10 YEARS OF EXPAT LIFE: COST OF LIVING PART 1

 I retired on April 1, 2014. Cathey and I boarded a plane at JFK on April 15th with four suitcases and two cats, determined to become lifetime residents of France. In the intervening 10 years, we have been back to the Colonies a total of five times - twice for me, three times for Cathey. Only for REALLY important stuff. 

Don't get me wrong. I'm American and I say so with relative ease and pride. But we've chosen to live in France. Chosen. Macron is my President.

SPOILER: Not a single regret. Not. One.

COST OF LIVING

From buying groceries to eating out, from going to concerts to partying with friends, what does it cost to live a satisfying retirement life in a small village in the rural southwest of France? You may be surprised to learn that an income equivalent to two average Social Security Retirement checks monthly is sufficient. (The average SSR check, which can be direct deposited to your French bank account, is currently just over $1,900 per person monthly.) 

Remember that legal residents in France get 70% of most of their healthcare costs either provided freely or reimbursed. (The French consider healthcare a human right. What a concept.) There might be what are called social charges to pay, a percentage of income to pay for the healthcare and other socialized services. But those charges at their very most would be a small percentage of your taxable income above a generous floor, can be offset by US taxes (which are credited against any French charges), and your Social Security Retirement income is not considered taxable income in France. 

The point of all of this is that, assuming you have a home and a car free and clear or loans that consume only a small percentage of your monthlies, and assuming the two SSR incomes, retirement life here can be rewarding. More income is better. Of course. Less is possible, but not an easy road.

Your experience may differ. Different folks live different lives.

HOUSING 

If you take the cost of healthcare off the table and if the tax burden is minimal, what's left is housing, transportation, food and entertainment. 

First, there's the problem of a bank account. There are people that I know who work entirely through their plastic from Wise (formerly TransferWise). But a bank account makes things so much easier. It's France, though. You can't get a bank account without a house and you can't get a house without a bank account. As digital as France has become (I have fiber and 5G.), it's still France. Patience and, depending on your circumstances, professional help may be required to establish a working relationship with French bureaucratic culture. But what can be done will get done eventually given unfailingly polite but insistent determination. 

If you are reading this, you have some personal interest in moving to France. My suggestion is to carefully research the region of France that most seems to suit your requirements. Must you be near snow skiing or ocean sailing? Can you stand Mediterranean summer heat in order to be free of winter frost? France spans from the Med to the Atlantic, from the Pyrenees to the Alps. It's northern tip lines up with Brussels. So finding the France that's right for you demands serious investigation. 

What to do if you are certain that you've found just the right place? A number of the websites/blogs will tell you to rent first, for some months at least, and that's not a bad idea. You may have picked a region that really doesn't suit you after all. You may have pegged region correctly but picked the wrong town. At the very least, you'll have a base from which to broaden the scope of your search.

You might also consider a foothold, a relatively inexpensive village house with just enough space to cram your stuff into until you get set and settled, looking for a more suitable landing pad. All of this assumes that you have sold your house in the States that is going to be your nut. Or that you have been prudent in the markets and come to France with a bit of cash in hand. Either way, a foothold gives you more than a base. In some small hamlets, you may be welcomed almost as a celebrity. Or shunned. In some tourist towns, you may become part of a thriving expat community. Or become part of what your neighbors see as a growing problem. Either way, home ownership, particularly in a small village, makes you a part of a community in a way that being a renter does not.

A small foothold with 100 square meters of living space or more that doesn't require extensive remodeling, with a reasonably-sized terrace or courtyard, and with two or three bedrooms and functionally modern plumbing and electrics can cost you 125,000USD, less in the deep sticks far from shopping and services. Count on 175,000USD more or less in our neck of the semi-rural woods when all of the fees are paid and if you want a garage and serious outdoor space. In the most popular places like Aix-en-Provence or Paris, mortgage your firstborn child. (Actually, compared to similarly popular American locations, even Aix is relatively inexpensive. But if you look at what's available within a couple of hour's drive, it's off the charts.) If you choose to jump directly into the fire, a larger house that has a mature garden, a good-sized garage/workshop, a small pool, and is otherwise good to go will sell for 300,000USD if you are lucky and go up quickly from there. In our neck of the woods. At least. Today.

The seller pays the real estate agent, the buyer pays the notaire - the French equivalent in France of a property lawyer and notary. Add anywhere from 5% to 10% depending.

We were fortunate in our house hunting. We found a house that was a bit more than a foothold that met all of our requirements except one that we didn't anticipate - the ravages of old age. Well, maybe that's a bit harsh. The house served us very well for eight years. But the stairways were narrow, steep and winding. Very common in a small, village house in France. What had been a snap for us when we moved in became a burden on our older, less well-lubricated knees later on.

Because we had eight years in the village and had made a surprising number of close, endearing friends, it took a while to find the right place to buy in our small, rural village of under 2,000 souls that would be in our price range and had the proper interior and exterior spaces. Oddly enough, we found just such a house 75 yards from our old place, downhill to make wheelbarrow moving possible...with professional muscle moving the really heavy stuff for us at the end. 

You never know what's beyond the facade of a village house. Often courtyards and terraces are not visible from the street and can be extensive. Look for a side gate wide enough to accommodate a tractor and there's no telling the size of the yard and outbuildings that might be behind that gate.

I have left out our trials finding a bridge loan/mortgage/home loan. Story for another day. Banking is another post entirely.

Your experience may differ. Different folks live different lives.

TRANSPORTATION

France mimics the rest of Europe in that public transportation at almost all levels is safe, reliable and affordable. Ride sharing is popular even over long distances. Check out BlaBla Car. Ride sharing on steroids. Busses and trains go pretty much everywhere and, within about an hour of our house, there are four stations that connect to about all of the country's routes. Short-hop airlines compete with the trains in pricing and time. Yes, you can buy cheap train tickets, There are sales and promotions. But if you are not flexible and need to go from here to there on a schedule, train tickets can be surprisingly expensive. Small airports like the one closest to us are under siege with the government subsidy running to 1,500USD per passenger. But two internationally connected airports are about an hour away and major international hubs are within about three hours.

And yes, the French hitchhike.

But mostly, when we go anywhere, we go by car. And that is getting interesting. More and more cities are banning smelly old diesels. I drive a smelly old diesel. Yes, Ginger is reliable and economical. (I name my cars. Ginger is a bright red station wagon.) But yes, Ginger is old and Ginger is smelly. The way that things are going, in a few years we will have to go gas, hybrid  or electric. Today, 5,000USD to start for a decent older used car. 10,000USD for something newer and more reliable. Some folks lease. New car prices are new car prices. Whatever, you have to factor that cost into your budget. 


I love my old diesel. Ginger is comfortable, reliable, and gets the equivalent of 42 MPG. Given the price of fuel in France, diesel costing the equivalent of 5.67USD or so, you need that level of fuel efficiency.

Your experience may differ. Different folks live different lives.


FOOD, BANKING AND MORE

That's PART 2. Internet. Grocery stores. Restaurants. Concerts. Wine! Lots to talk about.



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