One Couple's Path to Retiring Overseas

Credit: Cathy CurtisLinda and Mark Majors
Meet Mark and Linda Majors, a San Francisco Bay Area couple planning to stop working in the next five years. Despite not having employer-backed pensions or huge retirement savings, their goal is to retire and live a life of adventure filled with traveling through different countries, kayaking and scuba diving. While this is a dream many of us share, the couple are taking steps to make it a reality. I recently spent some time with Mark, 57, and Linda, 50, to understand their retirement goals and how they are working to achieve them.

Both of them have worked as independent contractors for nonprofit social welfare organizations over the past 15 years, so they have been responsible for their own retirement savings. They have both contributed to regular brokerage accounts, solo 401(k) and IRA accounts at differing rates over the past 30 years. Occasionally, Mark feels frustrated when he thinks of the colleagues he worked with at Union Oil in the '80s, knowing that their corporate careers have secured most of them a pension of thousands of dollars a month. "Then I wonder: Would I want to give up what I've experienced over the past 20 years for that?" he says. "No, I wouldn't."

Linda adds, "I don't think we'd trade our jobs for that at all. We feel like we've helped make the world a better place."

The couple first started talking about retirement plans and crunching numbers two years ago: "We felt like in spite of what we tried to do, we hadn't done a proper job of saving," says Mark. They had been informed that their investments should generate 75 to 80 percent of their current income each month in retirement.

"That's true if you stay where you are," Mark says, "because lots of things you spend money on now don't go away if you stay put. But we believe that if we can find a way to patch together the assets we have now, the assets we can liquidate, and the eventual Social Security we will collect, we hope we can be fine in another country. It doesn't look that hard on paper."

Living on $3,000 to $5,000 a month

The couple did their homework, reading books and taking part in conference calls for retirees interested in living overseas. After much research, they concluded that their ideal adventurous lifestyle would cost $3,000 to $5,000 a month, including health insurance. "Between the Affordable Care Act and everything else in the U.S., what it costs to have health insurance here is out of control until you're on Medicare," says Mark.

Their main reason for exploring other countries is simply that the cost of living is lower. "This country is huge," Mark says of the States. "There are plenty of interesting things to do here, so many climates, geographies, dialects and local food. The problem is staying here and exploring is crazy expensive."

Another big reason for retiring abroad is love for learning new cultures. Mark points out that it would solve the problem many retirees face: having nothing to do and becoming bored. "If you don't know how to order food in the restaurant, or buy the stuff at the market," he muses, "all those things are challenges, but we'll embrace them because it will make life interesting."

For the first few years of retirement, this couple who loves to hike is planning to keep moving from country to country. Their shortlist of retirement destinations includes Mexico and Panama, but there are many more countries in Europe and Southeast Asia under consideration. The generous couple's criteria for evaluating destinations not only include the local infrastructure and healthcare, but also the opportunities for giving back. As Mark explains, "You can volunteer here or you can volunteer somewhere else, and maybe it's more important somewhere else than it is here."

Does That Go To Panama? If Not, We're Not Buying It

Such a large change of lifestyle requires that Mark and Linda begin making many adjustments now, including downsizing. "We set a goal that volumetrically two wine boxes of stuff would leave the house at least every week," says Mark. Besides donating items they won't need to the less fortunate, Marks admits, "I've been working eBay for two or three years just trying to make things go away!"

"We'll have a big suitcase, a small suitcase, and a backpack. That's it," says Linda, "We're only buying stuff that we think we are going to need in that lifestyle."

Adds Mark, "Our watchword is, 'Does that go to Panama?' If not, we're not buying it." In order to reach the lump sum they need to achieve their retirement goals, Mark and Linda are liquidating their assets, including selling their second house and eventually their own home. High property taxes make California a tough choice for retirees. They estimate their property taxes at $7,000 to $8,000 a year.

Tips for others dreaming of living abroad:

1. Be Sure That It Is What You Really Want

"Know thyself," are Linda's first words of advice. "Many of these countries that we're talking about, where the cost of living is lower, they are not America. The resources are different, the climate is different, the language and the people are different. Are you ready for that?"

Vacationing has also become a research experience for the couple. "Usually we would go diving somewhere, go have beers, eat at a restaurant, drink more beers, and have a good time. Who wouldn't like that? But usually you're only there for a week or two, so you don't get bored with it," says Mark. "We've tried to analyze locations since starting the search for where we might live. We take say a Monday morning at 11 o'clock and imagine we're at this destination, but we're not on vacation. Does it suck or is it okay? We've got both eyes open to the vacation effect."

2. Make Sure Your Partner Is on the Same Page

"We have to agree, otherwise it's not going to work," says Linda, "It's actually a leading cause of divorce in couples who move to other countries -- because one person is good at Spanish and the other person isn't, or they have different ideas about what it's supposed to look like."

"If something is really not working for one of the people, the other person in the couple has to say, presumably, 'It's more important that I maintain my relationship than pursue this,'" Mark adds, "You've got to make a choice."

That would certainly not be an easy choice to make, so be sure to discuss your retirement dreams with your partner sooner rather than later. The couple hopes that their family and friends will visit them no matter where they retire.

I look forward to a postcard from Mark and Linda to learn where they wind up and see how retirement turns out for them.

The Majors are among many retirees and semi-retirees whose journey to financial freedom is featured in the free eBook, "The Definitive Guide to Becoming the Retiree Next Door," published by While most Americans worry that they won't have enough money to retire, this group of successful retirees shows that many fulfilling paths are possible despite the challenges.
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