Semi-FIRE Abroad: Ordinary Days, Extraordinary Life

We’ve been living here in Spain for about four months now, so how is it going? Is it everything we’d hoped for? What do we miss most (and what do we not miss at all)? Just what are we doing with all that spare time?

In a word, being semi-FIRE abroad in Spain is fantastic. We are happy, healthy, well-fed, and believe it or not, plenty busy! I have a ton of things I want to share with you, but first and foremost, this: taking a year (ish, more on that in a bit) to be together and concentrate on family and Baby Vagabond’s development been one of the best decisions of our life. It has reinforced our commitment to be Financially Independent as soon as possible (while still placing our collective mental and physical health first) and reassured us that yes, life after FIRE will be everything we hoped it would be.

Back when I announced our crazy plan to sell our house, for Mrs. Vagabond to quit her job, and to leave for parts unknown, I shared that we aren’t Financially Independent yet– we’re somewhere around 50-60% of the way to our low-end goal (semi-demi-FIRE?). Still, with the birth of Baby Vagabond last year, taking a year or two to travel and spend time together just felt right. Living the FI lifestyle is all about remembering the value of time versus money, and this time with our very young daughter is something no amount of money would ever make up for missing.

So, without further ado, let’s dive into the life we’ve built here in Granada, Spain!

Our Home

We live in the Albaicin, the ancient Moorish Quarter (and a UNESCO World Heritage Site) within the city of Granada. In many ways, the Albaicin feels like a “city within a city,” divorced from the traffic and hubbub of the city center while remaining close enough to walk within 10 minutes.

When we arrived in Granada, we sent four queries off about houses we had found on the best available real estate listing site. We heard nothing back on two of the properties– coincidentally (or not) the two listed by real estate agencies. One landlord called me back right away, but explained that the property wouldn’t be vacant for 90 days. Finally, one landlord responded to my email offering to show us the property, a beautiful and, from the photos, perfectly decorated, house in the Albaicin– all in perfect English.

I was immediately skeptical. Everything just seemed too perfect. But, after seeing the property, meeting our landlords (also our next-door neighbors), and talking a bit, we knew we wanted the house. The house’s outer walls are ancient, dating back to the time of the Reconquista. The insides, however, were all rebuilt in the 1980s, and felt at once typically Spanish and modern. It has four bedrooms– enough for a master bedroom, a nursery, an office, and a guest room– and four bathrooms. According to Google Maps, the tapas bar two doors down is 47 feet away, and according to the Frugal Vagabond, two Euros for a Tinto de Verano and a tapa is the best deal on food and drink in Europe.

Without a doubt, the crown jewels of the house are the two terraces overlooking the Alhambra. Behold, our breakfast nook!

This is personal finance blog, so I’ll tell you that we pay around $1500 per month in rent. By Granada standards, this is a fortune, but coming from Silicon Valley it feels like a steal. Rent for a two bedroom apartment is closer to $500-600 per month in our neighborhood. We’re paying more for our location, amenities, the size of house, and of course, the fact that we had to find a place that would allow us to bring the Vagabond Pups.

As I mentioned before, our landlords are our next-door neighbors. Far from cramping our style, they’ve become some of the most wonderful friends we have made in Spain. They are a young family with four children and incredible local connections. If we have a question about where to find something, need help navigating local bureaucracy, or just need to talk, there is no doubt that we can turn to them. We eat and go out together often, and joined them recently at the beach for some seafood and relaxation. I often tell people that if we had looked at ten thousand houses, we might never be lucky enough to find friends and landlords (in that order) like these.

A Day in the Life

As the parents of an eight-month-old, we are up once or twice during the night, so we do our best to sleep as late as possible. Unfortunately, that’s usually only about 8 AM. We play with the baby, feed her breakfast, and get her down for her first nap. We usually take that time to do our chores and get ready for the day.

Three times a week at around 11 AM, we head to the local Crossfit gym for a workout, and usually grocery shop right afterwards. If we still have plenty of energy, we’ll head to that tapas place 47 feet from home and have a few drinks and tapas. Then, the baby goes down for her afternoon nap and we work on integrating into Spanish society by observing the all-important siesta. During the hottest part of the day, usually from around 2:30 to 5:30 PM, most small businesses and restaurants close (restaurants until closer to 7:00 PM). We use this time to nap, read, or catch up with friends and family back in the US who are usually just waking up.

In the early evening, I do a few hours work for my client, who has been really flexible in allowing me to drastically reduce my hours and work from abroad. The great news is that since the cost of living is so much lower here than in California, and since up to $102,100 in income will be tax free under the FEIE, working 4 or 5 hours per night covers our cost of living here, our monthly travels within Europe, and still leaves enough left over to max out my 401(k).

Anyone who’s spent any time in Spain knows that life begins at sundown. Once I’ve finished my work for the night, we either have dinner at home or head out to enjoy free activities around the city. In the past few months we’ve gone to religious festivals, free rock concerts, May Day parades, and spirited competitions pitting the neighborhoods of the city against one another. Even when nothing is officially going on, it’s awesome to walk in the beautiful streets, stop into shops who have begun to notice that we’re more than tourists, and simply be someplace new and exciting. Through our gym and our neighbors, we’ve started to build a social circle. One group of Italian friends recently opened a fresh-made pasta shop. They import Italian flour and cheese and pair it with seasonal local produce to make some of the freshest and most delicious pasta we’ve ever tasted. We try to drop by once a week and support them (if fresh ravioli and cannelloni are supportive, sign us up!). The effort to immerse ourselves in everyday life here has paid off in tiny, perfect moments.

Freedom to Adventure

Of course, we’d be crazy to miss the myriad opportunities to explore the rest of Europe. RyanAir and EasyJet both fly into three nearby airports, and much of Europe is a sub-$100 round trip flight away.

Castle Hill, Budapest

Since we arrived, we’ve visited the Algarve in Portugal, eaten life-altering pastry in Budapest, wandered ancient Greek temples in Sicily, and shopped at the most jaw-dropping fresh market we’ve ever seen in Vienna. We’re headed to Malta and Ireland in the next month or two. We’re planning for a long roadtrip around Christmastime through France and Switzerland, and to celebrate Christmas week in Munich.

Agrigento, Sicily

Assuming we stay a second year, we’re hoping to stray from the beaten path a bit. We’d like to get to Romania, Bulgaria, and Armenia, and we’re this close to booking a few weeks in South Africa for early 2019 (It may not be close, but it’s about half as far right now as it is from back in California!).

Health Care

One of the requirements of acquiring our visa was to be fully covered by a private insurer. We knew we would be seeking a doctor for Baby Vagabond’s normal developmental appointments, but our introduction to Spanish medicine came much sooner than we might have expected.

Shortly after arriving in Spain, I was pushing the baby in her stroller. As we rattled our way down some nearby steps, the combination of cobblestones and severe angle bounced her right out of the stroller onto the ground. I have never felt so horrible and fearful as I did at that moment. When the baby wouldn’t stop crying, we rushed her to the emergency room. While we were pretty sure she would be okay in the long run, it was better to be safe than sorry.

When we arrived at the hospital, we learned that all hospitals in Spain have a dedicated Pediatric Emergency Room (amazing!). Within five minutes, we were ushered into a triage room, where a half dozen nurses alternately evaluated and did their best to cheer up the baby. After that, we met with a doctor who reassured us that she showed no signs of serious injury, and that she would be fine.

We did make a minor mistake when we went to the ER– rather than going to one of the two nearby hospitals that takes our insurance, we went to the hospital closest to where we happened to be. As a result, we’re expecting a bill, but we’ve made some inquiries and were told that being seen at the ER as we were is usually a flat fee of under 200 Euros. In the US, it would be reasonable to expect the out-of-pocket at the ER, even when covered by insurance, to be an order of magnitude more expensive.

Since that day, we’ve met with the baby’s pediatrician multiple times. It has been a bit of a culture shock as he has invited us to drop by to discuss things that would never merit an appointment back home. How is her introduction to solid foods going? How’s her growth this month? We’ve also figured out how to get immunizations done. It’s trivial under the public health system, but when insured privately, we need to fill a prescription at a pharmacy, then take the immunization to a hospital to have it administered. Not the ordinary way of doing things in the US, but simple enough once you know how to navigate the system.

Neither myself nor Mrs. Vagabond have seen doctors ourselves yet, but Mrs. V will probably do so in the coming months owing to post-pregnancy followup. We feel a lot more confident about the level of care, and how to obtain it, than we did a few months ago.

What We Miss (and What We Don’t)

Here’s a short list of things we’ve found ourselves missing from back home:

  • Friends and Family (duh)
  • Red Pepper Flakes
  • Red Vines
  • Proper Mexican Food
  • Amazon Prime Same Day (or Next Day) Delivery
  • Places being open on Sunday
  • Places being open from 2:30-5:00 PM

… and here are some things we don’t miss:

  • Work (duh)
  • Commuting to Work
  • Traffic
  • Other Judge-y Parents
Was It Worth It?

If you’ve been paying any attention you’ll know. Yeah, it was worth it. We’re really happy, though of course there are tough moments. Still, even the toughest moments are washed away when our baby does something for the first time and we’re both there to see it. I often ask Mrs. Vagabond, “Where do you think we’d be right now if we hadn’t done this?” The answer is invariably “at work,” or “commuting to work.” It has put into perspective exactly how much life you trade away to be “normal.”

A few years back, when I had extensive dental treatment in Thailand, the at-that-time future Mrs. Vagabond shared it with one of her customers. The customer scowled and responded, “That’s weird!” It bothered my wife at the time, and when she shared the story with me, she indignantly exclaimed, “Weird is good!” We laughed so hard that it became an inside joke and an unofficial mantra for our lives: Weird is good. We love our weird, adventurous, wonderful life here.

As a parting word of advice, I think anyone who is working towards FIRE intending to slow travel the world should consider a semi-FIRE sabbatical like this once they’re 50% or more of the way to their goal. If it’s not right for you, it will help you to adjust your goals. If it is– and I hope it is– it will absolutely reignite your passion for this incredible, intrepid life.

We’ll see you on the road.

27 thoughts on “Semi-FIRE Abroad: Ordinary Days, Extraordinary Life

  1. VagabondMD

    Fantastic. I love reading about your journey. I long to do the middle age version of what you are doing. (I love Anadlucia, too. 🙂 )

    1. The Vagabond Post author

      Thank you! Truthfully, we’re nearing 40 (late first-time parents) so we might be accused of already doing the middle-age version 🙂 Andalucia is the best. Great people, culture, and weather. We really feel like we hit thee jackpot in a lot of ways.

  2. APurpleLife

    Thanks so much for the update! It’s so fun to follow along your journey. “Semi-demi FIRE” made me laugh. Your view looks gorgeous! Also “two Euros for a Tinto de Verano and a tapa” is an insanely good deal. I’ll have to add the Albaicin to my bucket list!

    The rhythm of your days sounds wonderful! It’s also awesome you’ve already made friends – that’s a concern of mine when I start my global ‘vagabond’ lifestyle. Also I’ve been called weird countless times and wholeheartedly agree: “Weird is good!”

    Random question: What’s RyanAir like with a baby? Just like a regular airline?

    1. The Vagabond Post author

      Thank *you*, and congrats on the launch of your blog! I am excited to see how things go for you, you are already so close!

      The two Euro tinto is awesome, and Granada is one of the last places in Spain where a free tapa with any drink is a given. It seems to be a bit of a dying tradition, but it’s alive and well here!

      Friendships are so key, otherwise you’re just perpetually a traveler and never really “home.” I think it’s a perfectly legitimate concern, and the onus is obviously on the expat to go out of your/our way to break down barriers. It’s so nice to have found that it’s possible and worth the effort, though.

      We have flown other budget airlines in Europe with the baby, but our first RyanAir trip is actually this coming month. Despite their strict baggage and seating rules, we were surprised (and happy) to learn that even the budget airlines will check a carseat and a stroller for free. As long as we can put up with having the baby on our laps and can fit her clothes, food, and stuff into our bags, it works well enough. Of course it’s not luxurious, but when you can jet off to an amazing new destination or three hours or less, it’s not too bad.

      1. APurpleLife

        Aww thank you! I’m going to try and think of 2 years as close – currently it feels far to me :).

        I’m glad the tradition is alive and well there. I believe it’s still alive in Italy as well as “Aperitivo” – or at least it was when I lived in Bologna a few years ago. I looooved it! As a broke college student I was loading up on those free apps!…Though to be honest I bet I’d act the same way now lol.

        Completely agree with the importance of friendships. I might need to pick your brain when I get closer to retirement to see if I can replicate some of your success :).

        Oh wow – that’s great to hear that budget airlines let you check that stuff for free! I had no idea. Sounds totally worth it!

        Well thank you again – I’m looking forward to the next installment :).

        1. The Vagabond Post author

          Two years will fly by (though I’m sure when you’re stuck at work some days it will seem to be crawling)!

          I think how well one builds connections with people abroad is probably closely correlated with social skills at home. I have noticed that there are a few people out there in the FIRE community who are (for lack of a better term) socially reclusive, but intend to FIRE abroad and expect it to be this grand adventure full of friends and fun. Well, it can be, but if one doesn’t forge relationships at home, how can one possibly do it when adding language and cultural barriers to the mix?? Of the people that I know of for whom life abroad didn’t fit, it seems like the issue is often that feeling of being an outsider becoming overwhelming, and the only way to mitigate that feeling is to adapt to the local culture (or to move someplace where you can live in an enclave of your own culture– but yuck!).

          1. APurpleLife

            That’s a great point about social skills. Looking at it from that perspective I’m no longer worried about making friends abroad for one reason: The best friends I made in Italy I met because I helped them in a grocery store :). Guess I just need to retry that model of being kind and talking to strangers (or something similar) and see what happens!

            I’m also feeling more confident now that I think about it because of our awesome FIRE community. I’m starting to make real friends in it and its so global I feel like I could at least find a ‘stronghold’ (if you will) in a lot of global cities. Thanks for making me feel better lol!

  3. Tatiana

    Hi! Thank you for writing the follow-up. It is very inspiring to read about your family’s adventures. Hopefully within few years we could be on the same path too.
    I was trying to find an answer to one question that is on my mind, but could not. If you’ve covered it somewhere, forgive my possible lack of attention. What about the language? Do you and the Mrs. V know Spanish, or do you get by on English only?
    Many thanks in advance!

    1. The Vagabond Post author

      Hi Tatiana,

      I studied Spanish at a private Spanish school (nothing too serious, just a night a week) for about three years before we left. Mrs. V had taken basic Spanish and took it long ago in high school. My Spanish is proficient but imperfect, probably a C1 or so on the European scale. Mrs. V doesn’t have as much of a language background, so it’s a little harder for her– she is more of a beginner.

      In Granada, it is possible, but definitely not preferable, to get by with just English. It would probably be much easier where there are enclaves of UK expats, like in Malaga and elsewhere on the Costa del Sol. Personally, I think coming with at least basic proficiency makes a huge difference in the experience, and your ability to access the local lifestyle and culture. There are a lot of opportunities we wouldn’t have had without at least one of us speaking decent Spanish. Also, comparing our two experiences, there have been more times where Mrs. V has felt awkward or isolated than I have, and that’s hard too. It’s a big reason she’s working to catch up by attending intensive classes locally. There have been times (going to the veterinarian, our baby’s medical emergency) where, without my ability to speak the language, the stress of the situation would have been much more overwhelming. I am definitely glad I didn’t have to explain certain things with hand gestures only!

  4. Mr. Enchumbao

    Hi! Wow, I’m so sorry to hear about the accident with your baby girl. We just had our first born (a girl) and I can not even begin to imagine how you terrible must have felt. I’m glad that she came out okay.
    Your life in Spain sounds fascinating. Spain is one of the first places that we’ll visit next year after we retire. We’re so close! We’re waiting for our baby to be a little older before we hit the road so we’re planning to retire by August of 2019.

    1. The Vagabond Post author

      Congratulations on your little one! Yeah, I felt pretty awful (and still do when it comes up), but thankfully they are resilient and no permanent harm was done (other than to my sense of parental perfection!). Spain is a great place to be Semi-FIRE, and I am sure you will love it here. Europe as a whole is so welcoming to families with very young children– much more so than the US, in our experience. From the elderly down to the surliest teenager, everyone stops and plays with the baby. It really makes us feel that, even in hard moment (baby screaming on a plane or in a restaurant, or other everyday occurrences), nobody is taking it personally and that we are still welcome everywhere.

  5. Erin A.

    I just found your blog by searching for non-lucrative Spain visa SF. Thank you for that post and information.
    I also live in SV and we are planning a sabbatical to Spain next year with our kids (3 & 6). I have a few questions, if you have time to comment:
    1. Why did you select Granada? We are also looking at that specific neighborhood because its gotten some blog love from other US expats. I wonder if we are being swayed by the available online information and just wondering how you selected it.
    2. You mentioned in other comments that you went to a local language school, can you share the information? I am looking at engaging a private tutor but still unsure about how to bone up on my Spanish.
    3. It sounds like you sold your primary residence, did you sell or store most of your misc belongings? This is just me crowd sourcing information. We are planning on 1-2 years but were NOT going to sell our house as its our inflation anchor and gives us a huge comfort. Even if it ties up a huge portion of our assets.
    4. I mentioned we are considering Granada but I’m concerned about the summer heat. How was it for you guys and are apartments typically air conditioned?
    5. Lastly, not a question but I would love to hear more about the process of moving. Did you ship anything or just bring suitcases, etc.

    I know that was a lot so feel free to selectively answer but know that people are reading your posts and hungry for more information! We’ll be in the area in early Jan 2019 as well. All the best!

    1. The Vagabond Post author

      Hi Erin,

      Congrats on making the decision to take the year or two away! Without trying to talk it up too much, it really is everything we hoped it would be, and we are pretty certain we’ll stay a second year and then re-evaluate. I hope that it will be as rewarding for you as it has been for us.

      1) We selected Granada based on my prior visits to Andalucia (though not to Granada), and our desire to really immerse ourselves in Spanish culture. There are many fewer speakers of English here than there are in, say, Malaga, but the culture is extremely authentic, and the city is packed with history. Yes, Granada is probably overrepresented in the US-expats-in-Spain community, but so is Barcelona, and I think it’s a better choice than Barcelona, personally 🙂

      2) I studied at Spanish Ahora in Campbell. Deborah, the owner, is a friend and one of the best teachers of language I have ever met. If you end up in Granada, my wife studies at Castila in the Albaicin and she’s quite happy with it.

      3) Yep, we sold the condo. Firstly because it was never going to work as a long-term residence for our growing family, and secondly because it freed up from capital for different investments. *If* we decide down the road to try to make this arrangement permanent or semi-permanent, it makes figuring out withdrawal rates/income from the investments a little easier. We already knew that we weren’t destined for a lifetime in the Bay Area– or really anywhere as of right now. We’re aiming for long term slow (6-12 months per “base”) travel.

      4) It’s hot in summer, but this year, which admittedly our local friends have said was mostly a mild summer, it was manageable. Our house only has AC in one room: the baby’s nursery. We got by in our bedroom with a big fan aimed at the bed at night, and I seldom had trouble sleeping. I definitely overused AC back in California, so that might help set expectations. The oldest houses have incredibly thick walls and are well insulated to keep cool, and everyone’s house has thick metal shutters to keep the light and heat out during the day. There is some AC, but it’s definitely not commonplace. We have a particularly good relationship with our landlords, and our plan had been to offer to pay for the split AC system for our bedroom if it got really bad, and then let our landlords keep it. The total system cost for a room is only a few hundred Euros. In the end, for this year at least, it wasn’t necessary. Life itself here is designed around avoiding the heat– siesta times are the hottest parts of the day for a reason! Evening activities start when things cool off and go very, very late, though we miss out on a lot of that since our baby is only ten months old.

      5) Everything we brought fit in our rental car when we arrived, including our two large dogs. Two giant bags, one big checked bag per person, and one carryon per person. We shipped two small boxes of our daughter’s clothes once she got a little bigger, and we paid some customs on them– 30 EUR if I recall correctly. If you ship anything, you’re supposed to label it “cambio de residencia con visado,” or “change of residence with visa,” so they don’t assess you customs, but I have no experience with that.

      Hope this helps! Look us up if you end up in Granada and we’ll help get you going! Facebook has a group called Expats in Granada, and one called Life in Granada/La Vida en Granada that are pretty active and helpful.

      1. Erin A.

        Thanks for the thoughtful response! I don’t imagine Granada as overrun with Expats but I’ve seen a few references to people moving there. It’s great to hear your experience is so positive!

  6. Felipe Ocampo

    Great to have found the site. It is definitely very informative. My wife and I plan to retire in Spain in a few years so I will definitely stay tuned for more information of your life there. My wife was born in Spain and most of her family lives in Madrid so that will likely be our first geoarbitrage location. I am especially curios about tax implications between the two countries(U.S and Spain) assuming you live off of your investments. It looks like you are actually earning income through an employer so you may not run into this issue, but if you do have some experience with this I would love to learn more.
    Thanks for your time and I hope your little one is doing well after the fall.

  7. Niloofar Mazhari Hubrich

    You have probably answered this in past posts, but any info you have about paying taxes for expats in Spain would be appreciated.
    Thank you
    Niloofar

    1. The Vagabond Post author

      Hi Niloofar,

      We haven’t filed in Spain yet, but here is a brief summary: If you spend 183 days in Spain in the course of the year (which you must if you want your visa renewed) then you are a tax resident and must file by June 30. Spain has a 60K EUR exemption on income from a foreign source which we personally expect to result in us owing nothing.

      1. Sandra L Irick

        Hi V

        We used your excellent advice to obtain our non lucrative visas and here we are, happily (mostly) living in Valencia. Is that 60K exemption for a couple or each. I did try reading the tax treaty, pero no entiendo.

  8. Niloofar Mazhari Hubrich

    I may have to contact a tax attorney here because there is a bit of confusion with the treaty and having to pay taxes in the US and still having our primary residence in the US. I’ve tried to read the treaty and not being an attorney myself, some of the wording is confusing. They don’t make it easy do they?

  9. Boom

    hey there, i have been following your blog for a year or so and in the meantime i myself have moved to Granada as well. I am anxious for your comments on the visa renewal – in case you have done it… not sure you guys are still around. Congrats on the blog, saludos !

    1. The Vagabond Post author

      Hi Boom,

      We are still around– you will see some comments here about the renewal process in Granada. We were successful but the extranjeria doesn’t provide appointments for renewal and we were told to submit our paperwork via mail. Very nerve-wracking to say the least!

      Someday I’ll get around to writing an article about it, but for now I suggest poring over the comments here.

  10. Lindsay

    Great read! My husband and I are hoping to semi-demi-FIRE in Spain in about 2 years…and we also have the idea of maintaining some of my California salary by working remotely.

    If you don’t mind sharing…do you do your own taxes of use a CPA? Also, what are your thoughts on working with an employer to stay on as an employee while abroad vs self employment?

    (For reference, I’m in software engineering…but I’ve always been a full time employee which keeps taxes fairly straightforward. I’m trying to figure out if I should dip my toes into the self-employment/contractor world in order to prepare ourselves.)

    1. The Vagabond Post author

      I work as a self-employed contractor. I have an accountant who does my payroll and withholding services, as well as prepares the taxes for my LLC, but I prepare our family taxes myself. It’s less daunting than you might expect, and with the amount you can save on cost off living here, you may be able to supercharge your savings (as we have) by running a Solo 401(k). We currently put away over $50K pre-tax per year in just my name because you can act as both the employer and the employee. Our cost of living here is low enough that there’s a nice margin to allow us to really max the pre-tax space.

      I would encourage you to get it all set up and comfortable before leaving from a logistical standpoint. I wouldn’t want to be trying to incorporate, set up the 401(k), or get accounting going on this end. I’m glad I did them all on the US side and got comfortable with them.

  11. Robert C Cain

    Great blog! Than for all the guidance and information.

    Question, when doing your Visa actions, did you have to provide a Marriage License to the Spanish Consulate in CA?

    We visit San Sebastian a few times each year, but beginning the Temporary Non-lucrative Visa process.

    Than again!

    Bob

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