USA TODAY International Edition


Americans finding advantage, adventure beyond border

- Kathleen Wong

Lee Harrison never thought he’d retire at the age of 49 – 13 years earlier than when he had planned. He definitely didn’t expect that he’d be retired in Ecuador of all places. But at 70, he’s happier than ever with his decision, he said.

“My father worked until he was 62, which I thought was great and my idea of early retirement at the time,” he told USA TODAY.

In his late 40s, Harrison was working in New York as a writer, and his wife, Julie, was a project manager at an energy company. While he didn’t have a lot of savings, he worked at a company that offered an early retirement package with a pension when you hit 50, he said.

On a visit to his in- laws in Arizona, Harrison was browsing in a bookstore and came across a book about moving to Costa Rica, where the cost of living is lower than in the U. S. and the weather is ideal.

A lightbulb went off. What if the couple retired overseas and was able to live out an adventure?

After evaluating multiple countries, including Spain, Costa Rica and Mexico, they settled on Ecuador.

“It could be that I retire at 49 and stay happily retired for the rest of my life, which would be the case so far,” he said. “Or if it’s a total failure and I hate Ecuador, then I’ll just end up back at my desk in New York again.”

How do you begin the process?

Thirty years ago, retiring in another country was a fringe idea, according to Kathleen Peddicord, an expert in retiring abroad and the founder of Live and Invest Overseas. “It was way beyond anyone’s imagining at the time,” she said.

Most people retired in the town they lived in or somewhere sunnier, like Florida or Arizona.

Now, it’s a much more accessible and potentiall­y advantageo­us idea for middle- class Americans.

In 2022, there were 443,546 retired Americans receiving Social Security benefits while living abroad, according to the Social Security Administra­tion. That’s nearly double the amount from 1999 when 219,504 retired workers received Social Security benefits while living in a foreign country.

The internet has made it “easier to research and find connection­s and resources to make yourself feel more comfortabl­e,” said Peddicord, a Baltimore native who now lives with her family in Paris. Before everything went online, for example, you had to pay your bills by mailing in a check, even from overseas.

At the same time, today’s retirees are more traveled than past generation­s, are living longer and want to make sure they have enough money to carry them through. In 2021, the median income for Americans 65 and up totaled $ 47,620, yet for the year, all Americans spent about $ 66,928 on average on costs like food and transporta­tion – a 9.1% increase from 2020.

Others are simply seeking adventure. “Every day is filled with the unexpected,” compared to retiring where you’ve already lived, Peddicord said.

“Some people will think it’s crazy, some people will be terrified. For those who aren’t scared of the idea, pursue it and break it down step by step,” she said.

That’s what Harrison did. Over the next three years, he and his wife looked at cost of living, weather, and access to health care in different countries. The main factor for them was finances.

“Could I stretch what we would get for selling our house and pensions? Could I stretch out that basically forever?” he said.

Finally, they picked Ecuador’s thirdlarge­st city, Cuenca – after driving around the majority of the country in a rental car.

“It was like being in a different world,” he said, referring to the cobbleston­e streets and old European architectu­re – its city center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city is charming and safe, with springtime weather year- round. There are bakeries, outdoor cafes and views of the mountains.

Consider finances to move abroad

It was an affordable place for the Harrisons to live, plus the country uses the U. S. dollar as its currency, so they didn’t have to go through complicate­d money conversion­s or pay attention to the currency rate. “The places we had lived weren’t particular­ly cheap – like Vermont or New York,” he said. At the time, about 20 years ago, they were able to live on a few hundred a month in Cuenca.

“You can go to Mississipp­i or Arkansas with a low cost of living but it’s not the same as living somewhere like Ecuador,” he added.

To get started, Harrison found a real estate agent and also reached out to the U. S. Embassy to find an English- speaking attorney to figure out how to apply for residency. The couple sold their belongings and house in Vermont and made the move in 2001. They didn’t know anyone who lived in Ecuador but were quick to teach themselves Spanish and meet others.

Pricing locals out

To move to most countries, you often have to show proof of sufficient funds to live there or regular monthly income ( like from your pension or social security, for example), which vary by country. For example, Peddicord said you need $ 1,000 a month to qualify for residency in Panama, and it’s even less in Colombia. “You either qualify or you don’t,” she said.

For many Americans, these qualifications are much more affordable than most retire- friendly, warm- weather places in the United States, like Florida. One popular expat destinatio­n, Mexico, has about 1.6 million U. S. citizens living within its borders, according to the State Department.

The high number of expats going to these countries hasn’t gone without some criticism from locals. With the American dollar going farther in Mexico and other places, expats are automatica­lly given more purchasing power, driving up living costs and gentrification.

Educator and host for the podcast Spanish and Go, May Larios García – who is from Manzanillo, Colima – said that “gentrification is certainly a growing concern” in the country.

“It is important for retired expats to be aware of the potential impact of their presence on local communitie­s,” she said. “To mitigate this impact, retired expats can try to integrate into local communitie­s in a respectful and mindful manner.” Larios García recommends learning the host language and renting from locals instead of buying property.

Joel Cerna was born and raised in Guadalajar­a and moved to Puerto Vallarta for about 20 years for work. Puerto Vallarta has recently exploded as a popular tourist and expat destinatio­n for Canadians and Americans. He said that the influx of expats brings both good and bad, like new job opportunit­ies and investing more money into the local economy but also “the gentrification of certain areas and the displaceme­nt of lower- income residents.” Overall, he thinks the benefits outweigh the cons.

How to embrace the new lifestyle

Loving the adventure, the couple has explored more of Latin America, also living in Uruguay, Colombia and Mexico.

Harrison admitted that adjusting to his new life meant a change in “priorities and lifestyle.” In the U. S., Harrison had a boat, snowmobile­s and a car he only drove on Sundays. When living in Medellín, Colombia, it was easier to forgo a car completely. He said he enjoys having fewer possession­s. He’s also smitten with the slower pace of life, such as restaurant­s encouragin­g diners to take their time and how dinner can end up lasting for hours.

“My biggest motivator was not having to work,” Harrison said, adding that he probably lives more comfortabl­y than his parents, who worked their whole lives, did. “There’s a lot to be gained.”

 ?? PROVIDED BY LEE HARRISON ?? Lee Harrison and his wife, Julie, hike in El Cajas National Park on the continenta­l divide in the Andes, just outside of Cuenca, Ecuador.
PROVIDED BY LEE HARRISON Lee Harrison and his wife, Julie, hike in El Cajas National Park on the continenta­l divide in the Andes, just outside of Cuenca, Ecuador.

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