‘Why I’m Moving to Ecuador to Pursue the American Dream’

Gabrielle Karol
Denise and Ed Toepel

Denise and Ed Toepel

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.

Denise’s son Gabe at a track meet

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.

  • matt

    I get Denise’s disappointment – make good choices w/ their careers & work hard to earn some cash only to have it disappear.


    Denise’s story also irks me… really gets under my skin. Why?

    The entire narrative from her is to paint herself as a victim or martyr. Maybe I’m just a jerk, but I can’t stand people like that. It’s like every point she makes is designed to hook into some sympathetic meme running within our culture.

    1) She could have said she has 5 children, but somehow weaseled in how they’re all adopted. How charitable.

    2) She could have said “her youngest son”, but then likes to tell us about how he is black & how he was treated in Japan. Now she is a warrior for civil rights… who also uses her son’s victim status to generate pity. I wonder how much he’s enjoyed his mom telling that story to random people over the years. Maybe her victim mentality has rubbed off & that’s why he’s living at home in his 20s. Competitive runner grocery bills? I could talk about his college running record since we all have the internet, but I’ll just stop at this point.

    3) She tells us about the $300k she dropped on her kids’ college. I don’t think that was really necessary to support her point that she couldn’t live in the US anymore. It looks more like an attempt to show what a great parent (martyr) she is. But… as mentioned by others on the thread – that is really bad financial management. I took out loans and got grants for school. So far as I know there is no retirement loan or grant waiting for me 30 years from now.

    4) She goes into great detail about why stuff isn’t important (lessons learned moving back from Japan… nice pity builder). However, aren’t they moving because they can’t afford the “stuff” of retirement? Stuff may not mean pro-tour golf clubs or a monster flat-screen, but doesn’t traveling the world at will count as stuff? doesn’t being able to indulge in whatever hobby you want instead of working the dining room at Chick-fil-A like other grandmas do = stuff? Seriously, their stuff is more important than having their children within a domestic plane flight. Hey – I’m not trying to build any pity for the kids. After all, they got $300k of free school, but a plane flight to ecuador isn’t cheap. I don’t know that skype really covers grandkids getting to spend time w/ grandma/grandpa… and I really love skype.

    5) She talks about how she was done at her job by this greedy corporation, etc. Just curious, how long was she with that company with all the world-hopping she was doing? In the time she was there, did she constantly regale them with all the stories of her worldliness & charity while simultaneously fending off the forces of evil who conspire to crush her do-gooder-osity? If I could replace an employee like that and save money at the same time that would be a major win.

    k – enough sarcasm & cynicism. I’m going to go eat a cookie, hug someone & take a nap. Just sayin’…

  • craziness

    i am 39 i worked my whole life. lived on my own since high school i was making 40,000 last 10 years almost i had a house a couple cars and my doggs an i miss everyminute of it i got let go on my birthdayin 2010 took me a year to find this crappy job i have now making 19.000 a year i am now living in my mothers garage . lost everything i own filling bakrupcy and these a holes are bitching about 60 a year to live off. i would sell my soul to satan himself or give a guy oral at this point in my life to get that. its sunday morning my every weekend grind online looking for work but the truth is nothing here really pays over 8 dollars an hour im filling out applications all over the united states . i dont care were it is if it pays good. . i feel no pity for these jerks they can deff live great specially here were i live off 60 grand a year u can get a 6 bedroom 3 bath 3 car attached garage on a couple acres an pay like 600 a month mortage. 60.000 year crying JERKS MAN I FEEL SO MAD RIGHT NOW NOT EVEN FUNNY try living in a garage giving u 1200 losey a month job and giving half to your mom most of money goes to her and my crappy car that gives a me a 200 problem every other week when i get paid now i need a FUEL filter and a motor mount another 500 there so i be broke another 4 months to save. my weekends i dont even go out no more what girl wants a guy living at home at thier parents a garage no less and broke lol. i miss my job so bad making 4o a year i do anything to get that back i mean anything. 11 yearsAT MY LAST REAL JOB AND 11 MONTHS I LOST EVERY FRIGGING THING I OWNED AND THE HARDEST PART WAS LOSONG MY PUPPS. THES PEOPLE ARE UNGRATEFULL, JERKS

  • craziness


  • Patrick from Denver

    i commend you on your choice of Cuena (Ecuador)! This is the spot I have picked as well. Good on you that you are able to collect social security (and bad on those who scorn it). You have diligently paid into the system and legally are able to live anywhere in the world (not true for SSDI). I wish I could move there today but I am only 58 (and long time employed despite my best efforts).

  • homer

    Nice but do you know you have to report your assets to the us government yearly. FBAR? What about medical care, dental care or emergencies. Do you speak spanish? You had better, because English is not the primary language. Yeah, it all sounds nice until you live there for awhile. I feel bad for Gabe. He is being left behind and at 19 it’s going to be a life changer for him. Not fair, why isn’t he going with them. These people are way to cavalier about this move, and many expats regret the move afterwards.

  • Debra Baker

    60 k a year is a good income for most people here in the states…most people I know live on a lot less while working…I guess it is all in how you look

    at it…lol

  • Mark

    Hi, there’s lots of information about retirement in Ecuador / Cuenca, but nothing about a move for people prior to retirement. We’re married, both 51 out of New York. Is it possible to relocate and obtain a resident visa if you’re in your early 50s. The plan would be to live off our savings until we qualify for 401k withdrawals & then SS. Would $250k be sufficient to support us for 10 years in Cuenca?

  • richard

    I live in San Diego CA I’m 48 years old .I’m also thinking about moving to Cuenca Ecuador within the next 5-7 years,I’m working two jobs and saving money to buy a home and hope to open a small business in Cuenca.I love the USA served in the US military,but I’m so tired of the dam politics.Everyone in the US want’s to sue you ,you cant say merry Christmas,or say one nation under GOD,because someone is offended,we don’t take care of our poor and veterans,It’s a mess.I’m also looking for something more laid back and quiet,I have been thinking about Ecuador for about 5 years now and I have talked to both Americans and Canadians who live down there,and they really seem happy.One thing I love about Ecuador is that their currency is the American Dollar so no exchange rate to figure out.You can find out a lot about Ecuador as well as other countries on Interenational Living .com.Cuenca Ecuador’s weather is spring like weather all year round,affordable homes and apt for rent anywhere from $150.00-$350.00 a month,you don’t really need a car transportation around $3.00 dollars anywhere in town.I can’t waite for that date when I can finally say C-YA

  • Tinkles

    I think this is a great idea. I am in my early 40s and have been financially planning to retire overseas since my thirties. I have a work 401k and a modest Roth saving acct. There are web site that tell you what to do to retire in another country.I save like crazy now, but that was not always the case. I wish them the best.

  • Virginia Solomon

    I can’t believe what this woman said about her black son when there are so many black men successfully living in Japan and how hard it is for anyone who isn’t rich, let alone black to do what they dream here in the US. She is definitely an idiot for that statement. He might not even survive another 10 years in the US with black men getting killed left and right. She should be trying to get him out of this country.

  • Russell

    I know this is an old discussion thread but I thought I would weigh in with my thoughts. After reading through hundreds of comments, it seems that many people need to get better information (accurate and unbiased) about SS, living overseas, and determining the difference between needs and wants. The solution this couple chose for their retirement is one that my wife and I are choosing too in a few years. It is about choosing a lifestyle that we cannot afford/have in the States. For us, it has nothing to do with taxes, political views (which many posters seem to have strong feelings), or being unhappy with America. We have traveled to many different countries and enjoy meeting new people and learning from other cultures.
    As far as choices the couple made, I agree with some that have said about the amount of money spent on their children’s educations. It may have been a good investment but it is difficult to make an evaluation when we don’t what their majors were, how much debt they left school with, their earning potential of their chosen professions, whether they attended state or private schools, etc. It is really easy second guess their decisions. There always seems to be large supply of “armchair quarterbacks”. It sounded like they had actually started out with enough retirement investments to have been able to pay for their children’s college expenses without affecting their retirement.
    The one area that I would say that they made a mistake on is their investment allocation. If they were 10 years or less from retirement then they never should have had so much of their money in investments that they could lose 70%. That was a very bad decision on their part or their financial advisor’s (if they had one). I was heavily invested in stocks/mutual funds when the “Great Recession” hit. I took a hit that was about 40-45% but I was still over 10 years away from retirement. That money has now recovered and grown. I didn’t pull my money out like many of my friends. Instead I continued to invest in quality mutual funds and stocks. As the markets recovered those new investment became worth even more.
    Many people have talked about $60,000 being enough to live. I would have to agree with that. Many people also spoke how it is difficult to live on that amount. It really IS about choices. We usually have some in where we live. We also choose not to buy a new iPad/iPhone whenever a new one comes out. Spending 100+/month on cable, $100+/month on cell service, and eating out (or delivery) a couple times a week are all choices. They are expensive choices and definitely fall under the category of “wants” not needs. Buying a “loaded” new car, newest stereo, etc., all of these things many people think are their rights to have or that they are necessities.

  • Animpotant

    USA = GREED.

  • Fernando

    welcome to our beautiful country.. Like no other place, all you need is Ecuador!