Top 5 Reasons Expats Sometimes "Wash Out"

Moving abroad to a place with better weather, a lower cost of living, and decent health care sounds like a no-brainer. It's a wonderful option for anyone looking to improve their current lifestyle and spend less money to do it -- especially for retirees on a limited budget.

What could possibly go wrong?

Photo by Jason Holland,

If you do your homework beforehand, not a lot. But forego your research and due diligence, and you may have some surprises in store.

As we mention in our book, The International Living Guide to Retiring Overseas on a Budget, most of the successful expats we know ruthlessly profiled themselves before they made their move. They spent a lot of time thinking about what their "deal breakers" were... the things they couldn't live without if they suddenly couldn't get them where they relocated -- or the things they couldn't live with in their prospective destination.

Most of them also tried life on the ground in their chosen destination for weeks or months before they committed to the location to make sure it was really what they imagined it would be.

Failing to ruthlessly profile yourself and "try before you buy" can lead to what we call "expat washout." In our experience, here are the top five issues that will almost always send an expat packing back home.

1. Expecting the rest of the world to be "America Lite" Many U.S. citizens expect the rest of the world to be just like America, only cheaper. Same services, same products, same infrastructure, same conveniences, same language, same ways of doing things, same view of history, politics, religion... but at half the cost for everything.

That most likely stems from growing up and being immersed in what is, for better or worse, the richest, most influential country on the planet. We expect that if everybody else in the world can't be just like us, they certainly want to be and are trying to be and will appreciate us teaching them how to be. Especially for those who have never spent much time abroad, finding out that the rest of the world isn't just a half-price version of the U.S. -- and doesn't much care to be -- can be a shock. The expats who experience this shock either return home or hole up in English-speaking enclaves and try, unsuccessfully, to recreate home around them.

2. Startup Costs. It's absolutely true that you can live a high-quality lifestyle for half your current cost of living in many places around the world. But some expats expect their cost of living to go from $5,000 per month to $2,000 per month the day they get off the plane. They forget that, no matter where you relocate, there will be startup costs, like visa and legal costs, deposits on rentals, furnishings, shipping costs if they have containers sent to them, construction costs, remodeling costs... things they encounter from day one in their new location but didn't include in their dream budgets.

Researching and planning for these startup costs is crucial to a successful move. Expats who don't do this may quickly get into a financial bind.

3. Unrealistic health care expectations. We've found world-class health care facilities in every major metropolitan area of every country we've ever been to. But that doesn't mean that there will be a dialysis center or a heart transplant facility or even a highly-trained emergency medical team with a modern ambulance and a Life-Flight helicopter in whatever little beach town or mountain village you dream of retiring to.

In many countries, the quality of medical care outside major metropolitan areas falls off quickly and can approach the downright primitive. As in the U.S., if you want immediate access to the best medical facilities, you have to live near the best medical facilities. Expats who have existing medical conditions and don't spend time on the ground before they move researching the available medical facilities can be sorely, and sometimes dangerously, disappointed.

4. Dream Location vs Reality. We see this happen often, and it's even happened to us. Let's say you've dreamed all your life about living on a secluded beach. You've vacationed on some fantastic beaches and always loved the lifestyle as you perceived it. So you buy a little cottage on a stretch of white sand somewhere outside the U.S. at a remarkable price and relocate there. In about six months you realize that being hot and sweaty for a week is one thing, but being hot and sweaty 24-7-365 is another, and that the beach is where they keep the grit and sand and corrosive salt air and bugs, and that during rainy season there is nothing between you and the storms coming in off the ocean and the cascades of runoff coming down from the hills behind you.

Likewise, you may have always dreamed of living in the country, away from the crowds and noise... but after six months of driving an hour into town every time you run out of coffee or milk and spending nights in the middle of nowhere by yourself, you realize this lifestyle isn't for you. (Especially if you don't speak the native language and your nearest neighbors speak no English.) You're far more isolated than you ever imagined.

The successful expats we know have all visited their prospective destinations during the worst season of the year... and almost every place on earth has a "low" season of some kind. They've spent enough time there to know what it's like at all times of the year and all hours of the day and night. Then they either decide they can live with it or they go off in search of another location.

5. Simple culture shock. This is actually a subset of #1 above. People in other countries do things differently than you do. They have different priorities; certain things upset them and others don't affect them at all. It comes with growing up in a different culture than yours. If you move into that culture and can't deal with the differences, you won't have a happy time.

Don't think this means that you can't complain about fireworks going off at 2 a.m. or loud parties that last 'til the wee hours or about a neighbor that has a loud-mouthed rooster or two and a couple of talkative goats in his back yard. You can complain all you like -- complaining about local customs is one of the most popular expat sports -- but complaining about it to your neighbors or to the municipal government probably won't get you very far at all.

You may see where all this is going: if you're not sure about the expat life, the best way to find out if it is for you is to research, research, research.

Go. Explore. Check things out. Stay a while. Find out if you can deal with the cultural differences. See if you feel comfortable. If you've done your research ahead of time and you've profiled yourself ruthlessly, you'll most likely have the time of your life.

And then you know you've found a home.

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