Americans Reinventing Retirement—Overseas: Everything You Need to Know About the Top 5 Spots for 2019

Published on January 13, 2019

Savvy American retirees are passing on “traditional” U.S. retirement destinations like Arizona and Florida and opting in greater numbers for better-value choices abroad.

Today—incentivized not only by lower costs but also a love of travel, the pull of an adventure, and the prospect of a lower-stress life in a place where the climate is good and the landscapes are beautiful—American retirees are embracing life overseas, both full- and part-time.

At home, advisors regularly tell folks with nest eggs more meager than they’d hoped for that to retire with any confidence, they’ll need to work longer, save more, and dial back their expectations.

But that conventional wisdom sets people up for the prospect of working full- or part-time out of necessity, or of traveling less than they hoped they would or, in fact, of never retiring at all.

But take a meager nest egg to a good-value locale abroad, and the buying power expands—sometimes exponentially. On a budget that would require scrimping and saving at home, a retiree can, instead, live large—often affording perks like a housekeeper, a gardener, and meals out every day.

Not all locales are created equal, however. And just because a spot is cheap doesn’t mean you’d want to live there. So our 2019 Annual Global Retirement Index identifies the top five spots we at International Living recommend folks consider today. They’re all places that offer a high standard of living for much less than a comparable life would cost in the States.

But, beyond that, they also provide benefits like good weather, attractive climates for entrepreneurs, attainable visa structures, a certain ease of integration, top-quality healthcare, and more.

International Living’s top five places for Americans to retire to abroad in 2019 are…

# 1 Panama

Bocas del Toro, Panama.

Sitting below the hurricane belt, Panama offers expats a lot a variety—warm beaches, cooler rural highlands and a modern, cosmopolitan capital city.

It’s an easy place to go as the currency is the U.S. dollar, the tax burden is low, the medical care is both low-cost and high-quality with lots of English-speaking doctors.

Panama is also a business mecca—a place where expats who have big ideas for their retirement can explore their options. Major organizations and businesses from all over the globe come here to take advantage of low costs, scant taxes, and the best strategic location for expanding into the Latin American and Caribbean markets.  

A couple can live very comfortably in Panama on a budget of $2,000 a month. You’ll find Americans doing so in lots of communities, including Panama City, Coronado, Boquete, and beyond.  

Expat Robyn Cole sums up Panama’s appeal this way, “It’s a democracy, the water is drinkable, the locals are used to expats…the electrical systems are the same, the driving is on the same side of the street, many doctors are U.S.-educated.”

Her husband continues, “I can golf with my friends twice a week at the country club and work out in the fitness center. I have time for reading, time for bridge…and time to just sit on my rear end and meditate!”  

# 2 Costa Rica 

Surfers in Tamarindo beach, Costa Rica.

Costa Rica attracts visitors with its tropical climate, low cost of living, top-notch, affordable medical care and good-value real estate. Plus with such the natural beauty it makes for a superb place to work remotely.

The Central American gem is a steady choice—a safe, long-standing democracy that’s been welcoming expats for generations.

A couple can live comfortably on $2,500 a month (or less). You can eat at a little local restaurant for just $4 or $5. A housekeeper will come and clean once a week for $50 a month, and a visit to a physician will set you back $50 or less.

Costa Rica also has an outdoor loving culture—with activities from fishing to golfing to horseback riding to hiking to diving to yoga. Plus, there’s an abundance of locally grown fruits, vegetables, organic eggs and endless seafood.

Many communities welcome expats, particularly those in the central highlands and along the Pacific Coast from up north in Tamarindo to down south in Dominical. Expat Paul Maxfield, living on a Pacific beach, describes the benefits of life there this way, “It feels good to know that we can live comfortably in this beautiful beach setting…and still have the resources to travel and spend time with family back home.”

# 3 Mexico

San Miguel de Allende, Colonial Highlands, Mexico.

Whether your dream retreat is a graceful colonial home with lavish gardens, a simple beachfront bungalow where you can prop up your feet and watch the tide roll in, or a clifftop villa with sunset views and cool, steady breezes, you are likely to find your dream home in Mexico.

Mexico is culturally rich—expats can enjoy all the benefits of fine-dining, theater, and art in abundance. You’ll find Americans all over Mexico—from San Miguel de Allende to Lake Chapala, to Los Cabos and lots of places in between.

It’s an easy place to winter over as folks can stay for six months on a tourist visa. A couple can live well here on between $1,500 and $3,000 a month.

Jack Bramy, a transplant from San Francisco, says from his place close to the beach in Puerto Vallarta, “The cost of living allows me a fun life on my Social Security check.”

He doesn’t scrimp. “There are great restaurants and tons of cool bars on the promenade. My rent is $575 a month for a two-bedroom apartment with a great modern bathroom and nice kitchen.”

# 4 Ecuador

Salinas, Ecuador.

Ecuador lies in the north-western corner of South America, bordered by Colombia to the north, Peru to the south and east, and the Pacific Ocean to the west. At just 175,807 square miles (about the size of Nevada) Ecuador’s small size belies its incredible diversity.

The Land of Eternal Spring has some of the best weather in the world, and something for everyone. There are warm, sunny beaches and temperate-weather mountain options. Folks can pick the climate they like best, and this ecologically diverse country has so much to satisfy expats.

There are many popular enclaves of expats living around the country—in places like Cuenca, Salinas, and Vilcabamba. One of the great benefits for foreign residents living in Ecuador is high-quality, low-cost healthcare.

Ecuador offers great-value living—a couple can enjoy a really high quality of life on as little as $1,620 a month.

“When my wife Rita and I moved to Ecuador, all we were really looking for was a nice climate,” says International Living’s Coastal Ecuador Correspondent, Jim Santos. “After years of shivering through snowy Maryland winters, followed by hot and humid summers, we wanted to live somewhere that is comfortable year-round.”

They found this on Ecuador’s Pacific coast, in Salinas. The beach is wide, sandy, and clean, bordered by the blue, calm waters. Located at Ecuador’s western-most point, Salinas is sometimes called “Little Miami Beach.”

“We knew that we would spend less money, as well,” says Jim. “We traded property taxes of $5,000 a year for a tax bill of $279. Our condo maintenance fees in Maryland were $1,000 a month; in Salinas, just $197.

“Plus our health has improved due to the better lifestyle and abundance of fresh, unprocessed foods.” 

# 5 Malaysia

Penang, Malaysia.

Conjuring up all the mysteries of Southeast Asia, Malaysia is a colorful former British colony. With English the unofficial first language and online infrastructure top-notch, it’s not surprising Malaysia is a great spot for digital nomads. It may be far away, but it’s easy to stay in touch with life back home.

The island of Penang, off the coast of Malaysia, has been a firm favorite among savvy expats for decades. Known as a foodie haven, Penang’s capital, George Town, is home to eclectic architecture, a vibrant art scene, and what many call the best street food in the world.

Here, a couple can live really well—even luxuriously—for between $1,500 and $2,500 a month.

Expat Bob Jackson, who lives in Penang with his wife, says, “Our home here [in Penang] is a large two-bedroom, two-bathroom unit with sea views. Our complex includes a modern and well-stocked gym, an exercise room where we have yoga three mornings each week, and a small restaurant serving up beef rendang and other Malaysian delights for just a few dollars.

“Outside, the pool area features a sand beach and a lazy river which connects all the various swimming spots. It’s like having a five-star resort just downstairs. Our rent is $950 a month and that includes Pay TV. Our apartment is fully furnished, right down to the widescreen TV.” 

The complete 2019 Global Retirement Index can be found at: The World’s Best Places to Retire in 2019.


Jennifer Stevens is a Columnist at Grit Daily. She is the Executive Editor of International Living, a publication that has, for 40 years, been showing readers how to travel better, retire sooner, and enjoy a more international life—no big nest egg required.

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