Panama – Part III

Boquete

Keep in mind that this little Panamanian adventure was taken when I was 63 years old, traveling alone and in search of a retirement location that would be more affordable when living off nothing but social security. The goal was to cash out my 401K, use it to purchase a small cottage with a backyard suited for establishing a lush garden to revel in on a daily basis and yet still be close to decent medical care.

So I drove from David, Panama to Boquete, where the instructions were to turn left just past the bankĀ  and before the town square as I was descending into the valley. Now really, how could that go wrong? However, as you can see from the photo above, you can’t miss the fact that you’re traveling down into a valley. And here was the town square:

boquete-town-square-3-7-2016-2-50-58-pm

I quickly found my host’s house and settled into the one-room casita in the backyard – right next to a babbling brook that attracted all sorts of birds throughout my stay. It was an idyllic setting: perfect temperatures in the day – t-shirts, sweat pants and sneakers – but cold enough at night to sleep with the window open and a blanket pulled up under my chin. The morning bird calls would wake me and I’d make a cup of coffee and sit outside the front door and watch the resident creatures come to life and dip in and out of the backyard.

Cottage

The first thing I noticed was that the town seemed to be more expats than locals and that most of them made little or no effort to talk to the locals (at least that I could see). I didn’t like that. My stay overlapped a three-day celebration on the founding on Boquete and there were “parades” daily. I use that term loosely because the first one was a constant stream of men on horseback, interspersed by pickup trucks with women freely pouring booze into plastic cups for anyone who walked up to them as they passed by. I watched one horse, made to lift his knees and prance down the street, foaming at the mouth and no none seemed to mind a bit. These same horses paraded around in a giant square for the better part of 5 hours. I sort of wished we’d made the rider prance around like that for hours with no water and see how much he liked it. And then there was the public drunkenness. When I returned to my casita, the owner asked about my day and when I told her the public drunkenness concerned me, she responded, “Well, there is that.” Hmmm. How safe would a lone foreigner be in the city with drunken men routinely tottering around the streets?

I took a tour of a coffee plantation, enjoyed that and booked a tour that only had three of us and a guide, walking uphill in the forest in a light drizzle for the better part of two hours. They may have seen this tour as “an easy uphill walk” but as a senior, there were times when I thought that if we didn’t stop for breath, I wouldn’t have any left.

I used my time in Boquete to walk some of the back streets to see what the houses looked like and how the locals lived. The houses were dilapidated but the locals were friendly. I also asked my host lots of questions. I thought maybe I could make herbal and essential oil products from my company, Scentsibility, and sell them but her response was, “Who’s going to buy them?” When I said “hopefully the locals,” she responded, “They grow herbs in their backyards and wouldn’t have the money to buy products.” She suggested I check out the weekly open market to check out the competition and so I did.

boquete-tuesday-market

I was mostly struck by the fact that this was the height of entertainment for the locals. There were no department stores, no big grocery stores, no library that I could see, and television programs in Spanish. I started to realize that although this would be wonderful for about a month, then what? I found the local doctor’s office and decided I’d need to head to David or even back to Panama City for health care and that would certainly not be convenient.

I talked about buying a small house and my host discouraged it. She (as well as all the expats I talked to) said I should definitely rent for six months to a year before settling there. That would mean I’d be depleting my funds for a purchase. She added further fuel to my thoughts by asking me who would buy my little cottage if I decided after a year or so to leave? The locals couldn’t afford it and the expats tended to band together in gated communities on the outskirts of town so they wouldn’t buy it.

Although I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Boquete, I realized that I probably would not want to settle there. So I flew back to Panama City for my last night’s stay in the country and was picked up by my trusty driver, Sinar (see Part I).

So it appears I’m back to square one – where to go and how to live on social security.

Fixer Upper?

house

Knowing I would have very limited funds once I retire, I dreamed up all kinds of scenarios in which I could plunk down my 401K and walk away rent-free. Then I would be able to live off my social security and not feel like I had to go back to a living style that was acceptable back in my college days when everything in life was a big adventure. Since I know I won’t have enough money to buy my dream home outright, I came up with the idea of purchasing a cottage in a foreign country at a ridiculously low price so I would have enough left over to develop a backyard hideaway garden.

I turned my attention to a show that would help me do that in a foreign country where the cost of living would stretch my retirement dollars far farther than I can do here at home. That was the basis for that first trip to Costa Rica and the one the following spring to Panama. Not having any idea of safe areas to check out or how to find a reputable realtor and being a fan of all the shows that appear to help you find a home, I sent an email to see if I qualified to get on it. Stupidly, I thought they actually found a reputable realtor for me and then I’d just have to make a decision based on the choices that were presented to me. What was I thinking? The response I got said, “I just wanted to get an update on your moving situation. Do you still have interest in being on the show? I ask because we are currently looking to cast people who are very close to closing on/renting a home or are already living in one.” He went on to say, “Furthermore, you would receive monetary compensation for appearing on the show ($1,500).” Say what? So the real incentive would’ve been $1,500 and the opportunity to see myself on television? I crossed that one off my list.

Then I turned my attention to domestic fixer upper shows, figuring maybe I could afford a cheap Craftsman that could be renovated within my budget to look like a new home and I’d still have some left over to plant that garden. I found tons of great bargains but then the problem was that I didn’t know what sort of neighborhood they were located in. Solution? I decided to take three days of PTO from work, fly to the city and have a realtor show me decent fixer upper areas. What could go wrong with that plan? Well, I’ll tell you. I found a realtor online and sent an email. She answered me by telling me what the average fixer upper in the city sold for which, of course, was contradictory to what I was finding online. I replied that I had found lots of affordable properties online and she didn’t bother to answer me again. I guess she wouldn’t have gotten as much as she was accustomed to by helping me out so I wasn’t worth her time.

Ok, I thought. I’ll rent a car, take a list of the neighborhoods with me and just start asking around in the hotel and restaurants. The only other issue is that I wasn’t really sure I wanted to live the city I was contemplating. As it turned out, one of my cats got violently ill the day before I was due to fly out and I ended up cancelling the trip to care for her. I’m one of those people who doesn’t believe in coincidences and decided that city wasn’t meant for me.

I have a co-worker who tells me I’m over thinking things and I just need to decide on a place and go. I might have done that in my twenties, figuring everything would turn out alright, but I’ve lived just long enough to know that the devil’s in the details and things don’t always work out well. And, if I can make them turn out better by doing some research and planning ahead of time, why wouldn’t I? I think it’s important for me to look at what the weather’s like most of the time wherever I go (I’ve lived in Vegas long enough to hate too much cold weather). Is the property in a safe area? Am I close to good medical care? Do I know anyone there? Is it a green part of the U.S where I can develop that dream garden? What’s the cost of living in that state? Can I afford to live off my social security? And, maybe a stupid concern but, what sorts of insects and bugs are there? How much rain will there be?

So the bottom line is that I’m still toying with ideas on how to accomplish my goals on very little money and getting nowhere fast.

 

Costa Rica Anyone?

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 aroundĀ  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.

 

 

Retirement Considerations

First and foremost is the decision of when to retire. Here are the financial considerations I’m juggling:

a) If I quit before I turn 66, I won’t be able to collect my maximum social security benefits. I can work part-time, which certainly gives me more freedom, but there’s a limitation in how much I can earn and when I finally reach 66, the social security benefit does not increase to the maximum I would get if I waited. Yes, once I hit 66 I can work as much as I want but then what was the point of retiring?

b) If I quit when I hit the magic 66, I get the full amount of my social security benefits and I can supplement them by working as much or as little as I like. That’s very, very tempting but they make it even harder to quit by offering increased benefits each year I continue up to age 70. Having more to live off of is attractive but do I really want to work until I’m 70? No, not really. And the fact that I work in hospice and see lots of people in their 50s and 60s dying makes me realize I can’t know how much time I’ll have to enjoy that time off so why wait?

Just writing this down makes me realize I’ve already crossed the work-until-you-hit-70 scenario off the slate. Of course, it’s nice to think about other things I might be able to do to earn money – write the play I’ve been dabbling with, pen the series of novels I have in mind, spend more time on my outside company and try to build it up, etc. – but I can’t depend on those outlets. I have to assume I’ll be living off social security and that’s a shock to the system (hash tag: why didn’t I start saving sooner?).

The next post will discuss the challenges of finding a retirement destination and whether or not to purchase a house or condo, rent or buy some land and build a cheaper, smaller place to live.