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Americans ditch suffocating healthcare costs and divisive politics to retire in Italy: 'It's the way they approach life'

Lauren Edmonds   

Americans ditch suffocating healthcare costs and divisive politics to retire in Italy: 'It's the way they approach life'
  • Some Americans are choosing to retire abroad because of healthcare costs and divisive politics.
  • Many of them are moving to Italy, where the cost of living is more affordable.

Eric and Christina Schwendeman's relationship got serious the day he brought up retirement.

"I have a long-term plan," Eric, 53, recalled telling his now-wife nearly two decades ago. "I want to work as hard as possible and retire to Italy as young as I possibly can."

At the time, the couple lived in Naples, Florida, which is more than 5,000 miles and a 13-hour long-haul flight from Italy.

"He was like, 'That's my goal. If you're on board for that, then let's do this,'" Christina, 40, said.

The Schwendemans began planning for their life outside the United States about 17 years ago, but an increasing number of Americans these days are following their example.

The US State Department estimated that 9 million American citizens lived abroad in 2020, which is a jump from 5 million in 2010.

The US is no longer a desirable place to retire

There used to be a seemingly clear-cut path to retirement in the United States.

People worked until 65, then left the workforce with the help of Social Security and personal savings. That began shifting in the 1980s when Americans gravitated toward defined-contribution plans — like 401(k)s — instead of defined-benefit plans like pensions. This has shifted more responsibility onto employees to determine how much to invest and save.

"Put simply, the shift from defined benefit to defined contribution has been, for most people, a shift from financial certainty to financial uncertainty," BlackRock CEO Larry Fink wrote in a 2024 letter to investors.

Millions of baby boomers now struggle to cover their cost of living.

An AARP survey in April found that one in five Americans who are 50 or older have no retirement savings, and more than half of respondents were concerned they wouldn't have enough to support themselves if they retired.

So, as retirement in the United States gets bleak, some Americans are looking elsewhere. Specifically, they are looking to Italy, which ranks among the top 20 countries with the most generous retirement systems.

Americans are settling into quaint Italian towns

For the Schwendemans, the opportunity to leave the United States arrived in 2022.

Eric and Christina worked in the automotive industry, which was severely impacted by the pandemic. About 575,000 jobs in the industry were lost by the fall 2021.

"We could see that the automotive industry was going to take a turn around the same time that we were seeing it in the housing industry," Christina said. "We said, 'It's probably a good time for us to leave our jobs and sell our house.'"

They moved to Clavesana, a small town of less than 900 people in Italy's Piedmont region and purchased a home that sits on just under an acre of land. Eric and Christina did not share the exact cost, but said the home was about 150 euros — or $161 — per square foot.

Although moving to Italy was always a dream, the couple said other factors, including the cost of healthcare in America, also played a role.

Micki Dukinfield, 72, echoed that sentiment. Dukinfield and her husband left Minnesota for Vicenza, a city about an hour from Venice, in November 2023. Their home cost about 188,500 euros or about $200,000.

"I knew that as we got older, healthcare would always become an issue," Dukinfield told Business Insider.

According to Fidelity's 2023 Retiree Healthcare Cost Estimate, a single individual can spend an average of $157,000 on medical expenses and healthcare throughout retirement. For couples, that climbs to $315,000.

"In 2022, despite the fact that neither of us had anything terribly wrong with us, we spent over $6,000 on premiums and medical bills," Dukinfield said. "We're like, 'this is insanity.'"

In Vicenza, Dukinfield said she and her husband spend between $1,500 and $1,600 yearly on healthcare costs. The Schwendemans said they pay about $2,800 yearly while in Clavesana.

Dukinfield also said the US political climate played a role in her decision to move to Italy.

The United States is gearing up for presidential elections in November. It's expected to be another tight race between Donald Trump, who is facing ongoing legal troubles, and President Joe Biden, who is struggling to rally the kind of support he had in 2020.

Colin Esaw, 59, felt the repercussions of the political and cultural divisions while living in Florida, especially under Gov. Ron DeSantis, who ran against Trump in the Republican primaries.

Esaw was raised in Ireland before his career led him to Orlando in the fall of 1994. He's remained in the area for 30 years, holding American and British passports. He told BI that he began noticing a change in recent years.

"When I first came to America, I had no plans on living or being here any longer than I needed to be because of a preconceived idea of what American people were like," Esaw said. "When I got here, I couldn't believe how friendly and welcoming Americans were. It absolutely stunned me."

Now, Esaw said the political tension is too much. Adding to that the rising cost of living, he said he felt it was time for a change.

"I don't like to live in a society like that," he said.

So, Esaw is preparing to retire in Scalea, a coastal town in the Calabria region, within the next two years. He's purchased a condo for about 55,000 euros, or $59,000.

A growing online community is helping Americans move to Italy

Patrizia Di Gregorio has witnessed the uptick in people, including Americans, looking to retire in Italy firsthand. Gregorio, 52, is an Italian-American who founded the international social network Expats Living in Rome in 2001.

The network has become an essential tool for people across the globe eyeing a move to Italy. The organization offers resources for those looking to move, including financial guidance and immigration advice.

It also offers a community through Facebook groups like Expats Living in Rome and Expats Living in Italy, where people can ask questions and share updates on their journeys. The Expats Living in Italy group now has more than 107,000 members.

Gregorio told BI she first noticed increased interest from Americans around the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Before COVID, we had a lot of immigration, but after COVID, we can't even keep up," she said. She said that one Facebook group she created had more than 800 requests to join at one point.

Expats said Americans live to work but that in Italy, they work to live

Moving to Italy as an American isn't without challenges.

A series of hurdles must be cleared: securing a visa, finding a property, transporting goods across the Atlantic Ocean, applying for necessities like healthcare, and — of course — navigating a language barrier.

Both the Schwendemans and Dukinfield are working to become fluent in Italian — which can sometimes make everyday tasks more arduous — but said leaving the United States was the right choice. They cited a better quality of life, which is no longer bogged down by America's unforgiving and overarching hustle culture.

"It's the way they approach life," Eric said, referring to Italian culture.

In Clavesana, locals take "pausa," a two-hour break each afternoon, which contrasts with the average lunch break in the United States, which is 36 minutes.

"You stop working," Eric said. "You go have lunch with your family and your friends."

Dukinfield agreed, adding that the slower pace of life and living in a walkable city have been positive changes. Moving to Vicenza has also allowed her to live near her daughter, son-in-law, and grandchild.

"You can walk to the downtown area," Dukinfield said. "We lived in a very nice house on a nice lot in suburbia [in the US], but the only place we could walk to was the Super America or the Speedway, which was three-quarters of a mile away."

The phenomenon Eric described is a popular phrase among US expats: In America, you live to work. In Italy, you work to live.

"I have to say it's pretty much a total dream," Christina said. "Every morning, we wake up and look outside and say, 'I cannot believe we live here.'"



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