Would you be Happy Retiring Abroad?

I often find myself imagining the tempting possibilities of retiring outside of the US. The promise of incredibly affordable accommodations tucked away in friendly neighborhoods near natural wonders galore can cause even the most reticent to think twice. Contemplating a lifestyle change of such magnitude is no trifling matter. After all, leaving behind what you have known all your life and venturing out into the virtual unknown at a time when you are expected to be chilling on the couch takes guts. Retiring abroad is definitely not for everyone. But could it be right for you?

We recently spent a week in San Miguel Allende (SMA) Mexico, one of those magical places frequently touted as the perfect Shangri La for retirees to be. Obviously a week is not enough time to get a true feeling for an area where you may spend the rest of your life. But combined with the research we did and people we talked with, it was a good starting point.

Located in south-central Mexico about four hours north of Mexico City, the town is a combination of artists, ex-pats who have migrated there since the 1950’s, restaurateurs with diverse backgrounds and tasty specialties, and a population of family oriented locals. The vibe is wonderful. On a daily basis most residents gravitate toward the town center, the definitive place to be and be seen. Families come together to go to church and play in the plaza, spending many weekend hours enjoying being together. The whole area is SMALL Picture through windowincredibly neat and clean with shop owners taking pride in maintaining their individual storefronts and sidewalks. Combining so many of the right ingredients San Miguel is understandably an attractive retirement destination.

My wife and I began our search for retirement spots quite a few years ago. We both feel the attraction of the Bay Area had run its course and the traffic and congestion are just going to get worse. As we began looking at possibilities, we created a set of criteria to better rank the various options. There were certain requirements we did not want to do without including walking distance to a downtown and a friendly climate. This list was our guiding light whether considering a move within or outside of the US.

Using our list to rate potential candidates and compare the alternatives, here is how San Miguel stacked up

(1) Weather

Since San Miguel is at 6200 feet altitude, the mornings and nights can be rather brisk. But most days are sunny – a must have for my wife. Temperature ranges are relatively mild with winter lows of 45 degrees and summer highs in the low eighties and any snow will have to be seen in postcards of faraway places. The weather here is a definite keeper.

(2) Walking distance to a local downtown

This requirement is high on our list of must-haves. We hope to stay healthy enough to walk every day and heading to the neighborhood grocery store for supplies is a routine we look forward to. SMA definitely meets this requirement. Our B&B was located on a hill that required about a 10 minute walk to get to the central plaza. Not a problem walking down hill but getting up was a different story. Although we have no problem navigating this today, adding another 10 years could make this less than desirable. Still, we could live closer to the ground level. Once you are in the town you can basically walk in any direction to find stores, restaurants and local attractions. Taxis are floating around but we never took one except to get back to the airport

(3) Cost of living

Prices were reasonable as far as food and meals, a big change from what we are used to at touristy spots like Baja. We did not look too closely at real estate prices but the fact that SMA is generating so much interest in American and Canadian ex pats suggests you will pay a bit more now than in the old days. Still compared to the Bay Area, the prices are quite attractive.

(4) Safety

Of course a few weeks before we took our trip we read about a major drug cartel boss being arrested while dining in downtown SMA. Already slightly paranoid when departing the security of the homeland I was a bit uneasy. However once there we found no reason to fear our surroundings. People were friendly and there were plenty of police watching the streets. Locals stressed the fact that the area was safe and we ended up agreeing. Still it is difficult and perhaps foolish to ignore stories about the corrupt government and the wide spread influence of various cartels – definitely something to consider in a retirement move.

(5) Proximity to friends and family

This is one area where SMA failed us. Our children are scattered around the Bay Area with three of four living within 15 minutes and the fourth a three hour drive down south. Moving to Mexico would prevent quick visits and impromptu get togethers. And if one of us needed help, the best we could do would be talk on the phone. It is reasonable to assume we would make new friends in SMA but the separation from family is a big negative.

(6) Hospitals and healthcare

Fortunately we did not have the need for these services while on our trip. However before making any major decisions we would have to dig into the realities of healthcare in the area. As we get older we want to be near quality medical services and feel confident in the level of treatment we may receive.

(7) Local attractions

SMA has a unique history going back to 1542 when it was an important hub in the silver trade. Local architecture includes Colonial and Spanish influences and impressive SMALL woman by churchstructures are scattered throughout the area. And if you like exploring churches there are about 50 in the vicinity. The combination of local culture along with artists, writers and foreign retirees makes for plenty fun discoveries as you wander the streets.

(8) Public Transportation

Since SMA is relatively compact, we did not need public transportation on our trip. You can always find a taxi and local buses make regular trips to more distant neighborhoods. As long as our knees hold up we should be able to get where we need on foot.

(9) Community

We hope to retire where we know our neighbors and feel a part of the local community. SMA met this requirement. Despite the fact I do not speak the language people we met got their message across typically with a smile on their face. Ex pats make up approximately 15% of the town so you can usually run into someone who understands your wishes. Floating among the many families that filled the town plaza sharing in their happiness just by being there was a wonderful feeling.

After careful consideration we decided San Miguel Allende will remain on our list of favorite places to visit but will not become our new home. There are a lot of pluses but for us some of the negatives were most significant. It is a bit too far away from friends and family but we are already planning our return.

How to Take the First Steps Into Retirement

Saving for retirement typically requires a lot of hard work and sacrifices. And leaving a job often means saying goodbye to co-workers who have become friends. But like every other transitional period, it is also the start of something new.

It is best to launch your retirement on a positive note. It makes sense to have a clear idea of what you will be doing on the first day of retirement. Retirement holds the promise of redirecting the rest of your life toward pursuits that stimulate your heart and mind. But setting up a fulfilling and engaging retirement often takes some effort. Before I take my first steps into my second act, I am considering the following questions:

Will I want to work part time? I know that I do not want to work full time during retirement, but part-time work deserves some consideration. Many retirees miss their interactions with co-workers. After spending eight hours a day with a group of people for years, strong bonds are often established. Finding yourself suddenly without these social connections can be a shock for the newly retired. I am open to part-time employment as long as it involves doing something I like or feel is worthwhile. A part-time job would get me out of the house for about four hours a day where I can engage with others, keep my mind sharp and bring in a little additional cash. On the other hand, life with no work also sounds quite attractive. I don’t have a definite answer to this question yet.

Can we retire in place? My wife and I have picked the spot where we want to retire. It’s a small community with lots of sunshine near a cozy downtown and a short drive to the coast. I would like to live here for a long time, but sometimes wonder if we will be able to stay here as long as we want. Baring some economic crash, we should be OK financially. We chose a one story home to avoid having to climb stairs. The community has a good support network for older folks including activities and public transportation. And there is always something going on within a walk or short drive. It’s a good idea to make sure your current home and community will continue to meet your needs as you age, and to have contingency plans in case your health declines.

What can I do to feel productive? I love the idea of relaxing and doing nothing. However, I also enjoy the feeling of accomplishment you get from doing something worthwhile. When I was working full time, my need to be productive was satisfied on a regular basis. But once retired, what will I do to find that same satisfaction? I plan to pursue a few avenues that help fulfill this need, including blogging, learning to speak (or at least better understand) French, taking a number of online courses and dedicating time every day to exercise and health maintenance. But will that be enough for the next 20 or more years? I plan to investigate volunteering, and we are considering living abroad for some period of time. Maybe I will take up painting or some other artistic expression.

What are my top 10 to-dos? If I want to get something done, I put it on a list. Before I retire, my goal is to have a list of the top 10 things I want to do now that I have the time. My hope is the exercise of generating the list will help me better identify what I really enjoy and how I can best spend my time. The beauty is I have the flexibility to add, delete or modify this list at any time. My list is a work in progress, but I do have a few options jotted down, including living in France for a month or two, writing a fiction novel, cultivating an awesome home garden where we walk outside to pick fresh tomatoes, apples and lemons and discovering the secrets of what entertains my grandchildren most. I have no grandchildren yet, but it sure is fun to imagine.

My wife and I want to take the right first steps when we begin our retirement journey together. We are trying to identify and cover all our bases ahead of time. For us, the key is to sustain an ongoing curiosity and willingness to explore new things. We hope our list can provide an overview while our imaginations fill in the blanks.

From my blog for US News & World