usually eat out about five times a week,” she said. On the flipside, import goods, such as brand-name peanut butter, can cost more than double the price of the local brand, she added. While they tend to buy local produce, they’ll splurge on meeting friends at restaurants, she said.

    Extras: The Beckmans don’t own a car. Instead they walk to most places. Taxis cost about $2, making rides affordable when they need them. Medical insurance through the local hospital costs the couple $107 per month, but requires some paperwork. “We still have to pay for services when rendered, and then file for reimbursement,” she said. (Photo courtesy Mary Beckman)