Which will make you happier: retiring in the United States or retiring abroad?
Only you can determine the answer for yourself. But here’s what my site, Best Places in the World to Retire, found when it surveyed 389 expats (living mostly in Panama, Nicaragua and Belize) and asked them: What is your level of happiness in your home abroad?
53 percent were “much happier” than before they relocated
28 percent were “somewhat happier”
13 percent were “about the same”
4 percent were “somewhat unhappier”
2 percent were “much unhappier”
A striking 43 percent of expats surveyed reported their cost of living was now 25 to 50 percent less than in their home country.
What would cause 81 percent of respondents to report being happier abroad than when they lived in their home country?
Now that my colleagues and I have interviewed hundreds of expats and read thousands of answers to questions about retiring overseas, here are what we believe to be the top four reasons for their happiness:
1. The Cost of Living Is Less
As we noted in our study, Expat Reports: Is It Cheaper to Live Abroad?, a striking 43 percent of survey respondents reported their cost of living was now 25 to 50 percent less than in their home country; 34 percent reported that it was even lower than that.
Some of these expats told us the lower cost of living made it easier for them to choose the type of work they do without worrying how much it paid, which increased their happiness. Describing her move from America to Nicaragua, Linda Giordano said: “I was a workaholic, and didn’t think I could do it. I’m still a busy person here, but I’m doing things that I love.”
Fewer money worries also allowed many expats to take up a hobby they had put off or engage in activities they never had the time to do in their home country.
As a group, our respondents are spending less than before, which adds to their happiness. A 65+ woman now living in Panama told us: “OK, so who really needs a hundred pairs of shoes? I have so much and so many have so little, the experience has made me right-sized.”
2. They’re Less Stressed Than Before
A married, 65+ year-old retired woman told us: “Stress is not an issue. Some physical problems disappeared after we made the move. Life is simpler for sure. No stress improves one’s life a lot.”
We were told repeatedly that their relationships improved due to lower stress and having more time. U.S. expat Sheryl Norris said this about her life in Panama with her husband: “In our 40 years of marriage, I have never been more satisfied with our relationship.”
3. They Have More Opportunities to Give Back
Many expat retirees reported becoming more involved with volunteer activities than they were in their home country, which often increased their happiness.
Some are doing more volunteer work because they now have more time to do so. With the lower cost of living, they don’t feel compelled to work to make money.
Others are giving back because the need is more apparent where they now live. A semi-retired 65+ woman now living in Panama described her teaching English to the disabled indigenous population this way: “What a privilege it is and what a daily lesson in humility.”
We also heard expats revel in the immediate, intimate results of their good deeds. Jewel Hoff, from Las Vegas and now living in Nicaragua, said: “When I buy five packs of bubblegum (which costs me $1.20), I pass it out to 25 kids and I get 25 smiles. I get 25 smiles for less than five quarters! They’re so happy over a piece of gum. You try to make an American 12-year-old happy with a piece of gum.”
4. They Love the Simpler Life
A recurrent theme of the expats we interviewed: delight in the pace and lifestyle of their new home country.
Things move more slowly in Central America than in the U.S., they said, and they’re grateful for that. Many expats said their new surroundings remind them of a simpler time, back in their childhood.
A 65+ married, retired woman said: “It’s like living in the U.S. in the 1950s. People stop for you on the road if you look like you need help. Older women are especially respected and helped with carrying things.”
That’s a happy result.