Retiring Overseas: Sometimes It’s The Little Things…

By Suzan Haskins and Dan Prescher,

The world has real problems…climate change, violence, injustice.

Today we write about none of that, and we ask forgiveness for dallying into our own petty “First World” problems.

San Juan del Sur, NIcaragua
San Juan del Sur, NIcaragua

This morning, we digress from writing about all the benefits of retiring overseas as we are thinking about lunch and where we might amble off to in a couple of hours for a taco and a beer and some amiable company.

We’re just back from a visit to the U.S., you see, and we’re hungry not just for some decent Mexican food, but to immerse ourselves once again in the languorous culture of Latin America.

As we try to choose which taco shop to leave a few pesos with, we’re discussing the culture shock of our recent dining experiences back in the States. For good or bad, they’re very different than what we encounter in most of the rest of the world.

For instance…

The prices. In Mexico where we live, we can each enjoy a couple of freshly made tacos (and we mean fresh, with homemade hand-pressed tortillas), along with a beer and an agua fresca (fresh fruit drink), and our bill is typically about $8. That’s total. We throw in a $1 tip. And this is at a restaurant with wait staff, not a place-your-order counter. A similar meal in the States recently—with two ice teas instead of the beer and agua fresca—came with a bill of $25, or with tip, $30. For that price, we can get two entrees, a bottle of wine, and maybe even dessert at a very nice restaurant in Mexico.

The tipping. Service levels aside, why, oh, why are you made to feel like a cheapskate in the U.S. if you don’t tip 20 percent on your restaurant bill? Why can’t restaurant owners in the (arguably) wealthiest country on the planet pay their wait staff a living wage…or at least minimum wage? And yes, we tip our waiters in Mexico and the rest of Latin America, but 10% to 15%—and sometimes even less—is considered more than adequate. In many places, a tip is not expected.

This meal, one plate of smoked marlin tacos and one plate of sea bass tacos, with two aguas de jamaica, cost us a total of ju
This meal, one plate of smoked marlin tacos and one plate of sea bass tacos, with two aguas de jamaica, cost us a total of just $8 at Lake Taco in Ajijic, Mexico.

By the way, when dining out in Latin America, be sure to check your bill. Sometimes a fee for servicio (service) is routinely added…usually about 10%. If you want to give your server more, that’s up to you—and it’s best to hand a tip directly to them in cash rather than add it to your credit card tab. That way you can be sure it will go directly to the person who served you.

In most of Europe, protocol is usually to tip 10 percent on a meal at a nice restaurant, and you are not expected to tip bartenders at bars and pubs. Our Irish friends recoiled in horror once when we tried to tip a bartender. It’s just not done, they said.

And of course, tipping is totally discretionary and up to you. But if there is anything we have learned from 16 years of living overseas, it is that the best policy is to follow local customs (and so we grudgingly do when in the States). If you have any questions, ask a local and do as they do or forever be marked as an “outsider.”

If this is a topic that interests you, here’s a good, comprehensive guide to tipping overseas—on everything from restaurant meals and bartenders to bellhops, taxi drivers, and tour guides.

The portions. In Latin America, almost every typical-style meal is accompanied by rice…not too much and not too little. In the States, our plates come overloaded with food, particularly French Fries. Even though we always vow to split a meal when we’re in the States, we sometimes forget or we don’t want the same thing. We take the leftovers to go, of course. But wouldn’t a better option be to serve smaller portions, and either charge less or pay the wait staff a decent wage? Oh, here we go again…

The style of service. In Latin America and Europe (the places we’ve traveled the most), being a waiter (most are men) is a respectable profession. They are paid a decent wage. They are courteous but not overly friendly. They rarely inquire about your day or make small talk about the weather or local sports team. They greet you, take your order, bring your food. They will not cruise by your table over and over to ask “how are things here?” Instead, they leave you alone to enjoy your meal. If you need something, it’s up to you to beckon them, including the check. You are never rushed and they consider it impolite to bring your tab until you ask for it. We appreciate this kind of service as we never feel guilty when we linger after a good meal.

And finally, the food itself. As a friend who lives in Ecuador said recently about food there, “Healthy foods are local and cheap, and processed foods are imported and more expensive.” And that’s true of Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama—and all the places we’ve lived where the favorable climate encourages a year-round growing season. There is always something fresh and healthy—and often organic—for the table. To the contrary, in the States you typically find the healthiest foods only at upscale grocers and restaurants. And if you can’t afford to buy that, you tend to eat the unhealthy stuff.

A healthy diet makes you healthier. No denying that. And healthier people make less visits to the doctor, take less medications, and we’d argue, are happier overall. Perhaps this is another reason medical costs tend to be lower overseas. Healthcare systems are less burdened.

Living healthier and happier is really what it’s all about—at least for us. And tacos make us happy. So now we’ll put aside our silly squabbling and go off to find some…

This article comes to us courtesy of, the world’s leading authority on how to live, work, invest, travel, and retire better overseas.

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