Retiring outside America: For many, it's a dream come true
With careful planning and lots of passion, some baby boomers are turning a dream of an overseas retirement into reality. They're lured to distant...
The Washington Post
Where many from the U.S. are retiringNumber of Social Security beneficiaries in foreign countries, as of December 2005.
1. Canada, 100,744
2. Mexico, 47,384
3. Italy, 33,865
4. Germany, 33,448
5. Britain (entire U.K.), 30,210
6. Greece, 22,640
7. Philippines, 19,309
8. Portugal, 12,050
9. France, 10,661
10. Spain, 9,875
Source: Social Security Administration
The Washington Post
With careful planning and lots of passion, some baby boomers are turning a dream of an overseas retirement into reality.
They're lured to distant climes on the promise of a higher quality of life. Often they discover a lower cost of living, stunning natural beauty and a sense of community.
But relocating overseas isn't all fun in the sun, retirees and experts caution. A weakening dollar, the obstacles of a foreign language and culture, and disconnection from family and friends can intrude on paradise.
The Internet helps, however. Ubiquitous Web access helps planning and lets expatriates stay in touch with loved ones and up on current events.
It's difficult to know how many U.S. retirees seek new lives overseas. Neither the Census Bureau nor the State Department break out numbers. That makes Social Security figures the closest estimate.
According to the Social Security Administration, 441,693 beneficiaries, or about 1 percent of those in the system, received benefits while abroad as of the end of 2005.
The AARP points out, however, that these numbers do not take into account people who may live abroad but collect Social Security payments at a U.S. address.
The overseas dream takes many shapes. Here are three experiences in Panama, the Philippines and Britain.
Mary Strociek, 49, and her husband, Matt, 67, had their hearts set on retiring to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. They bought a condo there in the late 1980s "when it was a quiet, sleepy village," Mary Strociek said.
But then others discovered the beauty of the area and the place boomed. "We decided to get out of there," Mary said.
Avid sailors, the couple hopped on a friend's 50-foot boat and cruised the Caribbean. They checked out all of the Virgin Islands, St. Martin and St. Bart, and yet were drawn back to Mexico.
Then they discovered Panama. The Strocieks were overwhelmed by the breathtaking sights.
"It's one of the few places I can see the curvature of the Earth," Mary Strociek said of the view from her property, which she says looks out on nearly 300 miles of coastline.
Won over, the Strocieks sold their Chicago home and built a house near the mountain town of El Valle, where they now live, she explained in a phone interview from her pool.
Two years ago, it cost the couple about $150,000 to buy their land and build a house, pool and bohio — a type of tropical gazebo. They live debt-free and enjoy the perk of a newly built Panamanian abode: no property tax for 20 years.
The Strocieks are among many Americans who have retired to Panama.
The Migration Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank, said last year the number of U.S. citizens receiving the kind of Panamanian visas most often used by retirees more than tripled between 2003 and 2005.
The number issued in the first quarter of 2006 almost equaled those in all of 2003, said the report, which cited Panamanian statistics.
The institute found in focus groups with U.S. seniors in Mexico and Panama that the lower cost of living was among the most attractive features. The natural beauty and a sense of community also ranked high.
"People felt like they had more interaction with people in their daily life than in the U.S," said Julia Gelatt, a research assistant who worked on the study.
Both the institute's report and interviews highlighted the importance of the Internet to seniors living abroad.
Mary Strociek said she orders products online and regularly talks with family members, including the couple's children and grandchildren, over the Internet.
"With that access, there's nothing that I miss about the United States. ... I don't miss the weather or the traffic," she said.
The Strocieks also have tried to absorb themselves in the local community. They volunteer with Educacion Primero, a local nonprofit group whose work ranges from distributing donated shoes to teachers and hospital staff, to bringing in dentists to teach kids about dental hygiene, to installing fans and building a lunchroom for a school.
The main obstacles, Mary said, are the bureaucracy and the banking system.
She said it took her a year and a half to get license plates for the car she brought from the States. She added, however, that she knows others who didn't have difficulties.
She noted that although she lacks health insurance, the cost of medical care and prescriptions in Panama is a fraction of what she paid in the United States.
For the Strocieks, culture shock came as more of a light jolt. Mary speaks a little Spanish and says Matt speaks none, but that's no problem.
The couple maintain a Web site, WhyPanama.com, which chronicles the construction of their house and offers tips for would-be expats.
Do the Strocieks think of transforming their online advice site into a profit-making business?
"We're retired," Mary said. "We do this for fun."
Sometimes retiring in a land far away is like going home again.
Hans Groot was a Peace Corps volunteer in the Philippines in the 1960s. After finishing his service Groot, 68, returned to the Southeast Asian nation many times as a "returned Peace Corps volunteer."
He was drawn back for winter retreats and work assignments until finally he and his partner, Emmanuel "Noel" Reyes, 61, left behind their life in Lake Hopatcong, N.J., to retire to Manila in June with their dog, Nikko.
"It was sort of like a homecoming because we have so many friends all over the country and speak the language pretty well," Groot said.
Groot is not only back at the location of his original Peace Corps tour, but he also plans to fill much of his time with volunteer work to avoid becoming a couch potato in a tropical locale.
He has been doing organizational work with the Peace Corps Alumni Foundation for Philippine Development, a nonprofit group that gives college scholarships to low-income Filipino children.
He also has been talking with the chancellor at the University of the Philippines at Los Banos about teaching a seminar or assisting the agricultural-journalism department. During his Peace Corps stint, Groot helped establish the department.
Living for now in a Manila condo, the pair are working to finalize plans for a three-bedroom home with a swimming pool and large tropical garden near the active Taal volcano.
Groot estimates the project, including purchasing the property, will cost about $350,000, a fraction of the expense in the states.
Thanks to the lower cost of living and affordable real estate, the pair plans to buy and keep the condo in Manila.
Lower real-estate costs can also translate into more disposable income for travel. From their perch in the Philippines, Groot and Reyes plan to visit China, Thailand and Burma.
For Reyes, the move is a genuine homecoming. A native of the Philippines, he lived in the United States for about 40 years.
Groot was born in the Netherlands and emigrated to the United States in his teens. But he wouldn't think of retiring to his homeland, which he says has "same problem as New Jersey — the weather is not all that great."
Groot stresses the importance of relocating to a place where he and Reyes had strong ties. Reyes has a brother and extended family in the Philippines.
Retired journalist Robert Lyle, 66, has what some might think is the best life possible for a beer lover. He and his wife Mary, 64, a retired office manager, have been splitting their time between the East Coast and England's Cornwall region for almost a decade.
Given Robert's responsibility when he's in Britain, it might seem remarkable he hasn't yet retired there full time. He inspects pubs for the Campaign for Real Ale, a consumer group that works to preserve British nongassed, hand-pumped beers.
He reports on Cornish pubs' overall quality and range of offerings for the group's annual "Good Beer Guide," and has contributed to other local beer guides.
Not a bad gig for retirement.
The Lyles' half-year stints were supposed to be over by now but their plans have fallen victim to global realities.
"The idea was to stop doing that at some point, but unfortunately the dollar has weakened over these years," Robert said, making it necessary for the couple to rent out their home in the Cornish town of Fowey for half the year, to make some income in pounds.
Brett Hammond, head of investment strategy at money-management firm TIAA-CREF, endorses such a tactic for Americans retiring overseas.
"You might want to invest some of your money locally" in a bank or certificate of deposit, Hammond said. Basically, "some local investment that provides income in local currency ... to help smooth out bumps of currency" is critical, Hammond said.
The Lyles' local investment has grown significantly since they bought their Cornwall home for about $250,000 in 2000. Robert estimates the value has nearly tripled in pounds, quadrupled in dollars, accounting for a weakening exchange rate.
Besides the traditional beer, the Lyles were drawn to that corner of Britain for its rich literary past, where writers such as Daphne du Maurier and Kenneth Grahame (of "The Wind in the Willows") have lived or vacationed.
Both of Cornish descent, the Lyles have strong social connections in the community, making the transition a fluid one. They've done extensive research on the area and are active in local historical groups.
Along with his historical work and pub inspections, Robert Lyle also does some free-lance writing and broadcasting work.
Immersed in their part-time life in Cornwall, would the Lyles make the permanent leap if their bank accounts could support it?
Robert says he'd love to if the finances were right, but something else keeps the couple tethered to the states: their children and young grandchild in the Washington, D.C., area.
If the kids were interested, "we'd go in an instant," Robert said. "But then I don't know what we'd do. ... My Social Security would hardly buy a few beers!"
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company
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