• Steve Lopes and his wife left California in 2018 and have since lived in nearly a dozen countries.
  • They spent over a year in St. Maarten, months in Thailand, and shorter stays elsewhere in Asia and the Caribbean.
  • He misses his five kids, though it’s allowed him to live on less and see the world.

After six decades in California, Steve Lopes, 65, decided he needed to move out to live a more comfortable life.

Little did he know that in the next five years, he and his wife Mila would live in countries including Colombia, Costa Rica, Curacao, Indonesia, Mexico, St. Maarten, and Thailand.

Lopes, who is third-generation born and raised in San Jose, moved to Los Gatos in Silicon Valley two decades ago with his five kids. As the years progressed, though, the cost of living became more unaffordable. In his last three years living there, he and his wife were not making enough to pay the bills and had to pull from savings.

“When our last kid graduated, we had let them know a couple of years ahead of time that it was our plan to leave and look for greener pastures economically,” Lopes, who is now retired, told Business Insider. “If I made $300,000 a year, I would live in my hometown, but we found a pretty good substitute for living at home, other than the fact that it puts us away from family.”

It’s a decision more and more Californians are making these days. Nearly 818,000 people left California between 2021 and 2022, compared to 475,800 who moved in. Many of those leaving have cited the state’s rising cost of living, as well as a desire for a slower pace of life. While over 100,000 left for Texas — with Arizona and Florida as other popular destinations — some have moved to other countries.

“The hardest part is being away from my kids, as I’m really attached,” he said, adding that his mom is 87. “It’s tough to go back to the US for a month and hope to cover a lot of ground.”

Leaving California

Lopes, who said his great uncle was once mayor of San Jose, worked in real estate running a mortgage company for a few decades, playing competitive poker on the side. But when he took over the company, many of his clients were getting older, so he decided to wind down operations and prepare for retirement.

A few years before leaving California, he sold his home and rented a condo that was about $5,000 a month, which he estimates would be around about $8,000 a month today. As he was getting closer to retirement, he knew that his area wasn’t feasible given how much his other day-to-day costs were rising.

“It sets you up for a $180,000 to $200,000 base cost of living, and I wasn’t going to be able to do that as a retiree. I wasn’t doing that as a working guy, and my income was only going to drop,” Lopes said.

He and his wife now make a low six-figure income between investments and Social Security, which he said wouldn’t allow them to keep up their living standards in Silicon Valley. He also felt his quality of life was declining as he said he felt the San Francisco area was becoming more unsafe.

“We made jokes that we could go to Missouri, we can retire in Alabama since our money would take care of us in lots of places inside the US,” Lopes said. “Or, we could try Costa Rica, or we could go to the Caribbean, or we could spend time in Thailand, and you know which sounds more exciting.”

He looked into the cost of living comparisons between the US and various countries and attended a seminar on how to live abroad. He knew he wanted to live near a beach; he’s an amateur scuba diver. After selling most of their belongings, they spent a few months traveling the Caribbean and Latin America, staying at Airbnbs and other short-term rentals. Lopes acknowledged this was cheaper than a hotel but still quite costly.

Seeing almost a dozen countries

He and his wife moved to Santa Marta, Colombia, for a few months. From there, they moved to Jaco and Guanacaste in Costa Rica, then to Playa Del Carmen, Mexico. After that, they spent several months in Curacao and then St. Maarten.

They spent a few months in Thailand, Laos, Indonesia, and Malaysia in their second year abroad. Part of their success in the second year was networking with locals, who helped them find cheaper housing in each country. He said locals have directed them to properties they or their friends owned, which has been a lifesaver as property management companies have been hesitant to rent for less than four to six months.

Once the pandemic hit, they moved back to the US for a few months, spending some time in Miami and Las Vegas until St. Maarten opened again, where they stayed for two years.

Though now in Thailand, Lopes said he and his wife have started cycling through nearly a dozen countries, staying for a few weeks to months in each. They plan to move to Singapore for a few months in early 2024.

“The hardest part is letting go of your stuff. We are absolutely minimalists, though I never thought of myself that way and never wanted to be that,” Lopes said, adding that nothing he owns was worth the storage fees to keep. “The hardest part was selling your furniture on consignment for 10 to 15 cents on the dollar.”

He hasn’t needed a visa for his moves, given he’s only in most countries for a few weeks. In Thailand, his passport allows him to stay for 30 days, but it resets whenever he leaves and returns for a maximum of 180 days. He’s stayed in St. Maarten for a year due to the island’s friendship treaty with the US. A few other Asian countries capped him at a few months with a US passport.

Through networking, the couple found a 1,000-square-foot one-bedroom apartment in St. Maarten 70 feet away from the beach that cost around $2,200 a month. He bought a cheap car that he keeps with a friend in the US while he’s in other countries, which has been more economical than renting each time he visits home. Lopes estimates his St. Maarten rental would cost four to five times more if it were in California.

His food costs in St. Maarten are around 30% less than what he paid in California, he said. He’s considering buying a condo in St. Maarten in a few years after he’s done with his frequent moving.

Networking also helped him get a 550-square-foot unit in Phuket, Thailand, for slightly over $1,000. He also rents a scooter for $115 a month, and going out to eat at a local restaurant runs the equivalent of about $6 to $12 for him and his wife.

He said it’s sometimes an adjustment between different countries with different living costs — Thailand is much cheaper than Playa Del Carmen, he’s observed. It’s also difficult to adjust to cultural differences and norms, from the rules of the road to restaurant etiquette. In Thailand, for instance, he said he pays some utility bills at his local 7-11.

Still, he says it’s doable to live for much cheaper in his cycle of countries than in California as long as he’s intentional about purchases. He said the key is to stay for three or four months minimum in each country to avoid frequent expensive flights.

“You can’t live long-term in a three-bedroom apartment across from the Eiffel Tower, but if you don’t demand five-star accommodations in top-tier locations, you can go anywhere you want and stay as long as you want, going as many places in a year as you want,” Lopes said.

His kids are mostly independent now, which he said allows him and his wife to live this lifestyle. However, he cautions that it may not make sense for him and his wife in a few years as they age.

“The advice I would give is just do it for two or three months, put your stuff in storage, and see if you can handle it,” Lopes said. “Don’t buy any real estate, just rent and see how you feel about a neighborhood, get your boots on the ground, eat with the locals, and see how you feel about a spot.”

Have you recently moved out of the US to a different country? Reach out to this reporter at nsheidlower@businessinsider.com.

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