Get Out Now
By Victor Adams
I retired to Cartagena, Colombia in 2017 at the age of 43. I spent the first couple of years lounging on beaches, pickling my liver with Aguardiente, and traveling around Latin America. Not a hugely productive retirement, but certainly a fun start. I’m divorced with no kids, no more employees, no more businesses, and nothing to do. So that’s life. Cartagena happens to be a particularly good place to have nothing to do, so the combination works for me.
Like all expats, I have the pathological need to emphasize that I love the U.S. It’s my home country. I love it, I just can’t afford it. I’m not political lunatic. My decision to live outside the US wasn’t based on who won or lost an election. Rather, I left the States because I did the math. I evaluated my my savings, my current earnings, and my future income. I calculated that I’d be watching my social security checks bounce long before I accumulated enough money to retire. My budgeting led me to the conclusion that I could actually retire early…I just needed to leave the United States to do it. I’ve been in South America ever since.
About a year ago, I flew to the States to see family. My return flight got horribly delayed. I know what you’re thinking, I was shocked, too.
It was a late flight, and the delay pushed the departure time close to zero dark thirty. Colombian bound flights are like fashion shows, so a few of us nursed drinks at the bar watching the show. I got to talking with a passenger on a different late flight, and we’ve stayed in contact since. He still can’t get over that I’m retired in my 40s. Every conversation touches on some aspect of how I got out. So how did I do it? Here are a few things anyone should consider before deciding to yank the ejection handle on life in the U.S.
This is part one of a two-article series. This article focuses on what to expect and how to prepare yourself. The second article will focus more on the financial aspects of preparing your exit.
The best part of deciding to expatriate is traveling around to find a landing spot. I’ve spent months in Greece, Turkey, China, half a year in Russia, Thailand, you name it. I stayed away from downtown Europe because I was looking for a good value in my retirement location. Nothing against Italy, France, and company, but those are fully-valued locations. You have to view this like a stock analyst and look for an underpriced country. Somewhere that has infrastructure, modern convenience, and economic possibilities, but doesn’t charge forty-bucks for a lobster tail.
When you find what you’re looking for, meet locals. Talk to the business owners to get a sense of things. You didn’t grow up in these countries, so you don’t know the underlying politics. What may seem like an island paradise may be politically unstable under the surface. Maybe that doesn’t matter to you. It all depends on your risk tolerance. I was in Nicaragua in 2018 when the country destabilized. I stayed through the majority of the violence. My US friends couldn’t believe I stayed in a place with violence in the streets. They get it now, though, and I don’t mean that politically. Expats in Nicaragua are paying a significant discount there for a similar outcome to what you’re getting. Am I generalizing? Sure, a bit. But there is truth in the comparison or you wouldn’t be reading this.
Once you find a location that feels right, here are a few things you can do to prepare yourself as you negotiate the logistics of leaving.
First, you’re gonna need to learn a foreign language. There are several reasons for this, but the basis is financial. Unless you have over a million dollars banked, you’re not retiring early in the United States. Fact. Obviously, you’ll need to communicate with the locals of whatever country you’ve chosen. Even more important however, is that the locals want to see that you are attempting to adjust to their society. How many people in the US bitch about people who can’t speak English? Not you, obviously, you’re reading this and thus highly enlightened. But you get the point.
Second, you’ve got way too much crap. I know the garden gnome and the combination footstool-storage compartment are important. Put the gnome in the footstool and sell it to someone else who needs it. Don’t wait till that last minute and try and yard-sale your way to freedom. Wherever you go, you’re going to have to learn to live without most of the crap you’ve accumulated. Shipping your possessions around the world is usually unprofitable. If you love a sofa that much…um, that’s great. Love conquers all. Back in reality, one of the biggest challenges of leaving the States is the spartan manner in which you do it. Open your fridge. Everything in your fridge door? Bye-bye. You’ll be buying ½ as much and you won’t recognize those name brands. Can you get that once-used oyster sauce? Sure. You’ll pay triple the price, which is exactly the opposite of the point.
Making money is a tricky topic. In post-COVID world, a lot of people have figured out that they can work from home. If you’re one of the lucky ones, Latin America is probably your best option. You’ll have to fly back to the States from time to time, and unless you’re in Buenos Aires, that’s a quick flight. The most economical option is to make your money in the US and live outside of it. If that isn’t an option, teaching English and freelancing are the most popular jobs. Remember, the cost of living is so much lower outside the U.S. that you don’t need a 50k a year job. I’ll cover those financials in the follow-up article, but the bottom line is, have a plan if you aren’t retiring. There is only one Jimmy Buffett and you ain’t him.
Fourth, when you’re calculating your living expenses, the number one mistake people make is budgeting from 5th gear spending (in the U.S.) to 2nd gear spending (outside the States). It doesn’t work that way. The first 6–8 months, you’re going have bad spending habits. You’re going to pay too much for rent. You’re going to pay too much for nice restaurants. You’re going to over-use your air conditioning. It will take you half-a-year to bring your spending down. Getting the math right helps. If you’re planning to buy a house or rent unfurnished, that means furniture. If you’re gonna rent furnished, you’ll still have to spring for pots, pans, utensils, and maybe even a bed if the one you get sucks. Bottom-line, don’t undershoot this number. Also, asking a Facebook group about costs produces a wide variety of answers. Social media speaks snark, so don’t rely on those answers. You can’t do this from your computer.
Transportation is different outside the U.S. One big advantage is that if you plan it right, you won’t need a car. That means no car payments, no oil changes, no insurance (praise the Lord), and no more having to replace brake rotors. Public transport works and everyone uses it. That’s not a critique of the States. It’s a big country and we built our society around car ownership. The rest of the world didn’t. Fact. Not owning a car means strategic planning on where you live. Live near a grocery store or a metro/bus stop. Where I live, food is pretty fresh and it goes bad without all the chemicals. I’m at the store twice a week.
Sixth, homesickness happens. That mean you need to budget for multiple trips back to the States for whatever reason. That’s rental cars (plus insurance), possibly hotels (laughably expensive), and pricey food (at least by my standards). The first year you’re gone, you’ll go back a bit more often as you acclimate to the fact that you can’t have dinosaur finger puppets delivered same day. Those trips aren’t an insignificant cost.
Seventh, learn to do stuff. Big-box stores are global. But unlike in the US, they have limitations on what they can offer so as not to kill smaller businesses. Imagine that. Anyway, little plumbing and electrical problems will be on you. You’re going to have to figure out where to find those odd items, and what those words are in a foreign language. Suppose you want a screwdriver. Simple right? Wrong. Phillips of flathead? Long or short? All in one? Plastic or wood handle? And good luck explaining that you need a PVC elbow joint. It’s a good way to learn the language, but you’ll need patience. You can try to demand that the landlord do it, but that will lead to a complicated mess organizing multiple people who generally show up hours late. Just do it yourself. Time runs differently outside the U.S. People are 2–3 hours late if they show at all. It takes a while to learn not spend your time waiting on the cable guy. Give him your number, have him call if he shows.
Leaving the U.S., at least for me and a few people I know, was difficult. Not mentally challenging. Difficult as in we had to overcome some invisible barrier. As in the system didn’t want to let us get out. Each of us, and I am not speaking for everyone, had something odd happen that tried to keep us in the States. Whether it was a nonsense lawsuit, a sick relative, the government refusing to re-up a passport (odd, but true). Cancelled flights are a repeat offender. Imagine having all your possessions and a pet in tow, and the outbound trip just collapses half-way through. A decent number of expats seem to have had some sort of battle to exit the U.S. I can’t quantify that, but I just want to forewarn some of you. There seems to be a ghost in the machine, so expect the system to fight back. If you’re retiring early, it means you’re probably leaving the U.S. The system is losing a taxpayer. The system doesn’t like to lose taxpayers.
As you might have gathered, the first year of expatriation is tough. Learning the language, learning to plumb, and getting overcharged are all part of the first-year frustrations of life outside the US. Why do we do it? I mean, besides being retired at forty-three, twenty-dollar phone plans, seven-dollar lobster, and no more random subscription charges you can’t turn off. I don’t miss high-blood pressure or paying lawyers. I love that I have no insurances. I love that Colombians don’t live and breathe politics. I love that the arthritis in my hands is gone. I love that when my brother visits, he doesn’t monitor his blood sugar because his body is so relaxed it works properly.
I think I traded up to a better value for the quality of life, but that’s just me. Colombia has BMWs, coffee shops, private schools, and food delivery, too…just like you guys. For me, the best part of living here is summed up this way: when the internet installation guy no-shows, I’m not mad and yelling at someone in India who didn’t do anything wrong. I’m not full of impotent rage. I’m laughing, and someone is buying me a beer because they lost that bet. Pro-tip; he never shows the first time.
In part-two of the series, I will be dissecting the financials to provide a clearer picture of what costs what down here. In the meantime, look at your own math. Is retirement really in the cards?
Victor Adams is a retired franchisee, independent business owner, and Siberian husky breed snob. He is the author of the new satirical adventure, The Last One Out, available on Amazon.