The Retire Overseas Challenge No One Talks About
Planning for a retirement that includes spending some or even all your time in another country is an increasingly appealing idea. As a result, it’s easier than ever to find help making a plan to retire overseas. However, one challenge you will face as you launch your new life in a new country is seldom discussed. I call it the panic stage.
No matter how long you’ve planned for this or how much research you’ve carried out, there is a good chance that, sometime during your first year in your new country, perhaps even during your first month in your new home, you’ll wonder what in the world ever possessed you to think leaving home was a good idea.
What were you thinking? You must have taken leave of your senses. Paradise? This place is no paradise. This place is a nightmare. This isn’t an adventure. This is nuts.
My best advice is to wait out the panic. It will pass.
Moving to Ireland 17 years ago, my husband and I thought the transition would be transparent. We Americans think we know the Irish. They’re just like us, aren’t they? No, they’re not.
Wherever you decide to chase your dreams overseas, even if it’s somewhere as seemingly familiar as Ireland, you’re going to discover that the people living there aren’t like you either, in ways that won’t be apparent at first. You’re going to find that life is more difficult than it was wherever you came from. It will be more complicated and less predictable.
My husband and I arrived as full-time residents in Waterford, Ireland, in November. By February, I was sad. I felt indescribably sad for no reason I could identify. We were comfortable in our rental cottage on the river. We were making friends and settling in. All was well, but I was, frankly, miserable.
Then we took a trip to Nicaragua. After a few days on that country’s sunny southern Pacific coast, my sadness disappeared. What was going on?
It was the Irish winter. Though I’d traveled in Ireland for years, I’d never lived through an Irish winter. Some days the sun rises after 9 a.m. and sets before 4 p.m. in the afternoon. In between those hours, it’s typically gray, drizzling, overcast and damp.
Ireland can be a great place to call home, but before you commit to retirement in the Auld Sod, experience it in winter. Spend time in the country in January and February. Or consider spending only part of the year in the country. Ireland is a place that makes good sense as a part-time retirement haven. You could retire to Ireland each summer, then spend your winters someplace bright and sunny. That was our strategy. After our first long winter in Waterford, we escaped to the tropics every December and returned to the Emerald Isle in early March, in time to appreciate Irish spring and summer.
A few years ago, I mentioned the phenomenon to a friend preparing to move overseas for the first time, suggesting that he shouldn’t worry about the panic stage he’d eventually experience because it would pass. My friend smiled and nodded politely, humoring me.
It can be hard to imagine during the excitement of the pre-move phase that after maybe only a month or two in your new home, you might find yourself questioning the move altogether. My friend insisted that it wouldn’t happen to him. “I’ve spent months researching and making my plan,” he explained with confidence. “I understand what I’m getting into. I’ve thought this through from every angle, and I’m fully prepared.”
A couple of years later, over drinks one night, he remarked, “You know, before my move, when you talked about the panic stage that everyone goes through at some point after relocating to a new country, I laughed to myself. Panic, I thought. Why would I panic? The idea seemed extreme and, frankly, silly.” But then he continued, “But, I have to tell you, it happened to me. It was maybe a year into my move to Ecuador. I realized that I was feeling out of my element and uncertain in a fundamental way, unsure of myself and my new situation. I was experiencing a feeling that, I had to admit, could best be described as panic.”
I asked what he decided to do. He responded, “I remembered what you’d recommended. I waited it out. I realized that I was feeling overwhelmed by the frustrations of living in the third world. I reminded myself why I’d wanted to make the move in the first place and of all the things about Ecuador that I love. There are many. After a little while, the panic passed.”
Your panic phase in your new home could be a result of the weather and the seasons, as it was for us in Ireland. It could be a reaction to the trials and frustrating tribulations of life in a developing country, as it was for my friend. It could be homesickness, which you should be prepared for. You’re going to experience it from time to time.
No country is perfect. Everywhere has its pluses and minuses. The minuses eventually are going to get to you. Living high in the mountains in Panama may provide glorious views and a gentle, spring-like climate, but you won’t be near a real city or an international airport. You’ll be living a country life among neighbors who, in this part of Panama, speak only Spanish. Sometimes the remoteness will overwhelm you.
Ecuador offers an extremely affordable cost of living, but it is also a third world country. Retirement in the third world isn’t for everyone.
Although it was our third international move and our third country of residence since we left the United States, my husband and I experienced the panic stage in Panama, where we’ve struggled adjusting to the tropical climate and to the inconvenience factor. Panama is working hard to earn recognition as a first world nation, but, right now, it’s not. This is a land where things don’t always work as you’d like or expect.
The key to being happy in your new home, wherever you decide to make it, is to keep your perspective and your sense of humor. When doubt and frustration creep in, as they will, remind yourself of two things. First, don’t make any hasty decisions. The moment of panic will pass.
Second, while you’re waiting for that to subside, remember why you chose this country in the first place. Was it for the beach? Then escape to the coast for a few days of relaxation beneath the palms. Was it for the super-low cost of living? Take yourself out for a nice dinner on the cheap. What do you enjoy most in your new home? If you moved there for the fishing, then make time to catch some fish and then have your new friends over for an authentic home-cooked American dinner.
Think about why you’re feeling uncertain about your decision. Once you identify why you’re second-guessing your move, you can address those points. If you don’t like the current season, go somewhere else until it passes. If you’re missing family back home, invite them to come visit. If you’re not happy in the neighborhood where you’ve initially settled, consider another.
Be prepared, at some time during your first year of retirement overseas, perhaps even during the first month or two, to wonder what in the world you’ve done. No, this wasn’t crazy, and it wasn’t a mistake. Wait it out. The panic will pass. Just on the other side is the new life you came to find.