Early retirement in the US vs abroad


Every time I go to Antigua Guatemala, a lovely colonial town in the South of the country, I am amazed by the number of retirees who decided to come spend their golden years in Guatemala. I saw a question on Mr Money Mustache about where the best place would be to retire early, so let’s look at the costs.

Early retirement

Typical costs of retiring in Guatemala


Here is a more detailed post about the cost of living in Guatemala.

Rent: You can find a lovely small place for $500, or a luxury house for $1,000, both fully furnished, with all bills but electricity included. Yes, even wifi. Here are a few listings you can check if you would like to learn more.

Food: We eat well, have meat once a day at least, and buy quite a bit of alcohol for $200 per month. A lunch at a small comedor will cost you $2, and a nicer restaurant dinner costs $20 or more per person but can rival with international cuisine.

Healthcare: Most retirees don’t have health insurance, but healthcare is cheap. A visit to a US trained doctor costs $20 to $50 and you can visit a local doctor for much less that this.

Transportation: Having your own car is not really a must if you live in Antigua Guatemala or around Lake Atitlan, where tuk tuks and taxi boats will take you anywhere for $2. You can rent a car for $20 a day when you want to visit the country.

Staff: A full time maid costs about $200 per month, or $12 a day if you want her to come once a week.

Taxes: We get taxed at 6% of gross income, as we operate as an LLC. We pay 0.9% a year in property taxes over the thankfully undervalued price of our properties. VAT is 12% and that is about it. We could claim company expenses to get the VAT back but would pay 31% of our benefit in taxes, so the 6% works better since our expenses are low.

A couple can live well on $1,000 per month, in a small home. Make it $2,000 and you can have a larger place, some fun money to travel and go out, be it to restaurants or to climb a volcano, what is the point of living in Guatemala if you aren’t going to enjoy all it has to offer?

Since we have no mortgage, we live on about $1,000 per month with a full time staff, two cars, a motor boat and a couple of trips abroad during the year.


Extreme early retirement cost of living in Guatemala


If you want to do it the extreme way, you can live on $400 a month or less. A small house in my village recently sold for $6,000 on a 900 sqm plot. It is a basic thatched hut, and unless you would rather live in Detroit, you will find few houses in the US in that price range.

Those houses rent for under $100 a month, add $50 for utilities, $50 for food (a rice and bean diet mostly), and an occasional $2 feast at the fried chicken joint. You can dress at the local thrift store for $0.5 a shirt and take bus rides for $1 an hour.  Since you can’t afford Baygon, better find a malaria-free zone, and always have the price of a ticket back home saved up for sanitary repatriation.

A $300 a month budget is lean, but not impossible to live on, $200 if you bought a house.


Considerations when living abroad


For people like me, living abroad is not a sacrifice, on the contrary. I love the mild weather, my lakefront paid for house, and can afford to go back to France whenever I want. I just went for a full month and did all the family and friends visits I wanted.

But you should add up the costs of flying back and forth if you plan on traveling often. The fact that you will be away from your family and friends. The language barrier if you arrive without speaking it. The difference in diet, you won’t find all the products you are used to in the supermarket. The added cost of some imported products you may not be able to live without. From cereals to computers to used cars, we pay a premium to buy stuff from abroad.

There is also the visa cost, in Guatemala a 2 year residency can be obtained via a lawyer for $1,000 (or you can go queue up for hours in hot and humid offices, or make a visa run to Mexico every 3 months). Then you can renew for another 2 years before applying for permanent residency.


Cost of retiring in the US


Housing: That will be your main cost, and it can vary greatly depending on where you retire. If you are going the early retirement route on an average salary, you won’t be able to afford housing in a high cost of living area.

You can rent a small place in the Midwest for $400, limit your food budget to $200 by clipping coupons, have a high deductible health insurance cover like MMM for $250, cycle around, grow a garden and lower your heating costs by wearing extra layers. A $2,000 budget, like the comfortable Guatemalan retirement budget, is perfectly achievable with some dedicated fun money for holidays or whatever you fancy.

If you have already paid off your house, in order to make an apple to apple comparison, you should treat the equity as idle money, since you would get a cheaper house abroad and that money is not bringing you interest or anything.

Extreme early retirement in the US can be achieved for even less, there is a sample $1,000 budget on Tight Fisted Miser that shows how you can live on $12,000 a year.

The main thing you sacrifice by living in the US instead of in a cheaper country is your comfort. Living in a small studio or a 1 bed apartment instead of a bigger house with staff. You may not have a garden for a $400 rent, or if you do, it would be in a remote place with little social activities where a car will be a must. You may not even find those rates unless you live with roommates. Your meals will evolve around coupon food, not what you really feel like eating. Your holiday options will be a camping trip, Couchsurfing or no holidays at all.

Your lifestyle will either be more frugal for the same price, or twice as expensive as maintaining it abroad. Meaning you will need twice the money before you can retire. At a 4% withdrawal rate, you can retire with $300,000 on $1,000 a month. But if you need $2,000 to live, you will have to work until your nest egg reaches $600,000. If you are desperate to retire early, go do the $300/month early retirement thing in Guatemala as soon as you have saved $100K, because you won’t be able to live on that in the US. I know I wouldn’t like that kind of extreme lean living, and it it a pretty bad idea to choose a country only because it’s cheap, but I have met people who spend months here on a few hundred dollars a month.



So is retiring abroad worth it?

Yes. If you want to enjoy a higher standard of living for the same cost. In your 30s, having a staff is a luxury, but in your 60s, having someone carry the groceries and mop the floor when your back hurts is pretty awesome.

If you want to visit a new destination and are curious about other cultures, living there for a few weeks or a few years is a unique experience.

No. If you can’t live away from your family, will get homesick and want to come back four times a year. Crashing on your brother’s couch is ok for a few days, after a while it is abusive, people do not have to cover your living expenses because you are too cheap to pay for your own place.

If you are just there for the cheap cost of living and will never get out of the house because activities cost money, bad idea too. A life of clipping coupons and free concerts at the community college will be more fulfilling.


A good option for many people retiring in Guatemala is to come spend the winter months under the sun. They fly back to a paid home in the US for summer, enjoy their grandkids and the longer days, and rent a house when they are here. With flight tickets and the rental, they enjoy the country for the price of staying at home. Some rent their home and manage to live well here for under the price of the rent. Popular retirement destinations include Mexico, Belize, Costa Rica, Panama, Ecuador, Argentina and Chili. Being on the same time zone as the US is convenient if you need to call home, and you have no jetlag on holiday. Eastern Europe and South East Asia are also popular but flights are much more expensive, retirees tend to fly back once a year or every other year.


Before you think about relocating somewhere just because it is cheap, check out Jason Hull’s post on the subject.



This post was featured on the Common Cents Wealth, Carnival of Retirement, Life and my Finances, PF Carny, Money Smart Guides, Funny About Money, GenY Finance Journey, Control Your Cash, Aspiring Blogger, Hurricanes Panties and Dollars, Fitnancials, Money Bulldog, Bite the Bullet Investing, Midlife Finance, My Personal Finance Journey, Your PF Pro, Cash Funny, Carnival of Retirement, thank you!

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  1. Great comparison. I’ve thought of this kind of retirement arbitrage often. I don’t think it’s for me, but for people who are itching to check out a new place and experience some luxuries they could afford in the US, it sounds like a great plan.
    CashRebel recently posted..One More Way To Be Green, Frugal And EfficientMy Profile

  2. Since I already live in one of the cheaper states in a paid for house it wouldn’t make sense for me to move to another state to retire. If I were to retire abroad it would not be to some tropical place since I just enjoy visiting places like that, not living there. I’m not 100% sure where I would pick, but it would probably be either Ireland or Austria, both of which are not the cheapest places to live. Of course I don’t really aspire to retire that early so it might not be a big deal anyways.

  3. My aunt and uncle live in the Atitlan area. My aunt went down there to work for a year and that was nearly 20 years ago now! The people she used to work for are American and tried returning to the US to retire but quickly headed back to Guate as they consider it home.
    The costs you’ve laid out are very interesting! Great topic idea.
    Anne @ Unique Gifter recently posted..Wedding Thank You Gifts for Parents – Part IIMy Profile

    • Thanks! I love it here too so I get their point, plus life is really comfortable (bigger houses, staff, etc.) and a mild weather all year makes it hard to bear winter again.

  4. My city is full of snowbirds – Canadian seniors who head south for the winter but spend the rest of the year here. Best of both worlds and you maintain your free enrollment in the Canadian healthcare system. The Canadian government will send your pension cheques anywhere. Most snowbirds go to Florida but they are starting to go further south to take advantage of lower costs and better weather.

    I can see living abroad when you are a healthy retiree but I would probably retreat to the comforts of Canada to live under the supervision of my sons when I become frail.
    Jane Savers @ Solving The Money Puzzle recently posted..Mortgage Versus HELOC – The Winner Is…..My Profile

    • What a great perk to keep your healthcare even if you spend summers abroad. The checks I think it is normal they send them anywhere, as you worked to deserve them, it is not like sending your unemployment check to Thailand!

  5. Interesting! Great post. I live in a pretty cheap state, so the cost savings here aren’t worth the trade off of moving away from friends and family. However, a long-term stay still interests us.
    Michelle recently posted..The Benefits of Paying Off Student Loan Debt EarlyMy Profile

  6. I think the split time might be an option for us at some point, but I still doubt it. The cost advantage is clear, but the distance from family will likely be too much for us to really consider it.
    Matt Becker recently posted..How to Beat 80% of Investors With 1% of the EffortMy Profile

    • It is quite nice to be able to go somewhere for 2-3 months, rent a house, live like a local and then coming back home. Doesn’t have to be every year or anything, some retirees I see do it every 5 years or it is their first time.

  7. Great article. I always new it was much more cost effective to live abroad, but never realized the extent of it.
    Sean @ One Smart Dollar recently posted..How to Travel The World for FreeMy Profile

  8. My wife is so jealous when I tell her you have staff, it sounds so posh. I think there are pros and cons to both and clearly you have to want to live in certain places around the world. We’ve talked about living somewhere else because we both have our passports to travel the EU but not sure where we would go if planned on staying. Right now I love Canada and hope to find a nice plot of land to build a home or renovate with no neighbours. How close are your nearest neighbours?
    Canadianbudgetbinder recently posted..June 2013 net worth update: Everything is not lost (+0.09%)My Profile

    • Any place has pros and cons and we all have a different list of values, looks like Canada is a great place for you to be. My closest neighbors who live there are about 500 meters away, 200 meters away there is a house where people come to spend the weekend (and jet ski, I hate the noise!), and a couple more house where I have never seen people. The village is about 1km away.

  9. Nice breakdown Pauline. This is something my wife and I would definitely consider, though it would be tough to be away from the kids. However, she has recently started floating the idea of us going abroad for 3-4 months just to do it and since we run our own business we can do our work from anywhere we want. I am sure that would give us a taste of it as the longest we’ve ever been abroad is about a month.
    John S @ Frugal Rules recently posted..How to Deal When You’re Forced to be FrugalMy Profile

  10. This is something I have definitely considered. My biggest challenge would be family…I love being around them. So something would have to change in that regard for me to take the plunge. Thanks for detailing these things to consider.
    Brian @ Luke1428 recently posted..Want to Influence Others? Lead by ExampleMy Profile

    • Family is a major concern for most. That said, many people don’t regularly see their family, when you really write down how many times you saw each other last year it can be eye opening. When I lived in Paris I visited my mum about twice a month. Now I visit a month per year and we spend quality time so it is about the same.

  11. Wow- you’ve almost convinced me to retire there today! I liked your comparisons, and you really hit some serious considerations one must make before retiring out of the country. I’ve never really thought of retiring elsewhere, but now I can definitely see some of the benefits, though I would definitely miss my family. Thanks for the article and perspective!

    • Thank you Troy. It all boils down to people’s roots and priorities. The family is a big one if everyone lives nearby you’ll miss them like crazy. If you see your family only for holidays, you could fly back and it would be similar as living in another state.

  12. I think extended stays (a year or so in length) are pretty likely for us in spots similar to Guatemala. That’s really how we like traveling, and we could rent out our house while we are gone to provide even an additional offset to the cost.
    Mrs PoP @ Planting Our Pennies recently posted..Why I Don’t Like The Word SavingMy Profile

    • If you find workers on temporary contracts that is ideal, they stay in your house for 6/9 months while you are away and pay for your trip abroad. My UK rental pretty much offsets my costs here but people stay long term so I can’t go back in summer and ask for my old room back!

  13. I have definitely thought about this. I love adventure and exploring new places.
    SavvyFinancialLatina recently posted..The Home Search BeginsMy Profile

  14. I would consider owning a seasonal home abroad, but probably not full-time. I would miss my family and friends back home too much, especially if I had children and/or grandchildren. I think it’s a lot easier to do without children or grandchildren. If you do have them, you might feel like you are missing out on too much of their lives. At the same time, if your children/grandchildren live halfway across the country anyway, it might not be too different retiring abroad as you would see them the same amount of time. It’s hard for me to imagine living abroad long-term, though. I would consider doing it for a couple years at a time, though.

    • It is not much different than an East coast-West coast setting, although flights can be more expensive internationally. You are better of renting for periods under 3-5 years, there is a lot of quality offer to meet demand from temporary expats.

  15. Something to definitely consider for me. I just found an apartment (affordable housing) for $1230/mo. Two bedroom apartments go for $1400-$1700 here in Orange County. Everything is so expensive here. Guatemala sounds like a paradise.
    Peter recently posted..Why It Pays to Organize your DeskMy Profile

    • It sure is expensive, I live for almost two months on that haha. But it doesn’t sound exaggerate considering it is CA. You wouldn’t get a one bed in NYC or SF for that price. It can be justified if you earn more by living there but if your goal is to retire early, you can make an even earlier exit by moving to a cheaper place.

  16. Jen @ The Happy Homeowner says:

    Love this post–such a great, comprehensive break down of the pros/cons of each decision. I love that you pointed out the random bits like diet and shopping and language–sometimes people get too caught up in the romanced version that they lose sight of reality.
    Jen @ The Happy Homeowner recently posted..What Price Would You Pay to Have it All?My Profile

  17. Jake @ Common Cents Wealth says:

    Nice breakdown, Pauline. Retiring abroad is an interesting concept. I wouldn’t mind the better weather, but I definitely would miss my family and friends. Being that I’m 30-40 years away from retiring, I’m sure my priorities will change by then anyways.
    Jake @ Common Cents Wealth recently posted..Photo Thursday: Cincinnati Reds Game & No Hitter!My Profile

    • Many families come here with their kids, grandparents have passed or are estranged, so they keep their family unit here and fly to the US to visit uncles and cousins once a year or so. It always depends on how close you are to your family.

  18. Nick @ ayoungpro.com says:

    Great breakdown Pauline! I had no idea that the costs could be so drastically different.
    Nick @ ayoungpro.com recently posted..Perspective and The Need For an Emergency FundMy Profile

  19. I love the concept, but I will stay in California. Unfortunately, I have a high cost of living, but I also have a nest egg to support it. The main reasons are 2 adult children who also live in California. I wouldn’t mind visiting a variety of countries for a month at a time, rent an apartment and enjoy the country.
    krantcents recently posted..How to Think Rich and Be RichMy Profile

    • We also get lots of RVs who just go down South for winter, it looks like a bird migration. I think it is pretty awesome to have your little house on wheels and set camp wherever you please.

  20. Great post Pauline, the key for retirees in the US will be the cost of Healthcare. I think with the changes and costs going up with U.S. Healthcare, then retiring in a different country is even more enticing!
    Jim recently posted..Windturbines: Great For Wind Energy, Not So Great For The Rare Bird PopulationMy Profile

    • I am amazed at healthcare costs in the US but don’t think they’ll be sustainable for long, they may have to lower or everyone will make a Canada run to get treated!

  21. Really interesting post Pauline, I love reading about your lifestyle in Guatemala. Retiring abroad is something I have given thought to before, because it is so much cheaper. Plus you can enjoy some beautiful scenery. My first reaction is not full time, as I would miss my family, but I would definitely consider a split arrangement. I would love to explore the cultures of different places and travel around, and this would let me do so inexpensively.
    E.M. recently posted..The Experience of Being A BridesmaidMy Profile

    • Depending on where you retire, say Baja California, you would be a 3 hour flight away from the West coast, not much different than if you live in NYC. And by the time you retire it may only be a 30 minute commute!

  22. I just saw a house hunters international that focused on that area. I honestly don’t know where I’d want to retire right now, but I know I don’t want to be living some kind of extreme frugal way of life…simple, but not extreme. So I guess it will depend on so many thing when that time comes. Either way, I hope I have enough for wherever I choose.
    Budget and the Beach recently posted..My BudgetMy Profile

    • Extreme could be fun in your 30s, even early 40s, but those extreme cheapskates who are 65 and still pinching pennies are pretty sad. Better have a nice cushion to enjoy.

  23. Staff: A full time maid costs about $200 per month, or $12 a day if you want her to come once a week. Yes, yes, yes, where do I “sign up”? In all honesty we only see my parents a couple of times a year anyway, so we may as well be in another country with a lower cost of living. Definitely something to give some serious thought to.
    KK @ Student Debt Survivor recently posted..Mom Manages the MoneyMy Profile

  24. I’ve thought about retiring abroad… well, at least for a few years to try it out. To me, one of the great joys of retiring early will be the newfound ability to travel the world and enjoy without being on a time crunch. Why not go some place new and live on LESS money?

    Seems like a pretty good deal. You seem to be managing quite well :)
    FI Fighter recently posted..The Next Big Thing: Tesla MotorsMy Profile

    • If you enjoy the travel part of it then it is awesome. Doing it just for the money wouldn’t be worth the trouble. Although in Mexico you almost feel like living in the southern US states at a fraction of the cost.

  25. Sam Gill @ Digital Spikes says:

    Wow that very good post, I had heard people moving there but didn’t knew the reason, now I know it. Well I am still far from retirement and would like, thanks for providing the insights to take a decision. The cost difference is huge
    Sam Gill @ Digital Spikes recently posted..Simple frugal tips to save money wiselyMy Profile

  26. This is a great breakdown of the cost of living in Guatemala. I’ve told my girlfriend we need to retire tomorrow and move to Belize or Guatemala. She says we can’t afford it. I try to explain how cheap it is to live there. I’ll have to show her this proof from a resident!
    Jon @ MoneySmartGuides recently posted..Building My Niche Site: Part 4 – Gaining Traffic and BacklinkingMy Profile

    • It is super cheap, you can really live well on less. Belize is a bit more expensive because the mainland is ugly so you live on the islands and everything comes by boat.

  27. Those are freakin’ eye popping numbers, Pauline and we already live far from family who are mostly in the north. Methinks we are moving toward this type of move with each passing day and RFI post!

    Your writing has an extra shine to it in this post. It is always engaging, but even more so in this entertaining and well-reasoned post! Have a groovalicious day!!!
    cj recently posted..Just Can’t Keep It to ThemselvesMy Profile

  28. Tammy R says:

    Pauline, I love when you run the numbers for us. Thank you. I think Antigua Guatemala sounds lovely – from what you’ve written in the past. The beauty, cost, and weather are three big pluses. I think the healthcare is so reasonable that it might be more cost effective than the US in retirement – given that you’re relatively healthy.
    Tammy R recently posted..Just Can’t Keep It to ThemselvesMy Profile

    • You can get great healthcare in the capital city, most doctors are trained in the US, they just practice here, so there is no difference really in the care. If you choose a local doctor, well that it another story haha!

  29. Fantastic insights. The lower cost of living abroad is certainly really appealing. $1000/month for luxury living accomodations = sweet!
    Untemplater recently posted..20 Ways To Fight Afternoon Drag At Work Without Caffeine!My Profile

  30. The exchange rate in countries like Vietnam means you’ll be able to buy a little hotel / motel to live in and run as a business to keep yourself occupied if you are retired but missing the stimulation of work.
    Kari recently posted..Exciting Places To Visit, Eat and Sleep in TexasMy Profile

  31. Thanks for linking to my post. Way back in 1997, I lived in Guatemala for 3 months on $650 and that included quite a bit of traveling around the country. I’ve been back a few times since then and prices haven’t gone up much. I think it would still be possible.
    Andy Hough recently posted..Change of Plans – Back from HikeMy Profile

    • yes, it would. $650 is enough to stay in $10 hostels and travel around a bit on $10 a day. Not very comfortable though but if you are not picky you can eat well for $2. Food prices are still very low, hotels I am sometimes surprised to see the prices have gone up quite a bit.

  32. I have heard a lot of great things from Guatemala there is really beautiful places amd the Country overall is unexpensive, I have never gone but surely will consider to visit. Is there any Travel Guide for visitors to be more instructed?

  33. I am not one to rain on one’s parade but…

    I must beg to differ, somewhat, with much of what you have written.

    And I know whereof I speak…I have lived in a third-world country; Mexico, to be exact, and I maintain a residence there now although I also own a home in Yuma, Arizona.

    I can only imagine that your little slice of ex-pat heaven is not unlike my experience of living in Mexico.

    Yes, it is something of an adventure, but hardly for the faint of heart. I have a line in my budget for paying off crooked cops (mostly in the form of trumped up driving infractions). It is so common here, there is even a word for it — mordida (translates to “little bite).

    I live much more cheaply in Yuma, than I could in Baja and my quality of life in the USA is much higher. Starbucks, bookstores, Redboxs and I get to speak English. And, yes, in Mexico I have a woman that cleans my house and another who does my laundry…they can use the money and I pay them what I would pay someone in the USA for similar services.

    I did not live in Mexico to take advantage of the fact that many there do not earn a living wage.

    And then there is the whole other issue of early retirement…let me just say that if you work for ANY earned income, you are not retired. You can call it that, if you wish, but your semantics will be incorrect if you do so.

    But I do get the attraction of what you are promoting. I had the dream once myself. And after achieving the goal of total financial independence, I discovered that my ladder of success had been leaning against the wrong wall the entire time!

    Red sky at morning…
    tmg recently posted..The False Allure of Early RetirementMy Profile

    • Hi tmg, thank you for your feedback. I am sorry that you had to pay so many bribes in Mexico, I never lived there but traveled for 4 months on a Guatemalan motorcycle and was stopped repeatedly, with a French passport, I let the cops lose patience before I gave a bribe. Never gave a dime here either, even at the border where they like to ask to payment to stamp your passport. I speak fluent Spanish and that certainly helps.
      Back to your comments, you are comparing Baja, the most expensive place to retire in Mexico, to AZ, which is a pretty low cost of living area. As I said in my post it is very hard to make an apple to apple comparison, and you can live in the Midwest for the price of Guatemala, you just won’t have such a big house, or cheap labor. What I tried to focus on is you are not relocating to a cheap country for the cost of it, but because you want a cultural experience, some adventure. To live in an expat bubble, better stay home.
      Regarding early retirement, I wrote a post about what you can call retired and not, and I do not count myself as retired, nor do I think I’ll ever be as I plan on managing my real estate properties for as long as I live. I am however retired from the corporate world and do not need to set foot in an office ever again. Or work, but I like to keep busy so I keep this blog, that gives an income, and actively manage my investments. Financial independence is not retirement and I agree with you on that one.

  34. Very much worth it! In fact, I feel like starting to pack…
    maria@moneyprinciple recently posted..Buy to Let – is it a prospect?My Profile

  35. This is a great detailed review. I was thinking about it the other day and I am still not decided what would be better – US or abroad? I currently live in a very expensive area, so if my investment income would be able to reach the level of what I need now (or close to it), then I believe I will be able to retire anywhere in the US. Idaho is appealing to me as of now.
    Dividend investing Martin recently posted..Trade adjustment – Kinder Morgan Partnership (KMP) additionMy Profile

    • Abroad can be fun for a while, then you may want to stay or go back home. You can pretty much live anywhere if you cover your actual costs, especially since you have costs of commuting, dressing for work, drinks with colleagues, etc. that you wouldn’t have anymore.

  36. I have had retirement on my mind for ten years but only had my eyes opened to independence a few months ago. I was constantly looking at how much I need to retire and the number was huge. I never paid attention to getting my budget to a manageable level and trying to get enough passive income to cover it. This new way of thinking has changed everything and moved my target retirement date up by about 15 years.
    krist recently posted..ACS Student LoansMy Profile

  37. Post retirement may lead to tough for survival if you dont own house. Early retirement plan can what makes it happen. Thanks for your survey of costs.

  38. Mexico is also well worth a look. After 15 months of criss-crossing that country, my new book looks at Americans and Canadians who’ve chosen to avoid the big expat colonies in San Miguel de Allende and Lake Chapala. What they’ve found is both diverse and surprising. The book is called Into the Heart of Mexico: Expatriates Find Themselves Off the Beaten Path. There’s a sample on my website:

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  1. […] who have selected to best places to retire abroad have beat some common objections to residing abroad. Among the most usual objections is that it is […]

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