I have spent the past three years living in a remote part of Guatemala. And I spent the previous 10 traveling the world and living in Spain, the U.K., and Morocco.
When you see it put like that, you probably imagine that my life is a never-ending adventure, and that I can decide to take off on a jet the moment I stop enjoying a place. While this is partially true, living abroad has some drawbacks, as well.
Let's start with the good: all my destinations were pretty cheap.
Even the U.K. was relatively inexpensive, considering that I was making more money and paying fewer taxes than in France. I had a higher savings rate on a higher income.
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The only thing that was high-cost was relocating – the flights, moving my stuff overseas, getting expensive temporary accommodation while you figure out a long-term place to stay…
There is also a lesser-known cost to moving abroad: the cost of ignorance.
It took me some time to figure out where to get cheap groceries, which utilities provider to use, who to bank with, or which online site to go to for the best deals on flights to go home.
You figure it out as you go by talking to other people, but even then, they don't always face the same problems you do, having lived there all their lives.
In the U.K., trying to understand the healthcare system took me a while.
And it was impossible to find a dentist who would take me on as a healthcare patient, so I had to pay private rates, while my local coworkers enjoyed subsidized treatments.
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All of this has been worth it for me because, firstly, it was my decision to move from country to country; and secondly, life abroad has been a non-stop adventure. I love going to local markets, trying new foods, and learning how people do this and that.
From my time in Morocco, I still enjoy cooking spicy dishes, and I have tried to imitate their minimalist furniture and heavenly steam baths while building my Guatemalan house.
Spain showed me a more laid-back approach to life, and taught me how to deal with hot weather.
To this day, I wake up with the sun and enjoy a siesta after lunch. Talking to people from all over the world about their dreams, their lives, and how they envision their future has helped me define my own life goals.
When you live abroad, you are different. You provoke curiosity— people want to talk to you, to know your story.
It is much easier to make friends, but you also have to prove your worth again and again, and things that shouldn’t be subject to questioning often are. It can be harder to get a job if you don't have one lined up. Worse if you don't speak the language fluently.
Now the big question: what about money? How much does it take?
It depends on where in the world you are settled, but living anywhere is generally much cheaper when you live like a local. I was fortunate enough to live in safe countries, and I’ve never had to take refuge in an expats’ compound like many people do in Saudi Arabia or Iraq.
I would hate living in a place where I can’t at least try to blend in and learn from the locals. If you try to stick to your back-home lifestyle, things can get very expensive. A bottle of decent Bordeaux wine in France costs $5, but if you look for the same quality in Guatemala, you can easily spend $15 on one bottle. At the same time, they have the most delicious fruits for a fraction of what you pay for tasteless fruits in Europe.
Sites like Expatistan will tell you how much cheaper or more expensive life is in a foreign city compared to home, and give you an idea of what you can expect to pay for lodging and an array of basic goods.
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While most aspects of daily life are less expensive in Guatemala, I still have to budget for flights to go home, as well as things like health insurance. It costs around $1,200 to get a flight home, but if I save $100 a month, that’s a small price to pay to live in paradise.
But I am not a family of five. And while I generally go back to France twice a year, some years I go somewhere else.
Health insurance costs $1,000 or more a year, depending on your age and health situation.
It includes care in the best hospitals in Guatemala, where doctors are U.S.-trained, and it covers evacuation to the U.S. if there’s a serious emergency.
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The biggest drawback of living abroad is living away from your family and friends.
Thanks to the internet, I can stay in touch via Skype and WhatsApp, and I seldom forego a holiday get-together with family. The funny thing is that now when I go home to Paris, I seem to do stuff that I never did when I lived there – sunsets on Montmartre hill, museum visits, etc.
I enjoy it as much as I can for a couple of weeks, and before Mona Lisa's smile turns into a smirk, I go back to my little house, back to the peace and quiet of my lake and the howler monkeys on my rooftop. I have found a balance that works for me.