How many of you out there have thought about packing in the 9-to-5 or packing up your business and moving to the tropics? Yeah, I’d say plenty of you have done. Well Nadine Pisani, author of Happier Than a Billionaire: Quitting My Job, Moving to Costa Rica, and Living the Zero Hour Work Week, did just that. She and her husband packed in their businesses, sold all their possessions and retired to Costa Rica in their 30s. She has written about her experiences in two books, Happier Than a Billionaire: Quitting My Job, Moving to Costa Rica, and Living the Zero Hour Work Week and Happier Than A Billionaire: The Sequel. I’ve read both and both are hilarious, so if you want a belly load of laughs do buy them. Recently I had the opportunity to chat with Nadine about what drove her to the decision and how she recreated her life down in Central America.
You can listen to the podcast of the interview by clicking on the audio above or you can watch it on YouTube or you can read the transcript (with my ums and ahs edited out here).
Happier Than A Billionaire
So Nadine, I’m looking at you and you are obviously not in your 70s or 80s: you’re in your early 30s … or maybe early 20s?!
Oh yeah, stick with that! No, I’m 43 I’m happy to say.
So, what I’m trying to say is that you are not of the retirement age but you have actually retired to Costa Rica, which a lot of people do from the States, but they wait until they are in their 60s, 70s, and that’s when they start living the – what do you call it, Pura Vida?
One might say the smarter version of doing it! Yeah, I had to do it in my 30s; I had to pick the 30 years of no income, yeah, that’s what I had to do!
So, let’s just go back a little bit because you started this big adventure six years ago, yourself and your husband, Rob. You were both chiropractors, is that right, in Pennsylvania?
Yeah, very busy, busy, busy two practices, 12-hour days we worked; it was a hectic, hectic lifestyle.
So you had your own practices, you had your own businesses, you’re working 12-hour days, so you probably weren’t seeing much of each other?!
No, it was worse than that: the quality time wasn’t very good, you know you are just so tired at the end the night, you’re aggravated, you just hang out to be kind to the people around you. When you’re suffering from a lot of stress, it starts off with little things that become bigger things, until you see a shift in your relationship after that type of stress.
Okay, so you’re saying you got nasty with each other, you had rows!
I do a lot more of that than my husband so I’d say yes, he gets quiet and I get full rev.
So, at some stage then you said no more of this, what was that trigger?
My husband first came up with the idea that this isn’t sustainable what we’re doing, and it was funny because it happened around the time – a little bit of back story, we’re like every other American you know, you have a business, you paid off your student loans and you want to reward yourself, so you tend to, you know, buy your first home and you want wood floors and then you just start doing things that you think are going to make you happy and really they don’t. So, my husband bought this 265-gallon fish tank and if anybody knows how big that is, it takes up an entire wall. Okay, so because he bought this fish tank and he needed a reef tank, which is even harder to care for, he had a lot of cleaning to do. So our one day off is Sunday and he spent the entire day upside down in the tank with a toothbrush cleaning the algae off, so he’s in the fish tank doing this upside down, he was aggravated, and I was reading a book about Buddhism and there’s a line that said that “possessions cause suffering” and I looked up at him and I said isn’t that interesting, Rob, it says ‘possessions cause suffering’, and he stood up on that ladder and looked at me and he goes, “We are crazy, I’m crazy. What am I doing? Why have I spent my entire day cleaning this fish tank which I thought was going to make me happy?” and it was one of those moments that the light bulb went off.
He was very much for this move; I wasn’t. I was very scared and I had a lot of trepidation and it really wasn’t until he got sick, his stomach got really bad from working so much, he was in the hospital and it wasn’t until he was on the gurney, and I looked at him then I realised it’s not sustainable – this lifestyle – that something had to change and I think what is a little different about our story is, it had to be all or nothing for us; we couldn’t just pull back the hours, you know, for us it meant completely changing everything.
He got sick from stress, was it?
Yeah, it’s a shame that it takes your health to kind of motivate you to make changes and then it was really then that I said, we’re not going to live like this anymore, and if you think we can do this then let’s just do it, let’s just … you know … Because I listened to everybody, Rosie, nobody told me to do this, you know! We did it at 37, parents were mortified, absolutely mortified. Years into my profession and I quit, that’s your stride, everybody reaches the 10-year mark, and think that’s it.
The American Dream kicks in.
It kicks in, it’s happening, we finally built up a practice and we finally paid off our student loans, everything was working for us and then just telling everybody well that’s it, like I’m not a teenager, you know, I’m not 18, backpacking across Europe. My family were just like you can’t do this, you’ll absolutely regret this, you will never be able to get back the things that you have already accumulated.
The risk of not doing it far outweighs the risk of actually doing it. I was thinking that to look back in five years and think that I didn’t do it that would be heart breaking, that was it.
Why Costa Rica? Had you been there on holidays lots? Had you travelled lots? Was it somewhere that you always wanted to go?
You know, I wish I had a good answer to all that; we did research other things and we researched the Caribbean, things were a little too expensive for us and remember we didn’t have that lifetime of savings like when you’re 65/70 doing it. So we were on such a ridiculous budget that a lot of these islands we couldn’t afford. There were some countries where there was an issue with the climate that made us uncomfortable. Costa Rica seemed to have it all. A lot of people now talk about Costa Rica whether it’s to live or vacation, it’s like it’s got a good buzz. Back then you didn’t hear as much, and we didn’t know anything about it. My husband came home with two plane tickets – let’s see what it’s like, yes seriously this story is so ridiculous, I can’t even believe that it happened to me but we landed and I knew, I knew when I walked off that plane it was the place.
So, did you go on a holiday, a short holiday first to check it out?
Yeah, like you know maybe five days just driving around, and the thing that really changed it for me was I had to go to the bank to exchange money or doing something in a bank – at that time in a bank it was a three hour wait, so I was sitting there and yes it’s the last thing you want to do while on vacation. But as I was sitting there I saw that anybody who was older, who had a disability, a woman with small children, a pregnant woman all went to the front of the line and nobody huffed and puffed. I love the United States – I’m not knocking it – but don’t put a bunch of people in front of the line of a very busy bank, it’s going to really stress people out. So, it just made the wait longer and longer but nobody reacted to it the way I was reacting to it.
So, it was the people that actually did it for you. You saw a different way of life.
Yeah, I have much bigger respect for people and more understanding, a slower pace, and I needed that, Rosie, it was the thing that we were lacking in our lives; it was more that than anything else that Costa Rica had.
So you then went back to Pennsylvania, sold your big house and your practices, is that putting it mildly?
Sold the fish tank, I take it?
Yeah, that went too.
And packed your bags and went out to Costa Rica. Did you then rent in Costa Rica or did you buy a house or what did you do there?
Sure, we have a piece of property that we bought, so we thought we would, eventually build a house on that and thus the sequel which you have read. But when we first landed we just rented. Well actually, we’re still renting and it’s an easy thing to do as most of the houses come furnished, so you can come down with a couple of suitcases like I did, with my dog and cat, and you can find a place that has everything you need.
I think one of the recommendations you said is to wait until you get down there, because it is actually quite expensive when you’re looking online to rent in Costa Rica and I think it’s true wherever you want to move to in the world, to wait until you actually get there to commit to a long-term rent because sometimes prices online are upped an awful lot, whereas if you get referrals within the country you actually get a better deal. Is that what happened to you?
When we came to find our place, we came back for I think it was seven days a month before our big move, and we said we have to find something so when we move in a month we have a place that we can go to. And we’re staying at a bed and breakfast and we asked the woman there, and the woman knew somebody, that’s exactly how this all works. And, I think the biggest misconception by people who come to Central America is it’s just so cheap, like it’s just the cheapest place in the world to live; it’s not true anymore because you have to think of transportation of goods and things like that. So it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the cheapest place in the world to live, but just like any other tourist area or place, things online don’t necessarily reflect what’s really happening on the ground. So even if you came and you rented something that was a little more pricey than you’re used to, within a few months you will find something a lot cheaper, because that’s just how it works here.
You moved down to the coast and you have a sweet deal for where you’re staying now, don’t you?
My husband is just the can-do kind of guy. If we were stranded out in the middle of the ocean on a raft, he is the can-do guy, ‘we’re going to get back to shore’, he is such the optimist. We first lived in the mountains in Costa Rica which is lovely and when we decided to move to the beach I knew it might be problematic because it’s more expensive. We are living near Tamarindo which is a very big tourist area here. Now, you know, the tourist areas in any country are more expensive: he said no, no, no, no, we are going to do good, we are going to find a place … we got hooked up with a couple from the States that needed somebody to watch their house, somebody reliable that they got along with, so we rent a house for a $150 a month.
It’s a little crazy and I’m not saying everybody can do that, but we lived here – when they met us, we were here three years – we weren’t somebody who just moved here that was testing out Costa Rica. We had already put our footprints in this country; we’re staying. We had a good – and we still do, have a good relationship with them. So, there are these things that can happen here.
Yes, getting your footing in the place and actually getting to know people and networking really.
What’s your budget, if you don’t mind me asking, to live off each month? Is it very low or is it high?
Our budget when we were living in the mountains was a lot cheaper because it’s a central part of the country, goods are all there, farmers’ markets are very abundant, so it was around $1,000 a month. Okay. When we moved to the coast it’s more expensive because of the transport of goods here, gas is very, very expensive in this country so we’re more like $1,200 a month and that might be $1,300 a month if we do extra-curricular activities, excursions and fun stuff.
Which you do lots of – I’ve seen your blog!
We have these cheap kayaks now, so we don’t have to pay! We bought these real cheap with holes in them; my husband patched them up and now it’s free, most of the fun things we do are free.
Do you have the same sort of lifestyle? Do you eat out lots like you would in the States or do you eat fresh produce; now tell us the truth, do you eat processed food? Come on!
We hardly eat out at all. Around here it’s a tourist area, so it’s very expensive. I think it surprises people when they come here and dinner can be so pricey. When we moved here it was really important to us that we were not replicating our life that we had in the States. It’s just too expensive because the goods that you’re used to eating – let’s just say a brand of cookie – is twice as much here because of import taxes. It’s a great way to get healthy and get in shape because who wants to pay $6 for a bag of cookies when you can pay a few cents for a melon.
So, it’s interesting, you don’t want to lose weight – it’s just the fact you don’t want to pay that money for the cookies; it will make you buy the healthier stuff! When I was in the mountains a week’s worth of fruit and vegetables – which were a lot of our meals (a little bit of meat, fruit and vegetables) was $20 a week, for the fruit and vegetables.
Is it all fresh produce?
Just the best! The beach is more expensive, I would say, at 20 percent more for the produce here, but it’s important that we make our own meals. We make stir-fries; we freeze them because it’s just not in our budget to go out and eat all the time.
To get around then, transport wise: I’m asking this question because I know the answer because I read your books! (and guys you have to buy these books because they’re really funny; Nadine’s accounts are really hilarious). You bought a car, but I mean the potholes are atrocious over there; we have potholes in Ireland, but they’re like crazy over in Costa Rica: they are like wells!
They’re wells, yeah!
So, you have a scooter now: is that a change of lifestyle? Is it expensive; is gas expensive?
I think the last time I checked gas was at least, like, $5 a gallon.
So, it’s very, very pricey, so my husband had this idea when we lived in the mountains – we are going to get a scooter! I have never been on a motorcycle or scooter; it was the last thing I wanted, but he said, you know, the scooter was roughly $1,000. It’s going to pay for itself in gas because our other car is an SUV which is just a gas guzzler, so we bought the scooter and we took it everywhere. We put all our groceries on it, we have done so many wonderful trips on it, and it’s such a great thing to have. However, as you could see on my last blog post, my husband took a spill on it and he needed stitches in his hand, so besides that…
…Life is wonderful!
Life is wonderful and it’s great and I recommend to people if you feel confident, if you come down here, you don’t necessarily have to get that big expensive car because cars are taxed a lot here in Costa Rica. My car in the States would have been $6,000: it was $12,000 here.
So, yeah, if that’s a very big expense you can get away with a scooter, you really can, and you get a lot done and you know not to invest so much in the car, especially if you don’t know if you are going to be here long term.
Could you speak Spanish before you went?
I can barely speak Spanish now, Rosie; it’s just it’s like the most horrible thing.
Okay, I know it’s a bad thing, I’m so awful. My husband is so much better and it’s interesting this happened because, you know, in America we give a lot of grief to people who don’t speak the language, you know. It’s kind of like ‘speak the language, why don’t you learn the language?’ type of thing we do and I came here and now the shoe is on the other foot: I don’t know the language and I’m having a very difficult time picking it up and I really thought it was just going to be like this, I could do it. My husband picks it up so much better than me. I don’t know why I have that much a difficulty, but it made me so much kinder as a person, when the shoe is on the other foot it’s a great learning experience.
I’m just after having a flashback to one of the chapters in your book where Rob was giving out to you, your husband was giving out to you, because you had mixed up the words for ‘punch’ and ‘pay’ that you had taught him, and he was going around saying ‘I’m going to punch you now’ to everybody, to waiters…
Three years he said that to people! You know it is funny when people gave reactions to us, because I just assumed maybe we’re gringo or my husband is wearing these Arnold Schwarzenegger cyborg sunglasses, bald head, muscle shirt, I just assumed that that was why, but these people thought he was going to punch them! At the Farmers’ Market, to children selling melons, I mean, it was just awful! They were probably so happy we left the mountains and moved to the beach. So yeah, I get in trouble like that a lot but I’m learning. But like I said, it made me a better person, a kinder person. Now, I understand what people go through when they move to a country; they need help and you know what they need? People just to be nice to them because that’s what I needed. What they did here for me when I couldn’t understand something, a total stranger who didn’t understand English, would just stand next to me and call a friend who did.
They would hand me the phone to translate, I mean it’s so nice, the people here are just so incredibly nice.
So, you’re living a great lifestyle. People should read the book to find all the different pros and cons of living in Costa Rica, as you don’t hold back, but you also tell the nice stuff as well as the warts and all. You’re living an incredible active life now and a very healthy lifestyle, Rob has lost lots of weight, and he’s not having stomach trouble anymore?
No, he is doing great, yeah.
How much weight has he lost?
Around 40 pounds!
Wow! So your lifestyle has completely changed and you’re more relaxed with each other and having lots of fun. So yeah, you’re living the dream – you’re living retirement in your 30s. Can I ask you, you’re not working there, so are you living off the savings and what you sold off, like the fish tank?!
Yeah, the fish tank money! When we moved here we didn’t have enough money for a lifetime, we knew that, so we said okay, if we can live on $1,000 a month we can probably do like seven years maybe to squeeze out more, we need to figure out something but you know we knew we couldn’t figure it out then, it would have to be with our feet on the ground before we thought of a business or you know anything like that, we didn’t want to jump the gun on anything. So, what happened though, was the book! I just wrote these funny stories down because it’s just ridiculous what my husband gets me into, honest to God, it’s really … I love his can-do attitude, but he puts me in predicaments that are just unreasonable! So after these crazy things I’d go home and write these stories and when I put the book up for sale and CNN picked it up and then that was it … and so I found my business.
Fantastic! So, have you always been a writer or is this just something new, like is it just because you started writing blogs about your everyday life?
I always enjoyed writing and I’d always write little stories. This experience was … you just had to write, you know, you just had to sit down and write it. I mean I would wake up in the middle of the night and jot down things because I just felt like it was too good of a story not to share with people or too ridiculous of a story not to share.
Yeah, and also your humour comes through and you tell the story very eloquently, so it’s just a brilliant read. So you’ve written one book and then you wrote a sequel, so are you working on number three? I hope so!
Yes, I’m writing The Escape Manual – it’s the ‘how-to’ since my books are funny narratives which tell you a little bit on how to go about moving to Costa Rica. But a lot of people email me with very specific questions about residency, buying a car, getting a driver’s license … very specific things, so I said well, it will be fun to write it. Of course, in a humorous way not a typical travel book and it’s coming along and it will be out this year. I’m excited about it because it gives a lot more in-depth information about the country with the usual twist of funny stories.
Nadine, it was lovely talking to you and thank you so much and I look forward to talking to you again when the new book is out.
Thank you so much, Rosie, it’s been a lot of fun.
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