Retiring abroad a tantalizing dream for boomers

Posted: Friday, August 02, 2002

CHICAGO (AP) -- Betsy and John Braden figured they'd achieved the great American retirement when they settled down next to a golf course and stopped working full-time by their mid-50s.

But life in the fairways proved entirely too flat. So they packed up and moved from Atlanta to Europe, and four years later they're still happily ensconced in a rented cottage in southwestern France.

''I wouldn't want to be anywhere else,'' Betsy Braden said.

Retiring abroad has gone from pipe dream to possible thanks to improved health care overseas, the lure of cheap real estate, and e-mail and Internet access that shrink distances from family and friends.

Interest in this more exotic retirement option is growing as the nation's 76 million baby boomers prepare to bring their generation's characteristic affluence, adventurousness and self-indulgence to retirement.

It can even make economic sense.

''For boomers, especially those who have bought into the idea of retiring early, it's very attractive because it can be relatively cheap and it can be interesting and broadening,'' said David Warner, professor of public affairs at the University of Texas-Austin.

As many as 2 million American retirees currently live abroad, according to Warner -- scattered throughout not just fellow Anglophone countries but, increasingly beyond.

Many retirees are among the roughly 600,000 Americans living in Mexico (including those with dual citizenship), clustered in Guadalajara, beside Ajijic's Lake Chapala and in the artistic town of San Miguel de Allende.

Costa Rica, with its stunning white and black sand beaches and lush rain forests, is being discovered by Americans in droves.

And a host of other overseas retirement havens are touted in books, articles and Web sites beyond traditional favorites like France, the Greek islands and Spain's Costa del Sol.

A nice home can be had in Panama City, Panama, for about $20,000, according to Modern Maturity magazine. Croatia's Dalmatian coast is gorgeous and serene. Exotic Thailand's hospitality and affordability make it a draw for retirees in the warm winter months. And a retiree can live well on $800 a month on the west side of Guadalajara, Warner said.

Then there are undiscovered Honduras, the tax advantages of Belize, the Cayman Islands as modern tropical paradise and other options for boomers to ponder, said Rosanne Knorr, author of ''The Grown-Up's Guide to Retiring Abroad.''

Knorr, herself a boomer at 55, and her husband John rented a farmhouse in France's Loire Valley for a five-month stay that stretched pleasantly into five years and the purchase of a townhouse.

''It doesn't have to be forever. But most people I know either don't come back or they come back winters,'' the former advertising copywriter said from Sarasota, Fla., her current base. ''Living abroad is a real adventure. We just fell in love with it.''

There are risks to consider -- including the possibility of decreased and more expensive access to health care as well as tax increases. While Social Security benefits will move abroad, Medicare coverage won't.

Retirees who come back to the States regularly often schedule medical check-ups and procedures for those times. Knorr and Warner say those eligible for Medicare (age 65 and up) shouldn't give it up; younger retirees can self-insure or get international health care policies.

Another limitation is that retirees aren't allowed to work even part-time under most countries' visa rules, although the Internet makes writing or consulting assignments possible.

Picking an overseas home can be a gamble, too.

''It's not something where you have to ship all your belongings over and take a chance,'' said Warner. ''You can take vacations and check places out, maybe even buy some property.''

The Bradens did it the hard way, taking a flier on a $530-a-month stone cottage in a tiny village despite not speaking much French, based on a local connection they'd made. Frustrations are still common after five years, but more than compensated for by international friendships, daily learning and simple pleasures.

''Moving abroad has been challenging and stimulating, physically, intellectually and emotionally, and it came just as I was beginning to feel brain-dead and on a tiresome treadmill,'' said Betsy, 57, a freelance travel writer. ''It's been like returning to university -- life as one big adult-education course.''

She'd recommend it to anyone -- as long as they're flexible and open and don't take themselves too seriously.

''You're going to knock up against a lot of frustrations. It can be frustrating for people who come over here and want to live the American way all the time.''


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