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Pluses And Minuses, Give And Take

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Most folks considering the idea of retiring overseas focus on options in Latin America. If your base is North America, this makes sense. Countries south of the border are, first, nearby and, generally, easily accessible. In addition, they can also offer two things that most retirees actively seek: a low cost of living and an abundance of sunshine.

But there's a world beyond these Americas that can also offer good weather and a low cost of living... plus, in some cases, some things you won't find here. In fact, the world's most affordable overseas retirement havens today are not to be found in Latin America, but in Asia. As a friend who has been retired in Asia for many years puts it, "Everywhere in Asia is more affordable than the cheapest places in Latin America right now." That may be a stretch, but pockets of Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, China, Vietnam and India, for example, can be absurdly cheap. You could live a modest but comfortable life in this part of the world on a budget of $700 or $800 a month, even less.

Living on this side of the planet, you'd also have access to some of the world's most beautiful beaches. Your life would be full of adventure, the exotic and the unexpected. That is to say, the culture shock would be significant. For some, this reality is thrilling and invigorating... for others, it's intimidating, even terrifying.

In Asia, as well, you have an added challenge related to residency. Typically (an exception is Malaysia), you aren't going to be able to arrange to stay on indefinitely (legally) as a foreigner. You'll have to make regular border runs, which can grow tiresome and expensive (not to mention being illegal).

The easier alternative is not to approach Asia as a full-time choice but, instead, to create a retire-overseas plan for yourself that allows you to enjoy the benefits of Asia (super cheap and super exotic) part-time. Don't worry about trying to qualify for permanent residency. Stay as long as you can as a tourist and then move on.

How about three months on the coast of Thailand, where your retirement budget would stretch far indeed, followed by a few months in the south of France, say, or Tuscany?

Which brings us to the Continent. Not everyone is cut out for life in the developing world. If you're less interested in an exotic retirement than you are in a fully appointed one, your best options could lie in Europe. Most would-be retirees abroad dismiss this part of the world as too expensive, but that isn't necessarily the case, and, if it's a Continental lifestyle you dream about, I urge you not to write it off too quickly. Sure, a retiree on a modest budget probably can't afford Paris or Florence, but have you considered southwestern France, where life is quintessentially French but, as well, surprisingly affordable, or Pisa, about an hour from Michelangelo's hometown but dramatically less costly?

One of the big advantages of Europe, compared with other regional retire-overseas options, is the opportunity it affords for what might be referred to as "high culture." Every country in the world has local culture, but not everywhere has world-class museums, opera and live theater, for example. If you're interested in a life that includes what are conventionally recognized as cultural offerings of the high-brow variety, you should be looking to France or Italy, Spain or Portugal.

This is not to say it's impossible to enjoy an Old World Continental lifestyle anywhere else. Some cities in South America offer a fair imitation, including, for example, Buenos Aires, and Medellin, Colombia. Both are cities of open-air cafes, classic-style museums and theaters, art galleries and antique shops.

And both, you'll note, are in South America, not Central America. The differences between these two regions, even between Panama and Colombia, next-door neighbors, can be striking. I'm speaking generally and you could find exceptions to every point, but, again, generally speaking, South America offers what I'd call more polished retirement options and is a good place to look if what you want is culture on the cheap.

Central America, by contrast, is, everywhere, rough around the edges. These are small, developing countries, struggling (let's be honest) to keep the lights on and the highways paved. They don't have money to invest in things like art museums. This can make for a way of life that is, for some, charming. Romantics (like me) in Central America see the potential for what could be rather than the reality of what sometimes is. Others find Central America frustrating, disappointing, even appalling.

On the other hand, this sun-blessed region can be but a quick plane hop away and a user-friendly place to establish foreign residency if you'd like to settle in full-time.

Pluses and minuses... give and take.

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