The 5 Most Affordable Retirement Havens of 2021—InternationalLiving.com

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A new report from the editors at International Living explores the five countries around the world that offer expat retirees the best quality of life at the lowest cost. These are the countries that scored the best in the Cost of Living category of International Living’s 2021 Annual Global Retirement Index.

While people consider a retirement overseas for lots of reasons: the adventure, the chance to explore a new place and maybe learn a new language, the travel opportunities, and so on—the idea of lowering their cost of living while improving their quality of life plays an outsized role for many.

International Living’s newly released Annual Global Retirement Index 2021 ranks the 25 best retirement havens in the world—all countries where expats can enjoy a comfortable lifestyle for less than it would cost in the U.S. And while all of these destinations are affordable, the five that top the Index’s “Cost of Living” category offer the best bang-for-buck.

The category considers cost data like day-to-day expenses—groceries; rent; movie theater tickets; eating out; garbage collection; gas; gym membership; even the cost of a flight back to the U.S. as well as hidden and often unconsidered costs.

“While people consider a retirement overseas for lots of reasons: the adventure, the chance to explore a new place and maybe learn a new language, the travel opportunities, and so on—the idea of lowering their cost of living while improving their quality of life plays an outsized role for many,” says Jennifer Stevens, Executive Editor, International Living.

“Even before the pandemic, most people had not saved enough for retirement. The extensive job loss we're seeing is going to further exacerbate that situation. But a move to one of the best-value destinations overseas—even if it’s simply for a year or two—can dramatically lower retirees’ everyday costs, lowering stress levels, too.

“Consider a monthly budget of, say, $1,800 for a couple. In the States, that would require penny-pinching,” Stevens says. “But take those limited funds to the right spots abroad, and you could watch your lifestyle expand—in some places, grandly. In fact, in the spots that top our ‘Cost of Living’ category this year, as little as $1,000 a month can bankroll a comfortable lifestyle.”

The five countries that score best in the Cost of Living category of International Living’s 2021 Annual Global Retirement Index are….

#4 Ecuador (tie)

Ecuador is one of the least expensive countries in the world in which to live as an expat. Everything from the price of real estate and rent to the cost of hiring a full-time maid and dinner out is lower than in the States.

And expat retirees don’t have to forego First-World conveniences in major cities like Quito, Guayaquil, and Cuenca. New cars are common, including several brands made in Ecuadorian factories. Almost everyone owns a cellphone (or two), and internet connections are easy to come by.

World-class restaurants serve excellent meals, yet residents report they rarely pay more than $50 for dinner for two at a high-end place—with drinks included. It’s easy to live on less than $20,000 per year.

Donna Stiteler, IL Cuenca Correspondent, grew up in St. Petersburg, Florida, where seniors flock to retire, attracted by the warm weather and lack of state income taxes. But she embarked on a new journey in search of somewhere cheaper to live in 2014—in Ecuador.

“When I tell people I easily live off $1,800 a month, the first response is usually…. what’s the catch?” says Donna. “I respond by telling them it’s what I don’t spend that helps me live off of my social security.

“I do own my house, but with rents averaging around $450 a month, housing is affordable. I don’t need a car because Cuenca is a walkable city and if I don’t feel like walking, taxis run around $3.50 to get almost anywhere in town. Public transportation costs 35 cents for a bus or train ride.

“I live in the Andes where temperatures run in the high 50s F in the morning and rise to mid-70s F during the day, so there are no high electric bills—mine averages around $70 a month compared to the $400 I paid during hot summers in Florida.”

#4 Cambodia (tie)

Resident expats say they can see progress happening before their eyes in Cambodia. Phnom Penh, the capital city of this small, sparsely populated country, is alive with new Chinese-financed high-rise buildings, its first JCI-accredited hospital, and an improved standard of living among locals. Once one of the world’s poorest countries, Cambodia is now considered to have a lower-middle-income status.

Though the country is advancing, the cost of living is still extraordinarily low when compared to the U.S. A couple might spend as little as $1,355 a month living in the main cities and towns of Cambodia. It’s possible to understand how when a housekeeper charges $35 a month to come in once a week and a cell phone bill might come to less than $10 a month for unlimited calls, messages, and internet.

“One of the best values, if you’re living in Cambodia, is the low cost of your rent,” says Wendy Justice, IL Southeast Asia Correspondent. “Prices for apartments with Western amenities in the heart of cosmopolitan Phnom Penh start at less than $300 per month; spend around $600 and you’ll be living in a comfortable, middle-class place with all the conveniences you need and maybe a few extras, too.

Phnom Penh is the largest city in the country and offers a diverse mix of historic cultural landmarks, French colonial buildings and grand boulevards, traditional markets, pagodas, and palaces.

“One of the most enjoyable activities in this city is taking a stroll along the boardwalk at Sisowath Quay; pull up a chair at one of the many bars and restaurants, and cool down with a cold Angkor beer for $1. The fantastically ornate Royal Palace and the chaotic night market are just down the street, too.”

#3 Bolivia

Bolivia is not on the radars of most potential expats. Yet, this landlocked South American country surrounded by Peru, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Paraguay offers a lot of advantages… not the least of which is one of the lowest costs of living of any country that International Living covers.

A retired couple can live on $1,000 or less per month, all in. During research trips, IL correspondents have met retired singles living on as little as $500 per month. How is this possible?

“I met two single retired women, one who owned a home in the countryside, the other whose rent was $125 per month for a two-bedroom home in the colonial center of Sucre. Both have a monthly budget of $500 to $600,” reports Jason Holland, IL Roving Latin America Editor.

“It’s very affordable in Bolivia, clearly. There are a few reasons. It’s still very much a developing country; it’s one of the poorest in the Western Hemisphere. Tourism, which often drives up prices, is very limited. And there are few expats, which also helps keep prices low, especially for things like housing.

Holland reports, “Those pioneers who’ve made a home there enjoy a great lifestyle for less because even if it is a bit rough around the edges, it still has plenty of modern conveniences and amenities in the cities. It’s surprisingly sophisticated. You can stroll through modern shopping malls, go to fancy restaurants, chill out in trendy cafes, and buy imported items in large supermarkets.”

#2 Sri Lanka

A prospective expat looking for a destination that’s affordable, rich in culture, and diverse in its offerings would be wise to put Sri Lanka on the shortlist. The values here, in terms of quality of life, are very high. It is fast becoming a popular choice for many expats. Located just below India, with Africa to the west, Europe to its north, and Southeast Asia to its east, the “pearl of the Indian Ocean” is a gem that’s largely undiscovered by Americans, though it’s not unknown to British transplants who enjoy the warm sun and nice beaches.

Colombo is Sri Lanka’s capital city and has 5-star hotels, clubs, theaters, museums, shopping malls, and restaurants to cater to your every taste. However, living in the city can be expensive, and it’s not the best option for budget-minded expats.

“If you’re looking for an affordable lifestyle close to the city, the greater city locations such as Dehiwela, Nugegoda, Moratuwa, and Ja-ela offer more bang for your buck,” says IL contributor Sharmila Perera. “You can find rentals here from $500 a month. It is close enough to get to the city for a night out but just far enough for it to be less expensive.”

For beach lovers, the choices are numerous. For surfers and other water sport enthusiasts, you’ll be drawn to the south of the country to locations like Arugambe, Beruwala, Bentota, Matara, Tangalla, and Mirissa.

“These areas attract a lot of tourists and you’ll find lots of cafes, beach restaurants, and vibrant expat communities of retirees interested in an active lifestyle,” says Perera. “It can be a little more expensive than the hills, a three-bedroom house here could be rented for between $400 to $700 a month.” A couple in the south could live in a nice home a five- or a ten-minute drive from the coast, employ a maid, eat out when they feel like it, and do it all for as little as $1,000 a month.

#1 Vietnam

Vietnam is a fascinating and vibrant destination, rich in natural beauty, steeped in history, and brimming with opportunity. There’s plenty of modern, high-quality housing for low prices in the heart of a city, nestled among pine-forested mountains, or overlooking a sun-washed beach. This is a country which offers lots of great-value options.

Prices are consistently less than half of what retirees might expect to pay in the West.

“My husband and I live in a spacious furnished apartment down a small lane in a quiet, friendly neighborhood,” says Wendy Justice, IL Southeast Asia Correspondent. “It’s in the heart of Hanoi, close to everything. There are dozens of great restaurants, three bakeries, and several supermarkets all within walking distance.

“Our apartment has more conveniences that we had in the U.S.: a wonderful kitchen with a five-burner gas stove and oven, a huge refrigerator with an ice maker and two freezers, a washer and dryer, two modern bathrooms, and big flat-screen TVs.

Justice says, “It might sound as if we have quite a sizable nest-egg to finance living this life, but nothing is further from the truth. Our apartment costs about $740 per month, including housekeeping and all utilities other than electricity. It’s rare that we’ll spend more than $10 for dinner, including beverages and a tip. We can fly to another town for around $25 per person, including baggage, and we can stay in a five-star hotel for $40 or less if we shop around a bit.”

“I couldn’t afford to live like this back in the U.S. Altogether, we spend around $1,200 per month here in Hanoi, Vietnam’s second most expensive city. In towns like Da Lat or Nha Trang, our monthly budget living a comparable lifestyle would be around $1,000 or even less. It’s a small price to pay to live in one of the most amazing places in the world.”

More details on the top five countries in the Cost of Living category of International Living’s Annual Global Retirement Index 2021 can be found here: The Cheapest Places in the World to Live in 2021.

International Living’s complete 2021 Annual Global Retirement Index, including more information on Costa Rica and the other nine countries that made it in to the top 10—as well as the individual rankings in all 10 categories for all 25 countries included—can be found at: The World's Best Places to Retire in 2021.

Members of the media have permission to republish the article linked above once credit is given to Internationalliving.com.

Further information, as well as interviews with expert authors for radio, TV or print, is available on request. Photos are also available.

For information about InternationalLiving.com content republishing, source material or to book an interview with one of our experts, contact Editorial Director for Web Content, Social Media, and PR, Donal Lucey, dlucey@internationalliving.com.

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About International Living

Since 1979, InternationalLiving.com has been the leading authority for anyone looking for global retirement or relocation opportunities. Through its monthly magazine and related e-letters, extensive website, podcasts, online bookstore, and events held around the world, InternationalLiving.com provides information and services to help its readers live better, travel farther, have more fun, save more money, and find better business opportunities when they expand their world beyond their own shores. InternationalLiving.com has contributors traveling the globe, investigating the best opportunities for travel, retirement, real estate, and investment.

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