Expat Zach Gerth, co-founder of StartAbroad, explains why he’s living in Costa Rica and not back in the States.
I’m a proud American, but I’ve made the decision to live outside of the United States. Over the past 20 years, I’ve lived outside the States for more years than I’ve lived inside it. Each previous international move I made was for work of some kind – first to the Dominican Republic with the Peace Corps, then to Uruguay, before heading to Kenya and Rwanda to work with an international NGO.
I always assumed I would settle down back in the States when it was time to have kids. But this last move to Costa Rica, wasn’t tied to work. It was an intentional choice to live somewhere other than the U.S. while still being close enough to family.
At this point, barring my parents, or my partner’s parents, getting sick and needing support, I don’t have any plans to move back to the States.
Relocating abroad has never been more popular for Americans. Access to quality healthcare is one of the main reasons. Making retirement funds stretch out longer is another.
Are you thinking about moving to Costa Rica? Here’s a handy, updated, checklist to determine if making this move is a good idea for you or not.https://t.co/SML2GzSCtF
— Central America Living (@VidaAmerica) May 31, 2022
1. Cost of living
I’m 35, and a mid-career professional (although I recently left my job to launch a business). My partner and I would love to own a house soon, and we’re going to try to have a child in the next year or so.
Cost of living can be tricky to cost-out because it can vary so much, depending on where and how you choose to live. But let’s say we lived in a mid-range US city (say, Orlando), had dinner out twice a week, rented a three bedroom house, and had a child. We’d need more than $5,500 a month.
We live in a small, rural town in Costa Rica. We eat out twice a week but nothing too crazy. If we had a kid, we could get by on $4,000, likely less.
Conservatively, we spend at least $1,500 less per month living in Costa Rica, which is not one of the cheaper Latin American countries. Living somewhere like Medellin, Colombia, could be around 50% cheaper than living in Orlando. We could also realistically afford a decent house in Costa Rica in the next few years, something which seems out of reach in the U.S.
And that doesn’t even factor in the higher quality of life.
2. Quality of life
Quality of life is difficult to quantify. Per US News, quality of life is, “Beyond the essential ideas of broad access to food and housing, to quality education and health care, to employment that will sustain us, quality of life may also include intangibles such as job security, political stability, individual freedom and environmental quality.”
Launching my own business means I work hard. To me, quality of life means everything outside of work. I take jungle walks down to the lake with my dogs, where I see otters, toucans, and other tropical birds. I can swim in the clean lake that isn’t over-developed and swarming with jet skis. The food is generally fresh and there’s easy access to organic fruits and vegetables. I know my neighbors, and get stopped while walking to the store a few times to talk to different people I know. My partner and I feel safe in our home and walking on the streets at night.
There will be different challenges if we have a child – things like quality of schools, cost of international schools, and access to high-quality healthcare. But we would have similar challenges living in the U.S., and would need to find ways to overcome them regardless. Meanwhile, I see toucans almost every day!
We always recommend caution when buying real estate in Central America. Rent first, and learn about the market before diving in. But what if you’re ready? Here are six financing tips for buying property abroad by @luigiwewege from @CayeIntBank.https://t.co/cnP45Ptfxv
— Central America Living (@VidaAmerica) April 6, 2022
3. An intentional step away from the live-to-work culture prevalent in the States
In the U.S., we pride ourselves on always being busy. We work too hard for too many hours to save enough money so that one day we can retire and actually enjoy ourselves. We have a “live-to-work” culture in which our jobs define us.
It’s not only the working culture, but everything that it means for us as individuals. We often live far away from our families and social communities. It can be hard to schedule even short get-togethers with friends. We’re tethered to our phones in case the boss calls.
Picking up the phone, turning on the radio, or engaging with the world means I’m at risk of all the depressing political noise overwhelming me. I do stay up to date and involved in politics, but the negative tenor of the political conversation in the U.S. can make me feel anxious and depressed.
These are still issues when living abroad that I’m trying to negotiate.
I’m still a workaholic, I still have an emotional responses to the news, and I still am not as connected to an important social community as I would like. But being outside of the “live-to-work” culture has given me critical perspective on what I actually want. It’s allowed me to be more intentional about what is important to me, rather than what the broader culture machine prescribes for me.
I’m working towards having more defined work hours, allowing myself to disconnect from my phone and computer outside of those hours, and developing a closer-knit community. But even as I improve on those things, there are toucans everywhere!
4. Because I want to and can
I’m in a position of privilege to be able to live in Costa Rica and launch a business. But there are many people who could live overseas and don’t realize it.
There are bureaucratic and technical hurdles to overcome – like immigration, taxes, banking, etc. But more countries than ever are making it easy to make the move. At the same time, there are more support systems – relocation services like StartAbroad – that can take the guesswork and stress out of the process.
It’s often not the logistics that prevent people from moving abroad.
It’s that living somewhere else doesn’t even seem like a realistic option. Maybe it’s a job, or pressure from family, or that living in a foreign country is intimidating. Or the idea that living abroad is something retired folks do.
Those things are all true. But moving abroad is also very navigable. The first step is to know that it’s possible. The next step is to do research to understand what it would actually take to make the move.
Be sure to check out our latest article written by our co-founder and HR expert, Anna Sosdian, about talking to your boss about #moving & working abroad: https://t.co/G2cQJEXllw #WorkFromAnywhere #digitalnomadism
— StartAbroad (@abroad_start) September 8, 2022
There are challenges, but it’s worth it
Anyone who tells you moving abroad is easy is not being honest. Every time we move to a new country, it seems like it gets harder.
Navigating the logistics of relocating is very stressful, but what I have found more difficult is managing the emotional peaks and valleys, as well as the loneliness. I have good friends and family in the U.S., I speak the language, and I understand the cultural rules.
When I started living in Costa Rica, I didn’t know anyone, I didn’t understand how things worked, I barely spoke the language. One day I would love everything about my new home – like that there are toucans. And the next day I would feel alone and stupid because I didn’t know where to buy broccoli.
It’s also hard to live far away from family and friends. My friends who live near each other have continued to build their relationships while my relationships with them feel like they’re preserved in amber. I miss key events like weddings and births, which can be difficult.
As I get older, settling into a new home takes longer. But I can say I’ve found a routine living in Costa Rica that makes me happy. Living in a beautiful place that people want to visit helps. We also still make a point of going home for important holidays. My family is on the East Coast, so I always tell them that visiting us is pretty much the same as going out to Denver.
But I also take long walks with my dogs, where I often see – you guessed it – toucans. I’ve made some good friends. My Spanish is improving. My quality of life is high.
Over the past 20 years, I’ve lived outside the States for longer than I’ve lived inside it. It hasn’t always been easy, and there are things I miss about being there. But I can say that the life I’m living in Costa Rica is one I chose for myself.
Zach Gerth is the co-founder of StartAbroad, an end-to-end service to support Americans move abroad. He grew up in Key West, Florida, and has lived in the Dominican Republic, Uruguay, Kenya, Rwanda, and Costa Rica. You can reach out to Zach at email@example.com.