Sharon Maddison called her husband from the Toronto airport. “Bruce,” she said, “I’ve had enough. I want to quit my job.” Sharon worked as a Director of Sales for TELUS, a telecommunications company. The 60 year-old travelled a lot for work. “It wasn’t healthy,” she says. “I ate at strange hours, in all kinds of different cities. And most of the food wasn’t healthy.”
Bruce spent much of his career managing various restaurants. When Sharon told him that she wanted to quit he said, “Retirement sounds great. But I don’t want to live anywhere cold.”
He bought a subscription to International Living magazine. Bruce figured Belize sounded good because they speak English, and the towns he researched were safe. The couple decided to vacation there first. They flew to Belize at Christmas and they loved it. “We put the house up for sale as soon as we came back,” says Sharon.
The couple sold or gave away most of their possessions. They packed what remained into a 40-foot container. They just didn’t know exactly where they wanted to live. Sharon laughs at the memory. “On the shipping paper, Bruce wrote, ‘Ship to Belize. Specific address will follow.’”
In 2013, they bought a waterfront home in Placencia, on Belize’s southeast coast. They soon realized it was too big for the two of them, so they built a restaurant and some vacation suites on site. For the past four years, they’ve been running Mariposa Restaurant and Beach Suites.
When North Americans think of a low-cost country to retire, many consider Mexico. But Belize has a different charm.
For starters, it’s a Commonwealth country. English is the official language. The money is also easy to figure out. Two Belizean dollars equal one U.S. dollar. Residents don’t pay local capital gains tax, nor do they pay local taxes on foreign-earned income. So what’s not to like? That depends on how you roll.
Belize isn’t cheap. While driving our camper van around the country, we paid $5.50 a gallon for gas. Everything from toothpaste to Coca-Cola costs more in Belize than it does in North America. Joyce Kelly is a 66-year-old American who moved to Belize with her husband, Barry, almost five years ago. “If you’re focused on buying American products,” says the former resident of Columbia, Missouri, “you’ll pay a lot of money.”
I walked into a Belizean supermarket to see what she meant. A 6 oz. ounce tube of Colgate toothpaste cost about $3.48. The same brand at a U.S. based WalMart, costs $2.47. A 10 oz. bag of Lay’s potato chips cost $4.98 in Belize. At a U.S. based WalMart, it costs $2.50.
Joyce and her husband, Barry, rent an 800 square foot, one-bedroom waterfront home for $1,200 a month. “Five years ago, we came down for a holiday,” says Joyce. “But as soon as we got back to the United States we said, ‘let’s move to Belize.’”
Joyce says expats can live on about $30,000 a year. The costs of goods and services are higher in Belize than they are in Mexico. Bruce Maddison, however, says that’s a bonus: “I love Belize because my wife can’t shop.” The United States, Canada and Mexico have plenty of big box stores, shopping malls, Starbucks coffee shops and unique boutiques. But Belize is different. As Sharon says, “There’s nothing for you to buy, unless you want Belize written on all your new t-shirts.” If you’re a recovering spendthrift or a credit card junkie, Belize offers some salvation.
Authors Suzan Haskins and Dan Prescher gush about the place. They authored The International Living Guide To Retiring Overseas On A Budget. The writers, who are both based in Ecuador, say:
“When we daydream about the most beautiful spots we’ve explored, we find we’re often daydreaming about Belize…Can you ever really have too many fresh fish dinners, rum punches, amazing reef dives, and concerts at pier bars over the clear Caribbean water, or breezy afternoons swinging in a hammock under a palm tree?”
Some of the most popular retirement destinations include Ambergris Caye, San Ignacio and Placencia. On Ambergris Caye, you can buy single-bedroom condominiums on the beach for $225,000.
Laurie Norton’s blog, tacogirl.com, helps plenty of Belize-bound vacationers and retirees. It includes information on flights, activities, accommodations, shopping, fitness, food and moving to Belize. The 50-year old Canadian says, “I love the amazing adventures, gorgeous country, great people and the fact that there isn’t any snow.” She has lived on Ambergris Caye since 2006.
Ambergris Caye offers beautiful island living. But homes are cheaper to buy and rent in San Ignacio. It’s located in a lush hill region with beautiful waterfalls near the Guatemalan border. San Ignacio’s temperatures (especially at night) are much cooler than they are in the coastal towns. We camped in our van, a few blocks from the town’s center. One of the main streets has a hippy-like vibe. Its restaurants serve tasty international and local food. I saw advertisements for cave-tubing tours and a sign that caught my eye. It was trying to entice expats to retire off the grid in the hills near San Ignacio.
But Belize isn’t perfect. Its biggest cities won’t likely attract many expats. We spent a few days wandering around Belize City, home of the country’s only international airport. Unfortunately, it looks like an Eastern Bloc throwback from the mid 1970s. Crime rates are high and it lacks the colorful vibe that’s found in most Mexican cities.
Some retirees are also concerned about medical facilities. According to International Living’s Haskins and Prescher, most Belizeans and expats go to Mexico or Guatemala for serious medical procedures. Sharon Maddison, however, says most of the doctors in Belize are good. “If there’s something they can’t do,” she says, “they’ll refer you to the place where you can get the work done. It’s often Merida, Mexico.”
But that hasn’t stopped Belize’s rising popularity. Property prices are soaring in Placencia and on the country’s beautiful islands. That’s why, if you want to retire in Belize, it might be best to check it out soon.
Andrew Hallam is a Digital Nomad. He’s the author of the bestseller Millionaire Teacher and Millionaire Expat: How To Build Wealth Living Overseas