Ditch the Retirement Home for These Affordable Countries
Portugal, Ecuador and Malaysia are among the countries that offer expats a comfortable retirement on a modest budget.
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Ecuador is a popular pick among experts. Edd and Cynthia Staton are expats who live in the country and who have written "Escape to Ecuador," along with a series of retirement books. They attribute its expat boom to a vastly improved infrastructure, low crime rate and affordable real estate, stating that it’s possible for homeowners to live comfortably on less than $1,500 a month. Comprehensive, high-quality healthcare is another plus. Edd explains that for less than $100 a month, residents are fully covered with no deductible. There are no healthcare restrictions on age or pre-existing conditions either. Ecuador also enjoys a moderate year-round climate, with expats preferring the towns of Quito and Cuenca (pictured) in the Andes and Salinas along the coast.
Susan Schenck, author of "Expats in Cuenca, Ecuador: The Magic & The Madness," lives in Ecuador too, and says expats also congregate in Vilcabamba. She estimates that expats can live well for $1,200 a month, with a three-bedroom, two-bath house averaging $400 to $500 monthly rent. Schenck adds that top-notch health and dental can be found for 10 to 20 percent of U.S. costs. "It’s so good, in fact, that there is a lot of medical, dental and plastic surgery tourism here," she says. Schenck also speaks highly of the healthy food scene, where kale goes for a quarter at local organic markets. Transportation costs are also minimal, especially in walkable cities like Cuenca where a car isn’t needed, buses cost a quarter and cab rides top out at $3.
The Statons also favor Malaysia, noting it’s a popular expat choice for overall quality of life. "It’s a fascinating mixture of major cities with towering skyscrapers, stunning beaches and lush rainforests," says Edd. It also maintains an international blend of Malay, Indian and Chinese cultures, while English is widely spoken. But the Statons note Malaysia’s excellent healthcare system as one of the major draws. It provides high quality — with doctors who trained abroad in the U.S., U.K. or Australia — at costs so low that many people pay out of pocket instead of using health insurance. The Statons say a couple could live well for less than $1,800 a month, and though Malaysia doesn’t provide the best proximity to the U.S., it does make travel to Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia a cinch. Kuala Lumpur (pictured), George Town on the island of Penang, Johor Bahru, and Ipoh are current popular expat communities.
South Africa is among the top picks from travel expert and Inspired Citizen founder Anthony Berklich. He cites the weather, quality of life and the healthcare system in major cities among the pros, along with the average cost of living coming in around $1,500 a month. He adds that Stellenbosch and Franschhoek (pictured) are popular among expats; both are located in wine regions and are about an hour or less from Cape Town.
Kathleen Peddicord, the author and publisher of Live and Invest Overseas, recommends the Abruzzo region as an affordable alternative to more expensive regions like Tuscany. Peddicord says Abruzzo, a coastal area two hours east of Rome, provides proximity to both beaches and mountains. But since it has remained under-the-radar, housing is still affordable. In fact, with the current exchange rate, Peddicord estimates that total monthly living costs would tally about $1,800 if renting.
Many experts agree that Portugal is one of the most affordable countries in Western Europe to retire in, with expats settling in Lisbon, Porto and the Algarve and Silver Coast areas. The Statons estimate that living costs range from $2,000 to $3,000 a month, with tourist areas costing more. Peddicord adds that Portugal is currently trying to attract new residents by not requiring taxes for ten years. Meanwhile, new direct flights on Delta now make the Azores more accessible than ever. The Azores are an island chain that is about a two-hour flight from Lisbon and less than five hours from the Northeast. "They are distinctly Portuguese with beautiful villages, towns and gorgeous scenery," says Berklich, adding that the Azores are "for the nature lover [who's] into wine, cheese and fantastic food." In addition to their easy access to other European countries, retirees will also find a strong infrastructure, mild climate and affordable housing. Berklich estimates monthly living expenses average around $1,000 a month. Of its nine islands, expats tend to favor Pico, Faial and Sao Miguel.
Berklich also recommends Colombia for its weather, quality of life and relative proximity to the U.S. Affordability is also key, with average monthly costs hovering around $1,000, thanks in part to low-cost housing. Berklich says expats gravitate toward the coastal areas of Santa Marta, Cartagena (pictured) and Barranquilla. Pertaining to the latter two, he says, "These cities have a unique European and Latin feel, while offering a tropical climate, white sand beaches and a fantastic art scene."
Tim Leffel blogs about cutting travel costs on his site Cheapest Destinations. He published "A Better Life for Half the Price," and currently lives in Mexico, one of his top retirement picks. He cautions that popular expat locales like Los Cabos, San Miguel de Allende and Playa del Carmen are likely more expensive than areas an hour or two beyond those towns. For example, Leffel says his family of three lived in Guanajuato (pictured), a city in central Mexico, for about $2,100 a month. He spent $800 a month to rent a four-bedroom, two-bath house before buying his current house, also containing four bedrooms and two bathrooms, plus a view of Guanajuato, for about $90,000. Besides affordable housing, he cites Mexico’s quality healthcare system and infrastructure as attractive qualities.
Wilko van de Kamp, author of "The Freedom Project: Travel," recommends Costa Rica since there’s solid healthcare, a stable political environment and no residency requirement. Although Costa Rica isn’t the cheapest option on this list, a major upside is anybody can buy property. Van de Kamp notes that a furnished two-bedroom typically rents for $500 a month, while ocean-view homes go for less than $200,000. Most expats live in Tamarindo, Dominical, Ojochal, Atenas, Escazu or Grecia, and average monthly costs for retirees vary from $2,000 to $3,000 a month.
Every year International Living, a leading resource for living abroad, releases its World’s Best Places to Retire list. The 2018 ranking once again includes Panama, thanks to its excellent healthcare system, cultural attractions in Panama City and overall quality of life. Expats note monthly expenses range from $1,500 to $2,500 a month, with no need to worry about the exchange rate since Panama uses the U.S. dollar. And not only is Panama a convenient flight to the U.S., but obtaining residency is considered relatively easy. Besides Panama City (pictured), expat communities exist in beach towns like Coronado, and the interior highlands like Boquete.
Spain is another top-ten pick on International Living’s World’s Best Places to Retire in 2018 list. Much of the country offers a slower paced, high quality of life for an attractive price. The article cites total monthly living expenses can cost less than $2,100 in smaller cities, with the upsides of cultural activities and excellent public transportation. There's also no shortage of delicious yet affordable food and wine. Last year, leading financial content site Investopedia estimated that a retired couple could live comfortably on $25,000 a year in Costa del Sol, a beachfront area that’s a favorite among expats.