When considering your new place to live, give solid thought to what you absolutely require as opposed to what could be classified as “nice to have.”
When I decided I was FINALLY going to pull the lever and go after my goal of living outside the US, I knew it would not be a smooth ride. There would be differences in physical things (refrigerators are smaller, for instance) as well as culturally (cappuccino is frowned upon after 10:30 or so—I pay no attention to that one).
I knew going in that I would have to make some adjustments. Fortunately, I had lived in different places in the States and quickly learned that people usually did things a certain way for a reason. In Hawaii, you walk on the shady side of the street. In Georgia, you hand drew schematics because the town was too small to have official blueprints for many areas. If you order tea in the south, you get a glass of cold, sweet tea. If you order it in the north, you get a cup with a teabag in hot water.
Knowing that there would be compromises and weirdness, I started thinking about what was an absolute requirement for me (first world country—this girl needs running water) and then, what were some of the “nice to haves.”
- My New Home Had to be in Europe. I wanted to travel and explore Europe since I was a child. You might want to explore South America or Africa or Asia. Start with a general area, even a continent, and then you can narrow it down.
- Good Health Care System. Frankly, it doesn’t matter how good a country’s health care system is if you can’t afford to access it. Most countries in Europe have some form of national health care. It’s the norm. There are also parallel private systems and I knew that private health care insurance would be much less than in the US. My premiums for a Blue Cross/Blue Shield “silver” level plan in the US were over $900 a month, with a $3,500 deductible. My premium for an equivalent plan in Portugal with no deductible and much lower co-pays is round $140 a month. The difference in price covers my rent. If you have specific, serious health issues, you will want to make sure you can access proper and reliable care.
- Warm Weather. I admit I’m a wuss. I was raised in New England and I hated winters. I moved south when I was 20 and my entire adult life has been a constant search for warm weather. I have spent the last 30 years in Florida. I need warm. That’s non-negotiable.
- Coastal. Looking at the water is peaceful for me. I made do with a canal in Florida. It worked but was really not my dream. I wanted to have a “real water” view. Being near beaches is a definite plus and I wanted to be within walking distance of the water. I would have accepted living within walking range of a beach without a view. Living near the water was non-negotiable; a water-view was a nice-to-have. I got really lucky on this one.
- Low Cost of Living. There are tons of places with a low cost of living: Mexico, Ecuador, Thailand, Serbia, Turkey… Portugal’s cost of living is slightly lower for me, but it’s a massive drop for those people who are used to New York, San Francisco, Boston, etc. prices.
- English Speakers. Now, understand that my goal is to become fluent in Portuguese. But when I read that most Portuguese under 40 or so can speak some English (in fact, most are incredibly fluent), I knew that I would be able to find someone who I could communicate with which would help my transition. I chose where I live (The Algarve) because it gets a lot of English-speaking tourists and just about every restaurant and shop will have at least one person fluent in English. If I had moved to a rural area in the interior, I wouldn’t have that support system. Of course, that means I’d probably speak more Portuguese by now. But knowing there is always someone around who speaks the language is reassuring.
- Reliable Wifi.I need wifi to work. And to play. And it needed to be reliable. This was definitely a non-negotiable item.
- Public Transportation and/or a Central Location. Many people look for living quarters that are within walking distance of shops, restaurants, and medical facilities. I knew I wouldn’t have a car when I first got here and really wanted to live car-free. It’s sometimes frustrating to rely on public transportation, and there have been a few times I have REALLY wished I had a car, but in truth, a car would sit three or four days a week. How do I know this? Because my car in the US sat unused three or four days a week.
There were probably a few things on my must-have list that I’ve forgotten. Obviously, your list of requirements as an expat will most likely have other things on it. This week, I am regretting going with an apartment without air conditioning. (And there were a few times last winter when I regretted not having central heat.) The weather will break and I’ll be fine again. So, it’s a minor inconvenience for me. It may be a non-negotiable for you. Maybe you want to be close to a golf course, or like a big social life, or want to live off the grid. Start making a list of the things you want, as well as the things that are absolutely non-negotiable. This is your bottom line. It will help you start eliminating some places and narrowing down your options.
If you have kids or other people to consider, there will most likely be some compromises. Well, if you’re in that situation, you’re probably used to compromise. Deciding on your requirements list will need to be a group effort. You might have everyone make their lists independently, then come together and start with what you have in common. That can form the base of agreement that will allow for the inevitable give and take. You will also need to look at school systems and decide whether to put your kids in public, private, or online/home school.
Think about what you have in your life now that you would definitely miss if you don’t have it in your new country. Are you open to not having it or having a somewhat different version of it or is it non-negotiable? That’s okay if it is. You are establishing your must-haves. If you go through your list and are not able to find a place in your desired country that fits your wants and needs, you might look at another country or be happier staying in the States. There’s nothing wrong with that.
Also know that many things you thought you couldn’t live without somehow become unimportant once you haven’t had them for a while. I really missed Twizzlers when I first arrived (small, I know). I’ve had a two pound bag of Twizzlers in my freezer for months. Every so often I defrost a few. But for the most part, I’m good. Living without a dryer was weird. Now hanging out clothes is just what I do. You adapt. So, your non-negotiables are important, your “like-to-haves” less so.
Start making your list. As you do, ask yourself how important something is to you. You may find you need less than you think. You may also discover that you don’t have to give up much, if anything (I have friends with dryers and central heat/air). Best of all, you’ll find that your new country will offer many things you never knew you would come to love.