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It turns out the best way to get ahead in America is to leave

Kelli María Korducki   

It turns out the best way to get ahead in America is to leave

Amelia Basista and JP Stonestreet call 2015 their "year from hell" — the final straw that sent them packing to South America. Stonestreet was 43 and working as a self-employed web developer when he began experiencing strange nerve pain in his hands, feet, and legs. After a frightening afternoon when he found himself struggling to walk, he got diagnoses of congenital spinal stenosis and degenerative disc disease, conditions that required two major spinal surgeries to correct.

During the nearly yearlong recovery that followed, Stonestreet was unable to work. Basista left her job as a regional sales manager to take a new sales role that allowed her more time at home while her partner recovered, but it came with a significant pay cut. As the couple's income plummeted, Stonestreet's insurance premiums soared to $1,200 a month.

"We realized we couldn't afford the mortgage and the car payments and everything," Stonestreet told me. "The conventional American lifestyle just wasn't in our reach anymore." The couple sold their house in Denver, but that wasn't enough to break even. Over the next year and a half, they hatched an escape plan. In 2017, the pair relocated to Cuenca, Ecuador, and continued working their old jobs remotely. Their monthly expenses dropped by 70%.

Basista and Stonestreet are part of an emerging cohort of Americans who, fed up with the cost of living at home, are seeking a better quality of life elsewhere. They swap advice on Reddit boards like AmerExit (57,000 members) and I Want Out (2 million members), consult with concierge relocation-service providers that cost a few hundred to several thousand dollars a pop, and teach others how to follow in their footsteps. They toss around terms like "geoarbitrage" (the notion of saving money by moving somewhere cheaper) and acronyms like FIRE (short for "financial independence, retire early," which is equal parts target and mantra).

Some, like Basista and Stonestreet, envision the move as the first step in a long-term plan that ends in a leisurely retirement abroad. Others are drawn to a digital-nomad lifestyle that allows them the flexibility and extra income to travel the world indefinitely on a remote paycheck. Either way, they're moving to save money for the future, to pay off debts, or to afford more of what life has to offer — all while propping up a cottage industry of companies catering to their every need.

It's tricky to know exactly how many Americans have relocated to other countries, let alone the details of when or why. But as of 2023, there were almost 161 million US passports in circulation, one for nearly half of all Americans. (A generation ago, only 10% of Americans had a passport.) The State Department estimated in 2020 that a total of 9 million US citizens lived abroad, up from an estimated 5 million in 2010 — though those numbers include dual citizens born and raised abroad. The nonprofit advocacy group American Citizens Abroad puts the figure closer to 4 million.

Americans work more, vacation less, spend more on healthcare, and die sooner than people in other high-income economies.

We do know, however, that the yearning is there. In a recent poll from Monmouth University, one-third of Americans said they'd like to settle in another country, compared with just 12% who said the same in a 1995 Gallup poll. In InterNation's 2023 survey of 12,000 expats from 172 countries, the US was the country of origin for the largest share of the expats.

The longing to move abroad will likely be unsurprising to anyone who has recently gasped over their weekly grocery bill or chipped in on an acquaintance's medical GoFundMe with a six-figure goal. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the average US household's monthly expenses jumped from $5,111 in 2020 to $6,081 in 2022. In a new Financial Technology Association survey, 61% of American workers indicated they were living paycheck to paycheck.

And for what? Though there's no question that Americans enjoy a higher material standard of living than most of the world, the nation measures poorly against its wealthy Western peers on several quality-of-life indexes: Americans work more, vacation less, spend more on healthcare, and die sooner than people in other high-income economies.

These factors likely explain why some Americans are moving to countries that aren't generally considered low-cost-of-living locales. Data from the global recruitment firm Deel suggests the UK, Germany, Canada, and France are among the top seven international destinations for American job seekers. In places with universal healthcare, government-subsidized childcare, and cultures that encourage a better work-life balance, your dollar can stretch further.

Maliya Fale, a 22-year-old digital nomad and content creator from Minneapolis, had been traveling through Latin America off and on for nearly three years when, in February, she left the US for good. "I'm genuinely going crazy having to live in a toxic American capitalist society," she announced in a TikTok video titled "Moving out of America."

When we spoke in March, Fale was staying in the coastal town of Puerto Morelos, Mexico, and scoping out her next move. She said that living abroad afforded her a degree of flexibility and spontaneity that would be out of reach back home. She supports herself with remote content gigs and follows whichever adventures come her way. "The cost of America is not going to allow me to do that," she told me.

Others who have followed similar paths say they've never looked back. In November 2015, the writer Cristina Johnson packed three suitcases and boarded a one-way flight from Pennsylvania to Belize. Johnson, now 53, has a disability that makes it difficult to hold down enough work to make ends meet in the States. In Belize, where her monthly expenses are a mere $250, Johnson has been able to build a home and save thousands while earning about $1,200 a month as a content-marketing copywriter. "I could not even venture a guess on how much I've saved over the years," she told Business Insider last year, "but even if I saved a million dollars, it would not be as valuable as the mental, emotional, physical, and psychological things I have gained."

It has never been easier for Americans to test international waters — particularly in countries where greenbacks can stretch much further than they would in a typical US city. More than 50 countries offer digital-nomad visas to remote workers able to prove they have enough funds to support themselves. Combine a strong US dollar with the relative ease of obtaining remote and gig-based work through freelancing platforms such as Fiverr and Upwork, and it's no wonder that Americans of all ages are open to weighing their options abroad.

Retirement wasn't even on our radar when we were still in the US.

Among the numerous companies that have cropped up to meet the burgeoning demand is Mexico Relocation Guide, based in Austin. Founded in 2019 by the husband-and-wife duo of Mariana and Dustin Lange, the company sells relocation guidebooks geared toward Americans who are interested in retiring early or reducing their cost of living without compromising on lifestyle.

"We are very careful not to give the false idea that people are going to live like kings on pennies, because that's not the case," Mariana Lange told me. "But people do see that they can increase their quality of life for the same amount, or even a lower amount, of money." She said that while some farther-flung destinations offer greater bang per buck than Mexico, her clientele of mostly 40-plus Americans see the country's relative proximity to their family and friends back home as a fair trade-off. Some are even able to keep seeing their primary-care providers in the US after they move. Since the pandemic lockdowns have subsided, Lange's business has boomed.

Business owners in other arenas have similarly taken note of the expanding global expat population. Mark Zoril, the North Carolina-based founder of the financial-planning firm PlanVision, began working with expat clients eight or nine years ago, helping them manage cross-border assets and save for the future while living abroad. Today, thanks in part to a high-profile endorsement from Andrew Hallam, the author of "Millionaire Expat," these clients account for a significant proportion of his company's business.

Zoril said most of his clients planned to remain abroad indefinitely, largely because of the high cost of returning. "They just haven't accumulated a lot of assets during their working years," he told me. "And so for them to come back to the States would be a challenge." He identified Central America, Portugal, and Spain as particularly popular destinations because of their relatively low costs of living and mild climates.

Though he hasn't noticed a change in the demographic makeup of his expat clientele — people in their 30s and 40s who don't have large savings and are working to support themselves — Zoril said that in recent years these customers have generally become savvier about researching and weighing their options, learning online about "where they can live inexpensively, how they can access cash, and how they can invest." He added: "They can join social communities with other people that are also living this way. They have a better support network of people they can reach out to and learn from before they go."

Expat life does come with its share of potential downsides. A lower cost of living often means significantly reduced earnings, which can impede someone's financial ability to return home. Cultural differences and language barriers add a layer of complexity and a risk of alienation.

For the people whose towns and neighborhoods have recently transformed into expat hot spots, the dynamic is especially fraught. On a visit to Lisbon this February, I was shocked by the relatively few locals I saw in the city's center, where swaths of housing have been gobbled up by foreign investors and absorbed into a short-term-rental market catering to international tourists, expat settlers, and waves of digital nomads. With residential-property costs up by nearly 30% over the past five years, both old and new residents of the Portuguese capital are feeling the squeeze.

Other expat destinations pose challenges of their own. Amid political unrest in Ecuador, Stonestreet and Basista swapped their adopted home for a semi-nomadic "slow travel" lifestyle in Europe. They don't regret leaving America, though. From their temporary perch in Tirana, Albania, the couple told me via WhatsApp that their only regret about moving abroad was not doing it sooner. Within three years of leaving the US, they said, they were able to pay off $60,000 in consumer debt and double down on saving for retirement.

"Retirement wasn't even on our radar when we were still in the US," Stonestreet told me. "We just assumed we'd work till we dropped. But life is short. Tomorrow's not guaranteed."

Kelli María Korducki is a journalist whose work focuses on work, tech, and culture. She's based in New York City.

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