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Can retirement be outsourced? That's the premise of “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”-- a hilarious but poignant 2012 British film with a marquee cast that includes Maggie Smith and Judi Dench. Based on the 2004 novel, “These Foolish Things,” by Deborah Moggach, it tells the story of seven British pensioners — all but two of them virtually alone in the world – who move to what they think will be a luxurious and affordable retirement hotel in India. It turns out to be a dilapidated mansion run by an enthusiastic young man who is tone deaf to the culture shock his guests experience over everything from plumbing malfunctions and spicy food, to the chaotic city of Jaipur, where the film was shot. In the course of the movie, one guest dies. Another splits with her husband and departs, while the rest grow to appreciate adventure in their golden years.
As this drama suggests, one man's retirement heaven is another's retirement Hell. Spending even several months at a time overseas can be uprooting and certainly isn't for everybody. But let's say living overseas is on your bucket list. How do you narrow the options? Depending on your goals, here are some possibilities.
Establish a base for foreign travel. Culture, history and cuisine make Europe the biggest draw for North Americans. Sure, you could make a home for yourself in a world-class capital like Paris or London, but you'll pay dearly for the privilege. If that's not in your budget, consider a transportation hub where your dollars will go much further. The possibilities include Brussels, Vienna and Dublin, where you can catch a high-speed train or snag an intra-European budget airfare to almost anywhere. Ireland is on sale right now, due to overdevelopment before the financial maelstrom, so folks who don't want to have to learn a foreign language might set their sights on Dublin.
On the other hand, if you're willing to brush up on your Spanish, the Costa Brava is gorgeous and easily accessible to Barcelona. To compare living expenses almost anywhere in the world with what you’re now spending, check out the highly informative web site, numbeo.com.
If Europe isn’t your thing, consider some of the other countries on the new FORBES 2012 list of “Best Foreign Retirement Havens.” Folks who don't want to master a foreign language—and don’t mind long plane rides—might feel at home in English-speaking Singapore, the top Asian city on the Mercer Quality of Living rankings. It's a chowhound’s paradise and a short hop by plane to such exotic sights as Myanmar’s pagodas, Cambodia's Khmer temples and life along the Mekong in Laos and Vietnam.
Thailand, a consistent high-performer in quality of life surveys, gets raves from expats for increasing their standard of living. Respect for the elderly is engrained in Thai culture, so retirees feel welcome; the country also has good, inexpensive medical care. Chiang Mai, in the northern region, surrounded by mountains and filled with Buddhist temples, is second in size to Bangkok, considerably less expensive and more serene. You can live well there on very little – a one-bedroom apartment in the center of town fetches about $325 per month, and an inexpensive restaurant meal costs about $2.
Experience small-town life. This idea appeals to city slickers seeking foreign culture in a more intimate setting. Expats are snapping up cute little family cottages that have come on the market as the French and Italian countryside grays. Prices are stagnant in both countries, says Steenie Harvery, who covers real estate trends in the region for the International Living website. One area currently offering great value is the Dordogne, located between the Loire Valley and the Pyrenees, she says. It has long been popular with British buyers as a vacation site, and with the flagging economy many of them need to sell.
Make retirement dollars go further. The charming small Mexican cities of San Miguel de Allende, Cuernavaca and Guanajuato have long been popular with cost-conscious retirees, but last winter the U.S. State Department reported increased incidents of violence in many parts of Mexico, including Cuernavaca.
That’s sending retirees seeking warm weather and low living costs further south, into Central and South America. For the latest on safety concerns there and elsewhere, you can check the U.S. State Department’s "background notes" or “country fact sheets." Boomers’ love of eco-tourism is drawing retirees to Costa Rica and Ecuador. Sunny Panama is another option. (Panama and Ecuador both use the U.S. dollar, eliminating currency risk.) If you hate humidity, don’t settle in Panama City, but visit if you need low-cost, quality medical care; Punta Pacifica Hospital there is affiliated with Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins.
Deborah L. Jacobs, a lawyer and journalist, is the author of Estate Planning Smarts: A Practical, User-Friendly, Action-Oriented Guide. You can follow her articles on Forbes by clicking the red plus sign or the blue Facebook “subscribe” button to the right of her picture above any post. She is also on Twitter and Google+