In 2016, when my husband and I told our family and friends that we were selling our home and cars and moving our family to Mexico, they immediately told us we'd regret it.
They even brought up stats on the dangers of living abroad, ranging from cartel violence to healthcare problems. But we didn't let that stop us from doing something that we knew was necessary for our growth as a family.
We've been living abroad for almost five years now — in two very different places: Mazatlán, Mexico, a beautiful, colonial city on the Pacific Ocean, and currently Antigua, a colorful Caribbean island.
When my husband and I tell people that leaving the U.S. was one of the best decisions we ever made, they ask about what tips we'd give others, especially families with kids, who want to move abroad.
Here are seven things we did before moving to make the process easier:
1. We found ways to help our kids adjust
Before we moved, we introduced our three kids — then ages three, four and five — to Spanish via television (with Netflix, you can change language) and the Duolingo app.
Even though we were downsizing from a 3,200-square-foot home in Chicago to something much smaller, we told them they could each bring a couple of their favorite toys and a blanket, so they had some comfort items.
Having some constants can help kids adjust amidst big changes. In Chicago, we enjoyed pizza night every Friday, so we've been keeping that tradition alive.
2. We made accommodations for health insurance
In Mexico and Antigua, basic healthcare is considerably less expensive than in the U.S., and in some cases, it's cheaper to pay out-of-pocket.
When our son needed a CT scan in Mexico, we booked it directly with the diagnostic center (no referral needed) and paid $65 out-of-pocket.
But it's still a good idea to have international health insurance. Some carriers include emergency air ambulance, which is a must-have. When my mother was in the hospital in Mexico City, we had to get an air ambulance back to the U.S. Without health insurance, it would have cost around $25,000.
Keep in mind that international health insurance is not the same as travel health insurance. International insurance provides a comprehensive level of health care to those relocating from their home country for a sustained period of time, whereas travel insurance offers emergency treatment while you are in another country for a shorter amount of time.
3. We had a financial safety net in place
Before moving, we set aside at least three months' worth of living expenses in our emergency savings account, plus airfare home.
It's important to be financially prepared for unexpected events, like needing to book a flight out due a bad storm or hurricane, losing a job, or if an urgent medical issue comes up.
Research the place you plan to move to and figure out the costs of housing, food, education, transportation, utilities and other essential expenses. If you have kids, don't forget to factor in the number of people in your family.
4. We found housing on our own (and saved a lot of money)
Four months before moving to Mexico, we spent two weeks in Mazatlán. We drove around the areas we wanted to live in looking for "For Rent" signs, then called the numbers and made appointments (in the best Spanish we could muster).
After looking at five different places, we finally found one we loved and signed a lease. It was a two-story, four-bedroom, three-bathroom home with a small casita — or a maid's quarters — just 10 minutes from the beach in a safe and friendly neighborhood.
Our monthly rent was $475. By searching ourselves and contacting the owner directly (their information is typically listed in the "For Rent" signs), we avoided paying the inflated fees that often come with using a rental agent, which can sometimes cost two or three times more.
Connecting online with expats who live in the area is another great way to discover available rental options.
5. We had a steady stream of income and stayed on top of finances
Most of the non-retired expats we know are either employed in the country they live, work remotely for a U.S.-based company, or are entrepreneurs.
Currently, my husband teaches at the American University of Antigua, and I run my own copywriting business. We follow a monthly budget plan based on our income and projected expenses.
We also researched banks in advance and set up an account ASAP. You might not be able to open an account before arriving, but you can still make sure you have all the required documents ready when you get there.
Lastly, if you're a U.S. citizen living abroad, your worldwide income is still subject to U.S. income tax. But you may qualify for certain foreign-earned income exclusions or foreign income tax credits. (Check out the IRS' Tax Guide for U.S. Citizens and Resident Aliens Abroad for more information.)
6. We enrolled our kids in school early
In Mexico and Antigua, we chose reputable local private schools for our kids. Tuition per child was about $100 per month in Mexico, where they spent six to seven hours a day learning in Spanish. Here in Antigua, we pay $200 per month for each child.
Enrollment is often limited for international private schools, so make your plans early by researching online, filling out any applications and making deposits.
The quality of education has been great — small classes, traditional subjects like math, science, reading and lots of history. Our kids love it, too, and they've made many wonderful friends.
7. We gave each other time to think things through
If your partner is not yet on board, give them time and space to explore. Suggest taking a trip to the area you're interested in and spend a few weeks there.
Discuss plans that you'll both be comfortable with. Speak and listen to each other with kindness, love, respect, understanding and patience.
It may take a lot of compromises, perhaps even so much as splitting your time between a family home in the U.S. and a rental home abroad.
The same advice goes for those who considering moving abroad solo. Visit the place and live like a local — stay in an Airbnb, go grocery shopping, use public transportation and attend events like an outdoor concert or festival. Make new friends and talk to other expats in the area.
You don't have to live abroad for years on end to experience a new culture. You can take an extended vacation or get a digital nomad visa and work remotely for a few months.
These past few years have been such a life-enriching experience for our family. Our kids are so much more cultured, open-minded and well-rounded. Whether you live abroad for a month or a lifetime, it's worth the adventure.
Gabriella M. Lindsay, a Chicago native, is a copywriter, author, and educator. She lives on the island of Antigua in the Caribbean West Indies with her husband and three young children. "Living F.I.T.: A 40-Day Guide to Living Faithfully, Intentionally, and Tenaciously″ is her first book. Follow Gabriella on Instagram.
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