MONEY Ask the Expert

How to Help Your Kid Get Started Investing

Investing illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso Jr.

Q: I want to invest $5,000 for my 35-year-old daughter, as I want to get her on the path to financial security. Should the money be placed into a guaranteed interest rate annuity? Or should the money go into a Roth IRA?

A: To make the most of this financial gift, don’t just focus on the best place to invest that $5,000. Rather, look at how this money can help your daughter develop saving and investing habits above and beyond your contribution.

Your first step should be to have a conversation with your daughter to express your intent and determine where this money will have the biggest impact. Planning for retirement should be a top priority. “But you don’t want to put the cart before the horse,” says Scott Whytock, a certified financial planner with August Wealth Management in Portland, Maine.

Before you jump ahead to thinking about long-term savings vehicles for your daughter, first make sure she has her bases covered right now. Does she have an emergency fund, for example? Ideally, she should have up to six months of typical monthly expenses set aside. Without one, says Whytock, she may be forced to pull money out of retirement — a costly choice on many counts — or accrue high-interest debt.

Assuming she has an adequate rainy day fund, the next place to look is an employer-sponsored retirement plan, such as a 401(k) or 403(b). If the plan offers matching benefits, make sure your daughter is taking full advantage of that free money. If her income and expenses are such that she isn’t able to do so, your gift may give her the wiggle room she needs to bump up her contributions.

Does she have student loans or a car loan? “Maybe paying off that car loan would free up some money each month that could be redirected to her retirement contributions through work,” Whytock adds. “She would remove potentially high interest debt, increase her contributions to her 401(k), and lower her tax base all at the same time.”

If your daughter doesn’t have a plan through work or is already taking full advantage of it, then a Roth IRA makes sense. Unlike with traditional IRAs, contributions to a Roth are made after taxes, but your daughter won’t owe taxes when she withdraws the money for retirement down the road. Since she’s on the younger side – and likely to be in a higher tax bracket later – this choice may also offer a small tax advantage over other vehicles.

Why not the annuity?

As you say, the goal is to help your daughter get on the path to financial security. For that reason alone, a simple, low-cost instrument is your best bet. Annuities can play a role in retirement planning, but their complexity, high fees and, typically, high minimums make them less ideal for this situation, says Whytock.

Here’s another idea: Don’t just open the account, pick the investments and make the contribution on your daughter’s behalf. Instead, use this gift as an opportunity to get her involved, from deciding where to open the account to choosing the best investments.

Better yet, take this a step further and set up your own matching plan. You could, for example, initially fund the account with $2,000 and set aside the remainder to match what she saves, dollar for dollar. By helping your daughter jump start her own saving and investing plans, your $5,000 gift will yield returns far beyond anything it would earn if you simply socked it away on her behalf.

Do you have a personal finance question for our experts? Write toAskTheExpert@moneymail.com.

MONEY Ask the Expert

What You Need to Know Before Choosing a Beneficiary for a Health Savings Account

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Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: “What happens to the money in a health savings account when the account owner dies?”–James McKay

A: It’s up to you to decide.

But let’s back up a step: A health savings account offers those in high-deductible health insurance plans the opportunity to save pretax dollars and tap them tax-free to pay for qualified medical expenses, with unused funds rolling over from year to year. Unlike a Flexible Spending Account, you have the opportunity to invest the money. And once you hit age 65, the money can be used for any purpose without penalty—though you will pay income tax, similar to a traditional IRA. So for many people, an HSA also functions as a backup retirement account.

When you open an HSA, you will be asked to designate a beneficiary who will receive the account at the time of your death. You can change the beneficiary or beneficiaries any time during your lifetime, though some states require your to have your spouse’s consent.

Your choice of beneficiary makes a big difference in how the account will be treated after you’re gone.

If you name your spouse, the account remains an HSA, and your partner will become the owner. He or she can use the money tax-free to pay for qualified healthcare expenses, even if not enrolled in a high-deductible health plan, says Todd Berkley, president of HSA Consulting Services. Should your spouse be younger than 65, take a distribution of funds and use them for something other than medical expenses, however, he or she will pay a 20% penalty tax on the amount withdrawn plus income taxes (a rule that also applies to you while you’re alive).

Thus, Berkley warns against a spouse taking a full distribution to close the HSA. He says that it’s better to leave money in the account first for medical expenses, then later for retirement expenses both medical and non—since your partner gets the same perk of penalty-free withdrawals for other expenses after turning 65.

When the beneficiary is not your spouse, the HSA ends on the date of your death. Your heir receives a distribution and the fair-market value becomes taxable income to the beneficiary—though the taxable amount can be reduced by any qualified medical expenses incurred by the decreased that are then paid by the beneficiary within a year of the death.

Failure to name a beneficiary at all means the assets in your account will be distributed to your estate and included on your final income tax return.

MONEY Ask the Expert

What You’ll Pay to Keep Your Power On This Winter

For Sale sign illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso Jr.

Q: I’m sick of candles, flashlights, and spoiled food. How much do I need to spend for a generator that will keep the power on no matter what Mother Nature throws at us this winter?

A: You’re smart to think about this now because by the time the first storm hits, you may find the local home center cleaned out of generators and face a long wait for an electrician. You have three basic generator options at three different price points, says master electrician Matt Tomis of Fairfield, Connecticut.

1) Portable Generator with Extension Cords

The lowest-cost approach is to simply purchase a portable, gasoline-powered machine, which will run $400 to $1,200 for 5,500 to 6,500 watts. You’ll also need several heavy-duty exterior-grade extension cords, which typically cost $30 to $40 each for a 50-foot cord.

Works for: Your fridge (you’ll have to roll it out of its cubby-hole to connect the cord) and some lamps and other plug-in devices.

What it won’t power: No hardwired equipment, meaning it doesn’t plug-in, such as the heat or ceiling lights. “And no sensitive electronic device, such as a TV or computer, because emergency generators produce dirty power, meaning it’s prone to mini-surges, sags, and spikes that can damage your equipment,” says Tomis. (If you want to safely plug in electronics, you would need to invest in what’s known as an inverter generator, which runs $2,000 to $4,000.)

Inconvenience factor: High. You need to keep plenty of gas on hand (with gas treatment added to keep it from going stale), and you need to start the generator each month all year round and run it for a few minutes to keep it at the ready. Then when an outage strikes, you have to wheel out the generator, pull-start it, and run your cords—taking care to keep the generator 10 feet from the house to avoid letting carbon monoxide inside. You may also want to chain the generator to a tree if you think someone might take it in your area.

Total cost: $600 to $1,400.

2) Portable Generator with Transfer Switch

This approach combines a slightly more powerful gasoline-powered portable generator with a minor electrical rewiring project that allows you to jack the generator right into the side of your house and run certain, pre-selected household circuits. Figure the stronger 6,500 to 7,500 watt machine will run $600 to $1,500, plus you’ll spend $1,200 to $1,500 for the electrical work.

Works for: Your electrician will help you choose circuits for hallway and kitchen lights, heat, hot water, microwave, refrigerator, and sump pump—and tell you exactly what size generator you need to power them.

What it won’t power: Unless you spring for an inverter generator, the electricity still isn’t clean enough to safely operate computers, televisions and other delicate electronics. Also the portable generator isn’t powerful enough to operate your air conditioning, something you may care about if you live in a warm climate.

Inconvenience factor: Moderate. Similar to the first, less expensive option, you need to wheel out your gasoline powered generator (which you’ve been starting monthly all year long), keep fresh gas handy, and lock it for security. But attaching it to the house inlet is far simpler than running extension cords.

Total Cost: $1,800 to $3,000.

 

3) Automatic Whole-House Generator

Your best yet priciest option is a natural gas or propane powered generator that’s large enough—and produces clean enough energy—to run every single circuit in your house, and automatically takes over when you have a power outage. You’ll pay around $11,000 to $15,000 for one fit for a 3,000 square foot house, including the generator, wiring, and gas-line connection, or perhaps $22,000 to $26,000 for a large manor house.

Works for: The clean, steady power can run everything in your house—plus all of your neighbors’ phone chargers.

What it won’t power: Even with all of your electronics up and running, this generator can do nothing, of course, about phone, cable, and Internet service interruptions.

Inconvenience factor: None. There’s no gasoline to buy, no pull-cord to yank on, and the unit even starts itself every week and conducts a self check. You can even get a text if there’s any problem that requires a visit from a technician. Of course that convenience comes at a price.

Total Cost: $11,000 to $15,000.

 

Got a question for Josh? We’d love to hear it. Please send submissions to realestate@moneymail.com.

MONEY Ask the Expert

How Late-Life Marriage Can Hurt Your Retirement Security

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Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: I am 66 and my partner is 63. We are thinking of getting married. How long must we be married for her to be eligible for spousal benefits based on my earnings? Neither of us have filed for Social Security yet. – Mark Sander, Indianapolis, IN

A: It’s wonderful to find love at any age. But for older couples, the decision to marry can have a big impact on your retirement finances, particularly when it comes to Social Security. Some experts say that may be one reason why co-habitation among older people is on the rise. According to the U.S. Census, nearly three million people age 50 and older live together, up from 1.2 million in 2000. “Many seniors live together instead of getting married because of money issues,” says Steve Vernon, author of Recession-Proof Your Retirement Years.

The good news is that if you do tie the knot, you only need to be married for one year for your wife to collect Social Security spousal benefits.

Still, it may not be a good idea for your wife to apply for benefits right away, says Vernon. At age 66 you are what Social Security deems full retirement age. But for your wife to collect full spousal benefits (50% of your full Social Security monthly payment) she will need to be full retirement age too.

If your wife files for Social Security before she reaches 66, she will get less than she would receive than if she waited till full retirement age. How much less? If your wife files for spousal benefits at 63, she will get 37.5% of your Social Security. At 64, that rises to 42% and at 65, 46%.

Waiting to collect benefits also means a higher payout for you. You can boost your Social Security paycheck by 8% each year you wait until age 70. A method called file and suspend allows you to file for your Social Security benefits so your wife can start collecting spousal benefits but you suspend receiving your benefits till you are 70.

Also be aware that if either of you has been married before, remarrying could mean losing alimony or the survivor benefits of a pension. “You really need to think strategically about how to maximize your Social Security benefits,” says Vernon.

There are a number of calculators and advice services that can help you figure the claiming strategy that’s best for your situation. Earlier this year, 401(k) advice provider Financial Engines released a Social Security income calculator that’s free and easy to use. The calculator sifts through thousands of claiming strategies to come up with a recommended option. For $40, you can use the Maximize My Social Security online software to evaluate more detailed scenarios. You may also want to consult a financial planner who’s familiar with Social Security rules.

Marriage can have a hazardous effect on other parts of your financial life, says Vernon. You will legally be on the hook for your spouse’s medical bills, and there may be sticky issues when it comes to inheritance. In some cases, married couples also face higher taxes, depending on your income and tax bracket.

Whether you get married is a personal decision, but by choosing the right financial plan, you’re more likely to enjoy a happy retirement together.

Do you have a personal finance question for our experts? Write to AskTheExpert@moneymail.com.

More from Money’s Ultimate Retirement Guide:

How does working affect my Social Security benefits?

Will my spouse and kids receive Social Security benefits when I die?

Are my Social Security payouts taxed?

MONEY Ask the Expert

Can I Ladder Bonds Using ETFs?

Investing illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso Jr.

Q: I’ve heard that there are bond ETF’s that hold securities that mature on the same date. Can they be used to create a bond ladder?

A: Bond ladders are a time-tested tool for investors looking to lock in predictable streams of income. The idea is to buy bonds that mature at regular intervals. In a simple ladder, for instance, you might divide your fixed-income money evenly among securities maturing in, say, one, two, three, four and five years.

Not only does this approach spread your bets, it is particularly useful now that interest rates are expected to rise.

Why? Rising rates are a threat to bond investors. That’s because when market rates rise, the price of older, lower-yielding bonds in your portfolio fall, eating into your total returns.

However, investors who create a ladder of bonds with different maturities need not worry about short-term fluctuations in bond prices. As long as they hold all the securities in their ladder to maturity, investors will get their fixed payments and principal back (assuming a borrower doesn’t default) no matter what rates do. What’s more, as one batch of bonds comes due every year, investors will be able to reinvest that money into new, higher yielding bonds, thereby benefitting from rising rates.

“A bond ladder makes all the sense in the world right now,” says Ken Hoffman, and managing director with HighTower Advisors. “If you know what you’re doing, you can create a ladder that provides you with the interest payments and maturity that you need.”

Here’s the rub: Putting together a diversified bond ladder requires some serious dough. At a minimum, you’ll need about $10,000 to buy a single bond, and ideally you’d want more than one bond on each “rung,” or maturity date. “I typically don’t recommend a bond ladder unless someone has $500,000 to invest,” says Hoffman, adding that you can construct a ladder with Treasury, corporate, municipal bonds, and so on.

Why not turn to bond funds? Regular bond funds own hundreds of different securities that mature at different dates and that aren’t necessarily meant to be held to maturity. Therefore, it’s impossible to ladder with regular funds.

This is where exchanged-traded funds that hold bonds with the same maturity come in. Two big ETF providers, Guggenheim and BlackRock’s iShares, now offer so-called defined-maturity or target-date ETFs that can be used to build a bond ladder using Treasury, corporate, high-yield or municipal bonds.

Like traditional ETFs, they charge low expense ratios, hold a basket of securities, and trade like stocks. What makes them unique is that the portfolios are made of up a diversified group of bonds maturing at the same time. When those underlying securities come due, target-maturity ETFs liquidate and distribute their assets back to shareholders — much like an individual bond would.

Using Guggenheim BulletShares, for example, you could build a corporate bond ladder with 10 funds maturing every year from 2015 through 2024.

ETFs aren’t a perfect proxy. The coupon rate — or regular interest payment — and the final distribution rate aren’t nearly as predictable as they are with individual bonds. Still, for investors who want the benefits of a ladder but with more liquidity, more diversification, and lower minimums, they’re worth a closer look.

Do you have a personal finance question for our experts? Write toAskTheExpert@moneymail.com.

MONEY Ask the Expert

What Happens If You Get Your Obamacare Subsidy Wrong

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Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q. What happens to someone who has overestimated his income and received the wrong subsidy amount for a marketplace plan? Does he get a tax refund when he files? What if he underestimated his income and was paid too much? Does the system catch it when he reapplies for coverage in 2015? Will he be prevented from renewing automatically?

A. If you received too small a subsidy because you overestimated your income, that amount will be added to your tax refund—if you’re receiving one—or it will reduce the amount of tax that you owe, says Timothy Jost, a law professor at Washington and Lee University and an expert on the health law.

Similarly, if your subsidy was too large because you underestimated your income, you may have to pay some or all of it back. If your income is more than 400% of the federal poverty level ($94,200 for a family of four that enrolled for 2014), you’ll owe the full amount of any subsidy overpayment. At lower incomes, the amount that must be repaid is capped.

How your 2015 subsidy will be handled when you renew your coverage this fall will vary. If you live in one of the states where the federal government runs the health insurance marketplace, you may be automatically enrolled in a 2015 plan and, unless you contact the marketplace to update your income and other details, your subsidy amount will remain the same next year. That’s probably not in your best interest, since changing marketplace policy details and changes in your own financial situation could mean you either may not receive the total amount you’re due or you’ll be on the hook to repay a too-generous subsidy. The system, however, won’t prevent someone from renewing next year, automatically or otherwise, because his subsidy amount was incorrect.

“The best thing to do is to get in touch with the exchange to make sure they have the most up-to-date information,” says Jost.

States that operate their own marketplaces may handle enrollment differently. Those states may, for example, require everyone pick a new plan and update their subsidy eligibility information instead of simply auto-enrolling them, says Judith Solomon, a vice president for tax policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Kaiser Health News is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan health policy research and communication organization not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

MONEY Ask the Expert

What To Do When Your Pension Is Frozen

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Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: My company froze our pensions last year. I am 53. Can I take the money out and invest it myself? – Tim Shields, New York

A: You’re in the same boat as many private sector workers today. Hundreds of companies have frozen their pensions in the past decade in order to shed the cost of providing guaranteed lifetime income to retirees. The trend accelerated after the recession—more than 40% of the Fortune 1000 companies now have frozen pensions, according to one study.

Your employer can’t take away the benefits you’ve earned. But if you’re currently covered by a pension, also known as a defined benefit plan, your pension benefit will no longer increase. This trend leaves older workers like you vulnerable, especially if you have long tenure, says Bonnie Kirchner, a certified financial planner and president of Sea Change Financial Education. That’s because pensions are back-loaded, reaching their peak value in your last years before retirement. You’re losing what would have been a large income stream in retirement, so you’ll need to figure out different saving and investing strategies.

Whether you can take the money out and invest it yourself depends on your plan’s rules, says Kirchner, who also wrote Who Can You Trust With Your Money? You should contact your human resources department to find out the specifics.

Chances are, your employer will want you to take that pension money as a lump sum, says Kirchner. Many pensions are underfunded, and companies must make up any underfunded liabilities with additional contributions to their plans. “Your corporation may be very happy to get rid of that liability from their balance sheet,” says Kirchner.

In fact, more companies are doing so. In a move known as “de-risking,” companies are offering settlement payouts to employees, thereby moving the pension obligation off their books. Three out of four employers with pension plans said they are—or are in the process of—unloading pensions obligations, according to a report by Towers Watson and Institutional Investors Forum.

To do so, your company may offer to pay you a lump sum in place of a monthly pension payment, or it may replace your pension by buying an equivalent annuity from an insurance company. Motorola recently did both, buying annuities from Prudential Insurance to cover its current pensions and offering lump sum buyouts to plan participants. General Motors and Verizon replaced their pension obligations with annuities in 2012.

For most people, taking an annuity that guarantees an income stream for life is a far better option than a lump sum payout. “It protects you against running out of money,” says Kirchner. An exception might be if you are in poor health and need to tap those assets sooner. (If you do take a lump sum, be sure to roll it over into an IRA—otherwise you could incur penalties and income taxes.)

Granted, investing a lump sum does offer the potential for higher returns, so it may be a better fit for those who want to manage their own money. Still, few investors are capable of outperforming the market, as studies have repeatedly shown. And today a guaranteed stream of income is something that is highly sought after by retirees, says Kirchner, so think twice about rejecting an annuity.

Do you have a personal finance question for our experts? Write to AskTheExpert@moneymail.com.

MONEY Ask the Expert

Why This Estate Planning Tool Beats Just Having a Will

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Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: “We established a living trust this past year and put our home and two rentals into it. Most of our investments are in IRAs, and I don’t want to put them into the trust. I am now thinking that I may not have really needed the living trust. Should I go back to just a will and cancel the trust?”—Mark Schmidt

A: A living trust has advantages that a will can’t offer, so you may want to keep both, says Greg Sellers, a certified public accountant and president of the National Association of Estate Planners and Councils.

A revocable living trust is similar to a will in that it indicates how you would like your assets to be distributed after your death and can be amended anytime. While you should always have a will, a living trust—which is simply a trust set up during your lifetime as opposed to one created after your death—can be a valuable addition to your estate plan. Here’s why.

1. Your estate can be settled more quickly. Unlike with a will, the assets in a trust do not have to go through the probate process. Your heirs can skip the expense (lawyers, executors, paperwork, and the like), potential publicity, and inconvenience of a court-supervised distribution of your estate. And there’s no delay while your heirs wait for creditors to come forward and file claims, even when you owe no one.

This probate escape hatch is more valuable in some states than others. Many states have an expedited form of probate for estates below a certain value, which varies by state. For example, in New York, you can use the simplified small estate process if the property, excluding real estate, is worth $20,000 or less. To see what probate shortcuts your state offers, check Nolo.com’s list.

If most of your estate is in the form of IRAs or life insurance, you will not need to worry about probate either. As long as you have named a beneficiary, those assets will bypass probate.

2. You have back-up investment help. Because you must name a trustee to manage the assets, pay the taxes, maintain good records, and make payment to the beneficiaries—or a successor trustee if you’re managing the trust yourself—you already have someone in place to take over if you become disabled or incapacitated and are no longer able to manage your money.

3. You can set things up for your children. Trusts can also be good if you have minor children or heirs with special needs. When you set up the trust, you can add provisions specifying when a child can receive the assets and how he or she can use the property. With a will, your assets pass straight to your heirs.

If you don’t find managing the trust too onerous, Sellers recommends keeping it since you’ve already gone through the effort and expense of establishing and funding it (you need to retitle the assets you put in a trust, for example). On a final note, you shouldn’t transfer an IRA to a trust. That’s counted as a withdrawal and could subject you to a penalty, depending on your age.

MONEY buying a home

How to Get Ready to Buy a Home

Checking your credit report and getting pre-approved for a mortgage are key, says Century 21 CEO Rick Davidson.

MONEY Ask the Expert

How to Live Well on Less by Retiring Overseas

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Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: I hear a lot about people retiring overseas to make their retirement savings go further. My wife and I are pretty adventurous. But can we really save money retiring in another country?

A: Retiring abroad isn’t for everyone—but more and more people are doing it. Nearly 550,000 Americans receive their Social Security benefits abroad, up from nearly 400,000 in 2000, according to the Social Security Administration. That’s a small number compared to the 43 million people over 65 receiving Social Security benefits. Still, 3.3 million of America’s 78 million Baby Boomers say they are interested in retiring abroad, according to Travel Market Report.

The growing interest in overseas living isn’t all that surprising, considering the worries of many pre-retirees about making their money last. There’s no question that you can live well on less in many countries. But to make that happen, you’ll need to plan carefully, says Dan Prescher, an editor at International Living, which publishes guides on the best places to retire overseas.

For most Americans, the biggest savings are a result of the lower prices for health care and housing overseas, says Prescher, who lives in Ecuador with his wife Suzan Haskins. The couple co-authored a book. The International Living Guide To Retiring Overseas On A Budget.

Most countries have a national healthcare system that cover all residents, and monthly premiums are often less than $100. It’s relatively easy to become a resident of another country, which typically involve proving you’ll have at least a modest amount of income, perhaps $1,000 a month.

But quality of health services varies, so research carefully, especially if you have medical problems. Even in countries with well-rated health care systems, the best services are centered around metropolitan areas. “Larger cities have more hospitals and doctors. The farther out you go, the quicker the quality falls off,” says Prescher.

Though Medicare doesn’t cover you if you live abroad, it’s still an option, and one that you should probably keep open. If you sign up—you’re eligible at age 65—and keep paying your premiums, you can use Medicare when you are back in the U.S.

Home prices, property taxes and utilities can be significantly lower in Mexico and countries in Central and South America, which are popular with U.S. retirees. In Mexico, you can find a nice three-bedroom villa near the beach for as little as $150,000, says Prescher.

But you’ll pay a premium for many other needs. Gas and utilities can cost a lot more than in the U.S. And you will also pay far more for anything that needs to be imported, such as computers and electronics or American food and clothing. “A can of Campbell soup can easily cost $4.50,” says Prescher. “You have to ruthlessly profile yourself, and see what you can or can’t live without, when you are figuring out your spending in retirement.”

Then there are taxes. As long as you’re a U.S. citizen, you have to pay income taxes to the IRS, no matter where you live or where your assets are located. Even if you don’t owe taxes, you must file a return. If you have financial accounts with more than $10,000 in a foreign bank, you must file forms on those holdings. In addition, the new Foreign Accounts and Tax Compliance Act (FATCA), which requires foreign banks to file U.S. paperwork for ex-pat accounts, has made many of them wary of working with Americans. You may also need to pay taxes in the country where you reside if you own assets there.

Check out safety issues too. Use the State Department’s Retirement Abroad advisory for information for country-specific reports on crimes, infrastructure problems and even scams that target Americans abroad.

The best way to find out if retiring abroad is for you is to spend as much time in your favorite city or village before you commit. Go during the off-season, when it may be rainy or super hot. See how difficult it is to get the things you want and what’s available at the grocery store. Read the local papers and check out online resources. In addition to International Living’s annual Best Places to Retire Overseas rankings, AARP writes about retiring abroad and Expatinfodesk.com publishes relocation guides.

The most valuable information will come from talking to other ex-pats when you’re visiting the country, as well a through message boards and online communities. “You’ll find that ex-pats have to have a sense of adventure and patience to understand that things are done differently,” says Prescher. “For many people, it’s a retirement dream come true.”

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