Do you have to wait until you are 65 years old to retire? What would it take to quit your job and travel the world? How much money would you need and what would you do to prepare? Wendy Justice answers those questions and offers some great advice in this interview.
How did you come to the decision to retire at age 50?
I wish that I could have retired earlier! It wasn’t until I was 50 that I felt that I had enough funds accumulated to afford relinquishing my full-time nursing job. Even then, I looked at it more as a sabbatical than a permanent lifestyle change. To me, working was always intended to be a means to an end – in this case, becoming a global traveler.
What did you do to prepare to retire?
I have always lived frugally. I don’t like being in debt, and that helped a lot when it became time to retire – my first piece of advice to someone considering this is don’t even think about it unless you’ve settled all your obligations first. The last year or two that my husband and I were working, we knew that retirement was right around the corner for us, so we avoided making any large purchases. We knew that this was something we were going to do and it was important enough to us that we never got the sense that we were sacrificing anything. The actual preparations were very time-consuming. We needed to decide which of our possessions we absolutely wanted to keep and got rid of everything that we could – we had huge yard sales! We shopped around for the best options for getting cash from abroad – all cash cards are not alike – and applied for ones that wouldn’t charge us for cash withdrawals or foreign transaction fees. I learned everything that I could to make our savings generate as much income as possible, and totally rebalanced our finances to maximize the return, while still keeping some of that money in growth-producing investments. We had to figure out what to do about our mail. We had to convert all of our business to online – banking and bills, that sort of thing. I scanned every document that I thought we could possibly need and saved it in my email, so that it would be accessible from anywhere in the world. There was a lot of preparation involved.
Please tell us about your travels.
My first real trip abroad (excluding Canada and Mexico) was to Germany in 1980, where I lived for 2 years. I returned to Europe in 2001, and by then, I had developed quite a taste for international travel. In 2003, we took a vacation to Thailand and Cambodia. It was wonderful – I had always wanted to see that part of the world. When our short vacation was finished, I was so sad! I promised myself that next time I took a vacation, it wouldn’t end until I was ready for it to end. So when we left our jobs in 2005, we had no obligation to return. We initially went to Hong Kong, with the idea that it would be our first stop on an around-the-world trip. We went to China, then to all the Southeast Asian countries. It is now 2011, and we are still busy exploring Southeast Asia! However, quite a few other countries still have my interest, and we hope to visit them in the next year or two – India, Nepal, Turkey and northern Africa are a but a few of the areas that we’d still like to see.
How long do you typically stay in one location?
Until it isn’t fun anymore! We stayed for 2 years in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and have been in Vietnam for almost 1 year now. We enjoyed living in Chiang Mai, Thailand, but tired of it after only 3 months. We stay in furnished apartments when we settle in an area, and pick up very few belongings along the way, so it’s easy to leave when the time comes. When we are on the road, we usually stay in a town for a week or so unless it is just a transfer point like Bangkok or Saigon.
Can you give us a rough idea of your yearly living expenses while traveling?
It differs greatly depending on where we are, of course. Vietnam is nice because the cost of living is very low here. We can live very comfortably for under US$1,000 per month. Kuala Lumpur was more expensive, but even there, we spent much less than we would have been able to had we stayed in the US. We’ve never lived anywhere in Southeast Asia that has cost us over US$1,500 per month to live a comfortable, middle-class life. One of the biggest expenses of a traveling lifestyle is the traveling itself – trains, planes, buses and boats can get expensive and you are never going to find the best deals, negotiate the best rates or really get a sense of where you are if you are only in a place for a few days. A young traveler we met in the mountains of China once shared his philosophy with us – “Always stay in a place for longer than it takes you to get there.” We think that is pretty good advice!
Do you earn an income at all now?
Yes, I do. When we first started traveling, we would send travel journals to our friends and family. People really enjoyed receiving them, and more than one person suggested that we consider writing professionally. We submitted an article about our travels in Tibet to Escape Artist in 2007, and they published it and paid us for it – we were very excited! Since that time, we’ve sold a few articles to other publications, but mainly we write for Live and Invest Overseas, where I hold the title of Asia Correspondent. Now when we travel, it’s always a combination of adventure and business. I look at is as a part-time job, putting in maybe 20 hours a week, though that varies considerably. Working for them, I’m always in search of ideal retirement spots, so it satisfies my desire to travel and helps to support our lifestyle, too.
I am also available for consulting – both with Asian living/retiring and preparing to retire, on a fee-per-hour basis. If you’re interested, please email me at: WendyJustice (at mark) gmail (dot) com.
Can you share how much you earn from travel writing?
I was very fortunate to get into the Live and Invest Overseas publication network, as travel writers generally are a starving group and it is a very competitive business. Let’s just say now that we are making enough to support ourselves living abroad, but not enough to get rich. However, it works out well, as our savings can grow since we can supplement most of our living expenses through writing.
With all the writing you do, why don’t you have your own blog?
Good question, John. I guess I just haven’t gotten around to it yet! Almost everything I write gets published and it’s been adequate to support us, while still giving us enough free time to relax and explore and do the things that we enjoy doing. A blog might require more time than we want to invest at this point.
Does your husband work while you are traveling?
Yes, he’s the “man behind the scenes.” He’s my copy-editor and has a great eye for catching grammatical and content errors. He’s also great with a camera, so if I write an article, he does the photography to go along with it.
Do you have children?
I have an adult daughter. I think she thinks that I’m nuts. She is very rooted with her house and family, isn’t interested in traveling much further than 100 miles from her home and doesn’t understand why on earth I would choose to live this life!
Do you keep your investments and primary finances in your home country?
Yes, I maintain a US brokerage and bank accounts. I experimented once with a bank in Singapore, but wasn’t comfortable with the differences in banking rules. I go back to the US every year or two, although at this point, it feels more like a second home in a foreign country to me.
How do you deal with banking, health care, travel insurance, doctor visits, etc?
If I need cash, I use an ATM locally. I have a debit card from Fidelity that assesses no fees at all and reimburses any foreign ATM fees that I’m charged. Charles Schwab, incidentally, offers a similar debit card for their brokerage customers, and I believe that E-Trade does, as well. Health care costs are so much less in this part of the world. When we first started traveling, we took out a travel medical policy with AU$100 deductible. But it never paid for itself, even though the premiums were quite reasonable, because pretty much every time we received any medical care, the fees were less than the deductible. So now, we don’t have any health insurance at all. So far, had we taken a policy, the premium would not have paid for itself. I had an eye infection a few months back, and saw a specialist here in Vietnam who charged me US$2.00 and gave me appropriate care. Even in Kuala Lumpur, a visit to a western trained, English-speaking doctor costs less than US$10.00. If I was in the US and had a serious medical condition, I would prefer to fly to Kuala Lumpur, Singapore or Bangkok to receive treatment. Not only would I save thousands of dollars, (even with the airfare) but I think that the care that I would receive would be superior – and this from a nurse-manager retired from the US healthcare system! I would say the same for dental care, as well – it’s cheap and of a high standard.
Do you and your husband have any regrets of not continuing your careers?
In a word: no! This is the best thing that could have happened to us.
Do you feel retiring at 50 was too young or too old?
I know many people who work until they are in their mid-60s or older, then retire and before they have a chance to travel, tragedy strikes – an illness or infirmity. And they never realize their dreams. When the kids are grown, when social security begins, when I pay off my mortgage – there’s lots of reasons why people wait. But if you wait too long…If I could do it again, I’d retire earlier. If I need to, I’ll work when I’m old!
Will you settle down in one country someday?
I can’t answer that one yet. I’m a traveler. I love staying in one place for a few months, but then I get restless and want to go elsewhere. If I was to settle permanently, I’d consider Vietnam because it’s inexpensive and I love the Vietnamese people and Vietnamese food and can speak a bit of the language now. But then, another area may beckon… If I had medical issues, I’d like to be somewhere with better health care – Vietnam is still developing in that regard. In that case, I’d consider living in Thailand.
Can you offer any advice or recommendations for people considering early retirement and/or long term travel?
People have so often looked enviously at me and said, “I wish that I could do what you’re doing.” I know that few, if any of them will ever actually take that plunge. They think that they can’t afford it – they need a million dollars, or 5 million, or whatever. Few people realize how affordable it can really be to live this kind of lifestyle. You can definitely retire comfortably for well under a million dollars, assuming that you have no debts. If you invest wisely, two people should be able to make ends meet comfortably with a nest egg of US$500,000 – especially if you know that you’ll be getting social security or a pension at some point and you head to an area with a low cost of living. Keep in mind that “low cost of living” doesn’t mean living in a dirt-floor hut! In Vietnam, we can live a solidly middle-class lifestyle on a budget of about US$850 per month – that’s living in a serviced apartment a five minute walk from one of the prettiest beaches in the world, eating almost all of our meals out, renting our own transportation, everything. I’ve written quite a bit on this topic – for more information, please see the Live and Invest Overseas website at www.liveandinvestoverseas.com to view some of my top picks for retirement as well as some detailed budgets on various Asian destinations. I’ve also written several detailed reports on various Asian destinations – Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, Thailand; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Bali, Indonesia; Vientiane, Laos; Hanoi (and soon, Nha Trang and Hoi An), Vietnam. These feature-length reports were published in the Overseas Retirement Letter. If you’re interested, you can purchase them through the Live and Invest Overseas website. Finally, if retiring young is something that you really want to do, your determination will make it happen. You can come up with a dozen reasons why to postpone it, but in reality, the only thing really holding you back is yourself. We’ve met quite a few couples with young children who have moved to Asia. Some people drift around teaching English or working odd-jobs to support themselves. If you want it badly enough, you can make it happen.
Links to Articles by Wendy Justice
Perpetual Retirement (Why Would Someone Live Like This?)
Chiang Mai, Thailand (Super-Cheap Living)
Retire Young and Travel the World
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Retire to Malaysia $1,223 Per Month
Hua Hin, Thailand (Top Retirement Choice in Southeast Asia)
Vietnam (An Unexpected Welcome)