All the financial consultants, lifestyle coaches and pyschotherapists cannot truly assist American and Canadian prospective retirees in their 50s and 60s, unless they’ve been there, done that. Whether you have your sights set on San Miguel de Allende or Oaxaca, Huatulco or Cancun, the best advice on Mexican retirement comes from those of us who have taken the leap… and then only after several years of thorough, thoughtful introspection.
Healthcare, general affordability, language, and “now what do I do,” all seem to top the list of questions those considering becoming ex-patriots in Mexico seem to have. With 13 years as a frequent visitor to Oaxaca, and now a further 13 years as a permanent resident transplanted from the good life as a Toronto litigation lawyer, I have been able to pondered how and why at 53 years old I did what I did. The answers now come easy. So here are my top ten tips which if considered will ensure a fulfilling and enjoyable life wherever in Mexico you select.
1. LEARN THE LANGUAGE: Sure, some of us are linguistically challenged, and such an affliction can certainly put a crimp on our plans. But it’s imperative that you at least try to learn Spanish, and keep at it until you are no longer embarrassed to open your mouth. There are Spanish language schools in pretty well every major center in the country. And, it is easy to find a local who wants to learn or improve his/her English, so that you can arrange to have an “intercambio” once or twice a week, at no cost, to supplement formal grammar classes. Often the intercambio also serves as a jumping point towards making new (local) friends. It’s indeed difficult to not gravitate to establishing friendships with primarily other ex-pats, since that is the path of least resistance. But surely one of the reasons you are selecting Mexico is because of the rich and diverse cultural traditions; the best way to establish them is to start with the language. By beginning relationships with Mexicans, be they white urbanites or natives from tiny villages whose first language is an indigenous tongue, or anything in between, any way you can become welcomed into their world will be an asset in your quest to be included in their rites of passage; celebrating weddings, birthdays, baptisms and 15 años, and crying at funerals.
2. BUY GOVERNMENT HEALTHCARE: In 2017, the annual cost of buying comprehensive federal government health insurance known as IMSS (Instituto Mexicano del Seguro Social), was under 15,000 pesos (well under $1,000 USD) for a couple with at least one partner 60 years of age or older. It covers visits to the doctor when you’re sick, medication, specialist care and consultation, tests and analyses, surgeries and emergency care. Yes there are delays, the level of sterility may not be that to which you are accustomed, and you cannot select your own practitioner. But you can mix and match if you are so inclined, that is by using private doctors, labs and hospitals when it suits you, or going with IMSS. The quality of care is extremely good, not without at times having to ask around – just as you would back home. The point is that Mexico trains many good doctors, and in fact some have had American experience by taking courses, upgrading, etc. in the US. You don’t have to worry about maintaining your Canadian coverage by returning to your home province for X number of days a year, or be concerned about the cost of returning to the US just because you have comprehensive insurance coverage there.
3. VISIT YOUR ULTIMATE FINAL DESTINATION AT LEAST THREE TIMES BEFORE DECIDING: It may seem trite, but don’t simply read about a Mexican destination and make the decision to relocate without having even visited. Some people actually do it that way, believe it or not. My wife and I visited Oaxaca two or three times a year for several years prior to buying our land and building. I suggest at least three visits prior to committing to either buying or renting. Get the vibe of the city. Investigate locations for living, and don’t simply decide you want to live in a particular neighborhood without first having had a short-term rental there. If planning to sign a lease or buy, make sure you have a sense for the type of community, and think about proximity to public transit; parking; noise level: services such as cable, city water, drainage and garbage pickup; type of neighbors; nearby restaurants and entertainment; etc., etc., etc. You might like visiting downtown for a week or two, but you should think about being there permanently, in the midst of constant din, exhaust fumes, street activity which begins before dawn, and all the rest. On the other hand, do you want to be so far away from downtown that you have to think twice about going to the city center for dinner, drinks or a cappuccino?
4. GET A CAR: If you want to live downtown or otherwise close to everything, and are accustomed to taxi and/or public transit, you may not need a car. But you’ll likely want to visit neighboring communities on your own, at your own pace, and won’t want to rely on others to be your chauffeurs. Even if it’s an old clunker, it’s important to be mobile. Of course vehicle rental agencies provide a good option, but one often thinks twice before spending on a car rental, whereas if the auto is already in the driveway or garage, it’s a non-issue. Although insurance may be optional for vehicle owners, buy it, so as to ensure that if you get into an accident you won’t end up in jail for an extended period of time.
5. DRESS APPROPRIATELY: Dress as the locals around you do. If you live in a city in the interior of Mexico such as Puebla or Oaxaca, you’ll notice that men typically do not wear shorts, running shoes or t – shirts except for on some weekends, typically Sundays. You’ll be treated more as a resident and less as a tourist, and presumably that’s what you want, with a view to in due course expanding your social networks to include people who have been born and raised in your new home town and environs.
6. CONSIDER BOTH YOUR CURRENT AND ANTICIPATED ASSETS: When considering if you can afford to retire in Mexico, financial advisors ask about your current assets and liabilities, income, and anticipated costs when living in a new, southern city or beach area. They’ll also ask if you have any dependent children who may be relying on you for their ongoing expenses such as university costs. While some people might think it repugnant, it’s important to also talk about any anticipated inheritance on the horizon. A couple of decades ago three Canadian financial experts were consulted by a newspaper journalist for a story, Mañana Split, about our plan to retire to Oaxaca. They all stated that we could not afford to do it. Our own advisor asked about likely inheritances, ages of our then aging parents, etc., while the other three did not. Our advisor said we could likely afford early retirement, and here we are (although we actually could have done it without inheritances; so the experts who had not known us personally for a long period of time, did in fact get it wrong).
7. PARTICIPATE IN CHARITABLE ENDEAVORS: The fact that you’re even considering retiring to Mexico suggests that you’re willing to think outside of the box, and have interests aside from family, friends and work. Given your personality, then, you’ll find ways to keep yourself busy in your new life, immersing yourself in cultural activities and finding other innovative ways to keep busy; and perhaps even earn a bit of money. One of the most self-fulfilling ways to occupy your time is to become engaged with one or more charities. Virtually every Mexican ex-pat destination has charities which desperately need your time. You have some kind of valuable expertise, whether you realize it or not, that will be appreciated. Not only will you be feeling good about yourself, but you’ll be helping others in a much more direct way than simply donating money to World Wildlife Fund or United Way. Witnessing first-hand how your giving of time and/or money is positively impacting others is remarkable.
8. BE LAWFUL: Don’t simply move to Mexico with your temporary tourist visa and overstay your welcome. Secure a resident visa early on. Don’t work without getting permission from the department of immigration. Confirm with them that you can work at the job you want, and ask the steps you must take such as having the employer write to immigration to let them know / seek permission to hire you. Don’t start a business without a tax number and getting permission from immigration; once you begin, if not sooner, obtain an accountant and learn the law about filing tax returns. Living in Mexico is a privilege and not a right. If you break the law, you can end up in jail, and be thrown out of the country, permanently. There may be some antipathy towards you as a foreigner working in Mexico where there are so many much poorer people than you without work or underpaid. The resentment doesn’t always go away, so the best you can do is follow the law, have all your permits in place, and pay your fair share of tax.
9. BE ON BOARD WITH YOUR PARTNER: Often one partner is passionate about moving to Mexico, and very excited about the move and new lifestyle; while the other is just willing to do it or at least give it a try. That can be dangerous. If both partners do not have the same vision for the future, there may be ongoing conflict between the two of you, with your partner but a mere reluctant participant in the new life. You should aim towards an easy transition with no regrets, best achieved with the two of you ad idem from the outset.
10. HAVE A CUSHION / CONTINGENCY PLAN: Although this article is intended to minimize the risks involved in retiring in Mexico, you’ll still, at least to some extent, inevitably be taking a leap of faith. If you can have a contingency or “what if” plan, all the better. Can you go back if things don’t work out? It’s something to seriously consider before making the decision. It’s the one thing we didn’t really consider before buying those one-way plane tickets, but thankfully all the rest was thoroughly considered and planned out, and there have been no regrets.