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7 Obstacles to Enjoying the Perfect Expat Life

Estimated Reading Time: 7 Minutes

7 Obstacles to Enjoying the Perfect Expat Life

What’s a perfect expat life, you might ask? It is, in my opinion, someone who is happy for having moved to Costa Rica, one who doesn’t find all the faults they can in their new home country and complains all the time.

I have identified seven common barriers to having the perfect expat life we all want it to have. But be forewarned; achieving that life is not always easy, and you will need to work at it, sometimes harder than you might want.

Here are seven obstacles that you need to overcome to enjoy the perfect expat life in Costa Rica:

1. Don’t complain

We all complain. It’s human nature, and even after 42 years of living in Costa Rica, I still complain. I sometimes compare things and situations that happen in Costa Rica with those in other countries. But are those other countries perfect? I doubt it.

By complaining about them, we focus on the negatives, which lead us to feel like victims. And we didn’t come to Costa Rica to be unhappy victims! So the important thing is not to use other countries as a measuring stick and judge all of Costa Rica by that standard; don’t complain and focus on the negatives; look for the positives.

Perfect expats don’t spend all their energy thinking about moving back home because they are already home.

7 Obstacles to Enjoying the Perfect Expat Life

2. Learn the Language

Often, expats prefer to settle in a country where English is the primary language. True, many Ticos nowadays speak English and sometimes a 3rd or 4th language. But that’s not the general population of Costa Rica. And it is not the part of the population with which you will have the most contact. A lack of Spanish speaking ability doesn’t stop many of those who move here; they know that their first step is to learn rudimentary Spanish to have the perfect retirement life.

By solving the language barrier you gain:

  • A better understanding of and respect for your neighbors and the local population.
  • The ability to communicate what you want to say.
  • There is no more need to employ a third person to assist you in accomplishing everyday things, like opening a bank account, buying routine products, getting your utilities connected, and 1,000 other simple tasks.
  • To do business without losing money.
  • Watch TV in Spanish
  • Read newspapers and books in Spanish.

3. Live your own life

For some, living abroad means being homesick and missing their family. Some of this is natural, but some allow themselves to feel guilty about being far from family. They think they must be there to take care of them because they can’t care for themselves. How silly is that? I have had clients who worried more about the credit card debt of their children back home than enjoying their own life as an expat.

Another problem can occur when expats want to see their grandchildren grow or when their older parents become sick and need more attention. Somehow the expat decides that an occasional visit isn’t enough:

  • that they must be there to make sure everything is OK
  • and if they aren’t, they make themselves miserable with worry.

Another silly perspective – one that denies others their right to live their lives as they see fit.  My 89-year-old mom says that her friends’ kids, who often live in the same neighborhood, never talk to their mother or grandmother. They deserve their own life … and so do you.

4. Quit your Job

Some have dedicated their lives to work or business. Those are the expats who often have a hard time adjusting to retirement. Because they never took the time to acquire hobbies and possibly never had much communication with their spouse. They become like a sailor who comes home after an extended time at sea; life progressed without them, and they have difficulty “catching up.”

Now that you’re an expat, you may have to work very hard at staying busy. So start looking for new hobbies before moving to Costa Rica, things you always wanted to do but never had the time for. Check out this blog about Clubs in Costa Rica, and you’ll be surprised how many things you can do to stay occupied and create the perfect expat life.

5. Accept Organizational Bureaucracy

It’s always challenging to learn how to manage a different organizational bureaucracy than you are used to. Simple things like getting your cell phone to work, opening a bank account, or getting power and water installed, can be huge hurdles. And what about getting your household container through customs?

Don’t fight the bureaucracy; it can make those things (and more) like going through hell and back … especially if you haven’t paid attention to obstacle #1. Instead, be prepared to be frustrated until you “learn the ropes”; it will get easier as time passes.

7 Obstacles to Enjoying the Perfect Expat Life

6. Handle Culture Shock

Some expats have a tough time handling culture shock. Others don’t at all. Those who have traveled extensively usually manage themselves very well. But if you’ve lived your whole life in the same town, it’s much more challenging.

Keep an open mind, don’t take the approach “at home, we do it differently, so it must be better.” If you’re in that category, you either need to re-think your expat plans or learn new ways. My blogs about How to Prevent Culture Shock might help you get things straight(er).

7. Personality

Are you a “Type A” personality? A gotta have everything RIGHT NOW person? If so, then you’ll NEVER have a perfect expat life in Costa Rica.

If you want to live here and be happy, you will need to learn how to slow down and accept the slower pace of life. A great example of the need to learn how to relax and slow down came is this email; it was was sent by Julia on New Year’s Eve at 7 pm:

“I’m planning to move to Costa Rica in the next five years and need to make a decision soon. Send options for a house with a view asap”.

Consecutive emails followed at 9 pm, 11 pm, and the next morning at 7 a.m. and 9 a.m., and all said,

“I have not heard from you yet, please reply to my emails.”

Is this the way you want to live your retirement in Costa Rica? Always wanting everything done NOW?  If this has been your pattern, you will not adapt quickly.

My recommendations

If you want to have the perfect expat life and enjoy Costa Rica, search for and find others who have gone through what you are experiencing. There are hundreds of expats and many good organizations (like the ARCR) who can give you advice and tips that will help you make your transition easier.

When it comes to finding a place to live, hire a realtor for your needs. Make sure it’s a good one who will assist you with some of the issues above. Or lend you a shoulder to cry on.

Thanks to many years of clients who were not living a perfect expat life, I have learned how to have a better one. And you can too!

This article, by Ivo Henfling, was edited by Allen Dickinson and then published in the September/October 2019 edition of El Residente.


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Ivo Henfling

Your West-side of San Jose real estate agent, covering Escazu and Santa Ana, Rohrmoser and Ciudad Colon. If you are looking to buy a home in Costa Rica or invest in a condo anywhere in the Central Valley or looking for any property for sale in Escazu or Santa Ana, you need to contact Costa Rica real estate agent Ivo Henfling. Ivo has been selling Costa Rica real estate on the westside of San Jose, in the locations of Rohrmoser, Sabana, Escazu, Santa Ana and Ciudad Colon for over 20 years and can show you hundreds of happy buyers of real estate in Escazu and those other areas. For Ivo, a deal is not a good one unless both buyer and seller are happy.

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