What does the “American Dream” mean to you?
For most people, it means if you work hard, you can raise a beautiful family, own a comfortable home, send your children to college and eventually retire.
But with the economy still reeling from the recent recession, that dream has been shaken for many—especially those who saw their retirement investments plummet in the stock market.
Once the American Dream fails you, what’s the next step?
For one woman, the answer is a little unconventional: She’s moving to Ecuador. Why would a 58-year-old woman and her husband leave their five grown children behind in the U.S. for a small South American country? For starters … it’s a lot cheaper.
Check out our Q&A with Denise Toepel to found out why she’s packing her bags in October 2013:
You say you can’t afford the American Dream anymore. What do you mean?
Denise Toepel: Two years ago, I was laid off from my position in client services and quality control at an insurance company. My job was given to the person I trained, who was willing to work for half of what I was paid.
Losing this source of income has made my life with my husband in Denver, Colorado increasingly unaffordable. During the recession, we lost around 70% of our 401(k)s, or around half a million dollars. And now that we’re nearing retirement age (I’m 58 and my husband’s 55), my loss of income—I was making around $60,000 a year—has made retirement in the U.S. seem like an impossible dream.
I’ve been applying for jobs in my field since getting laid off, but nothing’s come of it. I’ve hired a career consultant, who’s helped send out résumés, but no bites. I guess it makes more sense to hire younger workers who can afford to earn less money at their age. Now I do odd jobs—I work for Warner Bros. doing audience testing for upcoming movies, and I sell clothing on Etsy—but these barely make any money at all.
What does your husband do?
Currently, my husband works for Veterans Affairs. He’s a retired Navy chief—throughout the course of his career, the two of us and our five kids lived all over the world. While he gets retirement benefits from the Navy and a good salary from the VA, the loss of my income really hurt us financially.
What do your financial obligations look like?
We rent our home for $1,275 a month and are currently paying off our car. Additionally, we have health care expenses and have to pay for our dental insurance (the military doesn’t cover dental).
A lot of our money went to pay for college–all told, we spent close to $300,000 sending our four oldest children to college. We have five children that we adopted from different countries all over the world (Costa Rica, Holland, Germany, Japan and Sweden), when we were moving around and stationed at different points in my husband’s career. Two of them are now 30, and the others are 26, 22 and 19.
As for the youngest, Gabriel, he’s currently living at home. He’s a competitive runner, and finished two years of college, where he was running track. That said, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his life, so he decided to take some time off. After thinking about it, he plans to join ROTC, get some experience in the military, and then go back to school for nursing, so the military will help pay for his education. We would have liked to help him more financially in terms of college, but we just couldn’t afford it.
Also, having him home has raised one of our expenses immensely: groceries. It costs a lot to feed a competitive runner!
So how did you come to the decision to move to Ecuador?
Well, when we started thinking about how we could afford retirement, we started tossing around the idea of moving to a country with a lower cost of living, so we didn’t have to watch every penny.
We were searching for countries where we could comfortably live on around $60,000 a year for the two of us without having to skimp, and that would allow us to travel and enjoy ourselves. My husband originally suggested Costa Rica. He had been there before and loved it, but I, for whatever reason, wasn’t quite as taken with the country. I couldn’t see myself living there!
We did, however, agree that we wanted a country with a beautiful landscape, that had a slower, less stressful pace of life. Ecuador fit all of the requirements. From the Galapagos to the Andes, there’s so much natural beauty—and it’s affordable enough to live comfortably with the income from my husband’s Navy retirement, Social Security and our remaining 401(k). I’ll be able to take my retirement when I turn 68, which will allow us to live even more comfortably.
Okay, so what’s the plan?
We’re planning to move in October 2013. We’re selling everything we own but our clothes, and we’ll give Gabriel our car. We just found a property to rent while we get settled. It’s a fully furnished house in the suburbs of Cuenca, Ecuador’s third largest city, for about $300 a month–a significant savings from our current $1,275 a month!
The next thing on our list is figuring out what bank to put our money in once we get there. We’re currently exploring our options, so we know that our savings are safe.
How do your kids feel about you and your husband leaving?
For the most part, they’re supportive. They’re adventure-seekers, thanks to our years of traveling, and our daughter Aubrey is so excited to come visit! The only one who’s less excited is Gabriel, who feels like we’re deserting him. The thing is, we’ll have so much more money to help him out if we’re not living nearby in Denver. Also, I think it’s important that he learns to stand on his own two feet—that’s one of the most important lessons I tried to teach my children. Nothing is set in stone, and you have to secure your own fate. Also, there’s always Skype!
Is there anything you’ll miss about the U.S.?
I’m so frustrated, so angry, that we weren’t able to stay in the U.S. and afford the retirement we had dreamed of. I worked hard, long hours, and our savings just won’t cut it. It’s really difficult to realize you can’t afford to live in your own country. I love the United States and all the freedom it provides.
My son Gabriel is black and was born in Japan, where we lived for ten years. In Japan, he wouldn’t have had any options there as a black man (his family disowned him at birth), and he wouldn’t have been accepted by that society. But in America, he can do anything he wants, as long as he works at it. It’s a beautiful thing.
I’ll miss the Fourth of July. Having lived abroad on military bases, I know it’s just not the same, even if you celebrate with other expats. But I definitely won’t miss the constant stress of our life in Denver. Since deciding to move to Ecuador, my stress level has gone down from about 200 to 30. I can’t wait!
Have your travels prepared you for this new journey?
Well, the constant moving taught us that “stuff” isn’t important. All of our things were shipped back to the U.S. from Japan and became contaminated with methyl bromide (a toxic gas often used as a pesticide) en route—everything was burned. All we had left were a couple suitcases of clothes!
I learned that it doesn’t matter one hoot what you own. Moving to Ecuador isn’t about suddenly being able to buy a ton of stuff. For us, it’s about peace of mind, knowing that we’ll be able to afford the ups and downs that will come with aging and retirement, without having to worry about every penny. In life, really all you need is family and a sense of purpose.