Are you scraping by on a middle class income in the U.S.? You could join the thousands that have chosen to travel in paradise, hire maids, a cook, a driver and guides. You could spend more quality time with your family, provide your children with many more opportunities, and gain a higher quality of life for a fraction of what you are currently spending just to scrape by in the U.S. Affordable family travel is possible for many.
We have been doing exactly that for the last nine years. In this article, I am going to show you how travel can change your life and give you a higher standard of living.
It is no secret to thousands of retired expatriate Americans, Canadians, and Europeans: traveling abroad can mean freedom to live at a higher standard of living.
These expatriates stretch their fixed income dollars in Mexico, Central America, and Southeast Asia. A strong currency, coupled with reduced real estate and living expenses, means even more value for the hard-won income of postwar Baby Boomers.
A new generation of recruits is joining the expatriate ranks. With the technological development of unplugged offices and other location-independent income sources, families with children are also finding the freedom to live richly in developing countries.
Why wait to retire, spending the prime of your life working to save, when you can live a retired lifestyle and enjoy your children now? Jumping out of the rat race and into a secluded island or an international metropolis with your family is entirely possible.
We have been traveling with our large sized family for most of the past eight years. Our quality of living is much higher than in the U.S. We can easily afford surrounding the family with luxury while spending less than we do just trying to make ends meet in the U.S.
The United States Central Intelligence Agency maintains a multi-national database of demographic information; including percentages of a nation’s population living at or below poverty.
National estimates of the percentage of the population falling below the poverty line are based on surveys of sub-groups, with the results weighted by the number of people in each group. Definitions of poverty vary considerably among nations. As could be expected, rich nations generally employ more generous standards of poverty than poor nations.
For example, assume momentarily that your family income was the OECD-calculated average household net-adjusted disposable income per capita of U.S. $ 39,531 a year. By the U.S. poverty index, you would qualify at living at poverty even if you had only seven children (two less children than we have).
Take the same income and family for a pleasant drive over the Rio Grande (we recommend crossing at the Anzalduas Bridge), and you are earning more than eight times the median Mexican household income.
Obviously, there are many economic factors that come into play when transferring currency from one country to another. In general, the ongoing strength of North American and Western European currencies have exchanged well into Central America and Southeast Asia. In our last two years in Mexico, we have seen the exchange rate climb from twelve to fifteen pesos on the dollar. While most goods have remained constant in price, this has represented a 25% raise in our income.
Our experience was just as dramatic in the Philippines. We entered the country receiving 38 pisos per USD. Two years later, the rate approached 50 pisos per USD, also a 25% increase. We saw this as an opportunity to be able to give more generously, give pay raises to our hard-working domestic help and have (even more affordable) bags of rice for immediate needs.
Living prosperously is not only about how much more we get, but also how much more we are able to give.
In our experience in the past eight months, we have rented a fully-furnished house with a huge yard by the beach. When we moved in, we were paying 600 USD per month, but toward the end–as the exchange rates increased in our favor–we ended up paying 500 USD per month.
Beyond these numbers is a quality of life that numbers and statistics alone cannot express.
As a larger family, a visit back to the U.S. carries its share of cultural re-entry shock; especially when we go out to eat. We experience the perception that large families are a low-income, rowdy, unlikely-to-tip-well bunch. I think of our last trip “home,” when our children wanted to go to a particular chain restaurant decorated with purple olives (affectionately called “Grape Garden” by our little ones).
We dressed the family in our Sunday best and went to enjoy a family meal. As soon as we opened the door, the hostess gasped at our large number of children. Another server swore under her breath while our children politely stood there. Once we were seated– that is, stuffed in the very back–we overheard two servers arguing over who would serve us. Neither of them wanted the table with all of the children–well behaved children who have dined at five star international restaurants that outshone this chain by far, I might add.
Now let’s hop on a plane to Taiwan, Belize, or–our favorite spot–Cozumel, Mexico. Take the same family, wearing the same outfits into any restaurant on the island. What’s going to happen?
Servers will run to open the doors, assist us in getting our child’s wheel chair through the door, immediately bring the children drinks, crayons, and snacks, and hover around us to receive our order. Being well-behaved is a bonus, but children are not expected to sit like soldiers in Latin America. Countless restaurants provide amazing play places while they wait for the meal. Kids meals are often high quality food that has been decorated for children.
Let’s say we do not want to spend much or are not very hungry. That’s no problem. The workers will totally understand sharing meals. It’s not seen as lacking class, but as a normal part of family living.
When we were new travelers starting out in the Philippines, we once stayed at a wonderful resort on the China Sea for about $30 per night, breakfast included. In the evening, we sat under a palapa to order our supper. After the delicious meal, we decided to order dessert. The entire dessert menu looked amazing and ethnically exciting to our wet-behind-the-ears traveling family. We asked the server to bring one of everything. He was delighted; our children were shocked and giggled with excitement. They enjoyed chocolate-covered fried bananas, sweet sticky rice and mangoes, key lime pie, and more. It was a funny, wonderful moment living richly at a local resort by the sea.
In a developing country, others perceive that–if you are visiting from America– you must be rich. Furthermore, if you are visiting with a lot of children, you must be rolling in the money. How else could you afford such a trip? Over and over again, instead of our children feeling “less than” because of our large family size, we are treated like royalty everywhere we go. They are being raised as little princes and princesses.
Contrast in Perception When we lived in the Philippines, I was not planning to hire workers. As a Mennonite couple that had just left our small farm in the U.S., we were used to hard work. We wanted our children to work as well. Metro Manila is not Lancaster County Pennsylvania, however.
I soon realized that, by not hiring workers, we were making a cultural faux pas. It was seen as my duty to hire workers. I could provide workers with a respectable job and blend in better with the culture. As opposed to the U.S., where hiring a full time maid may be seen as social snobbery, in some areas of southeast Asia it is just the opposite. Here, to refuse to hire help when I could afford it was seen as tightfisted and arrogant.
I also found that there would be no shortage of work for my children. In a large family, there’s plenty of work to go around. I just asked our hired help not to pick up our children’s toys.
Privileges for Children One moment of realizing that our children’s childhood was magical happened in the Philippines. Our oldest son and daughter (then seven and five, respectively) ran through our outdoor kitchen and stole a few lumpias (Filipino egg rolls) that our maids were stacking on a large plate. They were giggling like little lords while our loving maid chased them out the door with a broom. It was a funny scene that stays with me today. This became an affectionate, almost daily occurrence. From cookies to egg rolls, the children had constant snacks and loving helpers on our jungle farmhouse
In that same home, following the birth of our daughter Hadassah, our maids refused to let me get out of bed for six weeks. Six weeks. I cheated after two weeks, but I spent long lazy mornings bonding with my baby. Each day, they bleached my room, gave me crisp clean sheets, opened my window for a tropical breeze, and carried back nutritious meals with the family gathered at my bedside. Those weeks of bonding with my baby, not lifting a finger, will be forever etched in my mind as some of my life’s most precious days. The children rode the family cow, played with chickens, and climbed tropical trees all within view of my large picture window.
Each culture has its own practice of “maid politics”. In the Philippines, a cook does not want to do a maid’s job, and vice versa. We ended up having a a fulltime cook that also did much of the shopping. Every morning, Brent and I would take an early morning dip, and the children would soon join us, until the cook would announce that fresh juice and a hot breakfast was ready. She also made a hot traditional lunch that we ate with all of our workers.
Before she left in the evening, she would set out our supper which was usually coconut rice and lots of fresh fruits. If I wanted to bake with my young daughters, she would measure all of the ingredients and lay them out for us. While daughter and I would bake, the cook would follow us around cleaning the mess.
In addition to having a cook, we had a full-time maid who proudly kept our home spotless. We also hired two full-time nurses (who provided therapy for our special needs children and in-home child care service throughout the day) and a gardener. After supper, the nurses would bathe our young children with special needs, powder them, and return them to us fresh, clean, and ready for bed.
Those two years of having full-time, in-home service afforded Brent and I the opportunity to plug in deeply into understanding the culture. We had time to build our marriage and create amazing memories with the children. It was amazing to take the children playing at the park, riding near a volcano on horseback, swimming, hiking to waterfalls, taking tea parties or other explorations. We would arrive home with laundry folded and put away, the house sparkling clean, the yard and gardens immaculate and supper waiting hot on the table.
These workers became family to us. This was by design and intent. We decided to take the average salary for domestic help, double it, and include medical care and bonuses. Our cook felt a miracle had landed in her lap. We shared mutual appreciation. Also, every afternoon we all shared a meal together. When we moved, they wept as did we. Our young children insisted on using their own money to take them all out to eat. We had a huge party full of laughter and tears. Our gardener said, “I have never been treated with so much dignity in all of my life.”
From an ethical standpoint, we do not advocate unsustainable, unconscionable spending that contributes little to the quality of life of the impoverished and gives reason for a host country’s resentment. This is particularly true for domestic help.
Actually, one of the privileges of travel is having the opportunity to make a difference while choosing a higher quality lifestyle. For example, I once had a maid in Southeast Asia who had four children. She did not have the funds to purchase school uniforms for her children. A meager 25 USD was all it took to ensure that her children respectably attended school. For her, that was a month’s wage, for us, that was giving up a trip to Starbucks. We gladly paid it.
We have always taken our workers and their families out for their birthdays–an event that many had never before experienced. On occasion, we had them experience American holidays like Thanksgiving with turkey and all the trimmings. It’s not just the special moments, however. Having a worker whom you pay above the median wage and treat with dignity makes a difference while you enjoy the freedom of living like royalty. After all, what good is money if you are not making a difference for others?
Becoming “Local” Those who live a more traditional work week, saving up for a yearly vacation, may look aghast at travelers like us. The protest goes something like this: “How could they possibly [hire domestic help, swim with dolphins, visit white sandy beaches, enjoy tropical outdoor restaurants, etc.]? They must be rich.” The question is absolutely fair. The following factors show how we walk the line between affluence and affordability.
First, by having already spent the time and money to travel, these attractions become local to us. Those attractions that, for others, cost a significant chunk of savings for just showing up are just an RV ride away for us. Second, by traveling slowly, we obtain accommodations at monthly rates instead of the more costly per night rates. Finally, for events and attractions in the area, even being around for at least a month will often open up local, non-tourist discounts.
Local Attractions and Prices Since prices are always set at what the market can bear, and since our income is in the top ten percent of most countries where we choose to travel, we never have to wonder if we can afford certain privileges. Going out to eat is easy, even more so being able to afford local activities. We never have to consider the prices when when deciding if a particular World Heritage spot is worth seeing. We never need to save up to see a local zoo, aquarium, or museum.
There are lots of amazing things to do in the world that cost a dollar or less per person to attend. The Blue Hole in Belize, for example, is a spectacular spring-fed natural pool that costs one dollar per person. Our maid in Belize lived in the area her entire life, and yet that Belizean dollar (50 cents USD) per person was, at that time for her, a luxury she could not afford. We were able to take her entire family to the Blue Hole without a dent in our wallet.
We choose to visit and befriend locals most of the time; they open a world that is otherwise closed to those who make no time to do so. Other times, however, we pull away and enter into expat neighborhoods or encounter those on foreign assignment or business travel.
We have met amazing families from various walks of life.
On one occasion, at a resort on the China Sea, our children mingled with a well-to-do English family. Unlike them, we were not “on holiday”, we were staying at the resort longer than they were. Our two oldest children, then ages seven and five, skipped around the white sands playing with the two tow-headed English children with the most adorable accents.
The resort assigned the children servers who literally waited on all four children hand and foot. Anything they could dream of was theirs. That entire week, the children splashed in the salty sea while the waiters brought them strawberry milkshakes covered in whipped cream, mango smoothies and curried chicken. They would come splashing out of the sea, be tossed into lounge chairs and handed smoothies of their choosing.
We and our children have also enjoyed meeting government officials at various levels. We once enjoyed pizza with a Cuban ambassador. The husband and wife team shared invaluable tips with us while our children played together, talking about the countries they each had visited. A Philippine ambassador to Mexico once met us at a celebration honoring the relationship between the countries. Another time, we met the Governor General of Belize. He gave us his card, insisting that we contact him personally if we ever had any issue in his country.
Family travel has its perks. Some catch the bug that keeps them on the move. Others get a terminal case that makes them more permanent expatriates. These find the real estate market overseas offers a wide variety of choices.
Even if market forces drive prices upward, particularly in areas popular to expats, many find real estate dollars go farther in developing countries. On the other hand, as a recent retiree trying to rent out her Mexican home stated to us, some wish they had rented and spent the difference in traveling. Seasonal expats (a.k.a. snow birds) and many longer-term residents still find rentals to be the most cost-effective and enjoyable way to enjoy their new home away from home.
In the area surrounding Lake Chapala, in the state of Jalisco, Mexico, our family is enjoying a month-to-month rental with two bedrooms plus kitchen and all utilities including wifi for less than 500 USD. Canadian friends of ours, maintaining a commercial cleaning business up north, have found a similar value for about 400 USD. Did we mention that both include the use of a pool and well-maintained gardens?
Add to this the unusual value of living around homesick expats that clamor for all things northern (e.g. a Scandinavian bakery, gringo-serving groceries and a plethora of English-speaking legal, medical and technological services) and stop wondering why this place has attracted norteamericanos for the last five decades. Although the concentration of such available services varies widely internationally, urbanized areas throughout the world have made comfortable homes for those that want the freedom to travel and live well on their current income.
Happy Anniversary We enjoy many luxuries abroad that we would seldom, if ever, enjoy in the U.S. For example, why not indulge in a massage if you can get one for $3 in many places in Southeast Asia. We can treat all of the children for ice cream in Belize and pay less than $10. One of our sweetest anniversaries was spent with our toes in a white sandy beach, watching the azure Caribbean rolling in. A Mariachi band serenaded us, and we enjoyed a huge seafood platter including lobster, crab, grilled scallops, fresh fish, bacon-wrapped shrimp, shrimp scampi and more. For all this we paid under $30, including the tip.
Royal Education Parents with children of every age are discovering that family travel and overseas living opens up unprecedented opportunities to educate children. Would your child rather read about the Aztecs or look eye-to-eye at a towering Olmec head? Can a unit on marine biology compare to handling endangered, baby green sea turtles and then releasing them into the clear waters of the Caribbean?
Parents also have the opportunity to teach the responsibility that comes with relative affluence. While we are raising young princes and princesses, we emphasize our responsibility in giving back. Our seven year-old daughter loves to play “orphanage” and dreams of returning to her Philippine birthplace. Our newly turned 13 year-old daughter dreams of going to India, perhaps to visit the work started by Amy Carmichael among the poorest castes. (Read Amy’s story in A Chance to Die, Amazon link here). Who can put a price on the compassion of a child for one that has less than she has?
These opportunities came as a result of choices; choices made toward and within developing countries. These places have, for us, become places of freedom; freedom to travel and learn like royalty.
Choices, choices If you have been blessed with a good retirement income or have the means to generate a liveable location-independent income, you have choices to make. Take a long hard look at the possibility of living outside of the U.S. or Canada. How many will finish out their years wishing they had seized the opportunities to travel throughout and make a difference in the world that so quickly passes by?
If you do not yet have these means, there are countless ways to become location independent. You can begin making making choices that go this direction, joining the 1 in 5 Americans who are already working online instead of checking into a daily cubicle. We talk more about how we make it work here.
If you are reading this from your home in the U.S., Canada, or Western Europe, you are making choices from available options each and every day. Today, will you make choices to continue living in a rat race to accumulate more in a land of affluence? Will you choose to choose to continue spending to conform to the crushing expectations of Western culture?
Or will you choose to live more freely, traveling where money goes farther and new opportunities abound at every turn?
Today, you can make choices that lead to freedom.