Being semi-retired means having flexibility in lifestyle and freedom to try new things. Back in 2005, when I discovered that my inner desire was to have more adventures and less responsibility, I sold my accounts to a younger person and started a retirement coaching practice in addition to working part-time with that advisor to take care of my former clients. But I also had lots of new adventures, particularly in travel. One of them resulted in my travelling to Panama with my son to visit a client and then to travel around the country. As a result of that, my son ended up visiting Panama several more times and 3 years ago we bought a small house for $28,000 in a quiet village within walking distance of the Pacific Ocean and my son has gradually worked to make improvements.
But this year, at his suggestion, I rented my house in Boca Raton, Fl. to a friend escaping the winters in Connecticut and went to San Carlos, Panama, to stay in my son’s house while he went to India. My goal was to experience the town that he loves, improve my Spanish, visit different places and learn more about the country, to have time to work on an e-book on my experiences as a financial advisor, and, since the house is very simple, to experiment with living very simply. I was a little anxious about being in this place alone, and requested some improvements be made so I could be more comfortable: like a new bathroom sink, toilet and hot water heater for the shower, and a new bed.
Many Americans are retiring to Panama for various reasons. Talking with many of them, the primary reason is financial. Homes can be bought for less and the overall cost of living is less. English is spoken widely (but definitely not by everyone; an ability to speak Spanish is very helpful) and since the dollar is the currency, there are no risks in exchange rates. Travel back to the U.S. is an easy 2 1/2 hour flight to Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, or Orlando, so visiting relatives and friends in the U.S. is easy. In fact, many Panamanians have family in the U.S. and go back and forth regularly. Travel by expats to Europe and elsewhere is relatively easy, so there’s no sense of isolation from the rest of the world. Many of the TV stations are in English (I will be watching “Lost” tonight and movies on the Turner Classic Movie Station), internet service is good and mobile phones make it very easy to call friends in the U.S. However, most people use Skype for free communication over the Internet. With e-mail and Skype readily available, I’m able to keep in touch with clients everywhere.
If you retire here, and get a Pensionado visa, you also get many discounts that are substantial. Plane travel originating in Panama is at a 25% discount; hotel stays are 50% off during the week; discounts exist for all kinds of entertainment, restaurants and medications. For $2 I take a bus into the city where I stay at a hotel for $40/night and visit friends and attend various cultural events; go to a movie for $2 or have a great ice cream cone for $1.30.
But many of the Expats here have left the U.S. for other reasons. They are disgusted with the political environment, the financial debacle of recent years, the decline of community and traditional values, the increase in violence in society, and, most definitely, the involvement in war in Iraq. Many will never go back and feel much more at home here. This is a pretty peaceful place. Panamanians are friendly people with family being most important to them. The Expats, Americans, Canadians, Europeans, tend to be interesting people with an adventurous outlook. Panama is not a perfect place, but no place is.
As for living simply, I have a simply furnished one bedroom home with bathroom, kitchen and living room. I have air conditioning which I use only at night. This is the dry season (December – April) in Panama, the time of fresh breezes every day, so the windows are always open. I can walk to shops that sell fresh produce brought in every day from neighboring farms and stores that carry almost everything else once might need, including a pharmacy, a bakery, a hardware store, and I can walk to an emergency clinic and hospital. A woman comes in to clean once a week, and a yardman also comes once a week. My only real job is to water the plants and to pick up the fruit (grapefruit, orange, banana, mango, and cashew) that falls from our trees. Since there is no mortgage, the only expenses are water and electricity and food and the weekly help, one could live here for less than $300/month. Since the house is a duplex, when the other side is rented, all expenses are covered. We have no car. You can walk to everything needed, bike, or get a bus or taxi for very little cost to almost anywhere you would want to go. I have not felt deprived of anything. There are all kinds of Expat events one can go to, book exchanges for plenty of good reading, and good Panamanian coffee. Of course, many of the Expats live in the city or in gated golf communities in expensive homes. But my son believes in living simply with a small carbon footprint and can do it here. As he doesn’t have a lot of money, he felt he could never afford to retire in the U.S. Many people now feel the same way. Since I have a full and busy life back in Boca Raton, I have no plans to retire here, but I will probably spend part of every year here. It is peaceful. The world and it’s problems seem far away. Our society in the U.S. is a very stressful one, even without the added stress of the recession in recent years. I know when I go back, I will see that stress on people’s faces. Twenty-two years ago, I spent 3 months on Nantucket Island, the most relaxed, blissful summer of my life. When I went back to the mainland, I wondered why everyone looked so angry. Stress shows on your face whether you realize it or not, and I expect to see that when I return.
I return to Florida the end of April. However, it’s been a wonderful experiment, and reinforced for me, the wisdom of staying open to new experiences in life and, particularly, in retirement. Initially, when my son suggested that I stay here, I was anxious, and a little fearful of being alone, of bugs, etc. I’m glad I let him convince me. It has reinforced my sense of being able to cope with new challenges which is part of growing older successfully; it has brought me into contact with interesting new people and one of the important things we need to learn to do as we grow older is bringing new people into our lives to offset the losses that will inevitably occur; it has shown me once again how little I really need to be comfortable; and has opened up the possiblilty of living in another country part of the year while maintaining my coaching business. Life sure is interesting!