As winter begins to extend a frigid hand over Canada, Karen Ann, 53, and Eric Miles, 54, will be whiling away their days in Panama, where the temperature is 30 all year round, and there's never any snow to shovel.
On a typical day, the couple get up with the sun. Ms. Miles works out, while Mr. Miles watches the news or reads. "I make us a smoothie with all the fresh produce we have available," says Ms. Miles, who blogs about their life in "da campo" (countryside) at indacampo.wordpress.com.
Then they're free to garden, walk the beach, boogie board, hit the beach club for various activities or volunteer with a local charity. They take Spanish lessons Friday and Monday, "to book-end the weekend," and there's live music twice weekly at a local bar, where the beer sells for $2 (expensive by local standards).
The Miles are among a growing number of Canadians who've decided to ditch their snow shovels and look beyond the United States for a place where the sun always shines. The main driver: a chance to live the good life – at a discount.
The Miles began to look for a place in which to retire in 2012, at the end of one of Ottawa's blustery, cold winters. They ruled out the United States, largely because they couldn't stay year round. And when they looked at warmer locales in Canada, they were "out of our budget." The couple live on Mr. Miles's government pension, accumulated through 30 years as a non-commissioned officer in the military, while Ms. Miles worked in administration and raised their three kids.
They explored their options using a spreadsheet. The categories included cost of living, housing prices, ease of access to Canada (where the Miles's adult children and elderly parents live), infrastructure, climate, crime rates and proximity to beaches.
Although the couple initially leaned toward the South Pacific, they rejected it, largely because "we decided that we didn't want to go through 24 hours plus of travel if anything were to happen to our children or parents," says Ms. Miles. Their best bets, they concluded, were Panama and Nicaragua. And after a visit to both countries, Panama easily won out.
Douglas Gray, the author of The Canadian Snowbird Guide, commends the Miles's detail-oriented approach to choosing a place to live. Explore your options, he advises, before taking the leap into ex-pat living. That means doing some research – together if you're a couple – before you ever set foot in a country.
Mr. Gray suggests you spend at least three months renting in your preferred location before buying property. "A lot of Canadians who retire outside Canada full-time are surprised at the cultural isolation that they experience," he says. "That can make the adjustment to retirement even more difficult."
Access to health care can be a factor, too. You'll want to know whether health care facilities are nearby and adequate, and whether you can afford them.
The Miles were lucky. "Because my husband was a public servant, we carried supplemental insurance through the government health care plan in addition to our provincial health care," says Ms. Miles. "We were able to convert our supplemental plan for health care coverage overseas for $135 per month." Other Canadians must spend thousands a year on supplemental coverage.
Mr. Gray advises consulting a real estate lawyer, rather than a real estate agent, "to get the straight goods" on property ownership laws in your chosen locale. A real estate agent, he points out, has a vested interest in selling you property.
When calculating ownership costs, factor in maintenance, taxes and utilities, and determine whether "you're going to be spending enough time there to justify tying up your money by buying as opposed to renting," Mr. Gray says.
The Miles did not follow that advice. They bought a two-bedroom, 2-1/2-bathroom house for $125,500 (U.S.) and began the residency process immediately. Was it a mistake?
Ms. Miles admits that they sometimes look back and wonder that they "didn't turn tail and leave in the first six months." Everything, she says, is "done so differently here."
But they've settled in now and they love "the easy pace, the people and the weather." What's more, they're able to enjoy a quality of life they'd have been hard-pressed to afford back home in Canada.
The Miles got a 12-year dispensation from paying property tax, but when they do start to pay, it will amount to a paltry $240 a year. Their clothing allowance is low, too. "Living in shorts, tank tops and flip-flops is pretty cheap," says Ms. Miles.
Lunch out at a local restaurant sets them back less than $4 for a large portion of rice with a pork chop in mushroom-wine sauce and a can of pop.
"No place is 100-per-cent perfect," muses Ms. Miles. "Do we miss our friends and family? Yes, pretty much every day."
But after years of being parted intermittently – Mr. Miles did six tours of duty overseas – the Miles are happy to have concentrated time together. Says Ms. Miles: "We're thankful that we are able to realize this adventure."