#OPERATIONEXPAT: A Checklist for Living Abroad | PANAMAEXPATINFO.COM
Ken and I met on Match.com. By the end of our second date, we knew a few key things about each other:

  1. I definitely wanted to be married again.
  2. Ken despised the religious and governmental institution of marriage.
  3. We both wanted to be living abroad some day.

That was five years ago—and two of the three still hold true. (Every good story needs a juicy mystery, right? 😏)

For the first few years, we exchanged expat fantasies over craft beer or artisan cocktails in our hipster neighborhood. In 2017, we started getting serious about moving abroad.

We immediately realized there was actually A LOT to consider when moving to another country! It was a bit daunting, to say the least.

Out with the old, in with the new.

I used to glorify all that was fresh and new.

  • “Life will be so much better in this house!”
  • These neighbors will be friendlier than our old ones.”
  • “I won’t get bored with this car.”
  • This man isn’t going to drive me crazy like the last one.” (😂😂😂)

I also used to make impulsive and thoughtless decisions.

As a result, I went through several houses, many neighbors, a bunch of cars, and a couple men before I got it—no matter where I am or who I’m with, life is going to be a monotonous and exciting, annoying and awesome, connected and disconnected, stressful and peaceful ride.

The one who truly realizes this first wins!

It was a 2009 electric blue John Cooper Clubman that was the first to show me that if I was actually mindful when choosing something for myself, the odds were exponentially higher that I would still love it long after I discovered its imperfections.

Nine years ago, I stepped out of habit and researched and contemplated—and contemplated and researched some more—before I took my Mini on a test drive and decided she was going to be mine.

Not long afterwards, her imperfections began to surface—she burns oil like no other, backfires daily, and costs me more in repairs than any other car (besides my parents’ hand-me-down Mercedes) I’ve ever owned. But, unlike my other imperfect cars, she still excites me every time I settle into the driver’s seat and my adoration of her has only deepened.

Funny…my Ken backfires daily AND challenges me on a pretty regular basis as well. 🤣 Fortunately, I was thoughtful and mindful about him from Day 1 and it warms my mushy heart to write that he’s just like my Mini—after five years, he still excites me every time I settle into the couch with him and my love for him has only deepened.

So, apparently this whole mindful thing works!

So, the goal is to be mindful when choosing the country where we would be living abroad so it would feed our souls more than it would bore, annoy or challenge us.

Our checklist for living abroad:

🔲 A COUNTRY & CULTURE THAT FIT US

We both had some must haves for our expat country—I needed trees and an abundance of nature to explore, Ken needed an ocean with surfable waves. We shared an introverted desire for some peace and quiet.

Maybe it’s an urban life for you or a tight knit expat community—what matters is you really think hard about what it is you really want.

We considered the people, geography, biology, weather, quality of life (including the amount of pollution), food, services and activities. Neither of us wanted to be an American expat living in another country—we wanted to assimilate as best we could with a country that kept us looking forward instead of leaving us pining for what we left behind.

🔲 SOMEWHERE WE FELT COMFORTABLE & SAFE

We crave a simpler life—but, we’re 50+ and are ready for some hammock time, too. We like the grid, because it allows for more hammock time. We also fans of drivable roads, indoor plumbing, hot showers, a basic grocery store, and a few decent restaurants.

Our personal safety was a non-negotiable for both of us. We don’t like anarchy, because it’s too unpredictable and tends to disrupt relaxation. We weren’t even remotely interested in moving anywhere where the line between law enforcement and the criminals wasn’t crystal clear, a military coup was even remotely possible, or the odds of a home invasion, sexual assault or terrorist attack were uncomfortably high.

🔲 A LENIENT AND AFFORDABLE RESIDENCY PROGRAM

Some countries are bombarded by expats, so they make it difficult (and costly) to obtain residency. Others woo you with minimal effort, low costs and tantalizing perks (especially for retired folks funded by a pension).

Who knows what the future holds, but at this time, we have no intention of giving up our U.S. citizenship—and we’re too young for a pension—so we had to find a country that would still be cool with us living abroad there for awhile without draining our bank account.

🔲 A LOWER COST OF LIVING

We weren’t looking for the cheapest place in the world to live, but a lower cost of living than where we are now was a MUST. Being from San Diego (California), this wouldn’t pose too much of a challenge.

In San Diego, you have to spend well over $1,000,000 to hear the ocean or soak up the sunset from the comfort of your own home.

I pay $600 in healthcare premiums every month—more if I actually go to a doctor or dentist.

Groceries for the two of us run about $600 a month if we stay out of Costco and a nice dinner out (with drinks) sets us back at least $75. Last month, I had to grab lunch on the go on a busy work day in the field—I paid $18 for a bottle of juice and some noodles in a plastic to go container.

To say WE’RE OVER IT is an understatement. We’re DONE watching our hard-earned money flow through our fingers like water as we live in moderation. We DESERVE to hear the ocean and SEE the sunset daily just as much as any multi-millionaire!

🔲 THE ABILITY TO EARN AN INCOME

Too old to (want to) work in hostels and too young to retire, earning income as an expat is one of the biggest hurdles that Ken and I face. This made nailing down #4 even more important—because Lower Cost of Living = Less Work.

I’m the lucky one when it comes to working abroad. As long as my clients are cool with it, I’m able to take my website design and virtual assistant business anywhere there’s high speed internet.

I also have every intention of fulfilling my long-time dream of owning and running a small nature and book retreat where tired people, avid readers, and creative folks can find rest, time, inspiration, beauty, healing AND fun.

So, in order to earn income abroad, I needed: 1) fast and reliable internet, 2) nature, and 3) affordable land.

Ken is a different story. He’s been a highly specialized employee all of his working life, so earning an income abroad poses a bigger for him. Being a large animal trainer doesn’t afford him too many self-employment opportunities. Fortunately, he has gained a good amount of real estate experience over the years.

We shall leave no stone unturned when it comes to his options for earning an income as an expat—it might be a job, an investment, or his own company. We just need a country that provides at least one, preferably all, of these opportunities.

🔲 EASY TO GET BACK HOME

On one of those early dates when Ken and I first talked about living abroad, he mentioned wanting to check out Asia and Indonesia. My mama heart sank.

The umbilical cord only stretches so far—I didn’t want to be more than a long day’s journey from my (big) babies (or even my own mama, dad, brothers, sisters and close friends). The longing and mama guilt would hamper my experience.

Having fallen in love with Belize and Costa Rica a decade ago, I had Central America pegged for an ideal expat destination. Thankfully, he was open to exploring with me.

🔲 SAFE TO INVEST & OWN PROPERTY

Our financial safety was a huge part of our expat equation. Being long-time property owners and investors, it’s difficult to return to the rental mindset when you know full well that it’s property owners who tend to come out the furthest ahead (financially) in the long run.

Since I was going to be using my irreplaceable nest egg to buy property—for our home AND my retreat—and I really appreciate the ability to sleep at night, a politically and economically stable country that offered expats the same financial and property ownership protections it gave its citizens was crucial for us.

🔲 OUR ABILITY TO LEARN THE LANGUAGE

In a perfect world, we wouldn’t have to learn a new language wherever we ended up living abroad. But, we’ve already covered that whole “perfect” thing. We just knew had to choose an expat country that had a language that our 50+ year old brains had a chance of comprehending and eventually speaking.

🔲 GOOD HEALTHCARE

We’re both in great health and rarely go to doctor other than for our annual checkups, but we definitely wanted the safety net of modern healthcare facilities—especially considering that ditching the cost of U.S. health insurance was one of our primary motivations in becoming expats.

Did I miss anything?

Did I miss anything on my Expat Checklist for Living Abroad??? I sure hope not because it’s kinda too late now!

In the next blog, I share some of my mom angst surrounding my expat journey. Click below to read it now: