It’s 2020, which means you can clearly see what’s ahead. This is the year to live the dream: Quit your day job and move to a foreign country where it costs so little you might never have to work another day in your life. In 2019, 2018 and 2017, I provided plenty of temptation by examining the cheapest places to live around the globe. For 2020, I again tapped into International Living, which releases an Annual Global Retirement Index of the top places to retire. But don’t think this list is limited to retirees: It's also for people who want to move to a place where the cost of living is much cheaper than in the U.S.—so cheap, in fact, that you might not have to work.
With the Annual Global Retirement Index, International Living’s editors systematically gather and sift through the wealth of opportunity the world offers, comparing, contrasting, ranking and rating their findings to help potential expats pinpoint the best-value destinations around the world. “We strive to create an index that provides the most accurate—and useful—insights for readers," says International Living's executive editor Jennifer Stevens. “There’s no one-size-fits-all destination, but by gathering insights and specific data from our correspondents around the world, we’re able to compare apples-to-apples and create a snapshot of what each of the 24 countries we rank has to offer across categories like Cost of Living, Healthcare, Visas and Residence and more.
Annually, the International Living editors refine their methodology. “We tweak the index each year to make our comparisons more helpful to potential expats,” says Stevens. The Climate category, for instance, now favors places that offer a variety of options. “The sun may shine year-round in a beach locale, but not everybody likes hot and humid and so this 2020 index gives favor to those places that might, for instance, offer both beach and a cooler highland option,” says Stevens.
Another change is in the Cost of Living category. “We took the cost of housing out entirely and created a new category, which combines buying and renting, which now makes it easier to compare day-to-day living costs,” says Stevens.
The winner for the best place to live in 2020 is Portugal. “It’s the best-value destination in western Europe today,” says Stevens. “A place where not only do dollars really stretch, but where the quality of life is high, healthcare is excellent and low-cost, the pace is slow and pleasant and the populace is unendingly welcoming.”
Read on for the lowdown on 10 cheap—and amazing—places to live in 2020.
Why: One of the world’s friendliest, easiest and safest countries, Portugal tops the Annual Global Retirement Index for 2020. Adding to Portugal’s appeal are its gracious people, attractive beaches, brilliant sunshine and rich culture. "After living here for more than seven years, I've been asked many times, ‘Why Portugal?’” says Tricia Pimental, International Living’s Portugal correspondent. “My response is often to enumerate factors like affordable lifestyle—which includes quality professional healthcare—temperate climate, high safety rating and excellent food and wine.” But Pimental says the real reason is even more ephemeral. “It's the overarching sense of well-being we experience here,” says Pimental. “The country's natural geographical beauty blends with its architecture of various eras, dating back millennia, to evoke a sense of permanence and timeless tradition. When you add to that the kindness and gentility of the Portuguese people, it is a winning combination."
Where To Move: Whether you’re looking for fine museums, hiking paths, surfing beaches, ancient ruins or places to polish your golf game, it’s easy to find it in Portugal. In most regions of Portugal, there’s a pleasant climate year-round. Want an urban lifestyle? Check out Lisbon—the oldest city in Western Europe—or Porto, the second largest metropolitan area. For a quieter way of life, look tothe secret hill townslike Marvão—the highest village in Portugal—and Castelo de Vide, which has lots of stores, cafés, restaurants and awesome mountain views. British and other European expats have been settling in the Algarve for years. Another find:Coimbra, a lively university town.
The Cost: Portugal is one of Western Europe’s most affordable countries, and expats typically find thattheir expenses are about a third of what they would be in the States. In the capital city ofLisbon, a couple can live comfortably on about $2,200 a month—and it’s much less for a single person. In smaller cities and in the country’s interior, a couple’s budget will be about $1,700 a month. And there are areas where your money goes even further, likePeniche on Portugal’s Silver Coast, where you can live for less than $1,400 a month. Another example isMarvão, where you can own a historic homestead in a mountain national park for a mere $403 a month. About a 20-minute drive away in Castelo de Vide, you can find houses in need of renovation for as little as €10,000 ($11,068).
Why: Panama is warm and tropical. The currency is the U.S. dollar. The tax burden is low. There’s a large English-speaking population—including excellent doctors. It lies completely outside the hurricane belt. High-speed internet and cell coverage are remarkable, as is the power, air and water quality. And the country’s famed Pensionado—which provides easy residency to expats—is one of the best retiree programs in the world today and it’s open to everyone. “You’ll never run out of things to do here,” says Jessica Ramesch, International Living’s Panama editor. “What few people know is that this is also a cultural capital. Panama City is home to active, vibrant communities from all over the world, and every art form is celebrated here.” Another factor: Panama is relatively close to the U.S.: Miami is about three hours away by plane.
Where To Move: Panama is about the size of South Carolina and has mountains, beaches and cities within an easy striking distance—no matter where you go. Most people are attracted to the cosmopolitan capital, Panama City, but the well-maintained Pan-American Highway runs the length of the country, making it easy to get around. An hour from Panama City is Coronado, where many Panamanians have beach homes. El Valle is a quiet enclave about a two-hour drive from Panama City known for its ocean beaches and small-town appeal. And then there’s Pedasí, on the tip of the Azuero Peninsula in the province of Los Santos on the Pacific Ocean.
The Cost: In Panama City, a couple can live on on a monthly budget of as little as $1,700. A single could shave about 20-30% off those numbers. Leave Panama City and costs are even more affordable. In Volcán, a couple can escape to an enjoyable, peaceful life on a monthly budget of $1,514. Another advantage to Panama: zero income tax if you earn revenue in other countries.
3. Costa Rica
Why: “Costa Rica continues to be a top contender year after year on the list of countries for International Living's Retirement Index,” says Kathleen Evans, International Living’s Costa Rica correspondent. “There are so many reasons to love this stunningly beautiful Central American gem.” There’s affordable medical care, a dozen microclimates, abundant nature, warm locals, a straightforward residency process, plus pioneers who have already paved the way. Costa Rica also has the enviable luxury of peace and stability—unusual for many countries in the region. This year, the country celebrates 71 years since the abolishment of the army, making it the largest democracy without a military force.
Where To Move: Costa Rica is about the size of West Virginia, but it has a wide variety of landscapes and climates. Choose from rainforests, seaside villages and mountain towns. In the capital of San Jose, the capital, and the surrounding Central Valley you’ll find a temperate “eternal spring” climate. Guanacaste is known for its dry, hot beaches. Around the pristine Lake Arenal, expats live in the hills with lake views.
The Cost: In the Central Valley—home to about two-thirds of Costa Rica’s population—a single person can live on between $1,500 and $1,800 a month Many couples report living well on $2,000 a month—including all their costs, but that amount can go down to $1,585, depending on where you live and how you spend your budget. You can eat at a local restaurant for just $4 or $5, and a visit to a physician will set you back $50 or less.
Why: Life is simple in Mexico. There’s high-quality healthcare, stunning beaches, a vibrant cultural scene and a low cost of living. “My wife, Diane, and I moved to Cancún in 2014,” says Don Murray, International Living’s Riviera Maya correspondent. “The country has something for everyone: beautiful, warm oceans, crystal-clear tropical lakes, fertile farmlands, temperate-but-majestic mountains, starkly gorgeous deserts, small towns or sophisticated cities. And it’s quite easy to fit in.”
Where: Because of its geographic diversity, you’ll find every climate: from warm and dry to hot and sultry to spring-like temperatures all year in the Colonial Highlands. Popular spots include the Lake Chapala area and San Miguel de Allende, which are brimming with expats who can make a newcomer feel welcome. Other places to check out are the Pacific coast beach town of Bucerías, which has great restaurants, coffee shops and bakeries, and Toluca, which has the most museums in Mexico outside of Mexico City and is only an hour bus ride from Mexico City.
The Cost: “The cost of living is notoriously low,” says Murray. “In fact, there are many places in the country where a wonderful life can be had for the price of one monthly Social Security check and this improves even more when you figure the normally favorable exchange rate from dollars to pesos.” A couple can live in Mexico for as little as $1,500 a month, depending on the location—including rent and healthcare. For instance, in Toluca, a home with a front yard and backyard, costs less than $500 a month, a fancy restaurant costs $20 for two people and Uber rides are about $1 to $2, wherever you’re going.
Why: Malaysia—a popular expat destination since the late 1960s—is known for its idyllic beaches, seductive islands and some of the most pristine ancient rainforests in Southeast Asia. Expats can own property freehold, there is no inheritance tax and Malaysia places no tax on income earned overseas. “Malaysian law is based on the British system and all road signs are in both English and Malay, which makes driving around easy,” says Keith Hockton, International Living’s Malaysia correspondent. He and his wife, Lisa, moved to Penang in early 2010. “The unofficial first language of the country is English, so you don’t have to learn another language here if you don’t want to. And the other attractive thing for us is the outdoor lifestyle.”
Where: “If white-sand beaches are your dream, you have more than 878 islands to choose from here. Both my wife and I hike a lot, so living near the Penang Botanic Gardens is a bonus,” says Hockton, who lives in Penang, a small tropical island off the west coast of peninsular Malaysia. Known as a foodie haven, Penang’s largest city, George Town, is home to eclectic architecture, a vibrant art scene and the best street food in the world.
The Cost: In Penang, a couple can live comfortably on $1,455 a month, including rent. Eat where the locals eat and you can’t go wrong with a meal for less than $5. “As for healthcare, when you compare surgery prices between the U.S. and Malaysia, the benefits are obvious,” says Hockton.
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