8 Tips for an Affordable Retirement Abroad

Living on $18,000 to $25,000 a year? It's possible.

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[See 6 Ways to Make Your Retirement Accounts Last Longer.]

Embrace the relaxed pace. It's relatively easy to open a bank account or call a plumber in the United States. But that's not always so in many parts of the world. “A main misconception is that life is going to go as smoothly as it does in the U.S.,” says Golson. “Often, life in these countries is more like a Department of Motor Vehicles [experience] with lines and inefficiencies.” Adjusting to a more relaxed pace may take some adapting. Says Dietz of Panama: “They work on Latin time tables; If they tell you they are going to be there with a piece of furniture on Tuesday, any time between Monday and Friday is fair game." The laid-back lifestyle rubs off, Dietz says: “You can go out on your porch and watch the parrots and the toucans and lounge around."

Get health coverage. Generally, Medicare doesn't cover health services outside the United States (although the hospital insurance part of Medicare is available to most Americans who return to the States.) So you'll need to hunt for an insurance policy. Luckily, quality health care is typically much more affordable outside the United States. When they took up residence in Merida, Mexico, former Omaha resident Dan Prescher, 54, and his wife Suzan Haskins, 53, bought a private Mexican health insurance policy covering both of them for $2,200 a year. “Susan and I are living here in Mexico on about half what it would cost to live in the U.S., and a lot of that is saving on health care and taxes,” says Prescher, a publisher of InternationalLiving.com, a Web resource for living abroad. “When we self-insured in the U.S., it was multiples of that for a comparable policy.” The couple uses their health insurance primarily for emergencies and pays for doctor’s office visits out-of-pocket. “I can go to the dentist and get my teeth cleaned for $30 and an internist I see is $35 bucks,” he says. Those with permanent residence visas can also buy into Mexico's national health plan. Keep in mind that if you plan to return to the United States and sign up for Medicare later, your premium will be 10 percent higher for each 12-month period you could have been enrolled but were not.

Consider taxes. Some foreign governments offer tax perks to retirees. Panama, for example, has a Pensionado program for foreign retirees with guaranteed pension or Social Security income that offers property tax exemptions for new construction, a 1 percent mortgage reduction for a primary residence, and even discounts on utility bills. Also, many foreign governments don’t tax U.S. Social Security benefits. Contact the country’s embassy in Washington, D.C., for more information.

[See 6 Tips for Finding an Affordable Place to Retire.]

Maintain several bank accounts. Banking abroad presents a unique set of challenges when your Social Security payments, pension, and investment income are in U.S. dollars. “It’s wise to keep your money in dollars,” says Golson. But you don't want to get hit with currency exchange fees and ATM withdrawal charges every time you need some cash. It’s also a good idea to set up a local account for everyday expenses. “I think you need both,” says Knorr. “Use a local checking account to pay the bills in the country, and just transfer money from a U.S.-based account when you need it.”

Keep in touch on the cheap. A common drawback of moving abroad is watching your grandchildren grow up through photographs, says Golson: “It’s distance from your grown kids and grandkids that is often a deal-killer." Fortunately, E-mail and Internet phone services make it easier and more affordable than ever to keep in touch with friends and relatives still in the United States. Howells sometimes spends time in Costa Rica while his wife is in the United States, and he calls her using Skype, an internet phone service, every morning. Says Howells: “The only drawback of calling my wife in the morning is if she [finds out I'm] drinking a beer instead of a coffee, she calls me out.”