THE BLOG

Living Overseas: Cheap Isn't Always Better

02/22/2013 06:51 am ET | Updated Apr 24, 2013

We're often asked why we live in Ecuador. Why we've made our home in a small mountain town, a two-hour drive from Quito, the capital city.

Our response is always the same. We're here because we love the people and the culture. We feel fortunate to have a majestic pine- and eucalyptus-covered volcano right outside our window. The cool mountain climate suits us perfectly.

2013-02-17-CotacachiEcuador.jpg

We even love the controlled chaos of it all: the church that blasts its electronic bells at 6 a.m.; the loud, laughing children who flood the streets and sidewalks every afternoon when school lets out; the malodorous, over-crowded buses on market days; the slow-moving trucks with loudspeakers that blast information about community events or the price of mangos...

And yes, one reason we live here is because Ecuador is so affordable. Delicious, more-than-you-can-eat meals (plus beverage) for $2.50... $1 taxi fares... 25-cent bus fares... $12-a-night hotel rooms... $3 pedicures... $10 artisan-crafted wool sweaters... $2.50 for two-dozen roses. Life is good.

But keep in mind: "Cheap" isn't always better. If you've ever bought a $10 souvenir T-shirt, you know what we mean. Wash it once and it shrinks so much you can't wear it. In the long run, it's better to buy the more-expensive $30 T-shirt that you can wear forever.

And one size fits all? Unless you're an "average" person (and we don't know anyone who is) there is no such thing. Similarly, there is no "one size fits all" when it comes to choosing the perfect retirement destination.

"Cheap" should never be the only factor to consider when it comes to something as important as choosing where to spend your time. After all, you've got to live in the place. And it's important to like where you live.

What strikes us as part of the appeal of living where we do, for instance, might just drive you to distraction. We shrug it off when fireworks blast at 4 a.m. We look the other way when someone drives the wrong way down a one-way street -- our town can't afford a police staff to enforce such trivialities. We don't even mind that for two weeks every June shopkeepers board their windows as rowdy revelers flood the town to celebrate the summer solstice.

This charming disorder suits us. But life in a tiny town in Ecuador isn't for everyone. And I'd be willing to bet that if you move somewhere simply because it's cheap, you might very well be miserable.

In little towns like ours, for example, few zoning laws exist. Our neighbors' patch of land has been home to kids, dogs, roosters, goats, cows and horses. At night we just crank up ambient rain sound on our iPod to drown out the wildlife sounds.

Go in search of cat litter, roasted peppers in a jar, size-18 women's clothes or size 15 men's shoes, or a selection of imported wine or flavorful cheese, and you may be disappointed. But don't worry -- you'll adapt. You can serve cream cheese covered with ají (the local hot sauce) and shop for clothes on your next visit back home.

"There's nothing to do here," said one couple that left after a few days. That's true if you're looking for art galleries or shopping malls or sports bars. Our local economy can't support that type of entertainment (although just recently, an expat has opened a delightful piano bar).

But if you want to shop the local mercado and artisan's markets, hike the perimeter of a crystal-clear mountain lake or spend the day soaking in a natural hot spring, this is your place.

So how to choose the retirement destination that's best for you? First and foremost, you must spend time there before making any long-lasting decision. Try before you buy.

Before you even get on a plane, profile yourself -- ruthlessly. Make a list of your priorities -- whatever they might be, and in the order of most importance to you.

If low cost of living tops your list, so be it. You can live better for less in dozens of destinations around the world, so you're spoiled for choice in that regard.

But also consider things like weather and climate, the local real estate market, the personality of the local expat community, cultural and other differences, leisure activities, language issues -- all these should get some weighted consideration when making a decision about where you'll live.

Of course, one area where price matters but quality is even more important: health care. In many countries of the world, when you become a resident you can buy local private health insurance at a fraction of the cost back home. This entitles you to top-notch care in excellent, medical facilities.

Alternatively, you may be able to join a public healthcare system, which can be free in some countries and cost as little as $50 a month in others. Or you can forego insurance altogether and pay as you go. But keep in mind that more often than not, when you use a public system you'll suffer long waits and "unconventional" service.

If you can afford it, spring for the private insurance. Invest in a rain machine. Bring your specialty products with you. But don't choose a place for the cost of living alone. Choose it because it fits your profile. Chances are you'll still come in spending far less than you might in the U.S. or Canada these days