Living life abroad: Expats find life “right-sized” in retirement

Expats or expatriates, are Americans living in Mexico, Central America and South America to take advantage of weather, financial structures or a simpler lifestyle. This is what they think

Americans abroad in Nicaragua - Image: Jacquie Kubin

MIAMI, Nov. 27, 2015 – In late April 2015, a survey of 389 expats currently living mostly in Panama, Nicaragua and Belize sought opinions about living abroad. The question “Now that you know the situation living abroad, which of these is true?” asked respondents to indicate all their complaints (up to 14 of them), and also had the possible response of “None.”

The most surprising response by, at 41.5 percent, was “None.” The closest data we could find put this into perspective is the 2011 Harris Happiness Index, which reported that 33 percent of Americans were “Very Happy,” which is 8.5 percent less than the expats in our survey who had no complaints, leading us to believe that expats are in fact a good deal happier than other Americans.

None of the complaints gathered more than 20 percent of respondents’ votes, indicating that there is no widespread dissatisfaction living abroad with any one particular issue. After the 41.5 percent of expats who answered, “None,” in second place was, “I miss First World goods and shopping,” at 19.8 percent.

Expats do miss some very American things; they ask people coming from North America to bring Oreo cookies, Asian spices, Breyer’s ice cream and, “If you can figure out how to get it on the plane, a pastrami sandwich.“

Surprisingly, the difference between how much First World goods and shopping was missed by women as opposed to men was statistically insignificant. Conclusion: Men miss creature comforts as much as women.

Edward Banas, from the U.S., living in Belize, wrote “I didn’t realize how much I miss the shopping in the USA until I moved here to Belize.” (By the way, Belize is a relatively extreme example in that the entire country doesn’t have a single North American-style shopping mall; Panama has several, and even Nicaragua has a few.)

How do we account for just 19.8 percent of respondents stating that they miss First World goods and shopping, given that North America is so much superior in these areas? Repeatedly, our expats told us that moving overseas changed their view of the importance of material goods.

One female survey respondent from the U.S., after living in Panama for more than 10 years, wrote, “I have learned how to work around some of the shortcomings. Also, my values have changed. I don’t need ‘stuff’ like I used to.”

Another respondent, a woman who came from the U.S. and lives in Panama, said. “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.’”

Indeed, a reduction in materialism was cited by many expats as one of the most important benefits of moving abroad.

In third place for complaints, at 17.2 percent, was, “There isn’t enough access to high quality healthcare.”

While this is a significant percentage, please consider two data points: 1) 82.8 percent of our expats did not have this complaint; and, 2) according to Gallup in a 2015 report, 45 percent of Americans had a “somewhat negative” or “very negative” view of the healthcare industry in the U.S.

One of the main reasons people move overseas is to cut their cost of living, and our study reports that over 94  percent of our expat respondents accomplished their goal. Only 5.6 percent had the complaint, “I am not able to lower my cost of living enough.”

An unexpected finding was that only a very small 3.4 percent of respondents had the complaint, ”It’s not safe enough.” Again playing against type, men were 155 percent more likely than women to report an issue with safety: 5.1 percent for men to just 2 percent for women. Essentially all contributors reported that petty crime, or “crimes of opportunity (such as stealing your cell phone if it were left on the beach)” were equal to or greater in Panama, Belize, Nicaragua or Mexico than in their country of origin

However, a very large percentage of contributors report that they felt quite safe from physical harm in all these countries, or even safer in their expat home than in their home of origin.

This was true even for places with bad reputations, such as Nicaragua, where a Canadian male responded, “Nicaragua, in my opinion, is the second safest country in the Americas after Canada.”

Nearly 10 percent of respondents said that they missed their friends and family more than they had anticipated, led (not surprisingly, this time) by women, at 14.3 percent, versus only 4.6 percent for men.

Essentially all our respondents emphasized how necessary it was to be flexible and patient, and that without these characteristics, it would be much more difficult to enjoy the benefits of living overseas.

One married female who moved from the U.S. to Panama summed it up by writing, “You MUST be open-minded and deal with the culture as such. Don’t try to change this culture. Leaving family, friends and a job was difficult at first, but I was told by many Panamanians to give it a year. We did and it was the best decision we could have ever made.”

The study, Expats: Expectations and Reality, had a margin of error of + / – 5 percent. It was conducted by Best Places in the World to Retire; a free ebook copy of the study is available there.

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