Making the decision to move to another country is difficult and scary. It is even harder if you have a family to support and educate. Brandon Pearce, his wife and two daughters made that choice and moved to Costa Rica at the start of the year and are loving their new life outside of the US. Brandon is also proving that the idea of the low hour work week (he works 5 hours per week) is definitely possible if you put in the effort. Brandon offers some great details into his business and his lifestyle in Costa Rica in this interview.
Please tell us a little about your background.
I just turned 30 years old, and was born and raised in Salt Lake City, Utah. As a child, I fell in love with both music and computers. I learned to play the piano and sing – a passion probably inherited from my parents who are both musicians – and when I was 12, I began teaching myself to program in QBasic. I always dreamed that one day I would either be a music teacher like my dad, or have my own computer game on the shelf.
As it turns out, I ended up both teaching music and writing computer programs as a profession for a season, and then quickly decided that neither profession was what I wanted to do forever. Now I enjoy working less than 5 hours per week, living wherever I want (currently Costa Rica), and enjoying life to the fullest every day.
My first experience living internationally was when I served a volunteer mission for the LDS church at age 19 (I am from Utah, after all). I was called to serve and teach the people of Japan for two years. I loved my mission, and I loved Japan. Everything was so different. The language was interesting, the people were so polite, and the food was delicious (well, some of it – I still can’t down natto). At that time, I don’t think I considered the possibility of living outside the U.S. permanently, but it opened my eyes to what else was out there.
After my mission, I graduated with a B.S. in Computer Science (although I found learning on my own to be much more useful). I also met my wife, Jennifer, who had served a mission in the Canary Islands (by Spain). We now have two little girls, ages 6 and 4, whom we absolutely adore!
Where do you live now?
We have been living in Costa Rica since January, 2010, and are renting a beautiful house here that overlooks the central valley for $900/month. We found it on Craigslist. We wanted a furnished place because we sold nearly all our furniture before we made the move abroad, and didn’t want the burden that comes with large possessions. We chose to rent for a year because we could get a lot better deal than the 1-3 month vacation rentals we were looking at previously, and we wanted to stay long enough to become fluent in the language, make some good friends, and understand the culture.
We chose Costa Rica for a few reasons:
- Climate. We got really tired of snow and cold in Utah. We wanted some place green and warm all year around.
- Language. I wanted to learn Spanish, we wanted our kids to learn it, and since Jen already speaks it, we figured it would be a less difficult transition than a new language for all of us.
- Culture. Coming from the U.S., we knew our lives were too full of stress, too focused on material possessions, and too busy to really enjoy what’s important in life. Costa Rica has a reputation of being relaxed and easy-going. “Pura vida” (pure life) is the phrase they often use. We hoped some of that could rub off on us. Fortunately, it has.
- Cost. We thought we could live cheaper in Costa Rica than in the states, and for the most part, we have found this to be true. Electronics and cars are actually more expensive here than in the U.S., but housing and food is cheaper. We’re spending less and living better. For example, we have a maid that comes 5 days a week, a gardener, and a private Spanish tutor twice a week.
- Activities. There is so much to do and see in Costa Rica, from volcanoes to beaches, rainforests and the animals that are in them. Our kids are big animal lovers, and Costa Rica is an ideal place to get up close and personal with all kinds of unique animals.
- Buddy Passes. We’re lucky to have a family member who works at Jet Blue, so we were able to fly here for almost free on buddy passes. Costa Rica is one of the few international locations that Jet Blue flies to. We knew this would also make it easier (cheaper) for family to come visit us if they wanted.
For a more complete explanation about our decision to move abroad, check out this post on my blog.
We have been so happy here in Costa Rica! We love the people, the weather, and feel much more relaxed and at ease. We feel like we have time to enjoy being a family, learning together, and pursuing our interests. I also just love to sit out on our balcony, listen to the birds, and enjoy the view.
What made you decide to make the move abroad?
We would never have dreamed of making this move a few years ago, but I was seeing people get laid off from their “secure” jobs and realized that there is no such thing as job security when you work for someone else. So I focused on building my Internet business in order to be more in control of our livelihood. Once it started taking off, I quit my job to work on building it full-time.
And then it finally dawned on me, thanks to books like The 4-Hour Work Week, that I was now able to live anywhere in the world since my business was all on-line. In January of 2009, we took a 6 week trip to Panama as a family to test the waters, and it was an amazing life changing experience for all of us. It was there we realized we wanted to homeschool (a thought we had considered before, but didn’t really see the benefits of), and that we really could stand to be together as a family 24 hours a day, seven days a week without going crazy. We knew we wanted to spend more time abroad as a family.
What is it like in Costa Rica?
We live in Grecia, which is a fairly small town (Wikipedia says 15,000 people) about 45 minutes west of the big city. We live up in the hills, away from the town center, where it’s a little cooler (perfect temperature for us). We decided we like smaller towns, because we’re not much for crowds, concrete, or pollution. It takes us about 15 minutes by car to drive to town (or 25 minutes by bus), and we enjoy the ride every time. Initially, we thought we’d go carless, but after two months, we really missed the convenience of being able to explore hidden streets, take excursions to further away places when we felt like it, or visit friends without making the girls walk for two miles. The bus access is good here, but we determined a car would work better for us living so far from things. So we bought an old 99 Rav4 (an adventure in itself) , which has been getting us around great. We’ll probably just sell it when we leave.
Internet access is excellent here. It hasn’t gone down yet (although the power has). However, I’ve been trying to upgrade from a 1MB to a 2MB connection for over a month now. Apparently, it’s not as simple as calling the Internet company and asking for an upgrade. One thing I’ve had to learn more of in Costa Rica is patience. Things get done when they get done, not when someone says they will get done. That’s just how it is here, and you can’t really rush things. Whether it’s your water or electricity going out, or someone scheduled to come to an appointment, we’ve learned not to expect things to happen on time, but just be glad when they happen at all, and try to be content in the mean time.
My iPhone works great here at 3G speeds with Internet. It was a little difficult getting a line, since you either need a Costa Rican corporation, or a local friend who can get you the line. I had the latter.
We feel very safe here in Grecia, and are completely comfortable walking the streets at night with our kids. People are friendly, and we’re always hearing people comment to each other about how cute our girls are. (Their blonde hair is quite a rarity here). Shopkeepers chat with you, and there are smiles everywhere you go. We’re making friends and having a great time.
What is your cost of living Costa Rica?
Here’s a rough breakdown of our monthly expenses (in USD):
Rent: $900 (Remember, it’s this house)
Maid: $240 ($12/day – 5 days a week, 4 hours a day).
Gardner: $140 (comes a few times a week, and helps with a lot of side jobs, too)
Spanish Tutor: $200 (comes twice a week, for a couple hours)
Internet: $25 for 1MB/second, $38 for 2MB/second
House Phone: $7
Cell phone (iPhone w/3G Internet): $34
Satellite TV: $33 (so the kids can watch cartoons in Spanish)
Other Utilities: $40-70 (including water, gas, electricity, garbage – cheap, huh?)
Food: $400-600 (we eat really well, and eat out probably 3-4 times per week)
Activities: $200-300 (really depends on what we feel like that month)
Those are the basic monthly expenses. Obviously, we’re splurging in some areas, but my family of four is living very well for under $2,500/month. You could live here for a lot less, though, if you wanted. You can find decent 3bdrm houses that rent for under $150/month, for example. They may not be furnished or have a breathtaking view, but there are lots of options if you want to live on the cheap.
For activities, we love taking family trips to different parts of the country. There is so much to see and do in Costa Rica. Some of the activities are made for tourists and have tourist prices ($30-60/person), but others are very reasonable. We’ve done everything from feeding toucans and cleaning raccoon cages, to swimming at waterfalls and zip-lining through the rainforest. I’ve been writing about our adventures on my blog, Fulness Of Life.
I should also mention that we recently cancelled our health insurance in the U.S. because we realized it just isn’t necessary, so we don’t have that expense either. The healthcare here is good and cheap (and universal). You can get insurance for your whole family here for $60 if you want it, but we rarely visit the doctor. If we had an emergency, nothing is so pricey we couldn’t afford it.
Do you need special visas to live there?
We’re just on tourist visas, which are free, but which require us to leave the country every 90 days, for 72 hours. In some ways it’s a burden. In other ways, it’s a good excuse to take a vacation every few months. At our first 90-day mark we drove to Nicaragua and spent a few days in a hotel there. We’re not sure where we’ll go next. You can apply for residency, but I hear that it’s a fairly expensive process that can take years to complete (remember, everything moves slowly in Costa Rica). We don’t plan on being here for more than a couple years, so we didn’t think it would be worth it to apply for residency at this point.
How long do you expect to stay in Costa Rica?
We don’t really know exactly how long we’ll stay in Costa Rica, but we’ll be here at least until our lease is up, and then at that point decide if we want to find another place here to rent, or if we want to explore the world some more. I think we would like to stay long enough for us all to become comfortably fluent in Spanish.
How are you schooling your two daughters?
We’re following more of an “unschooling” approach, where the kids direct their own education. We don’t follow any specific curriculum. I believe that learning is a lifelong process, and that we’re learning in every moment whether we think we are or not. People learn best when what they’re learning is immediately applicable and interesting to them, and they learn even better when they are the ones seeking the information and getting their own answers. Experience is the best teacher. I think most curricula (including school) kind of squashes that by forcing you to learn things that are largely irrelevant to you at the time (or not even useful in the real world), causing you to quickly forget what you’ve learned, and in some cases, to hate the process of learning itself.
Kids learn best when they’re having fun. And they have the most fun when they’re playing, so we play a lot. They like to create make-believe adventures, put on plays, create art, play computer games, and ask a lot of questions. If they ever ask something we don’t know, we immediately pull up Google and find the answer with them. We’ll watch videos on YouTube, which they love, and go as deep into their question as they want. We also use IKnowThat and Tumblebooks on occasion..
We read to our kids a lot as well. Lately, I’ve been reading them the Narnia series on my iPad. Emily, our six-year-old, never wants me to put it down. She is also reading very well on her own, and loves to read the scriptures at night during our devotional. (We sing a hymn, read the scriptures and pray together before bed each night). We’re happy that she loves to read, and can sound out big words surprisingly well, even in Spanish. Marie, our four-year-old knows the letters and is starting to put sounds together.
The girls each have their own blog, which they update periodically. Emily types it all herself, and Marie mostly dictates to us. We thought a blog would be a good way for them to journal their experiences abroad and also get good reading and writing practice. Their blogs are emilyinthejungle and ridingabutterfly.
We do have a Spanish tutor named Nela, who comes to our house twice a week for a couple hours to teach the girls and me. We didn’t start this until a few weeks ago, but I wish we would have started it as soon as we got here, especially for the girls. She brings games for the girls and quizzes them on vocabulary. They’re learning well. It’s been great for me, too, as I’ve had someone to ask questions to about the intricacies of Spanish grammar. But outside of tutoring, we get a lot of Spanish practice from being with friends, going to church, and talking to people wherever we go. I’ve been amazed at how quickly I’ve been able to learn Spanish. It’s only been four months, but I can understand about 85% of what people are saying, and can get my point across quite clearly most of the time.
Finally, I think traveling is an education in itself. Seeing different cultures, learning new languages, and interacting with different people opens your mind to new ways of thinking and living.
Have your daughters adjusted well to life in Costa Rica?
Adjusting seems like it’s been no problem at all for any of us. Even though we spent the first three weeks in a hotel while looking for a place to live, it’s all been a great adventure and we’ve enjoyed it from day one. The girls have made some good friends, and we have play dates usually once or twice a week with friends they’ve met at church or in the neighborhood. Despite the language barrier, they still have a lot of fun playing together, and our girls are picking up Spanish little by little. (Although sometimes they seem more intent on teaching English to their friends than practicing Spanish).
Marie does sometimes talk about wanting to go back to our “old house” in Utah (which we sold), but none of us really want to return to the U.S. culture and lifestyle. We do miss our family and friends there, though. If you read Marie’s blog, in almost every post she asks for people to come visit us. My family is planning to visit us down here in June, and we’re excited for that.
How do you earn an income?
My main source of income is from a business I created called Music Teacher’s Helper. It’s a web application that helps private music teachers manage the business side of teaching, such as scheduling and billing. I also created Studio Helper, which is the same idea, but for larger studios with multiple teachers, and not just for music. Teachers pay a monthly subscription to use the sites (between $10-25/month for Music Teacher’s Helper, or $50-200+/month for Studio Helper). MTH also has a Free plan with lets you use it with up to 3 students, and includes a free website. Lots of teachers join that one just for the free website.
Both of these sites combined bring in over $20,000/month, currently, and are growing more every month. I don’t get to keep all of that, though, since I’ve hired two full-time programmers, a full-time SEO guy, and a fantastic customer support team that answers e-mails 24/7. I also have a team of bloggers who write many useful articles for music teachers each month. Then there’s marketing and server expenses, etc. But I make plenty for my needs, and am able to save a lot of money each month (way more than I’m spending).
I used to do a lot of freelance web programming, but I kind of got burned out on it. Sure, I could outsource it, but I don’t really need the extra money and I don’t want the stress of managing extra projects right now. There are other things I’d rather do with my time, like be with my family, read, write, and compose music.
How did you come up with the idea for MusicTeachersHelper.com?
When I was teaching private piano lessons, I used to get frustrated trying to keep track of when all my students’ lessons were and how much they owed me. So I wrote a little program to keep track of their schedules and payments. Students could login to see when their next lesson was and how much they owed. It saved me lots of time and headache.
Soon, other teachers saw what I was doing and wanted it for themselves, so I decided to make it available to others. I listened carefully to feedback from my customers and improved the program a LOT over the next few years, adding everything from automatic invoicing, to on-line payments. Now it does pretty much everything except teach the student, and teachers love it!
How do you market the site?
I didn’t know much about marketing when I started this business. I made some paper fliers to display at local music stores. Then I tried Google Adwords. Eventually, I started going to music teacher conferences and demonstrating the product to teachers. I wasn’t very confident in the program at first, though, since it was pretty buggy (it was the first real web app I’d ever made) and I was afraid to do much marketing, thinking that if I got too many teachers upfront, word would get around that it wasn’t a good program, and then no one would want it.
Actually, the opposite happened. Almost every teacher who tried it out absolutely loved it! Sure, they had some suggestions for improvement, but they were happy to pay for it. Eventually, it got to the point where it was doing way more than I originally intended, and I decided to rewrite the whole thing from scratch, with cleaner, faster code (I’d learned a ton since I started).
It wasn’t making much money at first, because I wasn’t doing much marketing. But teachers were telling other teachers about it, and Adwords was bringing in a slow but steady flow of customers. Also, I never put any of my own money into this business. It has always been funded entirely from its own profits (and my initial efforts, of course).
Now, 6 years later, our marketing looks quite a bit different. The blog itself has been a great marketing tool, and brings in lots of traffic. We still go to music teacher conferences, although I now usually have an affiliate go in my place. We’re at the top of search results for our desired keywords, and teachers are constantly telling each other about us. Interestingly, word of mouth is still our largest source of referrals.
Your site says that you are working less than 5 hours per week, is that correct?
Yes, 5 hours is correct, and it’s often even less, but let me define what that means. I count “work” as any activity that’s related to making money. My daily “work” usually involves looking over the tasks my programmers have completed, deciding what new features we’ll add or bugs we’ll fix, advising the support team members with any questions they’ve had, and answering any other e-mails that have come in. Some days, I can get this done in under 10 minutes. Other days, I may want to spend an hour or two to really think things through. I don’t count blogging as work, since I’m not trying to make any money on my personal blog.
I keep track of my time using SlimTimer.com, so I can measure how effective my time is at producing results. I wrote a blog post a while back that goes into detail about exactly how I spend my time in a given week. It’s a little outdated – back from when I was still doing some freelance programming, but it will give you a good idea. You can read it here: How I Spend My Time.
It hasn’t always been this way, of course. I used to be a “one-man show”, doing everything from the design, programming, planning, customer support, marketing, and bookkeeping all on my own. This was time consuming. When I was an employee, I’d get up early in the morning to work on my business before work. Then, I’d spend my lunch breaks working on it as well. And at night, when my wife would let me, I’d work on it some more. It was an obsession and it was exciting because I could start to see where it would lead – to eventual freedom of my time and enough money to do whatever I wanted. And it has been worth every effort.
The time eventually came when it was taking so much time outside of work, that I wasn’t being very effective at my job. I’d find myself answering business e-mails or doing other tasks when I was supposed to be working. I knew this wasn’t right, and I also knew that I wouldn’t be able to grow my business how I wanted to while working at a 40-hour a week job. So, even though my business was only making about $1,500/month at the time, and I probably had less than $10,000 in savings, I decided to take the leap and quit my job. I was confident that we could make do until the business got larger, especially since I could also supplement my business income with freelance projects.
Everything worked out great, and the business took off quickly. I automated as much of the busywork as I could, and hired people to help with the rest. Now here we are living the dream!
Do you have any advice for others wanting to build a similar low hour business?
Yes, lots. In fact, I just started writing a book about creating an on-line business. It probably won’t be ready for several months, but I want to share what I’ve learned with others and show people that it’s totally possible to create this kind of lifestyle. I see too many people who hate their jobs and don’t see any way out. I’ve also written several blog posts about creating a business on my blog in the Entrepreneurship category.
My biggest piece of advice is to just get started. You may feel like you don’t know enough, but you can learn as you go. You’ll make mistakes along the way, but that’s okay. What’s important is that you’re making progress toward your goal. And the more progress you’ll make, the more you’ll be inspired to keep working at it. So just get started. If you can set aside an hour a day to work on your business, you’ll be amazed at how much you’ll be able to get done.
Do you plan on permanently living outside of the US?
Yes. We don’t have any plans to return to the U.S. at this point, except maybe for a vacation or to visit family now and then. It’s hard to know what life will be like for us in 10 or 20 years, and we may eventually want to return to the U.S. But who knows? We’ll just take life as it comes.
Are there any other countries that you hope to move to in the future?
Oh! So many! I’d like my kids to experience Japan like I did on my mission and brush up on my Japanese. I’d like to see what it’s like in India and China. Emily really wants to go to Venice, Italy. Jen would like to live in the French countryside. I have no idea where we’ll end up, but we definitely want to live in other parts of the world.
One of the things we learned is that short 1-2 week vacations just don’t cut it if you want to experience what it’s really like in another country, especially if you just stick to tourist activities and sites, and don’t meet any people. Our church has been a real advantage to us this way because there is a built-in community of friends everywhere we go, as well as opportunities to serve and help. It does make it a little harder to leave a place once you’ve made good friends, but the Internet makes it easy to keep in touch. And we can also come back to a place to visit.
Thanks for giving me the opportunity to share my story on JetSetCitizen!