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BookWatch: Dreaming of retiring abroad? Watch out for these 3 giant pitfalls

You can read plenty of articles about how great it is to retire abroad. My husband and I are thankful every single day that we moved to Mexico five years ago. That said, moving abroad is a little scary and it’s not for everyone. I’ve met many people who love it and couldn’t imagine going back, but there are also those who decided it wasn’t for them.

The good news: It’s OK to try it out and return to the U.S. if you don’t like it. You won’t have to wonder “What if…” One of my podcast guests did that and is really glad to have gone for it, even though it did not work out.

And remember: Many people experience a sense of “What have I done?” at about three months after a move. This mini-setback is typically gone by the sixth month.

These are the three biggest reasons your overseas retirement might not work out.

You moved for the wrong reason

Changing locations alone will rarely make you happy if you’re unhappy in your current environment. Sometimes people feel animosity toward a place (or relationship) when they are “done”. I urge you to try gratitude instead. Plan to be happy and grateful exactly where you are right now.

I lived near the charming downtown area in Orange, Calif., for over 20 years. We knew over a year in advance that we’d be moving away. During my walks through the area, I was intentional in soaking it all up, taking it all in like taking a deep breath, as if I’d never see it again. I felt incredibly grateful that final year, a sense of joy and completeness as if a chapter of my book was closing.

While we were “done” with our life in California, we weren’t running away from something as much as running toward something else: a simpler and more joy-filled life. We were tired of the concrete jungle, six lanes of traffic in each direction (none moving) and the incredible high cost of living in Orange County.

Instead of seeking external factors for a “perfect retirement location,” figure out who you are and what you really want in your life. Know exactly what’s most important and nonnegotiable.

For example, I told my husband shortly after we met that this Minnesota girl was DONE with snow. Tom was a black diamond skier but decided his knees should retire. He took up golf and tennis so we have compatible interests. He was an avid sailor. Our first two dates were sailing to make sure I didn’t get seasick—that would have been a deal breaker for him.

Read: Considering moving abroad? These are the greatest benefits of expat life

You had unrealistic expectations

Many people retire without a well-thought-out plan. They neglect to define what their new daily life will look like. Being retired with an income stream is not a plan. It defines your situation, but not how you’ll spend your days.

Without structure or purpose, people can drift. Not knowing what else to do, some may head to the bar every day or just sit in a new place and wonder why they moved at all. The place you love on vacation may not bring the same joy when living there.

One woman I met moved to Mexico to retire. Then she moved several times around Cancún, looking for happiness, which turned out to be illusive. She decided return to live in the United States, got a small apartment and took a job as a cashier. Not knowing what else to do, she went back to her old life.

Naming what is important to you at the beginning of your search will help you find places that fit your vision of paradise and help you craft a plan for your new life. Do you need to learn a new language? Are you willing to do that?

Don’t be afraid of trying out several locations to find the best fit. Some good options include taking a sabbatical, house sitting or otherwise temporarily living like a local. All of these options let you learn what daily life is really like.

Perhaps you like the beach? My friend Barbara and her husband from Vancouver, B.C. decided that after five years in Progresso, Mexico, that they wanted mountains. They changed coasts and tried out several places in the Puerto Vallarta area—from a small village, a golf-course community to a small development with houses on big lots—before finding their perfect spot.

Read: Here’s how to plan a ‘roving retirement’ in Europe — plus a sample itinerary

You didn’t integrate into a community

If you want everything to be exactly the way it is “back home,” then you should stay home. It is prudent to leave baggage (literal and metaphorical) behind when you move to a new country.

Being in a foreign environment is an adventure. Think back about going to your first state fair, your first exotic vacation or another life experience that left a big impression on you. Recall the sense of wonder, the sense of joy exploring new places, of having experiences you never had before. Imagine feeling that again, feeling young and totally alive once again. What is that worth?

It’s one of the intangible benefits of living overseas I hear repeatedly from my podcast guests.

Morgan James Publishing

This wonderful feeling of being vibrant and youthful is one reason we moved to a beach community in Mexico at age 56. Before that, we lived in a much older community in Florida. The vibrancy in that culture was lacking. It was not a good fit for us.

For example, one day, our neighbor invited us to join them and a few other couples for dinner at a downtown restaurant. We said “Sure, what time?” He said “4:30 p.m”. We said yes, but we’re really thinking “but happy hour is at 5 p.m.…” 

Being part of the local community will be a big factor in a successful move overseas. We have both Mexican and expat friends. Don’t be the “gringo” with the chip on a shoulder disrespecting the locals. A little bit of respect goes a long way.

My husband has befriended the contractors we’ve hired. During construction projects, he treat them to roasted chicken for lunch on Fridays. The crew works 6 days a week, knocking off at 1 p.m. on Saturdays. Tom treats them to a cold cerveza (beer) and socializes with them. We never have a problem finding good help. 

Be patient in the grocery store when there are two cashiers with a line of 10 people at each checkout stand. No, they are not going to open another one. Your visual annoyance and loud sighs will not make it better. Instead, look the cashier in the eye and say, “Como estas?” You’ll get a warm smile and a better shopping experience.

Dawn Fleming is the author of “Claim Your Dream Life: How to Retire in Paradise on a Shoestring Budget.” She and her husband, Tom, own Overseas Life Redesign, a global coaching company.

More on retiring abroad

I told friends I was moving to France for a year. It’s now 4 years later, and I’m building a house in this village of 1,200 people.

I never expected to retire to Panama — but we are living ‘very comfortably’ on $1,200 a month

This couple retired in Colombia on $4,000 a month. In California, ‘to live this lifestyle, we’d have to be mega, mega millionaires’

‘I never felt like I belonged in the U.S.,’ says 62-year-old who fled Minnesota to retire in Bali — where you can live ‘very, very comfortably’ on $3,000 a month

‘I could live on my Social Security and still save money’: This 66-year-old left Chicago for ‘calming’ Costa Rica — where he now plans to live indefinitely

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