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5 Things That Trip People Up When Retiring Abroad

Emotional and psychological challenges, and how to prepare for them


In preparing for a retirement abroad, we would wager that most people occupy themselves with the practical concerns of: residential visas; banking; owning property; finding a doctor they like and medical care that they can afford and dealing with any language barriers. These are pragmatic topics with realistic solutions. And, as a couple who retired at 38 and spend our time hopping around Central America and Asia (as well as the U.S.), we believe they’re almost the easiest part of making this lifestyle change.

It may surprise you, but what we’ve seen take people down — destroying their retirement dreams and sometimes even their marriages — are the emotional and psychological challenges that come with adjusting to a new lifestyle overseas.

Here are five potential obstacles and how to prepare for them in advance:

1. The mindset: “It’ll be just like home, only cheaper”

Many people get giddy over the fantastic low cost of living in their new location, talking themselves into believing that the area will be just like home, only cheaper. We want to tell you that no place overseas is just like home.

While we were living on the tropical paradise island of Nevis in the West Indies, a local man tied his donkey outside our bedroom window.

Customs, food, weather cycles, housing codes, the treatment of pets, the laws, the language, cobblestone streets and workmanship quality are all different — just to name a few things.

We have seen folks love the quaintness of their new community but then fall apart because they can’t find parking near the markets where they want to shop. Instead, market day may involve stopping in six locations, perhaps fighting traffic in between.

Instead of taking their time to enjoy their enchanting town, they find the situation to be annoying and carry the frustration with them all day.

A friend of ours says the difference between an ordeal and an adventure is attitude, and it’s true. Prepare yourself for the likely reality that you’ll get less done in a day than you did in the States. But that’s OK. You are retired!

Enjoy the leisurely pace, instead of battling against it.

2. The ways people who work in homes work

The lackadaisical attitude of workers in some places could drive you up the wall. A plumber might say he will come tomorrow to fix the toilet and instead show up several days later. You could have a similar experience with a maid or gardener. If your personality tends to the uptight and precise view of things, life in a foreign country could be a continuous challenge.

It’ll be much better for your health to just roll with the flow. Ask other expats which plumbers, electricians, gardeners, attorneys, construction workers and maids they’d recommend, and start with them. There’s no point in getting yourself upset and then holding this tension as a permanent posture towards life.

3. Cultural differences

In foreign countries, celebrations will occur on dates that have no meaning to you. Processions will assemble, stopping traffic and shutting down streets. Banks will close. Rockets will be set off at odd hours of the morning and evening, perhaps disrupting your sleep schedule.

Another prospect— in developing nations, animals are treated as animals and not as family members. Local dogs might howl throughout the night. True story: While we were living on the tropical paradise island of Nevis in the West Indies, a local man tied his donkey outside our bedroom window. The donkey brayed early every morning and throughout the day.

Street dogs are common, too, so if your heart is easily broken, this might pose a problem for you. While we’ve seen expats adopt up to a dozen dogs as pets out of pity, this is not something we would recommend. You could become involved in animal rescue, retraining and home placement, but it’ll be important to build up a certain level of acceptance of the situation or you’ll be miserable.

4. An insistence on eating imported foods

Some people become upset because they decide they absolutely must eat certain familiar brand-label foods but these foods are now imported, costing outrageous amounts.

The more you insist on imported foods, the higher your cost of living, which will work against one of the chief reasons you chose to retire abroad. As much as possible, purchase local brands of cheese, butter, chocolate, mustards, syrups and sundries. Local products are often quite good, so save the imports for special occasions and enjoy the savings to your wallet.

5. Weather conditions

You may have dreamed of living in a tropical climate for ages only to find that the weather you encounter living in one might not be what you expected.

Many southern countries have two seasons: wet and dry. Dry season can be windy or dusty and could aggravate your allergies or sinuses. In the wet season, buckets of water could drenching the landscape.

Rather than complaining, focus on the crisp clean air and green hillsides during rainy season and the spectacular sunny days of the dry season.

A Final Thought

Not everyone can mentally and emotionally adjust to their new home country. When planning your dream retirement life, take what we have offered here into consideration.

You can allow these things to rupture your contentment or you can choose to be unperturbed. Focus on the fact that the weather is glorious, the prices are affordable, medical care is abundant and accessible and you have help for your house and garden, making your life easier.

Be willing to adapt. If you are not inclined to align yourself constructively with your new locale, you will be setting yourself up for some unnecessary misery.

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