“We walked across the desert in the dark,” explained Juan. “Our coyote [a paid guide] led us across the Mexican border into the United States. A guy in a truck picked us up and housed us for the night. By the time I was in my early 20s, I had done it five or six times. But each time I did it, something pulled me back to Mexico.”
Like so many others, Juan had illegally entered the United States. To better understand this promised-land migration, I read Alejandro Grattan Dominguez’s book, The Dark Side of the Dream. The author doesn’t describe the United States as a land of sugar tarts and lollipops. The dream has its promise. But it also has a dark side.
Juan told me that he started his own business in the United States. But he gave it up in his late 30s to move back to Mexico. He and his American wife, Katie, now live in a small house in Chapala. That’s where I met them. They own fewer things. They have more free time. They claim to be happier as a result. Others are leaving the United States for similar reasons. They seek a simpler life abroad.
Last year, 31-year old Claudia Eslahpazir left New York City. She was tired of her tedious commutes, long working hours and high living costs. “I’m a strategic marketing consultant and coach,” she says. “I was on vacation in Bali and a small yoga studio was looking for marketing help. I saw that as a sign to take the plunge, pack my bags and head on over.”
Claudia moved into a small bungalow in the town of Ubud. She doesn’t have to work as much as she did in New York City. Nor does she have to worry about money. “It costs me about $1,500 per month to live here,” she says. “That includes all my activities, rent, food and a health insurance policy.” Rent costs $500 a month. That includes the cost of WiFi, utilities, a cleaner (who comes five times a week) and access to a small private swimming pool.
The American Psychological Foundation says our biggest stress factors include money, work and the economy. A recent Gallup poll says the average full time American employee works 47 hours a week. Salaried employees work even longer. One in four say they work more than 60 hours a week.
Psychologist, Oliver James, is the author of Affluenza. He says that the more a society resembles the United States, the higher the rate of emotional distress. The ongoing battle to keep up with Mr. and Mrs. Jones can lead to misery.
James Wallman, author of Stuffication, says materialism is causing widespread depression. He says Americans are three times more likely to be depressed today than they were in the 1950s. Author, Juliet B. Schor says such misery comes from a target that we keep pushing up. In her book, The Overspent American, she says that in 1986, “the Roper polling organization asked Americans how much income they would need to fulfill all their dreams. The answer was $50,000. By 1994 the ‘dreams-fulfilling’ level of income had doubled, from $50,000 to $102,000.” Needless to say, wages hadn’t kept pace with rising aspirations.
Diana Edelman is another American who moved abroad to escape what she described as “the material rat race.” In 2011, she took a job doing public relations work for an Elephant Nature Park in Thailand.
Bit by the bug to work less and see more of the world, Edelman recently moved to Spain. “Now I’m focusing on my freelance writing career, as well as getting my certification to teach English as a foreign language. I can create a schedule that works for me,” she says.
Edelman’s life, however, isn’t worry free. She doesn’t have a 401(k). Americans living abroad also need to earn more than $100,000 a year before they can qualify to invest in an IRA. “But I look at where I am,” says Edelman, “and I can’t put a price tag on that.”
Americans aren’t just moving to lower cost countries. Sometimes they trade one expensive city for another. Eileen Cotter Wright wanted to work less and enjoy more vacation time. So she and her husband left their Massachusetts home. “We moved to London, England for a lifestyle change. It might be one of the most expensive cities in the world, but my husband will only work 9-to-5. He gets a real lunch break. His vacation time has tripled and he can walk to work in a few minutes.”
Many of us want simpler lives. We want more holidays. We want less stuff. Moving abroad might be the answer. But there’s wisdom in that book I mentioned, The Dark Side of the Dream. We can reach for something that we think is better. But we have to remember what we might be giving up.
Andrew Hallam is a Digital Nomad. He’s the author of the bestseller, Millionaire Teacher and The Global Expatriate's Guide to Investing: From Millionaire Teacher to Millionaire Expat.