How to retire abroad on $500 a month

Image of a relaxing lake -- perfect for an early retirement

For as long as I can remember, I have known that I wasn’t fit for the corporate world.

Like J.D. Roth, the founder of Get Rich Slowly, I am an introvert, not a fan of authority and even less of structure. So even before I graduated college, I had my mind on one big goal: leave the corporate world as soon as possible. I was working for a big IT multinational in business school; those were not the happiest times, but that job allowed me to graduate debt free, with a small nest egg that I immediately invested to buy my first rental property in cash.

I believe real estate is one of the best way to build wealth and make money, since you generate an almost passive income, but it was far from enough to cover my basic living expenses. I started playing with those online savings calculators to see where my savings would take me in 5, 10 or 20 years. It was a revelation.

Do you know that if you make $2,000 and invest 10 percent of your salary at 6 percent for the next 40 years, you will have $400,289 for only $96,000 invested? At a 4 percent withdrawal rate, your nest egg will produce a monthly income of $1,334. Less than the $2,000 you are making today, or the $1,800 you are living on since you are investing 10 percent of your salary, but no small change.

The thing is, I didn’t want to wait for 40 years. Playing with the calculator some more, I found out that if you can live on 25 percent of your salary, to cover your expenses in retirement, you only need to save for 7 years! Living on 25 percent of my salary was a bit of a stretch, so I looked for ways to make more money. I bought a three-bedroom apartment and took in two roommates. I took odd jobs on top of my day job; I was making money tutoring at night and writing for several travel websites on the weekends, catering at weddings and freelancing as a translator. The plan was to retire around age 40, but I was so determined to quit my last job that I considered an alternative: how about leaving the U.K., where I worked, and relocating abroad?

At the time, I was 29 and owned two rentals in France and the U.K. that would cover my expenses in a cheaper country. I had a few investments that could cover the mortgage on the second rental (the first one was paid for) in case of a vacancy. And my freelance income was more than what I made at my day job. It came from half a dozen sources, and the probability of them all drying up at once was slim. I quit my job and took a one way flight to Morocco.

I lived in Casablanca for a year, and started a life of semi-retirement. I would cycle along the oceanfront, study Arabic, spend hours shopping for fresh produce or eating grilled camel at the market, and travel for weeks at a time to get pictures and posts for my travel writing gigs. I loved my time in Morocco but kept thinking about a country I loved even more, Guatemala. I had lived there for three years after business school, and after traveling to 80 countries, it was still one of my favorite. After a short trip there, I knew it would be my next destination. I found a piece of land by a beautiful lake in the northern area of the country, complete with a lovely little house that could become a guest house someday (one of my dreams). I bought it with cash along with with a 90-acre piece of land that I am turning into a residential development.

I have been living there with my boyfriend for almost a year, and after putting quite a bit of cash into house renovations and building a detached room and panoramic terrace, we are living happily on less than $1,000 a month, or $500 each.

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Here is our budget:

Housing: $0 We bought our property with cash. You can rent a lovely furnished one- or two-bedroom house in Antigua Guatemala or Lake Atitlán, the two favorite retirement spots in the country, for $500 to $700 a month, generally including utilities. For a bigger colonial home, you will have to spend $1,000 to $1,500 per month.

Food: $200 This is pretty high, almost the minimum wage in Guatemala but we like to eat and that includes some imported products we enjoy (like cheese!) and some alcohol. We seldom go out.

Car: $100 We have two old cars that we bought with cash and put about $100 per month in gas.

Electricity: $80 With the house renovations there were drills and tools plugged all day, we occasionally use air conditioning, and pump our water from the lake to cook and shower with an electric pump.

Natural gas: $12 for a 25 lb. container that lasts about a month.

Staff: $300 We have a full time handyman/gardener around the house, who alternates with his girlfriend who comes to clean the house. This is a great perk to living in Guatemala.

Animals: $20 We have a rooster and 10 hens, some turkeys, ducks and roosters. They eat a $20 bag of feed per month, we eat $40 worth of delicious free-range eggs each month. Win-win!

Internet: $80 We spend $40 each. He pays for a data plan on his iPhone, and I pay for a wireless USB modem. It’s expensive, but we are in the middle of nowhere!

Property taxes: $30

Accountant: $20 We own the house and land as an LLC so we need an accountant.

Random: $150 Once in a while we go out, buy something for the house or go over the grocery budget, but that never comes to $150 though, but if something breaks it could. It is quite complicated to get car parts or any parts around here.

That’s a total of $992 or $496 per person.

On top of that, I spend about $3,000 per year or $250 per month on travel. I fly back to France for a month but stay with my family so apart from a $1,000 ticket I don’t spend a lot, my last trip cost about $2,000 so I still have $1,000 to travel somewhere else, maybe the U.S., by the end of the year.

You may have noticed that I don’t mention healthcare. When I go back to France I get my physical from my doctor, and I do not have health insurance here, just a travel insurance included in my credit card that will repatriate me if something serious happened. This year, I only got a root canal in Guatemala that cost $200.

With the cost of a rental, healthcare and travel back to the U.S. once or twice a year, you could live well here on less than $1,000 per person. Go the extreme early retirement route, and you can live on rice and beans for less than $300, housing included.

But is retiring abroad worth it? I wrote a post recently to compare the costs of early and normal retirement in the U.S. versus abroad, where I concluded that you could either live better than you do for the same price, have a bigger home, some staff, a lovely piece of land with a view for the price of a 500-square-foot condo, or be able to retire years earlier by moving to a cheaper country and living by local standards.

For me, Guatemala meets all my requirement. The weather is mild all year long (they call it the land of eternal spring), people are nice and relaxed, the cost of living is very low and you can find most things you may want or need, from imported tech gadgets to U.S. trained doctors, albeit at a cost. I enjoy my month-long European holiday to visit my family and friends. Since I have been living abroad for the past 10 years anyway, I am used to emailing and Skyping the rest of the year. They visit me occasionally, as well. I could live in France on a similar or slightly higher budget but would not get the same quality of life.

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Where you will spend your retirement is a very personal choice, and for many, being near your family will be on the top of your list. Although if your kids are on the West coast and you are on the East coast, you are just as far away as if you had retired under the Guatemalan sun.

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