Upgrade: ‘I could live on my Social Security and still save money:’ This 66-year-old left the U.S. for ‘calming’ Costa Rica — where he now plans to live indefinitely

A school break changed 66-year-old Martin Farber’s life forever.

In 2007, his daughter — who at the time was attending Illinois State University — decided she wanted to spend her college holiday volunteering in Costa Rica and staying with a local family, he explains. She came home raving about the experience, so in 2008, Farber — who at the time was living in Evanston (a suburb of Chicago) and selling cars — took his first trip there.

“It was a big surprise to me — bumpy roads, dogs barking in the streets,” he says. “I wasn’t enamoured at first.”

But after his daughter began traveling there more and eventually moved there for a year, he took more trips to Costa Rica. It quickly grew on him — in particular the people. “The Costa Rican people are warm, open and friendly. I felt less invisible in a strange country in a strange town where I didn’t speak the language than I did in Evanston.”

And the more time he spent there, the more it impacted him: “On one of my trips there, I thought: My daughter’s life makes more sense than mine,” he says. “There was nothing wrong with my life but I felt that my life was out of context with who I’d become … I would have bills and make money to pay them but that had ceased to be satisfying. I knew I needed to change my life — there was no more joy in what I was doing,” he says.

What’s more, when he’d return from his Costa Rica trips, people noticed. “I would come back and my friends and therapist would say: You seem better after you go,” he says with a laugh.

Martin Farber

A view from the hot springs in Costa Rica near Martin’s home.

So in 2014, he packed up and moved to Orosi — a picturesque, lush small town with waterfalls and hot springs a little over an hour’s drive from San Jose — promising himself he’d stay for two years. It’s been five and he plans to stay in Costa Rica indefinitely. (Though Farber notes that “it’s not a retirement, it’s a chance to lead a new and different life.”) Here’s what his life is like, from costs to health care to residency to everyday life.

The cost: While many expats spend way more living in Costa Rica, Farber says: “I could live on my Social Security and still save money” adding that “a person can live on $1,200 per month, two people on $2,000.” The key, he says, is to live more like he does and as the Costa Ricans do — in a modest home, eating local food and purchasing local goods.

Indeed, Farber himself spends just $300 a month in rent (he rents a home from a friend who moved recently and gave him a deal), roughly $225 a month on groceries and just $50 a month total on water and electricity (the temperate climate in Orosi means you rarely need heat and AC). He saves money by not owning a car (as a 65-year-old resident he rides the bus for free), which can be expensive to buy and own in Costa Rica; for his cell phone, “I pay as I go … roughly $10.00 may last me a couple weeks or more,” he says, adding that “many people handle there their cell phones this way. You can get them recharged anywhere.”

His major expense is travel: He goes back to the U.S. to visit his mother in Florida several times a year and lately has spent part of the summer in Chicago helping out a friend who has a business there. He also spends a good amount of money on health care (see below). He says that while flights can be had for as little as $350 roundtrip during offseasons, they can be much higher the rest of the year.

Martin Farber

Health care: Farber, who is now a permanent resident of Costa Rica, says he pays about $90 per month to participate in the country’s health-care system — adding that the health care he’s received has been very good. (A 2018 study of health-care quality and access in more than 190 nations ranked Costa Rica No. 62.)

But despite paying that monthly cost, when he developed a detached retina, he paid for the procedure out of pocket so that he didn’t have to wait for his surgery, he says — adding that the entire procedure cost him about $5,000. “I would have had to have waited 4 days,” he says of the reason he just paid to get the surgery ASAP. “That might have been fine, but it might not.” And he adds that the quality of care you can get depends on where you get it in the country.

Lifestyle: Though Farber says that “I moved here with no goals and no agenda,” he’s found plenty to do. “I take Spanish lessons two days a week for two hours a day. It’s been great. I never thought I would acquire a usable language in my 60s,” he says. He also rides his bike all around the area, does some writing and belongs to a community group that does projects to improve the area.

And he often simply takes in nature, which he says has been an essential part of why he feels calmer and more relaxed here than he was in the U.S. “I live at 3,000 feet but in a valley surrounded by coffee fields and lime trees and water. At night if I open the windows I can hear the river rushing by,” he says. “It is very calming … hundreds of trees everywhere … you know the Earth is alive.”


A group of people standing in front of the Orosi Church.

Cons: “I don’t want to over-glorify. It’s not without its problems” Farber says of Costa Rica. “There are social problems and downsides.” He notes that crime and petty theft can be a problem (“I am cautious,” he says of his life) and seem to have increased since he moved, and that he misses out on some cultural things because of where he lives. And, he says with a laugh, “I can’t order Thai food at 9 at night.” But, he adds: “These are tradeoffs — in the afternoon, I get to walk in the coffee fields and see flocks of parrots.”

Residency: To qualify for Costa Rica’s pensionado visa, expats must prove that they have at least a $1,000 pension coming in each month. Here are the details of that program. Once you have lived in Costa Rica for three years, you can apply for permanent residency. Farber used a lawyer to help him figure out the ins and outs of permanent residency options; his entire path to permanent residency took about a year, he says.

The bottom line: “After five years I am still amazed and surprised that I made the decision to lead a life I never thought I would,” he says. And while he may not stay in Orosi forever — “the town doesn’t have an ambulance, I don’t know what it will be like to be 80 there,” he says — he does plan to stay in Costa Rica in no small part because of the people and sense of community that exists here.

“I have the feeling that life is good here” he says. “It’s hard sometimes, but we are all in it together.”

This post was originally posted at http://www.marketwatch.com/news/story.asp?guid=%7B799921B4-DA42-11E9-94EF-D96B9E897FD5%7D&siteid=rss&rss=1.