The Retire Abroad series inspired me to build a special tool for the FIRE community: The Earth Awaits. It’s a tool made to build you budgets for hundreds of cities worldwide, taking your family size, budget, housing needs, and a bunch of other things into account. I think it’s the best way to explore the places in the world you can retire– right now.
It’s been five months since my last post in our series on dropping everything, running away from home, and living a great retirement abroad on a staggeringly small budget. The point isn’t necessarily to do so (though this series might present some interesting options for those looking for a lean and adventurous early retirement), but to show that FIRE happens in stages, and while you might not have arrived at your ultimate retirement number, it’s possible to live comfortably all over the world very early on the journey for many of us.
Five months ago, our assets supported a monthly retirement income of $879 a month. Today, they would provide us with $993.65 in monthly income… and what a difference a little over $100 makes! The $1,000 mark opens up numerous new options for a retirement abroad.
I explain the budget methodology in other posts in this series, but it includes a relatively opulent lifestyle of a rented apartment, fresh food, fitness memberships, biweekly trips to the cinema, and broadband internet. As always, these budgets do not include items like extensive travel, medical emergencies, and a whole lot of unnecessary shopping. Still, for people like us, it’s the journey and ability to engage with different and new cultures that we really love, and that easily replaces the high of acquiring a lot of silly stuff.
I have introduced a minor change to the budgeting methodology in this article: Rather than multiplying the base grocery total by 1.5, I multiplied by 3 instead, so as to allow for significant flexibility in the budget. I did this because I realize that people’s grocery budgets vary wildly (though we could easily live on the low end) and I am always striving to be more realistic in these estimates.
5. Puebla, Mexico (35.30)
Puebla, the fourth-largest city in Mexico, is one of the country’s most vibrant and interesting places to live. Home to almost three million people, Puebla is a mix of colonial charm and modern urban conveniences. This means you can enjoy gorgeous architecture while wandering a centuries-old plaza, but you can also fly direct to New York, live in a gleaming high-rise, and see the most recent Hollywood movies on an IMAX screen.
What’s more, Puebla is also directly adjacent to Mexico City (a city we love), so anything you can’t find in Puebla is likely only a few hours away by car.
Puebla is the beneficiary of huge foreign investment. In fact, it’s home to the only Volkswagen plant in the world that makes the Beetle! Puebla’s history as an important trade center (originally due to its famous textiles) led to an influx of foreigners over the past several hundred years. Huge numbers of the locals are of French, Italian, German, and Lebanese descent. Accordingly, great food of all ethnicities is widely available, and local specialties (such as the famous mole poblano) are worth savoring.
Private medical clinics in Puebla provide care on par with anywhere in the developed world. Yucatan Living has a lot of great articles about life in Mexico as an expat (it’s easy to lose hours just reading, fantasizing, and planning), but one of their best is about the costs of various types of insurance coverage. Though many expats seek medical treatment at private clinics for complicated conditions, some also buy into the Mexican social security scheme, and thus have access to their universal health care system for emergencies and minor treatments.
With a baseline budget of $856.01 to cover shelter, food, insurance, utilities, and a little entertainment, we would have almost $150 per month of overflow to pay for clothes, occasional visits home, cultural outings, coffee dates, and lots of other pleasant additions to our lifestyle. If you were really set on inflating your lifestyle (or you simply have a larger family), the most obvious upgrade would be to a nicer or larger apartment. I was easily able to find 2 bedroom apartments with modern finishes in the historic center for around $400 US per month. Entire houses in more suburban areas are available for around $400-500 US. The key to finding the best deals is being able to read the listings meant for locals, which are of course in Spanish (though Google Translate does an adequate job most of the time).
If you’ve never been to Mexico before, or you’ve only ever visited the sanitized tourist enclaves, you really owe it to yourself to visit the “real” Mexico. It’s not at all what you expect. Much of the country, cities included, is interesting, clean, friendly, exciting– and yes– even safe. Mexico is very high on our list of places to linger in early retirement.
|Apartment (1 bedroom) in City Centre||$206.50|
|Basic Utilities (Electricity, Heating, Water, Garbage)||$31.55|
|Internet (10 Mbps, Unlimited Data, Cable/ADSL)||$22.31|
|Meal for Two, Mid-range Restaurant, Three-course (twice a month)||$51.62|
|Public Transport Pass for Two||$34.42|
|Gym Membership for Two||$78.40|
|Movie for 2 (twice a month)||$15.16|
|Monthly Grocery Cost||$186.21|
|Monthly Insurance Premiums for Two||$229.84|
4. Sofia, Bulgaria (39.34)
With a budget of around $1,000 per month, a comfortable life in Europe might seem impossible at first. Sofia, Bulgaria is proof that it’s possible. Sofia is Europe’s most affordable capital, a hub of business, and a haven for digital nomads. Of course, since so many location-independent businesspeople from all over the world are flocking to Sofia, that also means that you can tap into a large community of English-speaking people to ease the culture shock.
Located dead-center in the Balkan peninsula, Bulgaria is a crossroads for numerous regional cultures, and has been variously influenced by the Slavs, Europeans, and Ottomans. The cityscape of Sofia itself is likewise a cornucopia of brutalist communist, baroque, ottoman, and romantic architectures.
Sofia is surrounded on all sides by mountains and experiences a full range of seasons, from warm summers to cold, snowy winters. Because the city is at a relatively high altitude, temperatures throughout the year are moderate to cool.
In terms of creature comforts, Sofia has excellent high-speed internet, great mobile phone service, inexpensive housing, and a high quality of life at an extremely modest price. The city is one of the great success stories of the Balkans, and the rising middle class (many of whom work in the IT field) is demanding an ever-widening array of products and services, to the benefit of expats.
Bulgaria has a bit of a reputation for intolerance, particularly when it comes to Arab refugees and LGBT people. In cosmopolitan Sofia, expats are less likely to encounter overt racism or violence due to the more diverse makeup of the population, but as with anyplace in the world, it pays to remain aware and alert.
As with many less expensive retirement destinations, Bulgaria’s private health care system far surpasses the public one, and most expats will want to arrange for private health insurance. I used the BUPA (a major UK-based international Insurer) web site and quoted a plan for two healthy, active, 50-year olds as the basis for annual insurance costs. It’s possible to pay just a few Euro per month and use the public system, but be aware of the gulf in standard of care between public and private clinics before doing so.
After all is said and done, I estimate a lean budget of $988.26 per month for two people in Sofia. That leaves a few bucks each month, but it’s definitely a tight budget.
|Apartment (1 bedroom) in City Centre||$311.54|
|Basic Utilities (Electricity, Heating, Water, Garbage)||$98.52|
|Internet (10 Mbps, Unlimited Data, Cable/ADSL)||$8.41|
|Meal for Two, Mid-range Restaurant, Three-course (twice a month)||$46.38|
|Public Transport Pass for Two||$57.98|
|Gym Membership for Two||$53.86|
|Movie for 2 (twice a month)||$23.20|
|Monthly Grocery Cost||$188.37|
|Monthly Insurance Premiums for Two (Private Insurance)||$200.00|
3. Bali, Indonesia (36.87)
Bali is proof that in almost any price range, a comfortable beach-adjacent retirement is a possibility. Bali is an island in Indonesia and home to almost four million people who enjoy some of the world’s most beautiful beaches. Diving, surfing, and swimming are spectacular and cheap, and thousands of westerns expats live, work, and play here. Because Bali has been inhabited for nearly four thousand years, ancient history courses through the island, and you can explore temples and ruins from long ago between visits to the beach.
Of course, Bali is not without it’s challenges. While you might escape the stressful hustle and bustle of western life by moving here, you exchange it for a whole new set of stressors inherent in being a foreigner in a culture that is quite unlike anything you may have experienced. Bali is a Hindu island in the midst of a Muslim country dominated by a strict caste system (that governs life down to the naming of children by birth order, explaining how all Balinese seem to have the same five names), governed by local neighborhood associations (who are not shy about strong-arming you for protection money), and an economy where prices on a given item fluctuate by hundreds of percent based on the whim of the shop owner. In short, it’s a complicated place to live for those used to well-organized western, or at least western-influenced, society. You shouldn’t let the profound difference dissuade you from trying it out, you should just do some serious research and go into the experience with your eyes wide open.
International health insurance with evacuation coverage is an absolute must in Bali. In the event of a serious medical issue, you should be prepared to seek treatment in Bangkok, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, or any of the other major cities a short flight away. If you are incapacitated, your insurance will need to cover an emergency flight out. BIMC Hospital in Denpasar is a reasonably well-regarded western-style hospital that can provide care for most common ailments. The Australian Embassy maintains a list of local hospitals and evacuation companies that may be helpful to keep on hand.
Similar to Thailand, expats in Indonesia often simply obtain a visitor visa to the country, and then extend it through the practice of “visa runs” to any number of the countries a short flight away. Tom Mullaly, the author of Wage Freedom, is based in Bali, and has written a succinct article about obtaining an Indonesian visa, as well as the most economical and convenient ways to extend the visa six months at a time.
With an estimated monthly budget of $882.59, Bali is very affordable indeed, though some of what is left in the budget is likely to be lost to paying the “banjar” (or local neighborhood council) fee expected of all Balinese residents. For those looking to use Bali as a base to explore the region, the airport is well served by Garuda and AirAsia, meaning travel to much of the rest of southeast Asia, or even to Australia, is quite cheap.
Editorial Note: Pets on Bali
You probably don’t want to bring your pets here, nor are you likely to be able to adopt an animal off the island. Balinese officials (and a number of unofficial local groups) have been aggressively poisoning and culling the native street dog population, ostensibly to fight outbreaks of rabies. Hundreds of thousands of perfectly healthy dogs– including pets with collars and rabies vaccination tags– have been darted with strychnine, leaving them to die in agony. Dogs with incomplete or marginal paperwork have been confiscated and immediately destroyed upon arrival. It’s not a risk we’d ever take with the canine members of our family, so Bali is off the list of places for us to slow travel for as long as we have dogs. If you don’t have or want pets, this caution may not be relevant to you.
|Apartment (1 bedroom) in City Centre||$214.44|
|Basic Utilities (Electricity, Heating, Water, Garbage)||$71.40|
|Internet (10 Mbps, Unlimited Data, Cable/ADSL)||$35.32|
|Meal for Two, Mid-range Restaurant, Three-course (twice a month)||$34.06|
|Public Transport Pass for Two||$15.14|
|Gym Membership for Two||$35.96|
|Movie for 2 (twice a month)||$15.12|
|Monthly Grocery Cost||$261.15|
|Monthly Insurance Premiums for Two (Private Insurance)||$200.00|
2. Managua, Nicaragua (35.00)
Nicaragua doesn’t come to mind as a retirement destination amongst North Americans like neighbors Costa Rica and Panama do, but that may actually work in its favor. Compared even to the retirement budgets of other Central American retirement hotspots, Nicaragua is extremely affordable. Those with close ties to friends and family in the US will be in the same time zone as US Mountain Time, and affordable direct flights to numerous major US cities (Houston, Miami, and Atlanta in particular) leave daily from Managua, the capital.
Though I’m formulating the budget based on Managua’s cost of living, there are actually quite a few cities and towns with established expat communities and similar prices, such as Granada and San Juan del Sur. Those expat communities can make transitioning into life in Nicaragua massively simpler.
What is there to do in Nicaragua? Well, if nature is your thing, Nicaragua’s biodiversity is second to none. From Mombacho Volcano to SCUBA diving off the Corn Islands, nature activities are probably the number one draw to foreigners. Sloths, Leopards, and tree frogs are all common sights to Nicaraguans. Managua has only modest shopping, art, and theatre, so it wouldn’t be anyone’s first choice as far as cosmopolitan lifestyle is concerned. Still, like much of Central and South America, taking in the colonial architecture, enjoying the food, and simply savoring a slower lifestyle are experiences unto themselves.
Medical coverage is very good in Nicaragua (at least in the cities), and the US is close enough that retirees wishing to seek treatment for a serious illness there have only to catch a three or four hour flight. Treatment for everyday maladies is no problem, and Managua has a number of decent private hospitals, including the best-ranked hospital in Latin America, Vivian Pellas. Though there is no national insurance scheme (nor is insurance as a concept widespread in Nicaragua), Vivian Pellas offers a health care plan that is effectively insurance as most Americans know it (partial or full coverage of costs across a range of services in exchange for a monthly premium).
Our monthly budget of $920.60 leaves about $75 per month to shop, save up for inexpensive flights to North America, and other indulgences. As always, it’s possible to tailor your lifestyle to the locale by cutting out unnecessary items like eating out, gym memberships, and others. Nicaragua on under $1,000 per month is well within the realm of possibility.
|Apartment (1 bedroom) in City Centre||$235.33|
|Basic Utilities (Electricity, Heating, Water, Garbage)||$129.33|
|Internet (10 Mbps, Unlimited Data, Cable/ADSL)||$58.00|
|Meal for Two, Mid-range Restaurant, Three-course (twice a month)||$40.00|
|Public Transport Pass for Two||$24.10|
|Gym Membership for Two||$66.66|
|Movie for 2 (twice a month)||$20.00|
|Monthly Grocery Cost||$231.18|
|Monthly Insurance Premiums for Two (Private Insurance)||$116.00|
1. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (46.76)
For digital nomads and retirees on a budget, few places offer a better bang for your buck than Southeast Asia. However, settling down in Asia often means compromises when it comes to personal space, city cleanliness, or both. Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, offers an abundance of space, economy, and sanitation that few other cities in the area offer. Compared with other nearby metropolises, it is much cleaner than Bangkok while being far less expensive than Singapore.
Kuala Lumpur is a relatively new city in an old country. It was only founded around 1850, but its cultural roots go back much further. Of course, the city appearing so recently also works in its favor when it comes to urban planning, services, and development. Many expats remark on the beauty of Kuala Lumpur’s wide, tree-lined streets. Even better, Kuala Lumpur is a major hub for numerous Asian and Middle Eastern airlines, so it’s easy to find inexpensive flight options to Europe, North America, or Australia.
Kuala Lumpur is the sixth most visited city in the world, so food from just about any culture you can think of is readily available. Attractions found in other Asian metropolises like huge markets and inexpensive consumer goods are also available in Kuala Lumpur. Kuala Lumpur is nearly evenly split between Malay people and ethnic Chinese. There’s a sizable Tamil Indian community, too. This makes for a diverse and vibrant melting pot of local cultures.
Like other cities in the region, Kuala Lumpur has both public and private hospitals, and the private hospitals provide a quality of care on par with much of the west. Many doctors are western-trained. Out-of-pocket costs are minimal, but many expat retirees still prefer to carry international medical insurance, so premiums for two are included in the budget presented here.
One of the best parts of Kuala Lumpur is that compared to most other asian capitals, you can find a relatively large apartment at an affordable price. I did need to to make a couple adjustments to make the budget work: First, I had to opt for an apartment outside the city center. This is self explanatory: It’s simply more expensive to live right downtown than slightly further out. In our price range, it’s possible to find modest one bedroom apartments, but they tend to be unfurnished an unserviced. For a slightly higher housing budget (just north of $500 per month) there are many central condo apartments with pools, maid service, immediate access to rapid transit, and other unnecessary (but comfy) amenities– something to keep in mind if your budget is a tiny bit higher than we’re discussing in this article.
Another place I had to modify the budget was the beer and wine in the grocery budget. Though Malaysia is a secular state with guaranteed freedom or religion, Islam is the official state religion. Because 61% of Malaysians are Muslim, alcohol is both less readily available and substantially more expensive. Adding wine and beer to the standardized budget would have added $50 to the base grocery list cost, and $150 when using the grocery multiplier (which I use to account for larger grocery budgets and to build some margin into the budget). Therefore, I removed the alcohol from the grocery budget. One might call this a cheat, but I see it as an opportunity to exercise lifestyle flexibility and get more value!
|Apartment (1 bedroom) outside City Centre||$320.07|
|Basic Utilities (Electricity, Heating, Water, Garbage)||$49.63|
|Internet (10 Mbps, Unlimited Data, Cable/ADSL)||$41.73|
|Meal for Two, Mid-range Restaurant, Three-course (twice a month)||$30.58|
|Public Transport Pass for Two||$50.98|
|Gym Membership for Two||$81.68|
|Movie for 2 (twice a month)||$15.28|
|Monthly Grocery Cost||$184.53 (no alcohol)|
|Monthly Insurance Premiums for Two (Private Insurance)||$181.08|
Until Our Next Adventure
This series, more than any other on the blog, fills me with a renewed sense of motivation and purpose when it comes to achieving financial independence. The world is full of exotic, adventurous, and wonderful places to explore, many of them for less money than we might imagine possible. It has been a long slog over the past few months, but another leap forward in retirement income is just around the corner. If things go as planned, I’ll be able to write a new installment in this series in June or July when my newest rental property comes online. I’m already nosing around my usual sources of cost of living data, lining up a list of amazing places to live and play on a budget of around $1,400 per month… every increment of a few hundred dollars massively widens the options, and I can’t wait to share them with you. A new and greater adventure is always on the horizon.
I hope you’re enjoying this series (and the journey that goes along with it) as much as I am. As always, let me know what you think in the comments!