Retiring south of the border

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Carol Sorgen

With a 10-year age difference between them, Paul and Gloria Yeatman decided that retirement should be on their radar earlier rather than later.

“We’ve been together for 13 years, and early in our relationship we talked about retiring early,” said Paul, 68. But they realized his post-retirement income alone wouldn’t cover all of their expenses, and Gloria would have to wait a decade longer than Paul to qualify for Social Security.

So they turned their sights from their Northeastern Baltimore County home in Nottingham to more far-flung options.

Their top priority was saving money on heating and air conditioning, which right away would knock $300 to $400 off their monthly expenses.

Paul had been fascinated with Latin America since he was a teenager and attended college in Mexico, and Gloria fell in love with that country on their honeymoon. They strongly considered relocating to Mexico, but concerns about crime and drug culture made them apprehensive.

Looking for an alternative, Gloria recalled how taken she had been with Costa Rica when she attended a conference there in 1996. So after two years of research — and four visits to make sure they were making the right choice — the Yeatmans rented out their house, packed 10 suitcases, two laptops and one cat, and moved to Costa Rica.

Not a bit homesick

Do they miss life in Baltimore? Let’s put it this way: Other than returning earlier this year to sell their home, they haven’t been back here since they moved about five years ago.

The Yeatmans admit that they are relatively unencumbered, having neither children nor grandchildren. They do each have a sister and numerous friends, though.

But one of Costa Rica’s attractions is that it’s only a 2-1/2 hour flight from Miami and another couple of hours to fly from Miami to Baltimore. They can get home quickly if they need to, and they’re not too far away for visitors to come to them.

So enamored are they of their lifestyle there, they have recently applied for permanent residency — which does not entail forfeiting their American citizenship.

Furthermore, Paul offers “Retire for Less in Costa Rica” tours to other prospective expats. And Gloria is a contributor to InternationalLiving.com which, first in print and later additionally online, has been helping people move abroad for more than 30 years.

The Yeatmans said, “We consistently live on less than $2,000 a month here.” In addition to spending far less to live than they would back in Baltimore, they love the climate — 60 to 80 degrees, with no need for heat or air conditioning — learning a new culture, and the easy pace of life.

They also appreciate the fact that Costa Rica has been a stable democracy since 1821, and there is no anti-American sentiment. (On the other hand, Paul wishes some of his fellow American expats would be less “ethnocentric.” “We’re visitors in their country!” he noted.)

Which is not to say there aren’t things they miss. “I miss theater,” said Paul. “And I miss Trader Joe’s!” added Gloria. And they both miss their weekly dinners at their favorite Chinese restaurant in Lutherville.

Some people might think the Yeatmans are living in paradise, but they are quick to dispel that notion. “You have to build your life here just as you would anywhere else, even in Baltimore,” Paul said.

“The beginning is the hardest part, but if you have a sense of humor, are flexible and can go with the flow, you’ll live a pretty incredible life. This experience has been beyond our wildest dreams. We pinch ourselves every day.”

Growing number of expats

The Yeatmans certainly aren’t alone in choosing to retire abroad. According to International Living, the Social Security Administration sent 613,650 benefit checks outside the United States in June — an increase from 242,128 in 2002. And that number may well be on the low side, considering that many people may have their Social Security checks sent to U.S. banks or, as in the case of Gloria Yeatman, don’t collect benefits yet.

Dan Prescher, senior editor at InternationalLiving.com, and his wife Suzan Haskins, left their Nebraska home shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11. Since that time, they have lived in seven locations in four countries — Mexico, Panama, Nicaragua and Ecuador.

As Prescher likes to say, “We haven’t shoveled snow since 2001.” The couple recently co-authored The International Living Guide to Retiring Overseas on a Budget: How to Live Well on $25,000 a Year.

Currently living in Cotacachi, Ecuador, the couple acknowledges that moving abroad is not for everyone. “You have to have a tolerance for leaving behind the comforts of home,” said Prescher. But the trade-off can mean more money in your pocket, better weather, and a sense of adventure.

“By now, moving is in our blood,” he said, noting that Latin America is a popular choice for retiring Americans because the culture is not completely foreign, and it is easy to travel to and from the States.

In fact, Prescher, who is 60, and Haskins, 59, return to the U.S. four or five times a year for holidays, family birthdays, and the like.

If you’re considering a move abroad, healthcare should be a major concern, since Medicare basically does not apply beyond U.S. borders, except in very limited situations. But Prescher said that in major metropolitan areas around the world, the healthcare is equal to or better — and less expensive — than what you would find in the U.S. [See sidebar for more information on health coverage abroad.]

Take a test drive

The biggest obstacle many expats encounter, according to Prescher, is that they erroneously think that other countries are “U.S. Lite.” But different countries have different values and different ways of doing things, he said.

To see if you can fit in with the culture of the country you’re interested in, Prescher and Haskins suggest spending three to six months there before actually moving. “There is a difference between taking a vacation and living someplace else,” Haskins said.

Research is paramount, Prescher advised. Visit online bulletin boards and chat rooms to talk to people who have made the move. “Profile” yourself — in other words, make an honest list of what you can and cannot live without. Make a short list of countries that might interest you. Then do even more research!

After all that, “if you still have the bug, then do it,” said Prescher. “And if your decision is not to do it, that’s just as valuable.”

Several years ago, native Baltimorean Tyler Webb, 69, and his wife, Jackie, 67, moved to Las Vegas from Edgewater, Md. Then the bug bit, and they began exploring options for retiring abroad.

Though they had no previous ties to Mexico, the couple looked into it and decided “Sounds like fun!” Since the beginning of September, they have been living in Jalisco. They are renting a house, have bought a car, and are learning Spanish. In the meantime, an iPhone translation app has come in handy.

The Webbs say they had no hesitation about moving to Mexico, though their family and friends thought they were “crazy.” So far, nothing has indicated to them that they have made a mistake.

“The Mexican people are delightful, we have the comforts of home, such as high-speed Internet and cable television, and there is excellent healthcare with several major hospitals in nearby Guadalajara. “My dentist is even a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Dentistry,” Tyler noted.

The Webbs say that they are not ruling out the possibility of returning to the States someday. But for the foreseeable future, “We’re off to explore!”