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What It’s Like to Retire Abroad


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What It’s Like to Retire Abroad

We talked to the expats who had previously written for us about retiring outside the U.S. Do they still like it? Have any returned home?



So…how did your decision to retire overseas turn out?

That’s the question we put recently to about a dozen individuals who, earlier in this decade, wrote first-person articles for The Wall Street Journal about what it’s like to pull up stakes in later life and settle outside the U.S.

Those articles, for the most part, were filled with enthusiasm for a new adventure—a new, very different chapter in their lives. But given the passage of time, we wanted to know if circumstances and attitudes had changed. Were these people still living overseas? If so, were they still pleased with their adopted locales? And what advice, if any, would they give would-be transplants today?

Here’s what they told us:

A village in Spain

In 2011, retired lawyers Melissa and James Luce wrote about their move to Peralada, a centuries-old village in the northeast corner of Spain. Today, the two are “still happily living” in the same town, where “our neighbors treat us fully as locals,” says Mr. Luce, age 73.

James and Melissa Luce enjoy the cafe life in Peralada, a village in the northeast corner of Spain. PHOTO: ANNA MARIA HERNANDEZ

There have been changes. The cost of living, the couple notes, has risen steadily; political upheaval now seems the norm in Catalonia (the region in which they live); and the area as a whole—more prosperous and modern—has “lost a bit of that Old World feeling.”

On the plus side, “we now have high-speed fiber-optic cable for internet access,” says Ms. Luce, age 66, “the local wines continue to improve, and food remains fresh, tasty and inexpensive.”

Their advice for anyone considering a move to Europe: monitor closely those forces—among them, Brexit, the possible demise of the European Union, the populist movement—that could alter lives across the Continent.

“If we were to decide today to move from the U.S. to Europe, I would bet on Spain and Portugal to be the least impacted by the current trends and fault lines,” Mr. Luce says. In particular, “Portugal has remained relatively inexpensive, and most Americans can live on their Social Security payments.”

Home from Ireland

Among the expats we contacted, only one couple—James and Carole Cooke, who moved to Ireland in 2010—had returned to the U.S. The reason: health care.

James and Carole Cooke returned to the U.S. to live in Glen Rose, Texas, near their daughter and son-in-law. PHOTO: JAMES COOKE

“The national health-care system of Ireland was barely adequate, and we often abandoned the national service for private care, where we paid cash,” says Mr. Cooke, 78. What’s more, “specialist care was very hard to access.” A year ago, the two moved to Glen Rose, Texas, near their daughter and son-in-law.

Still, the Cookes describe their time in the town of Tubbercurry in northwest Ireland and their travels during those years as “glorious.”

“We had a wonderful time exploring Ireland, the United Kingdom and chunks of continental Europe,” Mr. Cooke says. “We found the cost of living in rural Ireland to be very favorable.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, the couple’s No. 1 recommendation for anyone contemplating a move overseas is simple: “Carefully plan health-care coverage.”

Jon and Kristin Kailey at their ranch house in southern Chile, where they still spend half the year. PHOTO: JOAQUIN BRENNER LENITZ

In the mountains of Chile

Chile, for the most part, “continues to exceed expectations.”

That’s how Jon Kailey, 68 years old, describes his adopted home since writing for us in 2015. He and his wife, Kristin, spend about half of each year in southern Chile (arriving in November, which is springtime in the Southern Hemisphere) and the other half in New Mexico. Along with a group of other expats, they own a 1,500-acre ranch in the Andes mountains. Each member has title to about 3 acres; the remaining property, surrounded by national parks, is to remain undeveloped.

The big picture: “Chile embraces foreigners,” Mr. Kailey says. “They don’t tax retirement income, and they remain the most stable economy in Latin America.” Although he hasn’t seen in person the recent unrest in the country’s major cities (he is scheduled to arrive in Chile at the end of this month), Mr. Kailey says friends in northern Patagonia, the site of his ranch, have told him the area remains calm.

As for expectations, he points to upgrades in the local infrastructure, including improved roads and new, solar-powered cell towers. Closer to home—and he notes that his redwood cabin is very much “off the grid”—days are spent tackling projects such as building trails, traveling (Argentina is about two hours away) and preparing “healthy meals, many of them communal.”

“Our friends here all concur we get healthier and lose weight during our time in Chile,” Mr. Kailey says.

His list of lessons for would-be expats is brief: Be flexible, and be patient. “Workers say they’ll arrive on Thursday, then show up on Saturday,” he says. And learn the language. “Being respectful works wonders.”

Assimilating in France

Expats, for the most part, follow one of two paths: They live and interact primarily with other expats, or they assimilate into their new homeland. Nancy Dawson, who, in 2012, wrote about her move to a small farm in the Perigord region in southwest France, believes in the second route.

“I am still in love with this country,” she says today. Her feelings, she explains, reflect the efforts that she and her husband, John, have made “to understand and adapt to” France, its people, culture and history.

“If you don’t observe and look for answers, France will remain an enigma,” she says.

Among their discoveries: learning that the women who lived in their house during World War II sheltered refugees, and that scallop shells found in the pigsties on their farm were left by pilgrims passing through France, possibly as early as the Middle Ages.

“These stories make me feel good about where I live,” Ms. Dawson, 79, says. “We, too, are pilgrims stopping on the way.”

Life overseas certainly isn’t perfect. “I miss my daughters more as time passes,” Ms. Dawson says. But the quality of life in France, she says, more than compensates.

“John and I meet at the end of the day, share a glass of wine and talk about our work,” she says. “Often we drive to Molieres, a nearby town, and have a glass of Bergerac wine on the square in the summer or by the fire at a small cafe in the winter. I feel blessed to be here.”

Around the world

In 2011, Lynne Martin and her husband, Tim, both newly retired, sold their home in California and most of their belongings and became self-described “senior gypsies,” spending a month or two in destinations around the globe. Their first-person account of their travels, “The-Let’s-Sell-Our-House-and-See-the-World Retirement,” remains one of Encore’s most popular articles.

Today, the two are back in California, living full-time in the state’s Central Coast. In all, they spent five years on the road.

After years of traveling the world, Lynne Martin, above, and her husband, Tim, settled down again in California, where they like to visit wineries near their home in Templeton. PHOTO: KYLE BURNS

“It’s not that we were unhappy or bored,” Ms. Martin, 79, says today. Rather, “I was tired of not having a closet! Living out of a 32-inch rolling duffel is one of the challenges of a home-free lifestyle. My small, mostly black travel wardrobe made me look like a perpetual funeral attendee.”

The two “lived like locals” in a dozen countries (“shopping, cooking, attending activities in our neighborhoods”) and now have friends around the world with whom they stay in touch. Surprisingly, the hurdles along the way—confronting language barriers, dealing with complex transportation systems, simply finding a decent hair salon—proved to be as rewarding as the journey itself.

“I realize now that those challenges were the best antiaging formula imaginable,” Ms. Martin says. “Being forced to be flexible and solve new problems every day made us more vital and confident.”

‘Ambassadors’ to the Netherlands

In 2009, Louie and Laura Pinna, then in their early 50s, settled in Amsterdam, which they described in their original essay as “among the most agreeable destinations in Europe.” Well, that’s changing.

Laura and Louie Pinna retired to the Netherlands in 2009 but are considering moving to a sunnier clime, like Italy, where they vacationed recently. PHOTO: LOUIE PINNA

The city—like Venice, Barcelona, Florence and others—has become a victim of “over-tourism,” Mr. Pinna says. Visitors now crowd museums, restaurants, nightclubs and Amsterdam’s historic canals throughout the year. That, in turn, is pushing prices—and housing prices, in particular—skyward. A 1,000-square-foot apartment that rented for about $1,500 a month a decade ago now fetches about twice that amount, he says.

The changes, and a corresponding construction boom, “all add an unsettling, disorganized feeling to normal Dutch life,” Mr. Pinna, now 64, says.

The couple moved to Utrecht, about 25 miles south of Amsterdam, in 2016. Not so much because of crowds or prices but to be closer to Utrecht University, where Mr. Pinna is an assistant professor. Thoughts about returning to the U.S. have crossed their minds, but a move, at some point, to a sunnier part of Europe is a more likely option.

“There is a certain richness to experiencing a diverse mix of places, cultures, languages, foods,” Mr. Pinna says. “And most locals will be quite interested in your views as an American about countless topics. You can feel like an unofficial ambassador.”

Inspiration in the Caribbean

When you live in paradise, you’re bound to have company—and still more company. Such is the case with Bequia, the 7-square-mile remote island to which Julie Lea and her husband Doug, both now 77, moved from Virginia in 2005.

In her original essay, Ms. Lea noted that Bequia, part of the British Commonwealth country of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, had all the “tropical clichés”: palm-fringed beaches, turquoise waters, rugged tree-covered hills, dramatic sunsets. Today, these same features are attracting growing numbers of visitors, who, in turn, are causing some headaches.

“In the high season, traffic and parking are becoming a problem,” Ms. Lea says. “And please mention the enormous trucks that now crowd our streets.”

The good news: Such irritations, she says, are a small price to pay for having found a new home later in life. “Everybody knows me, as a full-time resident, as I drive through the local streets with our little dog leaning out the car window.”

For her part, Ms. Lea, a painter and author, has opened a new studio at the couple’s house, which overlooks the Atlantic Ocean, and tends a large tropical-flower garden; Mr. Lea walks the beaches, hikes uninhabited stretches of the island and is exploring watercolor painting.

“Over the years here, we both have moved from the constant desire to socialize to an intriguing existence of creative work, contemplation and study,” Ms. Lea says. “Bequia continues to be a peaceful, inspiring place.”

At peace in Costa Rica

When Vicki Berrong, a retired legal secretary, wrote in 2011 about her move to Costa Rica, she concluded by leaving the door open to a possible return to the U.S. “It’s too early to tell,” she said at the time.

Eight years later, still living in the ferry port of Playa Naranjo on Costa Rica’s west coast—and still waking up each morning to views of the Gulf of Nicoya—her mind appears to be made up.

“I have never, nor will ever, live in a place as peaceful and as beautiful as the jungles of Costa Rica,” she says today.

She has seen changes. She lost a housemate—and gained a new one. The cost of living in her area has gone up, though housing costs have fallen somewhat. The nearby ferry port has a new dock and terminal. But if anything, she says, she has a greater appreciation for Costa Rica’s it-takes-a-village culture.

“In last year’s rainy season, the bridge to town was washed away,” Ms. Berrong says. “The only options to secure supplies were, first, to drive about two hours one way on a terrible, washed-out road in the opposite direction or, second, to pool resources.” She and her neighbors pooled: extra dog food from her house, canned food from another, homemade bread from a third, frozen meats from still another. “Sharing is an essential way of life,” says Ms. Berrong, who is 68.

And then there’s Costa Rica’s commitment to the environment. Grocery stores (“even our little local convenience store”) are phasing out plastic. The country generates about 98% of its electricity from renewable sources: hydropower, wind, geothermal and solar. It even sells excess energy to neighboring countries.

All of which helps explain “why I’m still here,” Ms. Berrong says. “I am very proud of my adopted country.”

Mixed feelings in the Philippines

Charles Frost, a retired college professor, says he still has “a great life here in the Philippines,” a country he first visited when he was in his early 50s. Now 80 years old, he notes that many of the benefits he wrote about four years ago haven’t changed: the warm climate year-round, the affordable cost of living, the excellent medical care, the many good friends.

And yet there are moments when, he says, “I really would prefer to live in America.” So, why doesn’t he return?

To start, “places where I would enjoy living in America really require me to drive, and as I get older, I will no longer have the ability to drive safely. Lots of elderly ignore that reality.” Yes, he acknowledges that he could use taxis and other means of transportation in the U.S. But again, the cost of such services are much lower in the Philippines, where his typical taxi ride, he says, goes for about $3.

More important, Mr. Frost says, he recognizes that he might well need long-term care as he ages. “I abhor the idea of ending my life in the American nursing-home system, where both of my parents lived out their final years,” he says. In the Philippines, he says he will be able to afford high-quality home care, whatever his needs might be.

“My choice of living abroad is based on my recognition that what life offers me here in the Philippines is superior in the long run,” Mr. Frost says.

Dual citizenship in New Zealand

Susanne Ames, writing in 2013 about her decision to settle in New Zealand, said she simply had been “wandering around the Pacific” when she first set foot in the country.

“My choice to live here was somewhat by accident,” she says today. “But it was the best decision I ever made.”

Her life, she adds, and that of other expats there certainly has its challenges. Among the biggest: long-distance travel. “Many of us have relatives overseas or simply like seeing the world,” Ms. Ames says, “but going anywhere beyond Australia or the Pacific islands is at least 10 hours in the air.”

Taxes, she adds, are tricky: The rules for filing with New Zealand and the U.S. “are different, not always obvious, and change unexpectedly.” (A sentiment echoed by many of the expats we contacted.) And the fact that a transplant is eager to embrace her or his adopted country doesn’t always mean the embrace will be returned. At least not quickly.

“It took a solid five years until I felt that I’d built some real friendships and felt settled,” says Ms. Ames, now 56.

Still, she says, New Zealand’s assets far outweigh the drawbacks. Which helps explain why she is now a dual citizen.

“Things that resonate with me are the pragmatic, community focus of Kiwi culture—the diverse, beautiful countryside that I continue to explore, and the fact that people here are usually willing to try new ideas, and pick themselves up and carry on when things don’t work out.”

Still digging Peru

Fred Wheeler—in his essay in 2013 about settling in Lima, Peru—noted that he and his wife, Elba, would “probably return to the U.S. at some point.” That point, he says today, could be close at hand.

“The reason is to spend more time with family,” Mr. Wheeler, 76, says. His grandchildren, he notes, are approaching (or, in a few cases, already in) high school and college.

“The issue is when,” Mr. Wheeler adds. “We don’t want to wait until traveling and house-hunting become too physically difficult. We’re in good shape now, but in our mid-70s something can happen very quickly.”

In the meantime, Peru remains more than satisfying, Mr. Wheeler says. The natural beauty, the moderate climate, the affordable cost of living, the good health care—all make for “an impressive country,” he says.

In particular, Mr. Wheeler has been able to pursue a passion for archaeology. He enrolled in the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, where he spent several years immersed in the subject, and works at Huaca Pucllana, a 1,600-year-old pyramid and active archaeological dig not far from his home in Lima.

“Taxi drivers and people I meet still give me a funny look when I tell them I’m a student studying and practicing archaeology here,” he says. “I then have to give them a quick history lesson.”

In short, he says, “coming to Peru was a good decision.”



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To retire abroad is simple.  Just tell her it's time to leave and get a new one.

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Gee cant wait to get some of that high quality health care and the 150 peso taxi tide is about dead. As to low cost yes its true as long as dinner is chicken on a stick ..

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I don’t comprehend why retirement has to be a final destination rather than a continuation of a journey of where life takes you. 

My whole working life, I have lived where a good job opportunity took me to a place I might want to live, for however long I want to live there.  If something better comes along, I move.  Not sure why that should change in retirement. 

I think the key to living in the Philippines happily, or anywhere else, is maintaining the financial freedom to leave if it doesn’t work out. 

Too often people overcommit and are locked in.  Sell everything and invest everything in a new place they know little about.  

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My philosophy is a bit different. Apart from my early years when Dad’s postings determined where I lived, and my own service, I have lived in a place and made it work. I’m the same with my place of retirement. 

Some of the military places...well...it was good that there was a posting, or end of tour, to look forward to. Others, I really didn’t want to leave. 

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13 hours ago, HongKongPhooey said:

I think the key to living in the Philippines happily, or anywhere else, is maintaining the financial freedom to leave if it doesn’t work out. 

Too often people overcommit and are locked in.  Sell everything and invest everything in a new place they know little about.  

very important insight you have offered up, here; similar to not putting all your eggs in one basket.  Unfortunately many people do not have the financial freedom to just up and leave.  Those who come with marginal resources are at greater risk.  Fortunately, like yourself, even after living here for 10 years, I could walk away tomorrow with the clothes on my back and my laptop.  I own a very nice motorcycle and a full kitchen to which I have no attachments beyond their present functionality.  I rent, avoided marriage, and will never enter into any business arrangement with a Filipino, so, like yourself, I am free.  I only had the foresight because I have lived and traveled in other developing countries and learned by observation, experience, and of course paying attention to good advice offered on forums such as this one.

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