How to Retire Overseas in Stages

Selling everything you own and leaving your home, family, and friends may seem like a bold, intimidating, and even ridiculous idea. Maybe you don't want to sell your house or be a plane ride away from your grandchildren all year long. Perhaps you have business or family responsibilities in the U.S. that would make it inconvenient to reside overseas full time. Or maybe you're not looking to leave home, but to escape winter and to organize your life so that you never have to shovel another driveway. These are all good reasons to retire overseas part-time.

Moving abroad for part of the year could also help your budget. If your retirement nest egg has taken a beating recently, your prospects for retirement living in the U.S. may seem grim. But if you spend half the year some place where the cost of living is significantly reduced and rent out your U.S. home while you're away, your retirement finances could be stretched. Retirement could go from a source of concern to a cause for excitement supported by a nice supplemental income.

My husband and I haven't been able to settle on one retirement locale. We like to travel, and we enjoy change and contrast. Plus, we've made friends and established roots in several places around the world where we like to spend time. Our ultimate retirement plan is to move among the places where we've developed connections and where we feel at home. We plan to spend spring in Paris, summer in Istria, Croatia, fall in Buenos Aires (where our fall is their spring), and winter on the Pacific coast of Panama.

That may seem overly ambitious to you. More sensible and far more manageable is spending half the year in the U.S. and half the year someplace warm and sunny when the days back home have turned icy and gray. Top snowbird destinations include Panama, Mexico, and Nicaragua. You could also spend part of the year in Argentina and Uruguay, where the seasons are the reverse of those in North America. These aren't tropical getaways, but are cosmopolitan wintertime escape options.

Other places that make sense as part-time retirement choices are those where establishing full-time residency is a hassle or even impossible. It can be difficult to organize full-time legal residency as a retiree in Croatia, for example. And many foreigners remain indefinitely in Thailand without formalizing their stays, making "visa runs" every few months to refresh their tourist papers. I don't recommend this. It can be easier and safer simply to limit your visit so that you don't overstay your tourist visa, making Thailand another good part-time option.

If you have an interest in living abroad, you don't have to sell everything you own, say good-bye to everyone you've ever known, and take off for a new life in some distant and exotic place, never to be heard from again. That's not the only way to realize the many benefits of retiring overseas. If you're just warming up to the idea of spending your retirement years in a new country, take the pressure off. This isn't all or nothing. You can live abroad part-time, and you can make the transition in stages.

Ann and Mike Kuffner reinvented their lives gradually. Their overseas adventures began with a holiday in the Caribbean, and yours could, too. Start by taking a trip to the Caribbean, Argentine wine country, Nicaragua's crashing Pacific, or Panama's highlands. Book a plane ticket and go visit. Spend a few weeks or a month, treat it as a holiday, and see where this getting-started journey leads.

The Kuffners gradually moved from the San Francisco Bay area to Ambergris Caye, Belize. They made a part-time move in small steps. First, Mike, a self-employed architect, began spending time on Ambergris Caye, a month or so at a stretch, getting comfortable with the idea of island living. Over time, Mike reduced his client-load and began extending his stays on Ambergris. Ann kept her vice president position back in California and would join him as often as possible. Eventually, Mike identified a piece of land he was interested in buying, and the couple began construction on what they originally intended as a vacation house.

Mike began living on the island for three months and longer at a stretch, and Ann flew back and forth regularly. And what had begun as a lark developed into a new life. After more than three years of part-time retirement in Belize, the couple decided to start a second career there.

Ambergris is home to a growing community of expats who are lacking many of the products and services they miss from home, and they are typically more than happy to pay for them. Ann and Mike noticed all kinds of market voids. And, the longer they were there, the more ideas they had for ways to address these market gaps. "We had fun kicking around ideas for businesses we might both enjoy," says Ann. "And the better we got to know the island, the more niches we saw that needed filling."

The couple built the San Pedro Family Fitness Club, with tennis courts, a three-tiered pool, and a complete workout facility. "Because I'm a health nut, Mike and I noticed right away that there weren't any health clubs on the island," says Ann. "We felt this was our time to go for it. We were both still relatively young, healthy, and energetic. We realized that this might be our last chance to take on this kind of challenge."

The Kuffners are delighted with the new life they've made for themselves overseas. "In the beginning, we were drawn to this place by the Caribbean, by the warm, clear waters alive with sea life all year long," Ann says. "What kept us coming back, though, and what, over time, persuaded us to make the leap from part-time island living to a full-time relocation was the community we discovered."

Kathleen Peddicord is the founder of the Live and Invest Overseas publishing group. With more than 25 years experience covering this beat, Kathleen reports daily on current opportunities for living, retiring, and investing overseas in her free e-letter. Her book, How To Retire Overseas--Everything You Need To Know To Live Well Abroad For Less, was recently released by Penguin Books.

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