Where in the world can you live on $1,500 a month? Quite a few places, it turns out, and if you habla español or parlez français and can demonstrate good financials by buying a home outright in your chosen land, all the better. We ruled out areas that seemed too risky (political instability, high crime) or had challenging residency requirements. Our criteria: affordability, relative safety, interesting culture, good weather and a decent medical system. Here, some glimpses into the lives of Americans who've made the move.
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Christine Zimmerman, 51, and her husband, Kent, discovered this lively university city while traveling around the country—and moved in. “There's ballet, theater, concerts, live-music clubs. We have a lot of local friends—I can get by in Spanish, and most Ecuadoreans learn English in school,” she says. “We see movies the same day they open in the U.S., in English with Spanish subtitles. So we have all the comforts of home at a lower price—$3 or $5 for a movie ticket. Last night dinner for two at a tapas restaurant was $17.50, including wine.”
The Zimmermans rent a two-bedroom apartment for $490 a month; their rooftop patio is just across the street from the Catedral Nuevo and 97 steps from the bustling central square where Christine's favorite ice cream shop, Tutto Freddo, is located. A one-bedroom apartment in the same area sells for $35,000 to $60,000, and higher-end condos go for about $95,000.
The Zimmermans use local dentists and doctors for routine care (fillings are $13 each, a dental X-ray is $14, a half-hour doctor visit $20). “The clinics have the latest equipment, and there's a medical school here, so the standard is high,” says Christine. They also carry a high-deductible U.S. medical-insurance policy ($300 a month per person) that covers serious care in the States. International insurance policies that cover medical treatment outside the U.S. (Bupa, for example; go to bupa-intl.com) start at about $1,000 a year per person.
Expats with a fixed monthly income (such as Social Security) may qualify for residency through a Pensioner 10-I Visa. Go to ecuador.org/visas.htm for details. The rules are subject to change, but you may be able to obtain residency with as little as $800 a month in outside income.
Julie Lowrey and Lee Harrison, both fluent in Spanish, moved to Uruguay in 2006, drawn by its European sophistication, modern infrastructure, developing-world prices and temperate climate. The couple settled near Punta del Este, an upscale resort 10 miles from an airport, and have made friends from around the world. “The food is great, although a lot of it is grilled beef,” says Lowrey, 60. “Because Italian culture is such a big influence, their pasta is way above anything you can get in the U.S.” Her one caveat: “I don't buy clothes here,” she says. “If you want good quality, it's too expensive. I shop sales when I go back to the U.S. on visits.” The resort empties out from April to November, leaving mostly expats and retirees. “We're part of a group of English speakers who get together when we can,” she says.
“I like the countryside,” Lowrey says, “and [my husband] likes the city, so we got something in between: a three-bedroom, 2,500-square-foot house a mile northeast of Punta del Este.” The price they paid in 2006, $160,000, would be closer to $330,000 today. But Punta del Este is more expensive than most places in Uruguay. In the capital, Montevideo, prices for two- and three-bedroom apartments range from $130,000 to $250,000, and two-bedroom apartments rent for $1,000 and up.
The couple get their medical checkups in the States, but there are excellent private clinics and hospitals in Uruguay that accept their U.S.-based Blue Cross/Blue Shield plan. (Public medical care is free, but many expats go private.) For $50 to $169 a month, you can buy a local insurance plan that is effective within the country.
To qualify for residency, you need an address in Uruguay (property owned or rented) and outside income (such as Social Security) of at least $650 a month per person. Go to uruguay.visahq.com for details or to a local law firm specializing in immigration, such as Fischer & Schickendantz (fs.com.uy).
Ann Kuffner, 60, and her husband, Mike Brunette, bought property on the largest of Belize's islands, Ambergris Caye, in 1999, attracted by the beautiful surroundings, the openness of the people and the sizable English-speaking expat community. Four years ago, they settled there full time. “We drive around in a golf cart, not a car, for which we pay $75 a year in insurance,” she says. “We snorkel at a reef offshore. There are great restaurants and wine tastings every week, although wine is expensive here.” They get the same TV channels as in the U.S. and have high-speed Internet access, but Kuffner misses foreign art films, Netflix and some foods. “We can't get peaches and raspberries, two of my favorites,” she says. “And people bring me Peet's decaf when they come to visit. I would die to go to a Trader Joe's.”
Ambergris, where condos currently run $150,000 to $800,000, is in the priciest part of the country. “But you can buy a house in other parts of Belize for $119,000 to $149,000,” says Kuffner, or rent a two-bedroom cottage or apartment for $1,000 a month.
They carry worldwide insurance from Bupa, which costs $7,000 a year for both, with a $5,000 annual deductible. Medical care is good and constantly improving, says Kuffner. When she needed surgery for a broken hip and spent four days in a local hospital, her doctors checked on her daily (her portion of the bill totaled $4,500). For serious illnesses, some residents go to Mexican hospitals, where the care is thought to be better.
Belize is the exception to our $1,500-a-month budget. The Qualified Retired Person program, for which you need to be over 45, requires you to spend at least one month a year in Belize and show monthly pension (not Social Security) income of $2,000 (for details go to belizeretirement.org).
Carol Artigues, 70, moved to Aix-en-Provence in 1977 after visiting an old friend who lived there. “I love it,” she says. “It's a college town where interesting events are always going on—a classical-music festival in July, a vineyard and wine-tasting fair in September. The town is connected to Paris by high-speed rail, and we get 300 days of sunshine a year. If you don't eat foie gras all the time and don't rely on restaurants, the food isn't exorbitant. You can get a couple of fish fillets for $6 to $8 at the supermarket, and the wine is cheap.” Plus, the region's charming villages and renowned landscape of olive trees, vineyards, stone farmhouses and fields of lavender are less than an hour away by car. She joined a local social club, the Anglo-American Group of Provence, and immediately plugged into a network of friendly people.
Prime real estate in Provence and the Côte d'Azur is expensive, but affordable cottages and one-bedroom apartments in the villages can be had for $100,000 to $200,000. Artigues rents a 344-square-foot studio in Aix for ∈576 (about $800). A 200-square-foot studio in the center of Aix sells for just over $100,000; a four-room, 980-square-foot apartment is $387,000.
“The French love paperwork,” says Artigues. Before you leave the U.S., it's best to obtain a long-stay visa, valid for up to a year. To qualify, you need to produce documentation showing financial assets and income (there is no required dollar amount, and rules vary with each residency case), proof of medical insurance and notarized deeds or leases for property in France (see info-france-usa.org for details). During your first two months in France, register with the Office of Immigration and Integration, and within the year apply to the local authorities for a retirees' resident permit (carte de séjour “retraité”), valid for 10 years and renewable. You can enter the medical system almost immediately, simply by showing proof that you live there, such as a deed for a house. You then get the benefits of a superlative system at low cost—for example, $33 for a doctor visit, 70 percent of which is reimbursed.
Kathleen Peddicord, 48, author of the book How to Retire Overseas, left the U.S. in 1998 with her husband, Lief Simon, and child to explore other cultures, spending time in France and Ireland before settling in Panama City nearly four years ago. They were drawn by the favorable business environment (she runs her own publishing company, liveandinvestoverseas.com), up-to-the-minute infrastructure and well-educated, English-speaking workforce—as well as the beauty of the country and the cultural diversity. “We have many Panamanian friends,” she says, “and most speak English. In the countryside, you would need Spanish [her husband is fluent]. We see first-run films in English, except that a movie ticket costs only $4.” Panama offers a range of discounts to retirees, such as 25 percent off restaurant bills and airline tickets, both domestic and international.
The Peddicords, who now have two children, rent a five-bedroom house with a garden in the Marbella neighborhood for $3,000 a month, but you can find a one-bedroom apartment in a good neighborhood for $675 and a three-bedroom for $1,400. Two-bedroom apartments in the business district sell for $185,000. In the countryside, near the colonial town of Las Tablas, three-bedroom houses start at $125,000, and rents for a two-bedroom home start at about $500.
Many doctors in Panama City were trained in the U.S., and facilities are on a par with those in U.S. cities. Panamanian insurance companies sell in-country policies for about $50 a month per person. Or you can purchase an international plan through Bupa.
Panama has about 15 ways to establish residency (see embassyofpanama.org). Peddicord took a route open to those without pensions but with substantial funds: a reforestation visa. Under its terms, the family paid $80,000 and along with their visas received two-and-a-half acres of teak trees to harvest (they have not yet exercised this option). The most common path to residency, however, is the pensionado program, which requires proof that couples receive at least $1,125 a month in Social Security or other pension income.
Kathy Snyder, 66, didn't choose to settle in Nicaragua; her husband, Jay, fell in love with the country when he studied Spanish there six years ago. He came back with the deed to a property in this beautiful colonial city. They built nine condo units and kept one for themselves. “The people here are so nice, so kind, so gracious,” she says. “And even though my Spanish is limited, I can get around. You can always find a way to ask, and they never laugh at you. I'm a painter and beader, and there are many artists here.” Another plus: the availability of fresh fish and fruit. “Our diet is healthier and less expensive than in the U.S.,” she says.
A two-bedroom condo in Granada goes for about $158,000. Two- and three-bedroom houses elsewhere in the country, some near the beach, start at $125,000. You can rent a three-bedroom house in Granada for $1,600 a month or elsewhere in the country for $500 to $1,200 a month.
Since medical and dental care is excellent and inexpensive, many expats don't carry insurance; they just pay as they go: $30 for a doctor visit, $17 for a dental X-ray, $200 for a crown. The Snyders' U.S. Colonial Penn plan covers them in Nicaragua.
To get a residency visa, you have to show income of $650 a month (see consuladodenicaragua.com).
Americans living overseas pay federal taxes on income earned anywhere in the world. But if you meet certain requirements, you may be able to exclude up to $91,500 of foreign-earned income. Laws regarding local taxes owed in host countries, as well as the details of tax treaties between the U.S. and other nations, are always changing, says Richard Mizrack, an international lawyer and tax expert with New York's Nicoletti Gonson Spinner & Owen LLP. So consult with both your U.S. tax accountant and a local tax attorney in the country you're considering. To start your research, visit the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs (travel.state.gov).