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The What-Ifs of Moving to a Different CountryRecently, my friend Lisa from the Mad Money Monster blog wrote about the “what ifs” on moving to a different country.  It was appropriately titled The What Ifs of International Geoarbitrage And Early Retirement.

There’s a lot of talk on the Internet, particularly in the personal finance community, about the idea of geoarbitrage.  That’s the strategy of moving to another location, domestic or abroad, to take advantage of the lower cost-of-living and move ahead financially or possibly retire early.

It was a great post!  I love it because it raises a lot of questions that many people are thinking when they even consider geoarbitrage.  And she wasn’t trying to say whether or not moving to a different country is good or bad, but rather just some thoughts she had about the idea.

She mentioned me in the article as we’ve loosely followed each other’s blogs over the years so she knows that we moved to Boquete, Panama earlier this year.

I was excited to respond and comment on her post, but my comment was becoming too long (shocker, right?!).  So I hit her up and said that I thought it would be cool to respond with a blog post – why not have some more fun and interaction in the blogosphere?!

Lisa liked the idea so here we are!

Before I dig in though, let’s start with some disclaimers…

  1. Moving to a different country isn’t something I’m necessarily an expert in.  We did this for us and we love it so far.  That said, we’ve only been here a few months now and it’s the first time we’ve ever lived in another country.
  2. All I know about is living in Panama.  My thoughts could be completely different from someone who’s moved or thought about moving to Thailand, Portugal, or anywhere else in the world.
  3. Everyone’s different.  Most folks would think the idea alone of moving to a different country is crazy, much less actually pulling the trigger and doing it!  And there are things I love here in Boquete, Panama that you could hate.  Or there are things I might hate that you would love!
  4. No place is perfect.  I’m probably going to lean more toward the pros of Panama since we do love it here.  But it’s not all a bed of roses.  Here’s my post on 10 Reasons Not to Live in Panama to give you a feeling of some of the downsides we’ve experienced so far.

In other words, this is strictly my opinion and your mileage may vary based on your likes and dislikes and the country you might relocate to.

I’m going to repeat each of Lisa’s questions followed by my thoughts.  I encourage you to check out her post to give you a little more context as to what concerns are on each.

With that said… let’s rock!

 

1) What If The Healthcare Isn’t What You Expected?

Yup… it’s possible!  Hopefully, before someone pulls the trigger on moving to a different country, they’ve done a fair amount of research on this topic beforehand.  But even so, it’s still possible that it’s not what you were expecting.

I will say though that we tend to glorify healthcare in the U.S. as if there can’t be anything better (along with so many other facets of life).  This might come as a surprise to some of you, but many countries do a much better job of healthcare without all the costs and complexity that the U.S. system now has.

Regardless, it does sound too good to be true.  We thankfully don’t need to go to the doctor a lot, but I still wanted to do a test-run so I would know how things flow should we ever have an urgent need for a doctor for something major here.

I went to a dermatologist at Chiriquí Hospital for my test-run.  I’ll be writing a post on it shortly after my follow-up, but the Dr. was really good – more thorough than any dermatologist I’ve ever had in the States.  She was friendly, spoke great English, and wasn’t rushing to get through the appointment.

She provided a ton of useful knowledge that I was completely unaware of and, even without insurance, the total for the appointment was $60.

This one appointment doesn’t tell you everything obviously, but it’s a good sign.  I’m also told that the equipment at some of the hospitals is very good as well – some better and newer than in the U.S. – time will tell.

On the downside, the only major hospitals on this side of the country are in David, which is about a 45-minute drive from here.  There are good doctors and offices here in Boquete and you can call many of them on their cell in an emergency.  But for a real crisis, the hospitals are a good distance to get to.

 

2. What If You Change Your Mind?

This a big one for us, but I don’t think this is a bad thing at all if when you plan on moving to a different country you give yourself an out.

In our case, we’re giving it a one-year trial because we knew we’d go through a honeymoon phase where it was all one big vacation.  Then we’d be homesick (which is the phase we’re in now).  But along the way, we’d start to develop more friendships here and eventually feel more like it’s our new normal.  We figure a year should be a fair amount of time to determine if it’s the right place for us or not.

And to accommodate this, we had an epiphany in the early stages of our plans.  Lisa (my wife) brought up the great point about possibly being “stuck” there if we didn’t like it.

If we moved to Panama strictly for the lower cost-of-living so I could quit my job sooner, that could be a problem.  If we didn’t enjoy it here, we’d either have to suck it up and just deal with it or move back and I’d have to go back to work.

I didn’t like the idea of needing to go back to a career again once I left so we talked it out and I purposely worked a few extra years so we could save enough that we could afford to move back to the U.S. if we wanted.

The other plus to this strategy is that we’re currently pulling less from our portfolio than we probably could otherwise.  That gives us a little more breathing room to live a little more freely as well while we’re here.

 

3. What If The Economic And/Or Political Stability Deteriorates?

Yeah, this is a tough one.  It’s easy to say that you’re picking a country that’s not going to end up having problems like Venezuela, but the fact is that you never know.

One of the reasons we chose Panama was because of the economic ties back to the U.S.  Obviously, the U.S. has a vested interest in Panama because of the Panama Canal.  What you might be surprised to hear though is that the Canal accounts for less than 10% of the country’s GDP.  Smart move by not putting all your eggs in one basket!

Panama’s probably the most stable of all countries in Central America, but regardless, nobody knows what’s going to happen.  The country could go downhill, but honestly, so could the U.S. or any other country.

In the meantime, we enjoy the current status of things and don’t fret it.

We’re keeping up with things here and if we sense something major on the horizon, we’ll get out hopefully before the @#% hits the fan.  We don’t own a home here and we’re relatively close to the Costa Rica border.  We also keep a good amount of cash on hand just in case we need to get out in a hurry.  For some reason, it doesn’t matter where you’re at, money talks!

 

4. What If Your Personal Safety And Security Aren’t What You Expected?

Lisa at Mad Money Monster specifically mentioned me with this question.  She was referring to a point I made about a lot of places here in Panama still being cash-based.

And it’s true.  Some grocery stores, hotels, and restaurants here in Boquete will accept credit cards, but a lot don’t.  We spend cash almost every day on small things like taxies, smaller restaurants and shops, and entertainment like Faith’s horseback riding.

Studies have also shown that robberies are down in the U.S. as the country has shifted away from being a cash society.  Here’s an older study and here’s an article discussing the thought.

So if Panama’s still heavy on using cash versus credit cards, does that mean that your personal safety is at risk here?

Numbeo shows that Boquete, Panama is tremendously safer in general than Cleveland, Ohio where we lived most of our lives.

IndexClevelandBoquete
Crime Index (lower is better):62.5233.92
Safety Scale (higher is better):37.4866.08

*Numbers are current as of 11/07/19

But let’s be honest, statistics are funny because you can skew them any way you like to prove a point.  And maybe other parts of Panama might be more dangerous than other parts of the U.S.

The point is that there are plenty of places in the U.S. that are more dangerous than other places throughout the world.  And some places aren’t.  The key is to find the places that aren’t as crime-ridden or dangerous.

I can’t speak for other countries or areas, but I can tell you that even with the lower incomes here (usually associated with higher crime rates), we have never once felt unsafe when walking around here or taking the bus.  That also goes for when we walk home from town after dark.

 

5. What If A Loved One Back Home Gets Sick And Needs Assistance?

This is a tough one because everyone’s circumstances are different.  And if it came down to it, there’s always the possibility we’d have to consider moving back if we needed to care for a family member.

But I think that’s one of those “@#$% happens” circumstances.  It’s hard to live your life on a “what if” scenario like this or you’d never leave.  Instead, I’d rather make decisions based on the changing circumstances over time.

And really, this could easily apply to just living in another part of the U.S. as well.  Yes, some countries are extremely far away, but others, like Panama, really aren’t.  The Tocumen International Airport in Panama City is only a three-hour flight from Miami, Florida.  That’s really a hop, skip, and a jump away and closer than a lot of cities across the U.S. from each other.

 

6. What If Your Kids Hate It But You Love It?

and

7. What If You Hate It But Your Kids Love It?

I’m going to combine these into one for simplicity.

Similar to the last question, is it a good idea to live your life based on a “what if” like this?  What if you don’t try to find true love because you’re afraid of being hurt along the way?  What if you never get a pet because you know you’ll become attached and it’ll die in a decade?

Ok, that’s a weird way to respond to this point about moving to a different country, but it’s still something to consider.  And consider it we did… a lot.

Not only were we taking our daughter out of the city and school she grew up at, but we began to homeschool her as well.  That’s a lot for a kid.

And when you’re moving to a different country, a different state, or even a city that’s further away, you’re making it a lot more work to maintain those tight-knit relationships with friends and family.

Then throw in moving to a part of the world that’s completely foreign to all of us?

Ouch.

That’s a lot of variables that could affect which of us loves living in Panama and which of us doesn’t!  This was probably our biggest concern and a major one of Lisa’s mental struggles (my Lisa… though I’m sure Lisa from Mad Money Monster was concerned for us as well!).

To thwart this, we have a list of golden rules we made during our planning.  Most you won’t care about, but I’ll share items 1-3 since these are critical:

  1. We give it at least a year.
  2. It’s an adventure – we have to try new things and give everything a chance.
  3. Two out of three votes to move back wins.

In other words, we give it our all for one year.  After that, we make a decision to stay, go back, or possibly even consider moving to a different country.  And yes, Faith gets a full vote in the deal.

Is there a chance that one of us disagrees with the other two?  Absolutely.  But we decided to take that chance from the offshoot.

Sometimes a little bit of gambling can be important in the game of life.  Trying new things in life will always carry some risk, but how will you know what you like if you don’t play?!

 

8. What If You Have To Leave The Country Often To Maintain Your Visa

Yup, that’s our case right now.  In fact, this post is being published the day before we head back to the U.S. for a little over a month.  But we incorporated this into our planning from the beginning.

Here in Panama, it’s very easy to get residency.  However, it’ll also cost a pretty penny in attorney fees.

We’re not opposed to getting residency (in fact, we want it), but we’re giving it a year to make sure this is the place for us before we drop the cash needed.

In the meantime, that means that we need to leave the country of Panama every six months for 30 days.  That’s not too bad, but the weird rule is that your U.S. driver’s license is only good for 90 days at a time here.

I’m not sure how much the tourist rules are enforced, but we’re playing by the rules regardless.

When we booked our trip here, we needed to be prepared to show Panama immigration that we had plans to leave as well.  So we booked our tickets as roundtrip with plans to leave in November.  We went by the 90-day rule because we didn’t know whether or not we’d be driving.

Anyway, the great part about us heading back is that we get to see friends and family again.  The bonus is that you don’t necessarily have to go back to the U.S. for 30 days, you just have to get out of Panama.  So we lined up a cruise at the tail end of things before we head back because, why not?!

Since we didn’t get a car, we don’t have to do the 90-day rule, but we do have to leave every six months.  We’re now discussing our next plans to head back, which will probably be in mid-June so we can be there for our birthdays and the 4th of July.

Leaving a couple of times a year might seem like a burden but we look forward to it.  Even if we decide to stay and get our residency, we’ll still make routine trips back to see friends and family.

In the meantime, we stacked up a lot of frequent flier miles through credit card rewards to cover most of our costs.

 

9. What If It Becomes A HCOL Area Due To Popularity?

This could happen and it already sort of has here in Boquete.  Years ago, this city was dirt cheap to live in.

But over probably the past decade, it’s become a very popular place for expatriates to live.  And with that popularity, prices have slowly started to climb.  It’s not expensive to live here, but it’s definitely not the low prices others got to experience here over the years.

Right now, we’ll take our time and enjoy the much lower cost-of-living than we had in Cleveland.  Then, if the prices continue to go up to the point where it no longer makes sense to stay here, we’ll move.  Whether that be to another nearby city, a city further away in Panama, or another place altogether is unknown.

What’s nice though is that the chances of prices skyrocketing overnight are slim.  So just like it would be if the cost-of-living in the area of Ohio where we lived dramatically jumped, we’ll figure it out then.

 

10. What If The Locals Don’t Want You There?

This is another reason why we chose Panama.  There are plenty of countries where U.S. citizens aren’t welcomed with open arms – Panama’s not one of them.

With the relationship to the U.S. over the years with the Panama Canal and having workers from both countries there side-by-side, people from the U.S. just aren’t that big of a deal here.

Now that said, I’m sure the Panamanians love to have some laughs about us gringos here who struggle to speak the language.  But, I don’t see that at all while we’re out and about.

Everyone (both locals and expats) are beyond friendly here.  Seems we’re always exchanging “Buenos días” or “Buenas tardes” greetings throughout each day in passing.  And even with the language barrier, we all seem to put in the extra effort to understand each other.

Several people have told me that it’s like living in the ’50s or ’60s here.  It’s so much more laid-back and people actually enjoy talking to each other.  Everyone wants to help each other and that’s what makes it great.

 

11. What If You Decide Early Retirement Isn’t For You?

Early retirement, shmirley retirement.  I’m not going to re-hash the debate on the term “early retirement” – I’ll leave that one for Mr. Money Mustache to run with.

One of the most important pieces of leaving your W2 job is to understand that the younger you are, the more likely it is that you’ll want to do some kind of work.  Maybe you’ll be paid for it or maybe you won’t, but sitting on your butt all day long will get old at some point.

I plan to continue with this blog as well as several other fun projects.  Some will bring in a little income and some won’t, but I know I won’t ever be bored.  I’ve got so many exciting projects I want to do, I actually have to prioritize so I can get to as many as I can before I die.

I can’t see myself ever going back to a career sort of job again.  But if we ever got to the point where we needed extra money, I would have no problem with the idea of getting a job in retail.  I’d be content working a few days a week at Home Depot or Walmart for instance if I just needed some extra money to cover the bills.

 

12. What If Your New Reality Doesn’t Match Your Previous Expectations?

This is probably more of a possibility for folks like us as a couple with kids than it is for someone single or even a couple without kids.  Having more people means more mindsets and different opinions.  We all went into this with open minds, but moving to a different country is a huge ordeal.

The actual reality though is that you make each and every day your own.  If you don’t like something, you change it as best you can.

For us, we’re defining our path together but we’re also finding our ways individually.  A good example of this is Lisa and Faith doing volunteer work while I continue to work on the projects I enjoy.

 

The What-Ifs of Moving to a Different Country
Faith doing volunteer work at Amigos de Animales…

Regardless of where you live in the world, it’s up to us to create the life we want to live.  If our location is what’s holding us back though, we’ll determine what the next step will be.

Also, having a year “trial period” and not really any set expectations makes this much easier to digest.  If it doesn’t work out, we’ll move onto our next adventure, wherever that may be!

 

13. What If You Determine Living As An Expat Just Isn’t Worth It?

In her post, Lisa from MMM says:

Do you embrace the right to change your mind or do you feel pressure to push on to live a previous dream that might become enjoyable one day?

I think that’s a fair question.  Although we didn’t plan it this way, we’ve become known as the people who moved to Panama.  This blog is a great example.  I was a pretty run-of-the-mill FIRE (financial independence, retire early) blogger for a few years until we decided to move here.  Now it seems that this is the unique niche I’m known for in the community.

It’s not a bad thing, but yes, that could put some pressure on us if we’re considering moving back.  We’ve built it up as a great adventure and place to live.  Coming back could put the pressure on us to be aware of the “I told you so” response we’re bound to get.

But here’s the best part… I don’t care what others think.  Never have, never will.

Although we love it here, our friends and family are in the States.  That’s hard.  As I see it now, that could be the only major reason we’d ever consider moving back.  And if we do, we do.  We’ll do what’s best for us and that’s what matters.

That’s also a reason why this blog tends to thrive – I tell it like it is.  I’m not going to build up anything to be what it’s not.  You get the good, bad, and ugly about everything.  So, if we decided to come back, you’d hear the details of why as well.

 

14. What If It’s Not THAT Much Cheaper?

I think I addressed this in question 9.  Our expenses still haven’t completely settled yet since we’ve been here, but we’re much closer now.

I should have a post coming out to discuss what our expenses have been very soon.  And guess what – it’s not as cheap as I thought it was going to be.

The good news is that it’s still quite a bit cheaper than what it would cost to live in the States.  We’re also living pretty freely here.  We go out to dinner a lot more often and do more activities (some free like hiking and others that cost like horseback riding).

The What-Ifs of Moving to a Different Country
I find it funny that U.S. beer is cheaper here than it is in the U.S. itself!

The real benefit for me though isn’t the cost.  All things considered equal, I’d take this over the U.S. any day.  Between the simpler lifestyle, the friendliness of everyone, and the amazingness of nature here, the cost here makes this a steal!

 

15. What If You Have Pets?

Ok, I’ll admit it… I’m not an animal lover – please don’t hurt me!  I don’t dislike animals, but if I had my preference on whether or not to have pets, it just wouldn’t happen.  It’s a lot of extra work and money, you become attached (yes, I would become attached), and then they die and you’re devastated.

Feel free to yell at me in the comments, but that’s just how I’m built.

But… Lisa and Faith loooooooove animals.  They would buy a zoo if they could.  We just rented a car last week with the main purpose being just to drive to an animal refuge a couple of hours away.  The girls were in heaven and even held a sloth and monkeys.

The What-Ifs of Moving to a Different Country
Faith’s dream come true!

I held up on us getting a dog as long as I could.  We didn’t get one before we left because it would be a hassle to transport it down here.  And we’re not getting one during our trial period here in Panama because it’ll be a hassle to bring back.

However, once we decide we’re staying… one puppy dog coming our way!  Or if we head back to the U.S. to live and get settled… hello, Benji!

Moving to Panama with pets is not the end of the world.  According to Jackie from Panama Relocation Tours, you need to:

  • Pick a pet-friendly airline for your pet and book their flight at least 2-3 months in advance.
  • Make sure your pet is up-to-date on vaccinations.
  • 30 days before moving, get an international health certificate issued by a vet who is certified to issue them
  • Get the health certificate authenticated by the agriculture department and another authentication from the Panama Consulate in your country.
  • Get authorization to bring your pets into Panama and get a home quarantine certificate.

She estimates that it costs approximately $500-$600 per pet to bring them here.  That includes airfare, vet certifications, and authentications in both countries.

So with some good planning, ~BAM~, you’re good to go.  It still involves a fair amount of effort though.


Here’s an important thought.  If the idea of moving to a different country is something someone is seriously considering, you likely have one great thing in your corner – flexibility.  Not having “stuff” anymore is so liberating.

We’re giving it a year here in Panama, but if we decide that we hate it or we like it but the cons start to outweigh the pros, then we leave.  With most of the places here being fully-furnished, we no longer have to worry about selling everything and doing a huge move – we basically just pack up our two suitcases each and head to the next place.

Maybe that ends up being trying out another “foreign” country or maybe we’d just head back to the States.  But either way, not having a ton of crap anymore makes the whole process sooooo much simpler!

There are so many wonderful places in this world.  There will always be a ton of “what-ifs” on why moving to a different country would be a bad idea, but just remember that the “what-if” door swings both ways.  I always say that I’d rather try it, hate it, and move back than to be old and wonder “what if…”

It’s not for everyone, but for the adventurous, it can be a great experience and can actually be something you didn’t even know you were missing in life.

If you’re considering Panama as a place to move, without a doubt, I’d recommend using Jackie’s Panama Relocation Tours.  She knows her stuff and makes sure you know the good and the bad here to help figure out if this is the right place for you.  She’s also a wealth of information on the right people to talk to here.

 

What do you think about the idea of moving to a different country to take advantage of the lower cost-of-living?

 

Thanks for reading!!

— Jim

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The What-Ifs of Moving to a Different Country
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14 thoughts on “The What-Ifs of Moving to a Different Country

  • November 12, 2019 at 8:22 am
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    Always well researched and a big dose of common sense with escapes causes serves you well. Would be more comfortable if more in the FIRE community did likewise.

    My only concern still remains saving enough before FIRE. I think many under estimate the true long term costs and head winds of an insufficient funded early retirement… in the long term. Returning to work is not always an option.

    Reply
    • November 12, 2019 at 11:19 am
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      I agree completely, Mel. Although my own numbers look good in the calculators, the margin for error is smaller than I’d like. Even though we should be good to live off of what we have, I’d definitely feel more at ease with a little bit of income coming in. I’m sure that will come eventually from this site or the other things I have in mind.

      You’re right that returning to work isn’t always an option so it’s important to have enough in place before leaving work.

      On the other side of things though, that’s also assuming no flexibility. I’m working on a post about what our expenses have been in early retirement to share that will shed a little bit of light on where we stand.

      Reply
  • November 12, 2019 at 10:27 am
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    I love your 2/3 rule for deciding to move back. It seems like if one really wants to live abroad the best way is to go there on an extended trip and try it. Often fear yields to fun when the unknown becomes known. At the same time Jim do you think someone should live abroad if all 15 of these what ifs are on their mind? I just wonder if it takes a certain adventurous and flexible demeanor. Maybe if one is asking all of these questions that is part of a bigger answer?

    Reply
    • November 12, 2019 at 11:23 am
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      Yeah, I think that most folks would never end up moving abroad in the long run. The idealism is there and the thought of moving to a tropical island somewhere, but for most, it’s not going to be something that’s going to happen. You really do need to have a sense of adventure and be Ok uprooting from home and your own culture.

      However, the more people hear the answers to some of the questions they might be thinking, the more comfortable they might become with the thought of it. A post like this isn’t going to necessarily convince someone to move to a different country, but it could ease some concerns or predispositions they might have.

      Reply
      • November 13, 2019 at 11:10 pm
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        This is such a great response that I owe you a beer…. and at Panama prices it is only going to cost me $0.54. Value!!!

        Reply
        • November 14, 2019 at 3:21 pm
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          Beer’s beer to me – I’ll take you up on that and enjoy that 54¢ beer just as much as any other! 😉

          Reply
  • November 12, 2019 at 12:41 pm
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    Thank you so much for this post, Jim! I absolutely LOVE your responses to my questions. As someone who would likely never take the leap to move to another country, I still appreciate that others do and that they share their experiences! Your honesty about living abroad is refreshing. I can’t wait to follow along and see if your family decides to make Panama your permanent home or if you all decide to pivot. 🙂

    Reply
    • November 12, 2019 at 1:58 pm
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      Thanks, Lisa – much appreciated and thanks for the inspiration with your post! You and your hubby do come up with some fun stuff all the time though… I wouldn’t be surprised if you give living abroad a shot at some point down the line! 😉 Maybe we can be neighbors someday!

      Reply
  • November 13, 2019 at 2:10 am
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    I just had to show that picture of Faith with the sloth to Mrs. Tako. She’s pretty jealous of Faith right now! 🙂

    I think she’s is warming up to this whole Panama thing. Better keep your couch open.

    Reply
  • November 13, 2019 at 10:17 am
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    This is a great post. Thanks for sharing your experience. We might travel for a year, but probably won’t move until our son is done with high school. At this time, we value stability for our son more.
    My parents moved back to Thailand and there are many similar issues. The cost of living isn’t that much cheaper than in the US. Healthcare is mostly covered by the government, but the wait is long. He had a health scare recently and checked into the hospital for a week. It was super cheap compared to in the US, but the follow-up tests are slow to schedule. It’s tough for us too when my parents need help. I could help a lot more if I’m there. Anyway, we’d love to visit Panama someday. I really hope it works out for you guys.

    Reply
    • November 14, 2019 at 3:16 pm
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      I enjoy hearing about the ins and the outs of Thailand as well since I don’t know anything about that country (except what you share!). That’s interesting on the scheduling of healthcare in Thailand – it makes sense though when it’s mostly free.

      Thanks for the good wishes – I hope it works out for us, too! 🙂

      Reply
  • November 13, 2019 at 6:13 pm
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    We were exploring moving abroad too and the three living grandparents were a major factor in staying in the US. That’s a really tough personal decision to make, and I like how you laid it out – sometimes bad stuff just happens.

    Reply
    • November 14, 2019 at 3:18 pm
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      It’s a struggle for sure – not just moving out of the country, but moving anywhere away from family. That’s really the reason why a cycle continues and most folks always stay living in the same vicinity for most or all of their lives.

      Reply

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