San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.   Two years ago I came here to research the idea of retiring in Mexico. The question I posed was pretty spare--- suppose you were ready to retire but didn't have much more than your Social Security check? Could you afford to live in one of the most expensive places in Mexico?

My conclusion was that you could. Readers have sent notes ever since. Is it really possible to live in Mexico on $1,500 a month, or less, they ask?  

So I went back and looked for someone who was actually doing it. And I got lucky.

I met Joe and Venae Warner. They aren't retired--- indeed, they're more than a decade away from being eligible for Social Security--- but they are here, slowly figuring out how to live a simpler life than what they were living in California. I met them through Gerry Gill, a lovely woman of 70 who transplanted herself here and built a whole new life as an artist and owner of Casa Granada, a small bed and breakfast. When asked about getting a car to take me to Dolores Hidalgo, a nearby city that may be the ceramics capital of Mexico, Joe and Venae were suggested.

Joe is a former construction and landscaping worker. His hands, he told me, had been so damaged by heavy work that he could no longer hold a pick to play guitar. Now, after less than a year in San Miguel, he's back playing guitar in a band---at the bar of the Meson de San Antonio Hotel. Venae is a hairdresser, teacher, and artist. Her paintings of imaginary but needed Patron Saints--- such as Saint Antonia, the Patron Saint for Locating Lost Keys--- were on exhibit at a nearby gallery.

They pointed out, early on, that their children were grown, their dog and cat had died, and they were ready for a change. They're 50, give or take a few years.


On picking San Miguel

Venae: "When I read (the book) "On Mexican Time" I kept thinking, 'I can do that.' Then, when I came down to explore, I thought it (San Miguel) was wonderful but probably too expensive. I thought we'd do a bed and breakfast.

"We went to the coast but it was too hot, too buggy, and I kept getting sick. I took that as a sign.

"San Miguel is more 'user friendly' than most places."

Joe: "I try to err on the side of caution. When I go into a fresh culture I don't really want to be noticed. I felt noticed in the rest of Mexico."

Venae: "Mexicans and Americans are more accessible here."

On learning Spanish

Vanae: "We're now able to get around and speak like a three year old."

Joe: "I spent 25 years in construction so I spoke a version (of Spanish)--- but it was very bad."

On buying a house

Joe: "In other areas I just felt it wouldn't be real safe (because of the language barrier and differences in how sales were done). …Or that we might never be able to sell it."

Vanae: "There isn't title insurance."

Joe: "It's still a step of faith here—but there are other gringos who have gone through the same process. You can talk with them."

When they bought their house in San Miguel, they purchased a small house close to downtown but outside the expensive historic district where it is difficult to find houses for less than $300,000. Joe says their house reminds him of the bungalows he lived in while growing up in Venice Beach. They got a bargain, paid less than $100,000, and have no mortgage. Unlike many other Americans who have chosen to live here, they also have no maid.

On moving to Mexico

Vanae: "We're learning to experience faith. It's a blind leap. We aren't retired. We don't have a trust fund. We're just trusting that we belong here."

"I really felt disheartened by how greedy people were getting (in America). I wanted to go someplace where my kids could go if things got bad."

Joe: "I was making more and more money every year but I was still acquiring debt. Something is going on with U.S. money--- I don't understand how I could make more and more but still be more in debt."

Vanae: "After 9/11 we said why don't we sell our house, pay off our debt and drive around Mexico to see if we want to live there."

On the cost of living

Vanae: "We vacillate. Sometimes it seems like we could live on $5 a day."

Joe: "We only have 4 bills now. Electric. Gas. Phone. Water. And they're not more than $80. Total.

"No, wait. I forgot cable. Another $20, but we're canceling it.

"If you buy and cook your own food, and don't eat out, you can live inexpensively. We don't have jobs so we're being as frugal as possible."

Vanae: "Reasonably, it can cost us $100 a week. We don't have anything on Mastercard."

Joe: "When you go to the market you get a big basket of fruits and vegetables for $6."

Vanae: "It isn't all easy. You can start to covet things you can't get here. Like lemons. Or sun dried tomatoes."

On clothes

Vanae: "We're living on inventory. It's not a temptation."

On medical care

Vanae: "That's another leap of faith." Having said that, she also said that they've met a U.S. trained internist and know that a stay at the local private hospital would be a fraction of the cost at a U.S. hospital.

On daily life

Joe: "There's more time to talk to people. In the states, when you've got 20 bills and never catch up on your debt you have no time for friendship. "

Vanae: "We don't have to make appointments to see our friends."


Sidebar:   Taking the Next Step

It was a leap but Joe and Vanae Warner didn't make this move on a lark. Before settling in San Miguel they drove the length of the Baja peninsula, took the ferry from La Paz to Mazatlan, explored the Pacific coast beach towns, and gave careful thought to settling in Oaxaca, another art oriented inland city. If the idea of living in Mexico appeals to you I suggest a series of visits.

Start at a bed and breakfast like Casa Granada where you can stay in a lovely room with a fabulous breakfast for $100 a night. My wife and I stayed in the "Angel Room." You might also arrange to spend a day with Joe and Vanae--- they can show you the ins and outs of daily living in San Miguel. You can reach them at:

Then try a short-term house rental. While in San Miguel I visited with friends who were renting a 2 bedroom, 2 bath house furnished with lovely antiques for $2,000 a month. The house had parking for their car, a beautiful courtyard, and two terraces with magnificent views. A maid was there to prepare lunch. Needless to say, less elegant places go for less.

You don't have to be in a hurry to buy a house because there is a broad and varied market for fully furnished short-term rentals.

The Earlier Retire In Mexico column series:

Casa Grenada

Retire in Mexico website with books on the cost of living

On Mexican Time at