Gringo Retirement: Living Abroad in Economic Refuge

NEW YORK (MainStreet)—A couple from Hendersonville, N.C. always dreamed of settling down in paradise and moved to Belize last year to retire along the scenic barrier reefs.

"Our primary financial motivation for retiring abroad was to achieve a lower cost of living in a tropical setting," said David Wright, 65, who moved with his wife, Elizabeth, 52, to Ranchito Village, an expatriate enclave near Corozal, Belize.

For Americans retiring overseas, places in Latin America and the Caribbean are an economic haven for stretching a dollar and paying less in healthcare costs.

"The strategy is to move somewhere that counts, and the cost of living in Latin America is a fraction of the cost of the U.S," said Dan Prescher, special projects editor at International Living, a publication that focuses on international retirement.

The rising cost of healthcare coverage and limited savings other than home equity are pressuring many baby boomers to consider retirement abroad to lower their living expenses.

Half of Americans have less than $25,000 in total savings, excluding the value of their primary home and pension plans, according to a March 2013 survey conducted by the Employee Benefit Retirement Institute.

"Most Americans are not saving enough for a secure retirement, and an alarming number of Americans do not participate in any retirement savings program," said Ronald, O'Hanley, president of asset management and corporate services at Fidelity Investments.

Only 45% of American workers have a pension or 401(k) plan, according to Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. Around one-third of U.S. retirees receive at least 90% of their retirement income from Social Security benefits.

The average annual Social Security benefits for a recent U.S. retiree provides around a modest $15,000 a year.

For stretching a fixed income, a rising number of those Social Security checks are going abroad to expatriates settled in retirement enclaves in Latin America and the Caribbean.

"You can live almost anywhere in Latin America on $2,000 [a month], but we see some people do it for a lot less on $600 or $700," Prescher said. "But, they're living a different type of lifestyle amongst the locals."

Prescher and his wife Suzan Haskins moved to Cotacachi, a small Ecuadorian town in the highlands where their monthly budget ranges between $1,200 and $1,500.

"We're seeing a lot more economic refugees and a lot of people unable to afford health care," Prescher said of the new U.S. retirees moving to Ecuador. "We see mostly people trying to make it on a fixed income to stretch a dollar."

International Living ranked Ecuador as the top place to retire abroad in its annual global retirement index, followed by Panama, Malaysia, Mexico and Costa Rica. The publication's index factors in real estate, cost of living, climate, entertainment, health care, retirement infrastructure and ease of cultural integration.

Former corporate attorney Jon Nickel, 67, and his wife, Gretchen, from Portland, Ore. say their decision to retire full-time in Panama saved them money – especially in housing and medical expenses.

"Clearly we're saving by living in Panama, [but] expenses of travel are a significant offsetting factor." Nickel, said although he enjoys the low cost of medical care in Central America. "We do now enjoy the low cost and quality of health care in Panama."

Few financial services cater to U.S. citizens planning a retirement abroad other than tax accountants and legal services.

Owen Tracy, principal of Retirement International, started his California-based firm two years ago to advise future retirees on living abroad with a range of services from financial to consulting with immigration officials.

"Sometimes cheap is expensive, and most of those going to Mexico or Central America don't last for more than a couple years," said Tracy, who generally advises individuals who have around $600,000 in their combined stock portfolio and savings. "People don't take a good look at the facilities a lot of the times and look at it through rose-colored glasses and not what it really costs."

Retirement abroad is a personal decision, and often most people who retire live overseas part-time to remain in close proximity of family and friends, he said.

"People save money from part-time retirement [abroad], because it's not as mentally taxing," Tracy said. "Many people rent abroad for six months."

Most countries in Latin America have a universal or single-pay system for healthcare, which is often less expensive than plans or insurance in the U.S.

In Costa Rica, for example, the typical monthly cost for private medical insurance ranges between $60 and $130, according to CostaRica.com.

"Social Security doesn't stop at the border, but Medicare does," Tracy said.

The cost of healthcare was a primary motivating factor for the Wrights to relocate their retirement from North Carolina to the beaches of Belize.

"While healthcare and things like not having to pay any seasonal heating costs are much lower, a number of other monthly bills are similar in cost, or more expensive than in the United States." David Wright said.

He recommends having a little additional retirement money saved other Social Security payments to cover additional expenses, such as the cost of owning a car abroad.

"Depending on the type of lifestyle one expects to have and where one wants to live in Belize, we would strongly advise that people have another source of income, instead of relying solely on Social Security," Wright said. "While one can realize some cost savings...some living expenses are higher."

--Written by Farran Powell for MainStreet

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