Apr 21 2013

Reinventing Yourself in Retirement

(Updated October 28, 2015)

A couple of years ago, we received an email from Rob, who was considering the idea of retiring in Costa Rica. He wrote, “After the finances, my biggest worry is how I will spend my time.  I have read about male expats who spend a lot of time at the bar because they do not have a purpose (e.g. employment) and too much free time.  It is funny that the opportunity to be free with unlimited time would be frightening but after a lifetime of having school, work, etc. determine my schedule, I am having to go back to basics to rediscover what my passions are and how I want to spend retirement. If you went through that angst, I would appreciate if you would include your thoughts in one of your newsletters. How do you spend your time, how did you discover your passions, and how are you managing free time?…For me, it is not about being busy, it is about being useful. I can stay busy around the house here moving my too many possessions around or surfing the internet or watching TV. What I think is important is finding a purpose in my life once I have the freedom to search.

This is a great question and one that many others approaching retirement share. Rob was basically asking, “Who am I without my job? When I stop doing all that I’ve been doing, what’s left, and how do I make it matter?” The angst he refered to is, perhaps, an American thing. Do people in other cultures have the same angst that we do, about what we’ll do once we retire? In some cultures, if you are a sheepherder or a guy pushing a cart, there is no possibility of retirement. In most of the world, it’s a struggle just for existence; you work until you drop, and then your family cares for you.

And it’s different for everyone. We all have different talents, desires, and hopes for the future. For some people, the increased social life is enough to make them happy in retirement. There are always outings with friends, weekend trips to the mountains or the beach, dinner parties and happy hours. But for many of us, we need to make our lives, as Rob says, “useful.” We need to have a purpose in life that’s greater than ourselves, to feel that our lives still matter and are meaningful.

For some people, it seems easier. They have always had the dream of writing novels or painting. And many of them end up coming to Costa Rica for its natural beauty and creative inspiration. But even that isn’t always enough. We know a couple who retired to Costa Rica, for him to write and her to paint. And they did. She painted the beauty she saw around her, and he wrote three novels, the first of which is currently being published. But they decided to go back to the U.S. so that he could teach again and help market his book, and for them to be back with the family they missed while living abroad. I’m sure that there were other factors involved, like the language barrier for one. The point is that Costa Rica turned out to be right for them for a time, and then they took the next step in their journey.

For Paul and I, it was a different journey. There are a lot of reasons that we chose to leave the U.S. and come to Costa Rica, which we’ve already written about (and you can read about here and here and throughout this website). We’d spent about 18 months researching and visiting the country before we made the big move on April 1, 2009. We didn’t realize it at the time, but some decisions that we made early on really helped shape our experience here over the last six+ years.

Paul so loved learning about Costa Rica, he knew right away that he wanted to pass on some of that knowledge. And I’d always loved both reading and writing and wanted to do more of both. I wanted to express my thoughts and ideas and, hopefully, to somehow inspire others. We decided to start a little blog to share our journey with others who might also be interested in retiring in Costa Rica. Maybe, we thought, we can market a couple of relevant items and make a little money to help finance our dream. And so we began our Retire for Less in Costa Rica blog. We both got to write about our experiences and it’s evolved from there. Once we arrived in Costa Rica and found our way around, Paul started doing tours and airport transportation in and around the western Central Valley. It gave him another opportunity to talk about this country we have grown to love.

A Happy Rolling Stone

But it didn’t happen overnight. For me, especially, the transition was difficult, maybe because I was only 52 when we “retired” to Costa Rica. Paul was 62 and had just started to collect Social Security of $922 per month. (More than six years later, his Social Security is now $1005 per month.) He was ready to retire and pursue new interests. He admits that he never really had a career, just lots of jobs with none lasting more than 3 years. He was more of a self-professed “rolling stone that gathers no moss,” definitely not a “corporate type” or an “A-type personality.” His expectations have always been low, but he has a corresponding high capacity for satisfaction in life. His goal was never to make a lot of money; instead, it was to be a success in his personal relationships, to love and be loved, genuinely for himself. It wasn’t until later in life that he was able to discover his two passions – me, and Costa Rica.

I was a little less ready to quit my job and move to Costa Rica. I mean, who retires at 52, especially in this economy!? But all the doors were opening for us to make this huge life change, and I decided to just follow the signs and take a leap of faith. My concession was that I didn’t want to sell our house in Baltimore right away. What if we moved to Costa Rica and then realized we had made a big mistake? Also, I was able to continue working for my employer part-time, telecommuting over the Internet, which lasted for most of our first year. In a way, that actually postponed much of the angst I would later feel about “who am I now and what’s next for me?”

Our first 3-6 months living in Costa Rica were both exciting and difficult. The exciting part was that everything was new. We were meeting new people, visiting different parts of the country, trying new foods, and living in an entirely different climate that we were used to back in Baltimore. But, at the same time, we were dealing with all of the differences here. The culture is not the same as back in the U.S.; Ticos have a different set of expectations and ways of doing things. The money is different, and the exchange rate keeps changing, so a dollar isn’t always a dollar. Food and cooking are different as well. Vegetables, like carrots and beets, are bigger. Potatoes and other vegetables have different water-contents and take longer to cook. Baking is different at higher elevations, too. And all of the convenience products and low fat foods I had relied on in the U.S were either not available or cost three times as much.

I discovered that I was doing a lot more cooking from scratch and using a lot less processed foods. Then I started baking all of our bread, making yogurt and peanut butter from the raw ingredients. I learned about alternative ways to cook, and we began eating even more whole foods that we did in the States. I learned about genetically modified foods and the danger they present to unknowing consumers the world over. And I became passionate about cooking and baking healthier and more nourishing foods. I always liked to cook, but working 40 hours a week cuts into any available time I had to try different things and learn new techniques. Now I had both the time and the inclination and found out that I was enjoying it.

Also, Paul and I both started volunteering with the Community Action Alliance, a community-based, action-oriented organization started in our very own San Ramon the year after we arrived.  I became their webmaster and, soon after, we both became members of the Steering Committee. We tried to help mold the direction of the growing organization in the areas of Citizen Security, Economic Development, the Environment, Fundraising, and Education. (You can read more about the Community Action Alliance at this website.)   Neither Paul nor I had any big aspirations to be part of an organization like this. We just wanted to make a difference and this is one of the opportunities that presented themselves to us.

There is an expression, “follow your bliss.” Okay, but that can be a little scary, and besides, first you have to FIND your bliss. It’s not like there’s a road sign pointing to “Bliss Lane.” The good news is that you don’t have to have it all plotted out on your GPS before you start. I think it requires just taking one step at a time and trusting yourself enough that you will find your way. It doesn’t work to stay home behind a closed door and expect your bliss to find you. You have to go out and take, not necessarily a leap, but a small step at a time and see how it makes you feel. Does volunteering at an orphanage or animal rescue bring you more joy than it makes you feel sad? Is writing your memoir just painful, or is it a satisfying process along the way? Does traveling around the country giving talks to expat groups excite you or terrify you? Does teaching English to Ticos come naturally to you, or do you find yourself tongue-tied? You won’t know any of these things until you try.

So start, just start somewhere. Keep an on-going list of the things that bring you joy, and use that list as a guidepost to your future. Your retirement can be anything you choose, so choose what makes you happy. You have to use your heart, not just your head, in this process. And if, down the line, things change, and it doesn’t feel good any longer, don’t be afraid to change direction, to take a first step on a new path. You don’t have to have it all figured out ahead of time. A satisfying retirement (like much of life) is a journey, not a destination. And remember “Bliss Lane?” We found ours, and if and when we move, it moves with us.

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