Since I’ve lived in apartments for decades and won’t have a huge 401K saved up (savings is a whole other issue), it occurred to me that having rent (or even a mortgage), might drain what I’ve accumulated rather quickly. My thoughts turned to living in another country, one where the cost of living is considerably cheaper. I browsed through lots of issues of International Living magazine, and decided to start early and visit one country each year – Costa Rica, Panama and Belize.
The idea was to put my 401K down to buy a small cottage, but one with land for the garden retreat I covet, and then live off my social security. I have an aromatherapy company that I could put a lot more work into once I retire and pursue some writing goals but I certainly can’t count on that as a steady or even satisfying supplemental income. I have to look at retirement as being solely social security and 401K. Not good. I retired today, after the government takes out its 20% from the 401K, I will have a little over $100,000 and that’s it.
It’s also a little different looking for retirement destinations and homes when planning to buy as a single woman. I have to think a lot about location, not only for being close to healthcare but also for safety.
The next consideration is where to go once in the country when you don’t know anything about it – the weather, food, touristy or liveable, beautiful but isolated, travel methods, etc. For my first destination, Costa Rica, I relied heavily on International Living magazine and Frommer’s Easy Guide to Costa Rica. With limited funds available for the trip – I used my income tax return), clearly the amount of time I stayed was also limited. So the next question is: How do you decide where to go within the country and how do you get from Point A to Point B? Taxi, bus, car, fly? I booked a hotel near San Jose and a car and then got online in search of expats in Costa Rica who might respond and offer some tips. I found a couple relatively near where I would be staying and asked if I could buy them coffee and sit down for an hour or so to ask some questions. Without hesitation, they responded that, yes, they’d be willing to meet and I should have my driver follow the directions they gave me. My driver? I thought it was telling that it never even occurred to them that I might be driving so I decided to do more leg work about driving conditions. I decided to cancel the car and use an in-country company to hire drivers to get me from one location to the next. But that ruled out the trip to meet the expats.
I found that my hotel was not the optimum location for seeing the city so I hired a driver to take me around San Jose. I did some sightseeing and quickly decided I would not be retiring in San Jose. Then I had him drive me around an area that’s supposedly popular with expats and didn’t like it any better. So now what?
I booked a tour to see one of the volcanos, an artisan community and a coffee plantation and discovered that, although I’d figured it would be an interesting day but wouldn’t give me any information I’d need about retiring there, I was wrong. Driving through the local towns and the countryside, gave me a good idea of the types of homes that were common and a sort of “feeling” about the lay of the land and the sort of community where I might want to settle.
There are numerous beaches around Costa Rica that most expats tend to flock to. Not me. I’m more a mountain, birds, butterflies, babbling creeks type of girl so I had my eye on the mountain areas. I loved Monteverde and its lush hillsides but ultimately figured it wouldn’t work for me. It’s a steep location and the older I get, the harder that would be and a local driver told me they have one pharmacy and one medical office but the nearest hospital was about a 2-hour drive down the mountain. If only I were 20 years younger. I’d jump at the chance to live there. But I’m not 20 years younger and I can’t afford to be blind to the consequences of my choices.
That apparently didn’t apply to my decision to zip line while there. I’ve always thought I might like to do that and so I took the plunge and booked a zip line tour. I was the only person signed up that morning (maybe that should’ve told me something?) and discovered that even though the little practice run at the bottom of the mountain was fun and thrilling, it was an entirely different picture when we took a tram up through the clouds to the top of the mountain where, I discovered, I would need to traverse 7 different lines to get back down to the bottom. Walking out on a platform above the cloud line where it’s completely silent and you can see some sort of village wwaaaaayyyyy down at the bottom is ever so slightly more intimidating than a practice run where you’re at treetop level. Nevertheless, I went for it and it was exhilarating.
I discovered that most of the Costa Ricans I met spoke pretty decent English and although I like the idea of a country with no army, when I asked one of my drivers what would happen if Costa Rica were ever attacked, he laughingly responded, “Hello America.”
So many things to consider: how long would it take to build a cottage if I just bought the land? How long to clear the land? Where are the optimal areas for nice breezes, mild “winters” (a term they don’t really use) and great temperatures? What sorts of insects might take over my home? How will my two cats acclimate? Do I need to learn to drive a stick shift? Am I in a safe area but not close enough to my neighbors that they can see what I’m having for breakfast?
I loved Costa Rica and had a wonderful 5 days but I didn’t want to make a rash decision and anyway, hadn’t thought to hire a realtor to show me around. I figured I’d need more than 5 days for that so might have to return. But that’s how you learn, right? Lots of things I accomplished but lots of things I didn’t.
The next year would be Panama. I’ll tackle that fiasco in the next blog post. In the meantime, I’m no closer to a decision about when or where to retire.