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Expat Perspectives

‘The four things I wish I had known before retiring overseas’

By Jonathan Look

Living your retirement abroad can be an immensely rewarding experience. I know; I’ve been doing it since I left my U.S. home, at 50, three years ago to begin my early retirement traveling around the world. But there are four things to keep in mind before you make the leap (I wish I’d known them before I started out):

No. 1: Retiring Overseas Isn’t a Vacation

After you’ve packed up your life, said goodbye to your friends and moved to your new exotic overseas home, there will soon come that moment when you realize: This is not a vacation, this is my life.

Jonathan Look and his wife Sarah in Bhutan.

There are bills to be paid and chores to be dealt with. Finding the best markets and restaurants, making new friends and learning the ropes in your new location is fun, but eventually you’re going to need to find something more.

Many people plan for their financial needs in retirement, but they neglect the psychological and emotional aspects. That’s a big mistake. You don’t want to spend the best years of your life just frittering your time away. Although it may seem so at first, living abroad is not in itself an actual activity.

So before you start out, come up with a project (or many) and prepare to do things you’ll find rewarding. If you haven’t discovered your passions, this is the perfect time to find them. If you already know your passions, this is a perfect time to delve into them further.

No. 2: Comfort and Happiness Aren’t the Same

One of the things I used to hear over and over from people like me nearing retirement age was that they just wanted to be comfortable in retirement. Mostly, they were referring to their finances, but often they were also talking about creating a sort of secure cocoon somewhere where they could hide from their worries, too. Problem is, as I’ve since learned, comfort and happiness aren’t the same thing.

As people get older, they tend to start playing it safe while sacrificing their happiness. To me, there would be nothing sadder than to move somewhere and be seduced into a life with plenty of comfort, but little happiness. Wouldn’t it be better to use retirement abroad as an opportunity to push our comfort zones and find out new things about the world and ourselves?

No. 3: No Place Is Perfect

As I’ve been traveling the world in retirement, I’ve discovered that it’s truly an amazing place, but if you go looking for perfection you’re going to be disappointed.

Every place has periods of bad weather, dodgy parts of town and potholes. Bureaucracies and inefficiencies exist everywhere (albeit, more in some places than others). If you let them, they can be doubly frustrating when you don’t know the culture.

How you deal with the negative aspects of any place comes down to a choice: They can be a trying ordeal or a challenging adventure.

In my experience, people who thrive abroad are the ones who are mentally prepared for dealing with things that are less than perfect.

Paradise is an attitude as much as it is a place.

No. 4: The World Isn’t That Scary After All

Before I headed out on my new adventure, I was a little fearful of what I might find in some exotic locations. But I can now report that in spite of the way things are presented in the 24-hour news cycle, the world isn’t that dangerous or scary.

So before you write off a place based on the latest event or news headline, do your homework. It’s entirely possible that hyped-up events in the news might keep you from going to a place that is safer than where you are now.

Fear is a phenomenon that is largely media-driven and marketing-created. I can’t begin to tell you how many people I’ve met overseas who, after watching their own country’s news channels, say they’d be afraid to go to into a movie theater or a school in the United States. We know doing those things are safe, but media exploitation can make some foreigners think otherwise.

Here’s the most important thing I’ve learned retiring abroad: There are far more places to live overseas filled with wonderful people who will generously accept you into their community than there are places where people wish you harm.

English is spoken widely and no matter how far afield you travel, chances are there will be someone with at least a basic knowledge of it. Knowing how to say “hello,” “please” and “thank you” in the local lingo will get you started. Having a great attitude and a genuine smile while you’re learning the native language will get you even further.

Jonathan Look, a photographer and travel writer, lives by the philosophy: “Why sip life from a straw when you can drink it from a fire hose?” You can visit him on Facebook.


23 thoughts on “‘The four things I wish I had known before retiring overseas’

  1. Great down to earth article. I have lived in Cotacachi for 5 years and stay very busy. Do humanitarian work – now involved in a soup kitchen to feed the poor elderly – the forgotten people. I work with the Indigenous at Unorcac and has been a great experience. Also improved an Indigenous pre-school in Quiroga that was in very bad shape. I will be 79 and do not understand that more expats do not get involved – I will never be an arm chair retiree. Enjoy the benefits of this country and give back of your time .

  2. A very nice article that addresses the myth that living overseas is Paradise – some people seem so dead set on believing their own self-created myth that they lock out all information to the contrary and hence hinder their own growth and ability to effectively deal with things that might not be so nice in their new environment.

  3. Hark! A voice of reason in the wilderness. In my opinion, this short and succinct article has struck on the essence of what a would-be retiree abroad must understand before any final commitment to the idea can be made. You can read and research millions of words about the world of places and experiences available to you, trying to decide if such a life will suit you, but until you honestly look at yourself in the light of what Mr. Look has said simply and clearly here, you are not prepared and you may well be missing the critical point.

  4. I enjoyed this article and think all the points were well stated and well founded. Mr. Look points out that it is critical to take into account the intangible things of life because they are what make the critical difference in one’s quality of life. Having a positive attitude, taking care to examine oneself and one’s needs, allowing time and leeway for adapting to a different culture, and to planning for a fulfilling life are all extremely important. I think the happiest ex-pats do all of those things, and they are usually the most successful in establishing meaningful relationships with locals and accomplishing things which benefit their communities.

  5. Good article. “Paradise is an attitude, not a place.” is absolutely right and needs to be the base of all one’s thinking.

  6. After retiring at 49 and spending the last couple of years living in Central America I fully concur with what Jonathan has to say here. A well written piece.

  7. I am Ecuadorian but speak english , it s an interesting article for expats and anybody that had lived overseas , like me . Bye

  8. Well done, both Jonathan and Micky! I came to Ecuador when I was 60, went to teach English to members of the Amazonian indigenous tribe, the Achuar for six months on and off, now teach at the Catholic University busying myself trying to get funding for the translating into Spanish and publishing of a book on the Achuar. Never a dull moment, I can tell you.

  9. The idea of being an armchair retiree never occurred to me and yes, I am drinking from the fire hose. Love that analogy. It reminds me of the quote which I have forgotten –but has something to do with sliding into home plate at the end of life with all burners locked and on saying whew! What a ride!I

  10. First of all, retiring at 50 is hardly relevant for those of us in our 60’s and 70’s, as most people will not be able to come close to that. If you are a trust fund baby, or the rare person that made a lot of money in their 20’s and 30’s, then it might work but for those of us married with Children that will usually not fly. I would guess that the writer is “staying on the road” all the time, moving to new places and I have done that, and know a few rare people that have spent years simply moving. But there comes a time when age requires you to settle in one spot. We have managed to travel 4 different countries this year, and as long as possible will continue, but life at 50, is so different than 70, there is no way to know until you have lived it.

    1. i retired here at the age of 47 and am now 50. I am looking for something good to do in Cuenca like a soup kitchen or maybe even helping an orphanage. I prefer to work with non-Catholics in my charity but if that is all there is, i can get along with them. My Spanish is medium but not fluent.

    2. Any expats who have lived in Cuenca and get off the couch have been approached by college students taking surveys. The surveys seem to be the exact same questions. I have a response to ‘what are the biggest differences…’ that I am always told they have never heard before. It is “generational.” There are HUGE generational differences between 40-50-somethings and 70-somethings…about everything.

  11. Best article that I have seen on this subject, and the writing was pretty good too. Keep up the great work and the great life.

  12. After 6 years in and out of Ecuador, I couldn’t agree more with this article. Living “abroad ” is definitely an adventure and if we choose to look at it as a learning opportunity we can’t help but grow. Micky is absolutely correct – get involved!!! It’s the only way that we are able to learn all possible from our chosen new location! It doesn’t matter if we choose to move-on whatever what that looks like but we can’t get trapped as a sedentary lump on a log. It’s also not financial gifts that are most important. Gifts of time and spirit are what will give us lasting memories as we move through the third part of our lives! Attitude truly is Everything!

  13. Outstanding expression of things we all should have, would have, and could have considered before ‘retiring’ abroad. Thirty years ago I didn’t come to retire, I came to follow a passion for teaching. I have been successful in this and many other things living by the ‘fire hose’ philosophy of life. Thank you Mr. Look for the reflection.

  14. Love your article. Thank you! So true. Whether it is retiring, or just living life – it is the attitude that matters. Positive, respectful, hopeful… and open to life and living …. drinking from the fire hose. Happy journeys to you and your wife.

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