“Stand up if you’re new here,” addressed the woman with the microphone.
About a dozen people stood. “We hope none of you move here,” she joked. Everybody laughed.
She was speaking to hundreds of people at the Lake Chapala Society in Ajijic, Mexico. As usual, the sun was shining. But at 10:30am, and 5,000 feet above sea level, it was a pleasant 60°Fahrenheit.
Every Sunday, the Lake Chapala society hosts its Open Circle. Speakers share their expertise, often attracting hundreds of retirees. It’s part of the weekend social scene. Topics range. A few years ago, I spoke about investing. A week before, a retiree from Cambodia spoke about the atrocities her family suffered during the Khmer Rouge regime.
Last week’s speaker, David Truly, packed the house like a rock star might. He moved to the region in 2010. Unlike most of the region’s expats, he and his wife weren’t retired. David’s popularity, as a member of The Tall Boys band, might have been part of his draw.
“Their band was incredibly popular in the Lake Chapala area,” says local resident, Mark Boyer. “They were always booked solid.” But Truly isn’t just a great singer and guitarist. He’s also an academic. In 1997, Dr. Truly started the region’s most extensive retirement study. He surveys local retirees that have moved from other countries.
“American retirees have been coming for years,” he says. “The region first attracted tourists in the early 1900s when the Mexican president encouraged international tourism. But the concept of retiring kicked in during the 1950s. Since then, Lake Chapala’s popularity has ebbed and flowed.”
Truly recently moved to Austin, Texas so his young children could attend a U.S. school. But he continues to research retirement in Mexico. “Back in 1997,” he says, “most of the retirees stayed for just a handful of years. But changes are taking place. People are staying longer.”
Dr. Truly says it’s shifting “from a retirement place to a dying place.” Some people call Lake Chapala, The Waiting Room. Low-cost nursing homes are popping up. Plenty are discrete. Last week, my wife and I ate at a local restaurant. Two retired American women were enjoying a meal at a nearby table. The elderly women stood up to pay their bill before they walked to the house next door. From the outside, it looked like just another home. But it was the Mi Casita Nursing Home and Assisted Living Center.
It costs $1,500 to $2000 per month depending on the care required. It costs that much to rent an apartment in some U.S. cities. The Seattle Times reports that the typical renter in San Jose, California pays $1,919 per month. In San Francisco, they pay $1,784. They pay almost $1,500 a month in Seattle and Boston. And that’s just for rent. According to a CareScout survey, the median cost a private room in an American assisted living center costs more than $7000 a month.
Mexico’s affordability attracts a lot of people. Truly’s earlier studies showed that 50 percent of the region’s retirees reported they came to the area because they wanted to reduce their living costs. As US medical costs have risen, that number has increased to 80 percent.
Those flocking to the region have also made some fast decisions. According to Dr. Truly’s surveys, people used to visit 7 times before they decided to retire in Lake Chapala. “On average, people now visit just twice before they decide to move here,” he says.
There’s one other factor that’s tough to ignore. The United States might be more politically divided than it has been in years. This is doing its part, says Truly, to increase the number of retirees that are looking at different countries. But the Lake Chapala region won’t suit everybody. Thirty percent of retirees say they’ve been victims of petty crime.
Plenty of retirees stay for just a handful of years. The longer-term residents often share similar traits. “Most of those that remain in Mexico have moved around a lot before they retired,” says Dr. Truly. “Plenty have previously lived overseas.” Moving abroad requires flexibility and a willingness to embrace different cultures.
After his talk, David Truly asked if anyone had questions. One woman said, “We just want to say that we don’t want to retire here because there’s too much garbage and dog poo on the streets. What are the locals going to do about that?”
My friend leaned towards me. “She’s not a fit,” he whispered. “No, I replied, “she isn’t.”
Andrew Hallam is a Digital Nomad. He’s the author of the bestseller, Millionaire Teacher and Millionaire Expat: How To Build Wealth Living Overseas