Want to Improve Your Quality of Life? Move to Central America

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Belize, Caracol, ruins of Mayan pyramid
Getty ImagesMayan ruins in Belize.
By Chuck Bolotin

NEW YORK -- A sizeable number of U.S. citizens have moved to Central America.

Estimates from the United Nations Population Division in mid-2013 showed 13,000 Americans living in Costa Rica, 12,000 in Panama, 4,000 in Nicaragua and 3,000 in Belize.

Costa Rica has long been attractive destination for U.S. retirees, but the latter three countries have become increasingly popular in recent years and often turn up on lists of the best places to retire abroad, including one from AARP.

Why would someone pull up stakes to live in a foreign country with perhaps a different language and culture (English is the official language of Belize)?

A recently published study, "Expats: Expectations & Reality," by Best Places In The World to Retire, provides some answers.

It summarizes the responses of 389 expatriates living in Central America, the vast majority of whom live in Panama, Belize and Nicaragua. The survey was hosted on SurveyGizmo and was conducted between April 17 and April 27. Among respondents, 73.5 percent said their home country was the U.S., while 12.9 percent came from Canada, 4.6 percent from the U.K., 3.9 percent from elsewhere in Europe and the remainder from other countries.

A whopping 82 percent of respondents said they moved in order to lead "a simpler, less stressful life," while 55.8 percent were seeking "a less materialistic or more meaningful life" and 42.4 percent were seeking "a more romantic, exotic, or adventurous life."

Here are some more reasons why people had moved.

Among respondents, 86.6 percent said they thought they could lower their cost of living by moving. They also said they would enjoy a better quality of life as a result. Here's why:
  • They would have less stress to pay bills. If they were retired, their retirement income would go much further, allowing them to travel and engage in other life-enriching activities they couldn't afford otherwise.
  • They would have less stress because they would no longer have to do many of the things they didn't want to do in order to make more money. Now they wouldn't need as much money. They could avoid or eliminate, for example, driving in rush hour traffic to go to a job or spending lots of hours working.
  • The ability to hire household help (gardeners, handymen, housekeepers) very inexpensively would mean an easier life with more free time.
  • Not having to work at all or working less would allow them to have more time to do the things they enjoyed, such as being with friends, reading books, taking up hobbies or simply taking naps.

Richard Detrich, from the U.S., living in Panama: "I got tired of the rat race of Southern California and we wanted to escape and retire early. I told my wife, there comes a time when you need to cash in your chips and walk out of the casino ... and we did!"

Female, age 25-44, married, working full-time, from U.S., living in Nicaragua for less than 2 years: "Better quality of life and time with your spouse and children, able to afford private schools, people to help with home chores, and other things unaffordable in the U.S. Had to work twice as hard there and be more stressed just to be in debt at the end of the month. Cost of living is so low here, we save money so much quicker."

One of the more often occurring themes was the desire of many respondents (mainly baby boomers and older) who wanted to live like they remembered living in North America when they were growing up. In their view, the quality of life in North America had gotten worse overall, and the way to live life like they did in North America in the past was, ironically, to leave North America and move to one of these Central American countries.

Female, age 65-plus, married, fully retired, from U.S., living in Panama for more than 10 years: "The local people, in general, are wonderfully helpful. It's like living in the U.S. in the 1950s. People stop for you on the road if you look like you need help. Older women are especially respected and helped with carrying things or given a hand for support in walking over rough terrain, etc. Doctors give you as much time as you need during appointments. They give you their cell phone number and usually appointments can be made with little or no waiting time."

Ken Rucker, from the U.S., living in Nicaragua: "In spite of the 'poverty' (by our standards) the quality of life and cultural values are light years better than in the U.S. I see 'happy' everywhere and neighborhood communities reminiscent of when I was a child."

Respondents said the people in Central America in general put a greater emphasis on family and also have deeper, more meaningful friendships than in North America. The belief is that, in Central America, work takes a back seat to interpersonal relationships. They also believed that the pace would be slower, and therefore, more human and more enjoyable.

Female, age 65-plus, single, semi-retired, from U.S., living in Panama for two to five years: "After living to work I suddenly found myself unable to get a job. It was a blessing. Though I was concerned about making my dollars stretch further, it also made me focus on what I'd been missing. In short, I was receiving the gift of time and finally take a deep breath and say, 'How then shall I live?' The cosmic question resonates daily and often echoes the word, 'tranquilo.'"

There was a widespread view among respondents that they would have more freedom living overseas because of the absence of having to pay high taxes and comply with government regulations and cultural norms that many believed had evolved to the point that they were stifling.

Respondents said that having more freedom would lead to a more meaningful life, because the choices to be made would be made by the individual voluntarily, as opposed to having outcomes imposed on them. As a result, respondents said they would experience an increased sense of control and self-worth. This, of course, is the opposite of the traditional view that the U.S. has more freedom than anywhere in the world. Many of the expats just didn't believe this was still the case, and so they sought that freedom elsewhere.

Bonnie W. Hayman, from the U.S., living in Nicaragua: "The life in the U.S. strangles you. With all the rules and regulations, lawsuits, homeowners' association guidelines and more, you live a regulated, controlled life."

Nearly a third of respondents said they moved overseas believing that by doing so, they would be more engaged in charitable activities and helping others. Why didn't they just engage in these activities in North America? The reasons we were most often told were:
  1. "They need us more over here";
  2. "They're more grateful for the help over here"; and,
  3. They could immediately and intimately see the results of their efforts, because the person receiving the help would be right in front of them.

Michael M., from U.S., living in Panama: "I aligned myself with a humanitarian organization and am thoroughly engaged in that activity. In Dallas, I seldom volunteered."

The respondents said the stress to "keep up with the Joneses" would be reduced by moving overseas for two reasons:
  1. The great majority of nonexpats living among the respondents would have fewer material possessions, so the expats would be well-off by comparison; and,
  2. The culture in their new home would be less concerned with material goods, sometimes because those goods were not viewed as important by locals and expats, and sometimes because they weren't available for purchase.
To take an extreme example, the entire country of Belize doesn't really have a single North American-style shopping mall or movie theater. You don't move to Belize to do luxury shopping; you go for other reasons and because you have other values. And, if you go to live in Belize, you will be among other people who have the same values as you.

Female, age 45-64, married, working full time, from U.S., living in Belize for more than 10 years: "I can't say enough about a fresh start and living a life completely different from where you left. Very simply you have to realize what is valuable to you ... the hubbub of the life you came from or a life where you actually have the kind of friends you did in the 1950's in the States ... and no one tapping on your shoulder for another fee or regulation. My mother once said, 'But honey, there are no shopping centers or movie theaters or symphony or anything.' I said, 'Yeah, I know ... great isn't it?'"

For more information on where Americans are going when they leave the U.S. and why, check out Best Places In The World To Retire.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.
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