lifestyle

These 7 Expats Left the U.S. to Start Over. Here's How They Earn an Income Overseas: ‘We Spend Less on All Expenses'

Whether working remotely as an employee or running their own business, options abound for the adventurous expat

Photo: Catalina Viviel

More and more people are discovering that not only can they live abroad and be happy, safe and comfortable, but that they can successfully earn an income.

That's exactly what I did when I left the U.S. for Mazatlán, Mexico in 2006. I lived off a steady income from freelance editing jobs and running M!, a local arts and entertainment magazine I started.

Whether working remotely as an employee or running their own business, options abound for the adventurous expat. 

Here's how seven Americans are earning an income living abroad:

1. Colin Bucell, 47

Currently in Morocco, Colin Bucell lives on his sailboat, which doubles as an income source via private tours and excursions.
Photo credit: Colin Bucell
Currently in Morocco, Colin Bucell lives on his sailboat, which doubles as an income source via private tours and excursions.

Hometown: Los Angeles, California
Currently an expat in: Morocco
Occupation: Sailboat excursions
Annual income: $12,000

In 2011, Colin Bucell had a dream to sail around the world. He took early retirement at age 37 and went first to Mexico. Since then, he's lived in more than 60 countries. 

"Every day is an exciting new adventure!" Bucell tells CNBC Make It from his sailboat in Morocco. "And all for a fraction of what my California expenses were."

Bucell lives on his sailboat, which doubles as an income source via private tours and excursions — advertised through word of mouth — wherever he is. He's found health care and food to be much cheaper everywhere he goes.

Spain, Thailand and Mexico are countries where he could happily settle down if he wanted to; he says it's great that he's been able to thoroughly test the livability of all of them.

2. Shawn Supra, 45

Shawn Supra, a musician and furniture restorer, currently lives in Australia with his wife Diana.
Photo: Shawn Supra
Shawn Supra, a musician and furniture restorer, currently lives in Australia with his wife Diana.

Hometown: Nashville, Tennessee
Currently an expat in: Sydney, Australia
Occupation: Musician and furniture restorer
Annual income: $32,500

Love was the motivating factor behind musician Shawn Supra's move to Australia in 2020, where he met his future wife Diana while on tour. They first settled in the U.S., but as things began to change politically and socially, they decided it was time to move to Australia.

"Living in the U.S., there's such a sense of fear. It's almost drilled into you that there's danger around every corner. I don't feel that here. Everyone is more relaxed," Supra says.

He also likes the free health care in Australia, and that the income from his furniture restoration business entitles him to superannuation from the government — similar to U.S. Social Security benefits.

3. Kema Ward-Hopper, 39

Photo: Kema Ward-Hopper
"We love our lives here. We're treated as humans first," says Kema Ward-Hopper, who now lives in Costa Rica with her family.

Hometown: Houston, Texas
Currently an expat in: Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica
Occupation: English teacher and yoga instructor
Annual income: $24,000 to $33,000

In 2017, after Kema Ward-Hopper was diagnosed with breast cancer and when Hurricane Harvey destroyed her Houston home, a family trip to Costa Rica turned into a permanent move.

"We love our lives here," she says. "We're treated as humans first. We didn't always have the luxury of been seen as people in the U.S."

Although the pandemic shut down Ward-Hopper and husband Willie's income streams for months, they're disciplined savers and their expenses in Costa Rica are low.

An added bonus was the birth of her son last year, even after doctors said chemotherapy had rendered her unable to conceive. "Health-wise, I did a complete 180 after moving here," says Ward-Hopper. "I healed both physically and emotionally." 

4. Chasity Diggs, 37

Photo: Chasity Diggs
"We've been able to exceed our goals without having to make sacrifices in our daily lives," says Chasity Diggs, who now lives in Singapore with her family.

Hometown: Greensboro, North Carolina
Currently an expat in: Singapore
Occupation: Behavior intervention specialist
Annual income: $170,000

Chasity Diggs is no stranger to living outside the U.S. Before moving to Singapore about six months ago, she and her family lived in China. 

The primary reason was so their oldest daughter could attend an international school. The family also wanted a better work-life balance and to be in a more diverse country

"However, the best part of living overseas are the financial benefits. We've been able to exceed our goals without having to make sacrifices in our daily lives. Housing costs are covered by my employer, so we're able to save a considerable amount of money each month," says Diggs.

5. Carol Markino, 52

Carol Markino lives in Rome and works as an English teacher.
Photo: Carol Markino
Carol Markino lives in Rome and works as an English teacher.

Hometown: Dover, Ohio
Currently an expat in: Rome, Italy
Occupation: English teacher and language consultant
Annual income: $13,500 

Having visited Italy many times when she was in college, Carol Markino always knew that someday she wanted to stay there long-term. It's now been 30 years since she moved to Rome.

"As an Italian-American, I've always been attracted to my roots," says Markino. "I love that I live in a city that's full of beauty — not just museums, but wonderful buildings, architecture and style."

She also appreciates the culture: "Italians work hard, but they understand there's more to life than just work." 

6. Tim Leffel, 57

Originally from: Tampa, Florida
Currently an expat in: Guanajuato, Mexico
Occupation: Travel writer
Annual income: $60,000

Photo: Tim Leffel
Many factors drew Tim Leffel to Mexico, particularly the "perfect weather all year" and low cost of living.

"It was one of those love-at-first-sight visits," says Tim Leffel. "I was in a few central Mexico cities on assignment, and Guanajuato really struck a chord."  

Many factors drew him to Mexico, particularly the "perfect weather all year" and low cost of living. "We spend less on all expenses — including private school for our daughter — than we did just on rent and utilities in Tampa," he says.

Well-traveled family and friends admire their lifestyle. Some were even inspired to move abroad themselves, while others "seem afraid of the scary world beyond the borders."

"It's the message that has been pounded into their heads. They've probably expected us to be kidnapped or robbed by now. I hope that by seeing a steady stream of happy photos as we live and travel around, they're getting a bit of balance." 

7. Catalina Viviel, 48

Originally from New York, Catalina Viviel now lives in Bogota, Colombia.
Photo: Catalina Viviel
Originally from New York, Catalina Viviel now lives in Bogota, Colombia.

Hometown: Long Island, New York
Currently an expat in: Bogota, Colombia
Occupation: Teacher and resource room coordinator
Annual income: $75,000

"I'd only been to Colombia once, when I met my dad's entire side of the family for the first time," says Catalina Viviel. "I never forgot that trip and the warmth of the people."

Working in education, Viviel began her expat life with a two-year contract in Marrakech, Morocco. Then she went back to the U.S., where she found herself "itching to go abroad again." She interviewed for jobs at several South American countries before finally getting an offer in Colombia.

"People thought I was crazy to change countries and become a single mom, all the while navigating a new language during a pandemic," says Viviel. "Were there days I cried? Absolutely." 

Now halfway into her two-year commitment, Viviel says she's not ready to leave and has requested to extend her contract.

"It's amazing being able to reconnect with my Colombian roots, especially watching my daughter thrive in the country of our heritage," she says.

Janet Blaser is a writer who has lived in Mazatlán, Mexico since 2006. A former journalist in California, her work now focuses on expat living. Janet's first book, "Why We Left: An Anthology of American Women Expats" is an Amazon bestseller. Follow her on Instagram and Facebook.

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