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September 1st, 2006
Actually, this is probably better titled: “Considerations on the Expatriate Life”. Certainly the things I am going to discuss apply no matter where you plan to go.
As you might expect, I get a lot of email from people who are either making the move to Costa Rica or are considering such a move. Some are baby boomers realizing that they may not be able to afford to retire in their home country… others are younger, asking about employment opportunities and lifestyle. They ask my advice on a variety of things,and I give the best answers I can. But over time, I have come to realize that there are a some questions that are never asked, but certainly should be asked, before making a move of this magnitude.
So here are my thoughts on this.
One fact that is pretty well agreed upon is that from 30 to 40% of the people who move here do not make it through the first year. They return to their home country. I read an unsubstantiated article the other day that says this figure is average even for those moving to Hawaii. I guess it is the leaving your home soil that makes it hard… Quien Sabe?
I think that to approach this topic clearly, the only logical place to begin is by dividing everyone into groups. The way to do this is by age, I suppose, so I am going to (arbitrarily) use age 50 as the cutoff. The reason is that those under 50 are probably not retiring. Their needs are different than the over-50 crowd who are a bit more likely to be either in early retirement or will be retiring pretty soon. Obviously your personal situation will vary, so I suggest your read both sections.
Of these two groups, the over 50 crowd is much larger, so I will begin with them.
Costa Rica has become one of the hotspots for those of or nearing retirement age who are coming to the realization that they may not be able to afford to retire on social security or another pension plan, so they are now casting about for alternatives. Of course there are also those who have no money concerns who are also considering the expatriate life. The interesting thing is that the most important things to consider for all these people are pretty much the same.
Sounds simple right? It is not. You are leaving home.
You are leaving everything behind that is “normal”, comfortable, and familiar. You are leaving behind family and friends. You may be leaving behind your children… and their children… the grandkids. If you have money, you can visit them of course, and they can visit you, but maybe not so often as they likely have to work and vacation time is limited. You will probably miss births, first communions, bar mitzvahs, baptisms, accidents, first steps, first words and a ton of the other daily “stuff” that makes up your life. Of course you will hear about all this stuff… after the fact.
If one of your good friends needs your help or your daughter is fighting with her husband, you will not be there to advise or provide a shoulder. It must be done long distance. It is not the same.
Can you handle that? For Pete’s sake don’t say yes if the answer is no.
Costa Rica is not for everyone. It is not the panacea to your problems. It is not like the tourist Costa Rica that you may have experienced on a visit. Nearly every single thing you do in this country is different from how you do it at “home”. Going to the pharmacy, shopping, learning the names of all your body parts and car parts so you feel comfortable at the doctor’s office or the mechanic, getting your hair cut or going to the beauty parlor, learning the metric system for groceries and cooking, stopping at the bank, going to the movies… the list is endless.
Analyze why you are leaving. Have good reasons? I hope so. For instance, I get a ton of email from people who cannot live one more minute under the George W. Bush regime. I am starting to get emails saying that if Hillary Clinton (or almost any other Democrat) is elected, they are leaving the USA. HUH? Do you think things will be different here? Nothing changes. You are just leaving your family and friends to live here and you STILL will have to deal with all the political crapola that IS the United States… and Costa Rica!
Political reasons aside… I cannot tell you how many people I know who have underestimated the above. It is, however, one of the things that you should think about very seriously before you consider leaving home. Some folks can take it. Others simply cannot.
Where will you live?
This is the number one question on peoples minds. They want to get here, buy a home and get settled in. Kind of olde age nesting instinct I guess. Safety in your own little place. Right?
It is my opinion that this probably the last thing you should be doing! What you need to realize is that there is a fairly high probability that you won’t even want to stay here. That 30-40% number is something you should not ignore. If your doctor told you that you had a 30-40% chance of dying in six months, I betcha that you’d listen up pretty carefully.
So you come here anyway and quickly buy your little piece of paradise. Then realize any or all of the following:
- You vastly overpaid because you had NO idea what you were doing
- You chose the wrong location and now wish you could live in XXX (XXX is anywhere where you are not now living)
- You realize you just cannot live this far away from your grandbabies, friends, family… etc.
- You realize that to really enjoy living here, you really have to learn Spanish
- You cannot adjust to the Latin lifestyle
- You THOUGHT is was cheap to live here, but as you chose to live in high security, gated communities in some Gringo stronghold, you now find yourself paying more than it would cost to live in Miami
- You decide that Costa Rica is not for you and then realize you have no place to go. Your money is tied up in your overpriced home which cannot be easily sold, and you have no home to return to anyway.
I could add another 5-6 items to that list, but I hope you get the point. Do not rush into the expat life. Personally, I love it! Others do not.
What to do?
Stop and Plan this thing.
By all means come here and try it out! There is little or no downside IF you don’t do anything drastic.
If possible, don’t liquidate everything in your home country. Don’t sell the farm. Rent out the old homestead. Have someone housesit. THEN
Come here and RENT for the first six months to a year. This will give you the opportunity to travel all over the country and see what are your options. Meanwhile, your CASH and your property are safely sitting somewhere so that if you DO change your mind, you can get out easily and relatively painlessly.
My wife and I like to take little weekend jaunts, and I can tell you this: After living here for several years and visiting here for even more years, there is not a month that goes by that we do not say to each other, “Let’s buy a place here. This is GREAT!” We must have 25 places we’d like to live someday.
Costa Rica is rich with beautiful locations. There are of course the famous Pacific beaches, but there are Caribbean beaches, mountains, valleys, rain forests… You must really know Costa Rica to have any idea what will be best for you. Other considerations:
- Do you want or need access to shopping? Internet? Other things (aka infrastructure)
- Over 50? Things start to break on people over 50. The beaches, while beautiful, have little or no access to good medical care. No trauma centers. The closest beaches are about 2 hours from a good hospital. Even more if you are in Guanacaste. It can be just as bad from the mountains. Is this important to you? Should it be?
- Do you like movies? The Orchestra? Cultural stuff? San Jose has it. An easy drive from the mountains surrounding the central valley. A really LONG drive from any beach community.
- You like the heat? Lots of folks do. But they are not prepared for living in 90 degree heat WITH 80-90% humidity. This is the tropics so you better know you like it before you make the big move.
- Insurance? Costa Rica is famous for it reasonable medical care, BUT are you prepared for the downsides of any socialized medical care? HUGE waits, delays in getting prescriptions, overcrowded and understaffed public hospitals that may not have even BASIC life saving smoke detectors? The terrible condition of some of those CAJA hospitals?
Again, I can go on forever, but you get the point. There is no rush. Relax. Get to know Costa Rica. Learn some Spanish. See if you can adjust. Travel. THEN, make your decisions from a position of power and knowledge.
And as for those realtors making it sound like this is your last chance to buy land… remember there is a lot of paradise here… and it will all be on sale next year!
But if you think you can handle all this.. Come’on down. At the least, it will be a life changing experience for you and your family, and if you plan it correctly, there will be little or no downside to the adventure!
This is the end of Part One.
Part Two for the Under 50 crowd will be up in a thrice!