The 1% Rule when Meeting Other Expats Abroad

Meeting Other Expats Abroad – What’s the Reality?

When it comes to meeting other expats, many people think that they will make friends easily when they move abroad. I mean, we’re all expats, right? That’s a big thing to have in common! But when meeting other expats abroad, the reality is that the 1% rule governs.

What is the 1% Rule?

The 1% rule is a law of averages I’ve come up with to make sense of what my personal experience of living abroad in Costa Rica and in Panama for the past ten years. My experiences – and those of other expats who I’ve interviewed and known as friends and co-workers – leads me to believe this rule applies to expats as people…not to expats living in a particular location.

The 1% Rule is numbers driven. (Accountants and Mathemeticians,rejoice!) Let’s use the United States as our backdrop for this post, since it’s my home country.

Why the Rule is Called “1%”

The U.S. has 350 million citizens. Of those, 46% hold passports for international travel. In 2016, just 19% of U.S. citizens traveled abroad. But how many of those travelers venture out further and make the decision to actually move abroad?

While the diagram below gives a fun breakdown by Internations published in 2016 of what the average U.S. expat looks like, there are no firm numbers of how many U.S. citizens actually live outside the U.S., only estimates.

Expat Statistics on US Americans Abroad — infographic


Estimates of how many U.S. expats live abroad range from two to seven million. Hmm…that’s a pretty big range!

So back to our 1% Rule for Meeting Other Expats Abroad equation.

Let’s assume – since there are no firm numbers – that five million U.S. citizens live abroad. Five million of 350 million equates to 1.4% of the total U.S. population.

This 1.4% is why I named this Meeting Other Expats rule, “The 1% Rule”. I assume that this number is more or less going to be the case for most other countries (not taking into account those that are war-torn).

Let’s Keep Breaking It Down

Keeping the 1.4% in mind, consider Costa Rica and Panama – where I’ve resided full-time for the past ten years. Estimates in Panama for U.S. citizens in 2012 were around 20,000. In Costa Rica, according to the U.S. State Department in 2013, U.S. citizens in Costa Rica totaled 50,000, though only 12,000 held legal residency visas. (I have yet to see more recent statistics reported online to date.)

(Side note: I’ll do another post soon on legal residency in Costa Rica.)

Back to our numbers – let’s estimate 70,000 U.S. expats live between Costa Rica and Panama. When you split that number across all the little retirement towns along the Pacific coast and between the two capital cities in the two countries, 70,000 expats is really not that many. Yes, you’ll run into more expats from the U.S. and Canada than those from other countries, most likely, but even so, 70,000 is the size of the town I grew up in. It’s not that big.

Applying the 1% Rule when Meeting Other Expats Abroad

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It’s exciting to meet other expats abroad, but it’s wise to take your time in getting to know them.

Now remember, when you live abroad, you’re not just living with other expats from your country of origin. Our tiny coastal community of Costa Ballena in South Pacific Costa Rica is comprised of expats from around the world – Argentina, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Scotland, Spain….you get the picture. It’s colorful and it’s fun to have this much diversity, much less the local Costa Rican nationals!

So, assume that 1% of all the countries in the world are those that you will meet abroad.

Now, consider your city or state back home, wherever that might be, and think of it like this: when you live in your country of origin (the U.S., in our example), you have the entire diverse population of your citizenry around you. And from that pool of different personalities and backgrounds and sub-cultures within your own country, you select your friends from within your community. But even within your own community, you don’t get along with every one, do you? Nope. There are lots of people in your own home town or state or province that you would never choose to fraternize with.

Can’t We All Just Get Along? Well, Maybe…

Keeping that in mind….here’s the bottom line. You cannot expect that just because you meet other expats in your new country that you’re going to like them or that you’re going to have anything in common with them.

In fact, often, it’s just the opposite. Remember that guy at your old job back home that bugged the living sh#t out of you with his stupid jokes? Or the gal in your church who was always skating the line between legal and illegal with her business? Or the Peeping Tom in your community with a window washing company who got caught?

Yep. You’ll find those same kinds of characters here – whether Panama, Costa Rica, New Zealand or Timbuktu. You’ll encounter top of the line and bottom of the barrel folks and the truth is you’re just not gonna gel with everyone.

Why Can’t We Be Friends, Fellow Expats?

Let’s break down the final equation.

Every time I now meet an expat – no matter where they hail from, whether U.S. or not – I keep the 1% Rule in mind. I know that they too come from the 1% of “those who moved abroad” from their home country.

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What fun it is to connect with other expats until you realize that something about their story doesn’t feel right…

I then expect that 50% of all the people I meet will be people I have zero interest in socializing with.

Because these people will be living abroad for a reason that doesn’t jive with my values – maybe they’re running from the law, maybe they’re evading taxes, maybe they’re just living abroad illegally, who knows. It doesn’t really matter. The law of averages bears out such that I know that one out of two expats I meet is someone that I’ll say, “Hmm. Okay. Nope. Next.” (And by the way, this is not conjecture…this is not real….I’ve met these people – over and over and over again.)

Of the remaining 50% (of that original 1%), half of those people will be the characters I referenced above – the ones I would never have anything to do with if I met them in my home town. So why would I want to socialize with them here? Bottom line, I probably won’t, though I might on occasion if we’re in a larger social setting. (Except the Peeping Tom guy….assuming I figured that one out…ewww.)

The reality of living abroad is that the expat circle from which you select your friends – whether they turn into close ones or have-a-drink-with ones – is much smaller than the pool you had to choose from when you lived back home.

But don’t forget the remaining 25% (of the 1%)! Now, THESE are my people! Yahoo! They are fun, adventurous, open minded, interesting, educated and savvy. And this is where my social circle forms. And it’s probably where yours will too.

If you think about it, 25% of 1% is one of four, right? Those numbers are pretty good, aren’t they?

Expat Life in Costa Rica: It’s Paradise, but It Ain’t Perfect

Now you can be sure, as soon as I put this post up, I’ll hear it: Hey, JuliAnne, you’re being way too negative.

But this stuff is truth, my dear readers.

Keep in mind, I’ve lived abroad – as a corporate executive and now as an entrepreneur – for ten years.

So, this is not about slamming anyone or making stuff up.

This is REAL EXPAT LIFE, people. And I choose to share it – the good, the bad and the ugly – so that other future expats like you have a bit of a leg up on knowing what it’s really like.

With these morsels of shared experiences, perhaps you can avoid some of the heartache I and many others like me had along the way because of unrealistic expectations.

Because at the end of the day, it’s your expectations which will make you sink or swim as an expat living aboard, no matter where you are.

So, pack your bags, get out there, shake some hands, throw back some cocktails (or a freshly-squeezed Costa Rica fruit juice) – it’s so much fun once you find your 25%! And, believe you me, they’re waiting for you too!

Want more insider input on Expat Life in Costa Rica?

Some other recent articles.

Expat Interview with a Recent Retiree to Costa Rica

The 101 on Buying Real Estate in Costa Rica

If you’re interested in Costa Rica real estate for sale in Costa Ballena including Dominical, Uvita, Ojochal and Tres Rios along the South Pacific coast, my husband and I own South Pacific Costa Rica Real Estate.

We recently published an article on Five Things You Need to Ask Before You Buy in Costa Rica. If that’s of interest, sign up and you can download that report for free (on the link in the line above)! It’s relevant no matter where you buy in Costa Rica.

Until next time, Pura Vida, and good luck to you as you start your new life as an expat abroad!

How to Retire in Costa Rica: Expat Alexis Cress

How to Retire in Costa Rica – Expat Interview with Alexis Cress, Part II

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Alexis is certified to teach Vinyasa yoga, which she does 2-4 days a week in Costa Rica.

Many of you who read this blog are interested in, most often, how to retire in Costa Rica. Expat Alexis Cress hails originally from Minnesota, and she and her husband recently retired here to Costa Rica’s South Pacific coast. We met and talked in early January, and you can see Part I of this interview here. Part II, which follows, will share more from Alexis’s perspective about finding social connections, her love for teaching yoga, the surprises she’s found since moving to Costa Rica, and recommendations she makes to people looking at how to retire in Costa Rica.

Finding Social Connections as a New Expat in Costa Rica

Costa RIca sunset, La Pura Vida Costa Rica, JuliAnne Murphy, Costa Ballena Costa Rica, Ballena Coast sunset
In Costa RIca, the Pura Vida life does allow you to catch plenty of sunsets.

JuliAnne: Alexis, retiring to Costa Rica means you’ve essentially left all your old friends back at home behind. A common complaint I hear often – especially from women – is that they have problems finding and making friends, once they are here. What’s your experience with that so far?

Alexis: I’m an introvert so I need to make myself get connected. So for me, I’m finally at the point – 18 months after we moved here full-time in June 2015 – when I have the chance to get connected because we’ve been so busy.  I think for introverts it can be a challenge here, because you can get isolated. And I think, you have to make an effort to go out. In rainy season, I don’t like to go out after a certain time due to the rain because the roads can be dangerous and visibility can be challenging.

JuliAnne: Your home is here on the side of the mountain, which offers beautiful views, but I imagine you have to plan your outings. It’s not like you are down the street from 7-11 or from the hardware store. You’re a good 20 minutes up the hillside from the town below, correct?

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Want to know how to retire in Costa RIca? Alexis and Leo did it in 2015.

Alexis: Yes. We chose to build on the edge of town, not in town, so that does have its own challenges.

JuliAnne: You don’t have a ton of neighbors from what I can see.

Alexis: Actually, we do have a handful, and we’ve become acquainted with all of them. Most of them also hail from Canada or the U.S., and we’ve gotten to know their Tico caretakers, as well. We all help each other out. I don’t ever feel isolated, really, because I know all these people are within arm’s reach if needed.

JuliAnne: What about making friends and social connections?

Alexis: I do a lot of stuff with women. There’s a ladies’ luncheon here in town every two weeks that I attend. Plus, I teach yoga two to four times a week, depending on the season. My hubby, however, is more of a homebody, so we don’t do out a lot of socializing outside our home as a couple.

Vinyasa Yoga Classes with a View in Ojochal, Costa Rica

La Pura Vida Costa Rica expat blog
Alexis built her own yoga studio on their property in Costa Rica on the side of a mountain.

JuliAnne: Tell me more about your yoga practice. We’re sitting in this beautiful wood and steel pavilion here that you built on your property. It’s stunning with the views both the ocean and the rainforest. I can imagine it’s a really unique experience to practice up here.

Alexis: I taught a lot of yoga in the U.S. (I am a registered 200-hour yoga instructor.) I’m also certified in Mindfulness Meditation. I have taught yoga for three years now and I love it! I love teaching. I used to be a triathlete and a marathoner. I’m also certified in Yoga Sculpt. I’m really into fitness, so all of that has evolved into a way for me to share that passion with others – getting the meditation in, as well – plus it’s great for me in my own spiritual practice.

JuliAnne: Tell me more about the local yoga classes that you offer.

Alexis: I started initially at Bali Rica in August 2015 teaching one morning a week. Here, in my own studio, I teach yoga on Tuesday mornings. Everyone is welcome to come to my classes; they are designed for all levels. In the future, I’m thinking of offering some special events on special topics here in my open-air studio.

JuliAnne: What can one expect to pay for one of your yoga classes?

Alexis: If the class takes place here in my studio, the person may make a donation for the class. All that money goes to charity here in the community. For classes at Bali Rica, I offer packages for multiple classes, or a drop-in costs $10.

The Surprises Alexis found when she moved to Costa Rica

JuliAnne: The donation class is a great option for retirees on a fixed income or people that live on a budget. I like that. Alexis, there’s always a few things that can never be anticipated before one moves abroad. Since this is your first experience in that, tell me what was surprising about moving to this part of Costa Rica for you and Leo?

La Pura Vida Costa Rica expat lifestyle blog
Another shot of Alexis’ home yoga studio in Costa Rica with the sun setting behind.

Alexis: There have been a few surprises we weren’t prepared for, I’ll admit.

  • For starters, I miss the ability to go down to the corner store to get what I need; there’s a lot of planning that goes into living here. The grocery is 30 minutes away.
  • Also, the famed Pura Vida lifestyle. It’s been a big adjustment for us. A good one! But, I have had to learn how to “go with the flow” a lot more here than I did ever did back in Minnesota.
  • The starting over in establishing a girlfriend network can be tough. I miss my girlfriends back in Minnesota so much. Even though we didn’t see each other that often – just once a month probably – just knowing that I could see them if I needed to was comforting. That feeling is a lot different here than I anticipated.
  • I love to run outside. In Minnesota, I did that a lot. But here, with roads constructed of mountain rock that gets either very dusty or very muddy, that can be a challenge (at the minimum) or even dangerous (when they are slick). So, I miss that.

Three Recommendations for New Expats Moving to Costa Rica

JuliAnne: Thank you for sharing those things, Alexis. All of those are significant changes, most of which new expats never think about. Now that you and Leo are 18 months into your Costa Rica retirement, what three recommendations would you make to new expats considering such a move?

La Pura Vida Costa Rica lifestyle blog by author JuliAnne Murphy
Alexis is a former Certified Financial Planner who retired with her husband to Costa Rica’s South Pacific coast

Alexis: First, I would say rent for a long time. Some recommend that when you are new, you should rent for two years; I would say rent for at least a year, if you know the area you’re interested in. During that time period, you will find out what it’s really like to live there, and if it’s the place you think it will be.

That was what we were planning on doing, but I was itching to buy. We looked at so many homes around here and could not find what we wanted that it was discouraging. So then we started thinking about lots. When we found this lot where we’re sitting, we fell in love with it. But, that said, it would not have hurt to have waited a year.

JuliAnne: It’s a common to mistake to fall in love with an area and to move lock, stock and barrel and then discover you really didn’t know what you were getting into. What you said makes a ton of sense. What else?

Alexis: One really big surprise to us was the cost of living and how expensive it is to live in Costa Rica. We could not find a lot of research here on cost of living data before we moved. We’re spending a lot less on food here (though we’re not meat eaters; we eat vegetables, beans, rice, etc. so the cost of food is not so bad for us.) But all the car stuff – the car purchase, the car maintenance, the gas, the auto parts – living in the area with the dirt roads and the mud and the 4 x 4 and ongoing dangers plays into all of those ongoing bills in a big way.

JuliAnne: Agreed. The cost of personal transportation here in Costa Rica is much higher than in many other countries. Buying a car here by itself normally costs about double of what you would pay in Panama or Nicaragua because of the taxes alone.

Alexis: Third, I recommend that new people get join the community forums or Facebook pages for the area they are interested in and check in often to see what’s really happening. People are very honest, most of the time, in these forums, and you can learn a lot.

JuliAnne: A good idea, to be sure. Most future expats who contact me are always hoping to connect with more established expats to ask questions and so forth.

Alexis: Fourth, living in a rural area like here along the South Pacific coast, it’s really important to speak Spanish. If possible, learn as much as you can prior to your move. I am taking Spanish lessons now and beginning to get a feel for the language. This seems to be much more important along the coast than in the more developed areas around San Jose, the capitol.

JuliAnne: I don’t think enough can be said about the important of learning some Spanish before you relocate to or retire in Costa Rica. So many expats – especially those from the U.S. – come and assume they can make it and be happy without any language skills. This is simply very difficult to do.

Finding Happiness in Costa Rica

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Alexis is seated here on one of Costa Ballena’s gorgeous beaches. How does it get any better?

JuliAnne: On a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being very satisfied, how would you rate your happiness level at this point with your retirement in Costa Rica?

Alexis: I would say I’m at an 8 overall. Adjusting – as I described – is a big part of living here, especially at first. There are a lot of healing modalities and providers in Costa Rica (such as alternative medicine providers: acupuncture, massage, reiki, chiropractors, etc.) – especially in the Costa Ballena area that have been very helpful to me personally, as we’ve gotten settled. That has been a huge gift and has made the transition easier.

JuliAnne: Alexis, thank you again for your openness, your transparency and your willingness to share with me and the La Pura Vida Costa Rica readership about your move to Costa Rica and your experience so far. And, most of all, congratulations on your new home and your land! You’ve created a beautiful space here!

Alexis: Thank you, JuliAnne. We love our new space and all of the nature that goes with it – it’s gorgeous. We’re very happy with it. It was a pleasure to chat with you.

For more on Alexis, visit her website.

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