I can only speak about the challenges of an American moving to Mexico, each culture is different and Americans are extra ‘special’ with their needs and expectations. It took a long time for me to admit we were difficult people, but here we are.
I have lived in many places throughout Mexico since my arrival in 2009 and my mother retired in Mexico this year. With my mom being here I have been reminded about the struggles of transitioning into a new Mexican life. I see her mistakes and they remind me of mine in the early years of my transition.
While not everyone is alike and we all have different struggles when adapting to a new country and culture, here is some of my best advice based on my personal experience. Yours might be different, and that’s great!
Your first priority to settling into a new life in Mexico is to learn the language. When I first moved to Mexico, I chose to live in Puerto Vallarta. My choice for this destination was based on two things. I love the beach and I knew there was a large expat community, meaning English would be easy to come by. In all honesty, I think that is why most expats choose Puerto Vallarta. I didn’t learn Spanish for four years, it wasn’t until after I left the expat community of Vallarta and emerged myself into the Mexican culture and found friends who didn’t speak English.
Truth is, it’s harder to learn a new language fluently when you are older, that’s just a fact. I moved to Mexico at the age of 35, young for an expat. Making it more challenging is that many English speakers have little desire to learn another language, including myself at the beginning. It’s amusing to learn a few words or phrases, but to speak fluently when living in a large expat community isn’t necessary or important to most. It’s also difficult to really learn if you only use Spanish in class but the rest of your life is lived in the English language, the biggest challenge living in large expat communities. But if you really stick to it, learning the local language can open up new experiences for you.
I am not picking on Americans, I am an American, so it’s much easier for me to identify the shortcomings of my people, and myself. Americans are entirely too emotional and confrontational. Everything sets them off. It’s very off-putting to the Mexican people. It’s been said that there are two types of people, those who never complain, and Americans.
Mexicans have a very high tolerance for things that normally irk Americans. They are not complaining people, or at least not on trivial issues. They are masters of the ‘pick your battles wisely’ mantra. They are not going to complain about long lines, rickety bus seats, or the unavailability of their favorite brand of food. An American will spend months obsessed with finding a specific American brand of sour cream, and they will let everyone know how disappointed they are, as if this is actually a key to survival or happiness.
Ditch the watch:
Things in Mexico are much slower (don’t complain, heed previous advice). Even after eight years in Mexico I sill make sure that I am 15 minutes early to any appointment I make, whether it’s professional or personal. Americans are always early, it’s part of our culture, but if you are moving to Mexico, understand you are leaving that culture behind. People are late in Mexico. I have had people 15 minutes late, an hour late, or even not show up at all only to contact you the next day or week to ask if they can reschedule. And don’t expect an apology for lateness, it’s an expectation, it’s not their fault if your expectations of being timely are a little high.
If you took my first piece of advice to learn some Spanish, you might have noticed that ‘mañana’ means morning, but it also means tomorrow. In reality, the true meaning of mañana in Mexican culture is simply the way of saying ‘later’. A contractor might tell you he can start work ‘mañana’, that doesn’t mean tomorrow or in the morning, it simply means at a later date of his choosing. He will be there when he gets there. Again. Calm Down. Don’t complain. If someone tells me Mañana I give them my phone number and tell them to call or message me when they are arriving, this way I am not at home pacing for days wondering when they will arrive. I can go about my life and put my mañana appointment in the back of my head.
We have all been told it’s expected to bargain and haggle when shopping, it’s very common in Mexican culture. However, let’s be honest, Americans are making a lot more money than Mexicans and the goods, products, and services we are paying for in Mexico are 50% – 75% cheaper than they are in the United States. Bargaining by a foreigner is just rude, it’s not cute or emerging yourself into the culture. When shopping, ask the price, if you think it’s too high, say thank you and keep walking. Many times the shopkeeper will stop you and start bargaining themselves, but if they let you walk away, they aren’t interested in bargaining with you. This will also depend on how you look. If you are walking around with an iPhone in your hand and designer clothes, no merchant is going to wheel-and-deal with you.
I do have a little trick that doesn’t come across as bargaining. Recently I went looking for a molcajete at the market. I knew I wanted a medium size and what I would be willing to pay. I put my budgeted amount in my right front pocket, separate from the rest of my money. I was close. I asked a vendor for the cost and she told me $80 pesos, I had stuffed $60 pesos in my bargaining pocket. I said ‘OK’ and pulled out my money and said, oh, I am sorry I only have $60 pesos with me. She immediately said ‘no problem, I can sell it for $60 pesos’. This works about 80% of the time and I don’t need to do the haggle thing. Most of the time there are two different prices in Mexico, which is why nothing has price tags, there is the Mexican price and the American/Tourist price. They will sell to you at the Mexican price before losing the business, you just cannot let them know you are on to them.
Mexico is a noisy place. From Mexico City to the smallest Oaxacan village. You don’t call the police or complain to the neighbor if the party is going to long or if the dog barks all night. If silence is your thing, Mexico simply isn’t your place. You will go insane. There are not noise ordinances or ‘disturbing the peace’ laws. Dogs, car alarms, music, fireworks, you name it, it’s consistent and unforgiving.
Because of the noise I hear a lot of foreigners complain that their dogs are always nervous. I would really consider this before moving to Mexico with your pets. The pets that were born in Mexico seem to do much better with the noise, but it can be very stressful for your foreign born pet. You might really enjoy your retirement in Mexico, but it could have a negative impact on the four-legged family members.
I understand that some people retire to Mexico with a nice cushion of saved money, pension, retirement and social security hitting their accounts each month, so this won’t really apply to them. But there are many middle-class people who move to Mexico on a fixed income, a budget that is hard to live on in the USA, so they get very excited about how cheap everything is in Mexico.
When I moved to Mexico it was for a better life, not retirement. I was like most Americans and lived paycheck to paycheck. When preparing to move I sold everything I owned except my clothes, computer and the car I drove to Mexico. That gave me a small padding of money in the bank. When I arrived to Puerto Vallarta it was like being on vacation every day, it’s not easy to get out of vacation mode when everyone around you is actually on vacation. You want to be at the beach with all the fun and eating on Olas Altas every night, and that is exactly what I did for a year.
Before I knew it, my bank account was negative, I had a couple of days of food in the refrigerator, and rent was due in a week. I had just been robbed and my USA debit card was stolen. I hadn’t done any work to speak about for a year. I sat in my house and looked around at all the purchases I had made in Mexico over the last year, all that stuff I didn’t need, it was a year’s worth of expenses sitting on shelves, items I hadn’t touched since I bought them. It took months for me to dig out of the mess I had made by not paying attention to my budget and acting like I was living on vacation. Thankfully that scary time of being broke in a foreign country made me really focus on creating a successful business and dedicated to saving money. One day I do want to actually retire, now I see an end to the tunnel.
These days I try to convince my mom to manage the spending. When you arrive in Mexico as a middle-class American that lived paycheck to paycheck, it is very exciting to finally be able to afford some small luxuries because the cost of living is so much less. My mom is middle-class on social security, she worked all her life in a good job and is educated. But in Mexico she is loving to spend the money, an American tradition. If an American makes $3000 USD a month, they say “I can spend $3000 USD this month”.
What I fear, after my own experience, is that there will be an emergency that my mom cannot afford to manage because she still is living the paycheck to paycheck life even though she makes plenty to live a very comfortable Mexican life AND save money. Instead, the money she saved by moving to Mexico she is spending instead of saving. I did it, I see her doing, I can only assume this is common for those who move to Mexico on a fixed income. My advice is to budget, the sooner you get off of vacation mode and reaffirm the reasons you moved to Mexico, a better life and stop struggling, the better you will truly enjoy Mexico life.
It doesn’t take a lot of money to live in Mexico. This is my budget, I brake it down into four areas. (costs in U.S. Dollars)
$300 – Total expenses for 2 bedroom house and monthly food expenses. House includes my electric, gas, water, and internet. It’s a nice sized home, nicely decorated, well built, even screens in the windows.
$300 – Entertainment each month. Going out to dinner, movie, buying clothes.
$400 – Savings for retirement.
$500 – Monthly ‘holidays’. I try to take one weekend trip every month to explore a new place in Mexico. It’s really cheap to travel throughout Mexico.
That is a monthly expense of $1500 USD per month, including my retirement savings. I often make more money than this each month, if I choose to work more than two hours each day. Any addition income I make I spend however I want. It’s found money in my budget. If for any reason I do not make $1500 USD a month (it’s been a long time since that has happened), then the first thing I cut is my monthly holiday, if I need to cut more, monthly entertainment. I never cut my savings for retirement. My absolute minimum income requirement is $700 USD a month for rent, utilities, food, and retirement savings.
Mexico is nothing like the United States. Vacationing in Mexico every year is a much different experience than living in Mexico full-time and year-round.
I had some very challenging moments moving and living in Mexico, and I still do today, but not once have I ever regretted my move or ever thought about returning to the United States.
I think my last advice for this moment would be to embrace the culture of your new country. Understand the history, holiday traditions, and culture. Instead of cooking the ham for Christmas, go for the tamale and pozole. Instead of exchanging gifts on Christmas day, wait until Three Kings Day. Eat 12 grapes and wear red underwear on New Year’s Eve. Go to the ‘Cry of Independence’ on Mexico’s Independence Day, it’s held in every municipality in Mexico. Participate in your town’s Patron Saint celebrations. Eat ceviche in Puerto Vallarta. Try tortas in Guadalajara. Eat grasshoppers in Oaxaca.
Embrace your new life in Mexico!