Our Pretirement Experiment


“The goal of retirement is to live off your assets-not on them”
― Frank Eberhart

I have had many people ask me how we decided on retiring abroad and the process we went through. Although most of the information is in my unfinished book, Pretiring With the Monkey Lady, here is a preview of our serendipitous moments the first time we pre-retired in Nicaragua.

In 2004 we jumped. Trapped in new teaching jobs we hated, we felt as if our lives were bound tightly in Kudzu.  We bought a new home with a hefty mortgage and rented our old home. Our son was in his junior year of college. Finances were tight. How could we possibly escape from the bureaucracy that was strangling the life out of us? What was the alternative? Our gypsytoes were itching to travel.

Enter Bill, the eccentric entrepreneur from Nicaragua.  When an ice storm canceled school on a snowy January day, Bill sent us an email. “How would you like to live in Nicaragua and manage my youth hostel on Ometepe Island?”  We thought about it for three seconds and responded, “Yes!”

In an adrenalin rush, we made plans to finish the school year, sell the house we bought six months before, move everything back to our old house, and jump into a new life. We took out an equity loan to pay off the mortgage on our old house and had a small amount left to live on for a year in Nicaragua. Our son moved into our house, transferred to a closer university…and we jumped.

But, managing a youth hostel was not for us. You’ll have to read by book, Pretiring with the Monkey Lady, to understand the problems we encountered. Here is one chapter of the 25 chapters I’ve finished. California Dreams and a Scottish Cowboy. What was the alternative? We couldn’t return to the states because we sold our cars, gave away all our winter clothes, and were both unemployed. So, we jumped again.

Ron wandered the sandy beach paths in search of a cheap shack to rent. About two kilometers south of Moyogalpa, Ron found this little beach house and it was vacant. We found the landlady in Moyogalpa and rented it for $100 a month with a six month renewable contract.

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The risks were enormous; the fears were overwhelming at times, yet our encounters with the beautiful and vivacious Nicaraguans enabled us to machete our way through the pretirement jungle.

We lived like Nicas with a frayed electric line that sagged from our neighbor’s wobbly pole, a stainless steel sink with running water ( although we didn’t know where it was running from), a cement block cubicle attached to the outside of our bedroom that contained a rusted flush toilet, a termite encrusted plunger, and a cold water shower minus the shower head. Life was perfect!

living roomWe made chocolate pudding for our neighbor kids. Ron started a thriving tropical garden. I wrote and painted. Life was good.

Eating choolate puddingWhen the mangoes were ripe, we’d invite the neighborhood kids to share in our bounty. We hired Robinson to teach us Spanish and gave him his first paying job. Adrian, the Peace Corps volunteer taught Robinson and within six months he was fluent in English.  When Adrian’s tour of duty was over, he handed over his English students to me and a new world opened before our eyes fresh without borders.

DSCN1393In return, Julio and Luvy taught us some Spanish words. They were so cute when they were young.

Learning Spanish body wordsThe second week after Adrian left for the states and we were settling into our little beach house on the shore of Lake Cocibolca, a parade of bicycles and bleached white school shirts arrived at our three front doors. “Hello Deborah. How are you?” they sang like well rehearsed choir boys. “Hello boys. How are you?” I asked rather surprised that they found our house. “Beddy Goot,” they sang in unison.

“Are you here for English lessons?” I asked. “Of course!” they chanted. “Alrighty then,” I chucked as they jabbered away in Spanish and looked at me inquisitively. ” Let me brush my teeth and put on a bra, then we’ll begin,” I said knowing that they didn’t understand a word I said.

Our lives in La Paloma were never the same after our first encounter with ESL and five adolescent boys desperate to learn English. Word spread like a brush fire that two native English speakers were giving free English lessons. Our classes got so large that I had to recruit Ron for the wee one’s class, which he held under the lemon tree.

The sounds of repetitive pronunciations of the letters M, TH, SH, and V drifted through our little community, while songs of “You Are My Sunshine” and “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” drowned out the beach bar music down the road. The laughter of children dancing the Hokey Pokey and the Patty Cake Polka incited curious stares from strangers passing by and howls from wandering, bony dogs. Life was “beddy goot.”

Ron's English classMy intermediate classes invited us to their family gatherings, birthday parties, weddings, and parades. Our Spanish vocabulary increased tremendously because in 2004-2005, we were the only foreigners living on the Concepcion side of the island.
We fulfilled our passions for cultural immersion, however all was not “beddy goot” in our pretirement experiment.

Our son quit college so he could afford to live in our house. Our old Labrador died, and our money was running out. We knew it was time to enter the real world again. With ten years before we could collect our social security, we were running out of options. We made lists of 100 things we could do to make a living on Ometepe Island. My favorite thing was to make giant chocolate chip cookies to sell, but realistically it wouldn’t pay our son’s college tuition or repay our equity loan.

DSCN1030When we returned to the states, we set a goal to officially retire on Ometepe Island in three years. It took us five years, each of us working two and three jobs at the same time to become debt free. We were both hired in local universities, which gave us a 50% discount on tuition for our son. He returned to the university and completed his degree in Outdoor Education.

We added five more years to our teaching experience, enabling us to take early retirement and collect our teaching pensions. In 2009, we returned to Ometepe Island and bought the little beach shack we had rented. In 2010…we made our last jump.

We remodeled our beach shack, added a guest house, and continue to rent our house in the states to good friends. We’re not ready to sell our house in the states because I still have too much junk to sell. You see, I am a sentimental hoarder. I’m working on it.🙂

IMG_5088Life is very comfortable now. If it wouldn’t have been for our pretirement experiment, I wonder if we would have ever jumped. We have more knowledge and understanding of how things work…or don’t work in Nicaragua because we took a chance and jumped. Life could have remained a distant dream instead of a mysterious reality.

IMG_4872I am a firm believer in a gap year for grown-ups. Our experimental year abroad changed our lives, intensified our awareness of serendipitous moments, and gave us an opportunity to rewire our lives. Life is good, retirement is better, a pretirement experiment is priceless.

Have you experienced a gap year for grown-ups? How did it change your life?

Gap Year for Grown-ups

27 thoughts on “Our Pretirement Experiment

  1. I loved reading this, Debbie, and look forward to reading the above chapter. It’s always a process of assess,reassess,and then make changes again. It sounds like life is really good for you both’ and that you are pleased with your long, hard work and efforts. We wanted to retire in 2000 when we bought our house in Florida, but ended up working another four years in NC. so we rented out the Florida house during that period. Those four years gave us an opportunity to get things in order for us and Ron’s mom. I had never heard of gap year. Now I know. 🙂

  2. Hi Deb! I have followed your blog now for a couple of years. I really enjoy reading all your adventures and challenges and how you and Ron have immersed yourselves in your new country. You both have been my inspiration. I took a leap of faith and decided to retire here in the Philippines from the US last Dec. 2014. Keep on writing and sharing your life and experiences. I very much appreciate it!

    • Sometimes I find it so..well…serendipitous that we ended up on Ometepe Island. If we wouldn’t have delivered school supplies to Nicaragua in 2003, we never would have met Bill. If we loved our teaching jobs, we never would have chosen to manage Bill’s youth hostel. If we hadn’t been dissatisfied with managing Bill’s youth hostel, we never would have found our little beach shack. Life is a wild, unpredictable ride…that’s what I love about it. You never know what you’re going to get.🙂

  3. Deb, when I need an Ometepe hit, I turn to you. This entry was particularly wonderful! Just go for it…. And let Ron know I have his 100 cords.

  4. Thank you for such an inspirational article. As you might know, we’re about 6-7 weeks from our “leap”. We’re cleaning, purging, getting health certificates, organizing our investments, and all those other weird things one has to do when moving to another country.
    I love reading the stories of others and how they made the leap.
    I hope we can make it out to Ometepe before too long. Or, of course, we have an extra room for you and Ron if you feel like visiting Granada!

    • Hi Rich and Pat! I can’t wait to see you again. How exciting, yet emotionally exhausting to purge, clean, and organize. I enjoy reading travel essays and stories about people who decide to jump into a new life, but I rarely find the details of how they did it, the decisions they had to make, and the emotions that they go through. That’s why I decided to write a book about our pretirement experiment. Hopefully one of these days, I’ll finish it. It contains some wild stories of the expats we met in Granada…of course, most of the names have been changed. Buenos suerte mis amigos. See you soon.🙂

  5. I am getting ready for my pretirement experiment in a few months. I will be 41 in June and though I don’t know all the answers, I know that living life as I have been is no longer an option. What started out as a simple move to Costa Rica is turning into roaming the United States in an rv for an unknown amount of time first. I am in no rush, and yet, I can’t wait. Looking forward to reading your book!

  6. Deb,
    You have always been a supporter of mine (especially my blog) since we met when I lived on the island. I think this is in my top 5 of yours as I agree 100%.
    At the age of 45 I decided it was time to take a year “off” and travel to places I wanted… and for the first time in my life, all alone!
    It has been an incredible journey and would not have changed it for anything. Since leaving my condo in Costa Rica, I have returned to Canada to visit friends, been to New Zealand (where I was easily 20 years older than my bunkmates), Tonga, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar (Burma).
    I am now in the Philippines visiting a friend who moved here two years ago and think I have finally found my next place to settle down.
    I HIGHLY recommend a GAP year for people of our age. You end up seeing more as you are not partying through the countries and only seeing the local bars.

    Hugs Nance
    P.S. Congrats on your 500th blog. One day I’ll get there🙂

    • Oh Nance, you make me laugh! I love your attitude. You are a strong and fearless woman. I admire you so much for your travels alone. It just goes to show that happiness is really all about a positive, fun-loving attitude toward life. So, you are settling in the Philippines for a while? Good for you! That’s exciting. When you get settled, let me know and I’ll come to visit. I’ve never been to the Philippines. Keep blogging! I look forward to reading your latest posts.🙂

  7. Nope, no gap year here. I was lucky to get a gap week away from the daily grind. But, it all worked out. We took the leap of faith and have never looked back, haven’t even wanted to look back.
    Love your stories, and they mean even more since I have been to your island and met some of your students and friends🙂

    • You really did take a leap of faith, mi amiga, and look at the new world you created for yourselves. Now, you can have gap weeks or even months since you have your residency.🙂 When are you going to bike to Nicaragua? I still have your wedding ring. Maybe we should come to visit you one of these days. Haha! I just reread what I wrote and I know people will read this and wonder why in the world I have your wedding ring. Well, it will be our little mysterious secret. My neighbors say, Hola to you and Joel.

  8. “Gap Year”. I had never heard that term when I took mine, it wound up being more than a year, and it was a very long time ago, but yes, I spent two years in Israel when I was around age 20/21 and those two years gave me the courage and sense of excitement I feel about retiring in Nicaragua later this year. I spent the first six months in Hebrew immersion on a kibbutz, and a year as an overseas student in a program at Tel Aviv University, getting accustomed to life in a 2nd world country constantly under threat of war. Living somewhere very unlike my familiar home country opened my eyes to the possibilities of the rest of the world, and although I didn’t get to do a lot of traveling during my career, I’ve now lived in 4 countries (as kind of a perpetual expat) and am hungry to explore more, even though aging presents a new set of challenges.

    I didn’t know the story of your pretirement experiment and, as usual, you brought it to life so I could picture you living it. Thanks for another wise and entertaining post–I am in awe of you!

    • Claire, I always appreciate your kind and thoughtful comments. Thank you. I never heard your gap year stories either. Gap year for grown-up experiences fascinate me. Hebrew immersion on a kibbutz?That’s an amazing story! I must hear more. Can’t wait until you are living in Nicaragua. Thanks for sharing your gap year adventures with us.

  9. Everything certainly happens for a reason! Jon and I are leaving for Panama in a couple days, to look at a teaching opportunity for next year. This will allow us a bit of a pretirement experience. Reading this post has certainly helped ease my jitters and confirm the desire to move forward. Thanks for the inspiration.
    I can’t wait until you finish that book!

    • Judy, how absolutely wonderful. I am so excited for you. Please keep us up to date on your potential gap year for grown-ups. Do you see the front row boy on the left in the picture of the adolescent ESL boys? That’s Maxwell. He was my English student 10 years ago and is now the part-time librarian for the La Paloma elementary school library. Woopie! I spent last week training him and making schedules for the classes. Tomorrow we start teaching library skills with the classes and reading with them. I am so very excited…and it was all made possible by YOU!!! Safe travels!

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