Arden Rembert Brink is the author of Unraveling the Mysteries of Moving to Costa Rica and is currently working on two other books. She has been writing for business during her various careers over the past 30+ years in advertising, marketing, sail training, non-profit management, and consulting. Arden is from the Maine, US but she and her family spent 6 years in Costa Rica before returning home to live in Utah near her 2-year old granddaughter. Below is an interview about her EX-expat story.
Blog link: http://the-ex-expat.com
Book link: http://www.mainersincostarica.com
What is your story?
My elderly parents had moved from Louisiana to Maine to live with us and that had made us much more conscious of how limiting the winter weather was for them. I read a story in the Wall Street Journal about the U.S. “outsourcing” its medical care and retirement, naming Costa Rica as one of the countries often outsourced *to.* It was a classic “light-bulb-over-the-head” moment that prompted the completely off-the-wall idea that we should all move to Costa Rica. (“All” meaning my husband and myself, my two parents, our two dogs, and two cats.) We were living in Costa Rica less than a year later. It had never occurred to us before to move outside the country, we never investigated any other countries (although we did a little bit later, during our years in CR as the topic would come up), and we have no regrets that we did it. None.
Why did you decide to move to Costa Rica?
Since we didn’t “compare” any other countries, we were sold on some pretty simple qualities that are not specifically unique to Costa Rica — the idea that the cost of living was much lower (while the “quality” of living was similar) which would make it possible for me to quit work and we could all live comfortably on the combined pensions/social security of my husband and parents making it possible for me to spend more time caring for my parents and writing. (This was not an idea that even seemed possible in Maine — although we’re essentially doing so pretty comfortably now in Utah.) The highly-touted “free” medical care, the “year-round spring” (escaping Maine’s winters), and the low cost of labor — thinking ahead to a time in the future when we could expect to need to hire additional support in caring for my parents — were all selling points for us. Although at some level it was daunting, we were also attracted to the idea of simply “doing something different and challenging” with our lives — having to live in a country that spoke another language, dealing with cultural differences, and so on. And that is, indeed, one of the things we are most grateful for when we look back at our experience.
What did you love about living in Costa Rica?
Ironically — given that we now live back in the states and love it — we really loved most everything about living in Costa Rica. But what I think is key to understand is that we *expected* we would be living in Costa Rica forever, and it’s simply not in our nature to freak out about stuff we can’t control. So in a variation on a theme of “love the one you’re with” we had CHOSEN to be in Costa Rica, so we chose to love what we experienced. No one made us move there! We loved the *temperature* of living year ’round without winter’s cold or summer’s heat. We thought it was a beautiful country and we were lucky enough to live somewhere with spectacular sunset views and we appreciated that. We loved the wildlife and exotic birds. We made LOTS of friends — there’s a sort of “commonality” among gringos who have become expats so there’s some natural affinity to others, even when they might be fairly “different” from you in other more “traditional” qualities. We also made Tico friends that we treasure and stay in touch with still.
How did you like the cost of living in Costa Rica?
That was a key reason we even considered the idea to move there, and there was initially “evidence” that it would be true that it was much cheaper to live there. The first house we rented was $300 a month, we believed we would have essentially “free” medical care and drugs (my husband and parents, at that time, collectively took quite a bit of medicine), food was supposed to be cheap. What evolved for us over the next 6 years was that many costs simply went up — that same rental house now goes for more than twice the rent — and other promised “savings” just didn’t pan out to be really accurate. We do know a *few* people who have successfully used and relied on the CAJA (government medical care) but they are the exception, not the rule. Most people, us included, mostly use private pay medical and while that’s lots less expensive than in the states, it’s not “inexpensive” at all if you’re comparing it to medicare covered services which do apply for my husband and parents. We actually spend less money overall and live “better” here in Utah than we did in Costa Rica. On the other hand, our expenses were much higher in Maine (largely due to high utility bills, property taxes, and insurances) so we were, indeed, spending less in Costa Rica. So someone’s “comparative” savings or not will surely be affected by where in North America they’re coming from. But I think it could be said pretty strongly that it is *not* super-cheap to live in Costa Rica the way a lot of what you read in books or online would suggest.
Why did you ultimately decide to move back home?
Our first grandchild was born two years ago and in the first few months as we watched how quickly she was growing and changing, we finally voiced the feeling we were both wrestling with that we didn’t want to miss out on her life. My own grandparents lived some distance away when I was growing up and we visited them at least once a year, but what I really remember looking back was trips to Florida, not having a real relationship with my grandparents. We wanted more. Interestingly, once we *got* back, we began to see many aspects of our life in Costa Rica without having to look through the lens of “making the best of it” and we’ve become more realistic about how we felt about a lot of it. For instance, we loved the “temperature” there but not really the “weather” when taken in totality. We had come over the years to realize that the “quality” of food there is actually very low — there’s an easy mis-impression from the sense of all the “fresh, wholesome” food but in fact pesticide use is extensive, organic products are difficult to find, the variety of food is quite limited. The complete and almost total inefficiency — that you simply make the best of if you live there — gets to be wearing after a while, as does the rampant petty crime. And wrestling with medical issues in a second language in which you’re not fluent, concerns over paying for such care, and worry that my husband or mom would need additional care made returning to make use of the medicare they’d been paying for their entire lives (through their taxes) became more pressing as well.
In hindsight, what advice would you give newbies considering the expat life?
I think it’s really important not to believe the “hype” so that you make the move (if you choose to make it) with more realistic expectations. Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of folks providing “information” about foreign countries (and the “benefits” of being an expat there) are basically “selling” that country. Whether they are literally selling property or tours there, or selling advertising on their website or in their glossy magazine, or just selling others on the wisdom of their own choice to live there — it makes it difficult to determine if you’re getting the unvarnished truth. I think a key to helping evaluate the quality of a source is to look for some “balance” — are they only telling you the good stuff? Or suggesting that if you don’t think you want to be an expat, or don’t want to be one forever, that this somehow represents a personal “lack” on your part? (Or, as you also see at times, are they only crapping all over the country? They’re probably not a very good source either!) Look for resources that seem to offer some balance, that acknowledge some of the “issues” facing an expat in that country. They might still be “selling” something, but at least you can feel like they’re more likely to be giving a more accurate view.
The second, and perhaps even more important advice is to realize that, all things considered, you’re still very likely to want to return to your home country at some point. Someone once published the “statistic” that 40 to 60% of all gringos moving to Costa RIca returned home within the first year and that gets picked up as “fact” and republished over and over again. Personally I think that statistic is completely made up and ludicrous. In our years there seeing both expats moving into our own community and working to ship hundreds of expats to locations all over Costa Rica, we never saw anything remotely like that and my best guess is that someone simply made that up. HOWEVER, now that we’ve seen “inside” the lives of many expats over the past 6 to 10 years, I’d say probably somewhere near that percentage really will return in time. Family needs, medical needs, and simply a desire to return to a more familiar and comfortable way of life seem to eventually win out. So here’s the news flash — THAT’S JUST FINE! All that really means — and how that translates to my “advice” — is that if you acknowledge that you, too, might choose to have a grand life adventure for some number of years, but not necessarily forever, then you might be guided to make better choices about where and how you invest your money (particularly in terms of buying property with an eye to later re-sale rather than simply you “fell in love” with it) and whether, in fact, you buy at all vs. renting. Perhaps you’d make more thoughtful decisions about how you maintain some ties in your home country that you might be very grateful for in the future.