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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Taking the Plunge and Finding Happiness as an Expat in Panama

Let me start this article by saying that I don’t mean to get all emotional on you again. You’re probably thinking, “First the dating, then the battling depression, now finding happiness? Chris, for cryin’ out loud, go seek therapy. Call your psychiatrist friend, Juha!”

Fair enough, but I got the idea for this subject last week when my son, little Matteo, was sick and I had to take him to a clinic. While in the waiting room, a very nice lady who’d overheard me speaking English, approached me, and wanted to chat. She was here visiting family and trying to make a decision on whether she and her husband should make the move to Panama. She’s Panamanian and her husband is from the U.S. She leaned towards me, and with all seriousness asked, “Are you happy?”

I immediately started talking about Panama For Real, of course, and what I’m doing. I gave her my card.

“But are you happy?” she asked again.

I then explained that I love Panama and would love it even more if I were a little more financially stable and that I, personally, preferred a life outside of the city...

“...And are you happy?”

After the third time hearing the same question, I realized I wasn’t doing a very good job of answering it. That got me thinking. What is happiness in Panama?

This view from Isla Taboga could make many people happy

At that point, I had to adjust my train of thought. What was she truly asking? See, she was mostly concerned about healthcare in Panama. She and her husband are both over the age of 60 and have a real concern when it comes to healthcare and insurance. I asked if they had a decent income to retire on and she said that that wasn’t a problem at all. She wants to live in the city, but her husband doesn’t. He’d rather live out in the interior (sounds a lot like my story). Her husband doesn’t want to move to Panama until they’ve discovered realistic insurance options, since Medicare doesn’t apply in Panama.  

I could tell right then that my answer would never suit her because her idea of happiness was altogether different from mine.

And it reminded me of the questions asked in the online forums. Everyone wants to know if everyone living here is happy. Are we content with our new lives in Panama?

Well, that’s difficult to answer because everyone moves to Panama for his or her own reasons and before you move here, you need to figure out your true reasons for wanting to leave home, because if you don’t, you may come here and find your retirement dreams unfulfilled.

This is my happiness in Panama

So why are you wanting to move overseas in the first place and then, why Panama? Here are a few reasons others want to try Panama. Maybe you fall into one of these categories or maybe you have an entirely different reason for wanting to base your new life here. 

Are you trying to escape the government? 

This is a serious question because many people want to move to Panama because they think they’ll never have to answer to the U.S. government again. They’ve heard Panama is a tax haven and they’ll be safe operating a business here without the hassle of reporting in back home.

That’s not the case. You need to understand that. I’ll save the specifics for the tax specialists, but Panama is no longer a tax haven. And you will need to pay taxes on money earned in Panama, if you’re still a U.S. citizen (of course there’s the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion if you qualify) but in some ways, living here can be even scarier than living in the U.S. because you never know when some new form or procedure will pop up that affects us here in Panama.

Beautiful, but not a tax haven

If you live a simple life and play by the rules, you should be okay.

Did you hear that Panama is an easy place to run a business? 

It can be, especially if you’re planning to start an online business. However, let me just rant for a second and say that, if your plan is to move to Panama, open a business, then pay very low salaries to your Panamanian workers, while expecting them to perform as if they’re being paid top dollar, you shouldn’t come to Panama. I’ll write more about this in a separate post, but it’s the foreigners moving to Panama and treating Panamanian workers like crap that are giving the rest of us a bad name.

So again, when thinking about happiness, what does that mean? If it means sitting back and relaxing while paying $3 per hour to skilled workers while they run your construction company (and you do everything in your power to avoid paying vacation, holidays, and other entitlements), please don’t bring it to Panama. Find that happiness someplace else.

Happiness (Estefania winning a major Toyota art contest)

If, however, you plan to open a business and pay the workers a fair wage and you plan to train them on customer service and treat them with respect, Panama can be a wonderful place to run a business. Yes, before the comments come streaming in, of course there’s red tape and bureaucracy issues to deal with, just like in the U.S. You just have to be patient, and again, play by the rules.  

Are you looking for a better quality of life? 

You could definitely find this in Panama. But what do you mean by a better quality of life? This is something you really have to think about. The grass is pretty green here in the tropics, but I have to tell you, sometimes it seems even greener on the well-manicured front lawns of some of the suburban homes I see in Facebook photos. From what I’ve seen, some of you appear to be leaving a pretty good life behind. Make sure you fully think about what you’re preparing to do.

Happiness (spending time with the kids...and even more kids)

Life in Panama is relaxed and wonderful; the pace may be slower, the air may be fresher, the people may be friendlier, rent may be cheaper (out in the interior anyway), and your skin may get tanner, but it’ll probably be hotter, the traffic will be thicker (in the city), your shopping options will be fewer (you can still shop online), the mosquitos will be buzzier (I think I just created a word), and communication will be harder.

"Knowing is half the battle" --GI Joe

Panama is an amazing place and you can definitely have a great life here. So dream about the good you've read about, and prepare yourself for the challenges, to be mentally prepared for what this new life really means.

Are you trying to escape winter? 

Yeah, you win on that one. You’ll never see snow again, but just make sure you truly don’t want your 4 seasons, because Panama has 2, really hot and really hot and wet (unless you’re in the mountains). 

It's even sun and palm trees in the city

And if you find yourself missing cooler temperatures, just take a quick trip to Boquete, Volcan, Cerro Punta, Cerro Azul, El Valle de Anton, Sora…you get the point. Mountain towns can provide a quick reprieve from the constant heat.

Are you looking for a better place to raise a family? 

I’m raising my family here in Panama, and I have to say that I think Panama provides an atmosphere that is more conducive to creating a strong family unit than most places in the U.S. I said most places. The Duggars seem to be doing fine with their 19 kids (or is it more now) wherever they live, lol.

Happiness (big family parties)

Panamanians are very family-friendly. It’s all about familia here and that’s something different form what I experienced in the U.S. My family was very spread out. Here it seems much more normal to have big Sunday gatherings. When my daughters had their first communions last month, the house was crowded afterwards, and several family members wanted to give a speech about how proud they were or about the importance of the decision my daughters made that day. It was beautiful. Family values are taken very seriously here and that’s something I’m excited about.

Are you trying to make your retirement income stretch? 

I’ve written several times about the cost of living in Panama and I’ll say again that life in Panama City is no longer cheap. It’s just not. Yes, you can get lucky and find an affordable apartment downtown, but are you going to have the place long term? If you’re able to afford a life in a place like Punta Pacifica, Punta Paitilla, Marbella, Bella Vista, Costa del Este, or outside of the city in places like Panama Pacifico, you’ll be living a luxurious life. Even areas of the city like El Cangrejo, El Carmen, Obarrio, and San Francisco could provide you with a nice living, but again, those neighborhoods aren’t cheap.

Costa del Este isn't cheap

Life outside of the city is much more affordable. Even in the expat-friendly places like Coronado, Boquete, Pedasi, and El Valle de Anton, you’ll be able to find a rental or a place for sale for what may be less than what's on the market in the U.S. or in any other country. I say may because I have no idea what the costs are in your home country.

However, if you look to places like Penonomé, Chitre, Santiago, Aguadulce, Las Tablas, Volcan, and even David, you’ll probably find that the costs are much less than what you’re used to paying. In Panama, depending on where you’re looking, rent can be as low as $300 per month (maybe even lower) or as high as $4,000 per month and up. 

You'll spend much less in a town like Las Tablas

So, you can make your retirement income stretch, but you need to be realistic with your funds. I get the questions like the following all the time: “Where can I live that’s not too far from the city, with gorgeous beach views, where I can rent a big house with a big yard, where the people speak English, shopping is great, the restaurants are fabulous, and a hospital is within walking disntance…for $400 per month rent? More than likely, that’s not gonna happen. You’ll have to be a little more flexible if you really expect to stretch your retirement income.

What it all boils down to

None of these may be your reason for wanting to leave your home country. Maybe you’re just a Roberto Duran fanatic, maybe you have always wanted to grow your own coffee or veggie garden, or maybe you have a thing for really big canals. I don’t know.

Happiness (weekend escapes with my wife...whenever we can)

In the end, I explained to my new friend at the clinic that happiness is subjective. I would be happy being able to support my family while sipping sweet tea on a wrap around porch (the house in the movie Best Little Whorehouse in Texas comes to mind) while watching my kids jump back and forth through the long, narrow sprinkler (you remember the one we used to play in when we were kids, the one that shoots the water up like a wall and we’d try to block the water from coming out of the little holes with our toes, but it tickled, so we’d squeal and jump back…sorry random thoughts again). I think I’d love that.

Happiness (taking the kids on their first Metro train ride)

To my new friend, happiness is a life in the city, where she can be close to her family and all the things she remembers from her youth, while it sounds like her husband would enjoy a retirement a little closer to what I have in mind.

Even if I answered her, “Yes, I am extremely happy in all possible ways.” That does not mean that she’d be happy here or that her husband would be.

I explained to her, “Look, you are Panamanian, which makes this move a lot easier. Some people move here with no ties at all; no family, no friends, and no contacts. For someone with connections here, this move wouldn’t be much different from a move out of one state and into the next in the U.S. or from Ontario to Quebec.”

I’m asked so many questions about retiring to Panama. People spend years studying this place, trying to decide if it's right for them. I don’t want anyone to think it’s just a walk in the park. You’ll face a lot of challenges here, just read the recent Facebook group complaints (and arguments). But if you've spent 5 years researching Panama and you’re still not ready to pull the trigger, think of it like this. How many people do you know who’ve said they won’t have a baby until they’re more financially stable? Then when money’s good they say they want to buy a car before they have a little one. Then they want a bigger house. It never ends until one day, after a few too many margaritas, they slip up and just have a baby.

Planning a baby or at least the right time to have one doesn’t really work, not for most people. If you want to have a baby, you just have a baby, and everything else will fall in place around it. Usually, when someone has a baby, they wonder why they didn’t do it sooner.

All I’m saying is, you may never have all your ducks in a row (man I’m using clichés like crazy). So think about why you want to make the move. Decide if happiness is going to be here. 

Don’t sever all ties to your home country. It’s definitely a good idea to keep a bank account open there and it’s always a good idea to rent here in Panama first, so rather than move everything you own, maybe (if you can afford it) you just put some things in a storage unit. Then, if it doesn’t work out, and Panama just isn’t what you thought, it’ll be a little easier to go home.

And one last thing, don’t listen to all the bullies who write about the people who come here, last a few months or a few years, and leave. I see that all the time too. Some of the grumpy folks who stick around like to rub it in peoples’ faces that they couldn’t hack it and returned home. Hack what? This is a hallmark we’re talking about, a serious move, a life-changing event. Try Panama, don’t give up easily, but in the end, if it doesn’t work out for you, no sweat. Do something else. If you wanted to move to Texas, would you care if a few people were ranting online about how so many people move to Texas and wuss out and head back to South Florida?  I wouldn’t. The truth is, the person saying that moved to Panama at one point, from someplace else, and it turned out he liked it. What if he didn’t?

And you’ll also see a lot of people making comments like, “I don’t want anymore gringos moving here.” What’s that all about? How selfish is that? We all deserve a chance at finding happiness, either in our home country, or abroad, so let’s take everyone else out of the equation and figure out how to create our own personal happiness in Panama.

Thanks for reading,


P.S. if you’re wondering how much I spent at the clinic…$14 (without insurance). Took his brother the next day and spent $32 (consultation plus an injection as he had a high fever and needed an antibiotic).

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