The year was 1981 and, in San Jose, Tom Curran was hearing rumors that the savings and loan service department in which he worked was about to be transferred to Los Angeles.
"After having lived there three years, and now being happily settled in San Jose for 14 years, I was age 49 and I dreaded the thought of having to face that rat race in Southern California again," he recalled.
So Curran, divorced, took a somewhat unusual tour to the Central American country of Costa Rica. It was led by Modesto-based Retirement Explorations, which periodically escorts groups of Americans on personal-evaluation tours of foreign countries popular as retirement havens. "I liked what I saw in Costa Rica, and I spent $12,500 to buy a lot on a hill overlooking another San Jose--the capital city," Curran said. "For another $24,000, I built a three-bedroom house on it.
"By then, the department's move in California had been officially announced. I submitted my resignation and cashed out everything I owned--two pieces of property, furniture, car. I added the money from this to my severance pay, and put everything into a savings account."
Curran said he gets by easily in Costa Rica on $600 a month, which covers his comprehensive health-care plan, automobile insurance, twice-weekly maid service, frequent restaurant meals, cable television service supplying most stateside stations, and trips to the United States to visit his daughter and son.
More Heading Abroad
Expatriating. It is a decision being reached by a lot of Americans at or near retirement age: Instead of settling for a reduced standard of living--sometimes substantially so--on diminished retirement incomes in the United States, they head abroad; in many cases to a life more luxurious than the one they had when they worked for a living.
Every silver lining, however, has its cloud. Authorities and experienced retirees mention such potential negatives as culture shock over everything from the local cuisine to driving habits to the lack of American products, loneliness (which may be only partially alleviated by moving to the "Gringo Gulch" section of one's adopted country), security problems (barred windows aren't uncommon in some parts of Costa Rica, for example) and political instability.
There also may be the necessity of learning a foreign language, property-ownership problems (some countries don't allow outsiders to hold title or leave property to their heirs), being many miles and expensive airline flights away from family and friends, and below-customary standards for such services as mail, telephones and health care.
Advises John Howells, author of the book "Choose Latin America": "Expect the unexpected."
"There are many reasons why retired Americans are relocating aboard," said Shirley Waldrum, senior program specialist with the American Assn. of Retired Persons, the omnipresent group that claims more than 30 million members. "Not the least of the reasons is the fact that in most of the more popular places, the pace of living is slower than what they have been used to, particularly if the newcomers had been living in an urban area."
Opting for Earlier Retirement
Peter A. Dickinson, author of "Travel and Retirement Edens Abroad," said from his home in Prescott, Ariz., that the trend to retirement abroad appears to have begun in the mid-1970s.
"Around that time, people began more and more to choose early retirement," he said. "Having education, energy, and the desire to travel, they found they might be more able to do so from a permanent foreign location, where lower living expenses might permit room in the budget for seeing other places.
"As people began feeling comfortable about living in other nations," Dickinson added, "the word spread."
How many Americans have uprooted? Philip Covington, public affairs officer with the Consular Affairs Bureau in Washington, D. C., said an estimated 2 million U. S. citizens are living overseas, a figure that doesn't include U. S. government workers, either military or non-military.
"As for how many of that total are retirees, we have no way of knowing," he said. "But I would be surprised if the number isn't at least half a million."
Although no agency or organization specifically tracks numbers of older Americans living abroad, there are some clues:
- According to Frank Battistelli of the Social Security Administration, 163,649 Social Security retirement checks are being sent monthly to former American workers in foreign nations. As of April, the top 10 foreign countries for Americans receiving retirement Social Security checks were Canada (32,094), Mexico (20,072), Italy (19,520), West Germany (10,108), Greece (7,333), the Philippines (6,690), Portugal (4,516), Ireland (3,698), Israel (3,000) and Spain (2,917)--figures up slightly from previous years.