NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- After reading more than 6,000 answers to questions about living in Panama, Nicaragua and Belize on our site, Best Places In The World To Retire, I can confidently report that the vast majority of our contributors tell us that it is cheaper to live in these places than in North America and that most of the time, it is much cheaper.
You can get bananas for 5 cents each in Belize, a full-hour massage in Nicaragua for $10 and a housekeeper in Panama for $20 a day.
There are many reasons why costs are much lower in Central America. There are two more subtle ones.
The first has to do with health care. Quality health care services provided by dentists, doctors and hospitals cost less in Central America. For example, an expat in Panama told me her husband needed dental work that would cost $3,000 to $5,000 in the U.S. He got it done in Panama for $1,200.
In addition to paying less for health care, our expats reported that they needed less health care in the first place. Here are some of the reasons why:
- Time after time, we heard from expats who reported that, after moving overseas, they lost weight. Some lost a lot. Many others reported no longer needing medication for high blood pressure. Why?
- They ate better because of the abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables.
- In most places, there is less fast food and processed foods.
- Many expats walk more often than they did before, as opposed to taking a car.
- They tended to make better food choices because they were less stressed, hurried or emotional about eating.
- They had significantly less of the bad type of stress, which has been linked to heart disease (including high blood pressure), asthma, obesity and diabetes. One frequently cited reason for the lower level of stress experienced by our expats was the overall lower cost of living (see above), which created a virtuous cycle of less stress in general, leading to better health, leading to lower costs.
- Because of the lower cost of living, some of our expats were able to quit work, which removed an entire layer of stress, not only about the job directly, but also about related items, such as driving in rush hour traffic.
- Greater social life/community involvement /meaning. One of the most significant worries of potential expats is that they will be lonely after moving to another country. While it is true in many circumstances that friends and family are farther away, our expats consistently report that they are much more involved in the community than they were when they lived in North America. As a group, they very quickly make new friends (expats, by definition, have at least one thing in common), and tend to become more involved in charitable activities and organizations than before. That provides greater meaning, more perspective and a sense of belonging, all of which are good for your health.
The second surprising way our expats reduced their cost of living is that, after moving overseas, a significant number said they didn't have the desire to have as many material possessions as they did before. Here are some of the reasons:
- In some places, it is very difficult to go shopping because North American-style shopping doesn't exist. That provides the "shock therapy" many of our expats needed in order to provide perspective and break their normal routine.
- The lesson of seeing so many local people who have so much less -- many of whom are arguably quite a bit happier than people with many possessions -- was enough to cause our expats to question the relationship between material goods and happiness. Many concluded that they needed less.
- There is less pressure to "keep up with the Jones." In addition to living among local people who have fewer material possessions, the expats in these places tend to be less materialistic. Why? Because they wouldn't have moved to a place less centered on materialism in the first place if they weren't predisposed to it. When new people come into the community, they tend to take on the cultural mores of those already there.
- The overall culture of Central America in general is not as materialistic. Our expats report that the local people place more value on family, free time and friends than people do in North America. Even eating is done not so much in a hurry, just to get it over with and many times alone, but rather is experienced more as an event with friends and family. When some of our expats try it, they like it.
- Some of our expats told us that they were just happier, so they didn't need material goods to compensate for unhappiness elsewhere.
So, not only did our expats enjoy the lower costs they anticipated, but they received an additional, unexpected gift, as well.