Comparing Life in the US with Life in Mexico After Living in Mexico for Two Years
They were big, open questions— the “elephant in the room,” the large, unavoidable thing I was a bit afraid to confront honestly and directly.
The background is that I was born and raised in the US, where I spent almost all of my 59 years before, two years ago, moving to Mexico. The elephant was these series of questions: After these two years, how would I respond upon returning to the US to visit and retrieve our household goods to bring down to Mexico? Would I find life in the US so much superior by comparison that I would be unhappy in Mexico? Would I even decide that moving to Mexico was a mistake and decide to move back to the US?
Life is too short to live a lie (especially when you’re 61 years old— I've done the math), so I resolved that, whatever happened, I would respond honestly.
It was with this trepidation that my wife and I boarded the plane in Mexico for Tucson, Arizona. We had lived near Tucson for 12 years before selling, giving away or putting into storage everything we owned that couldn’t fit into a big white van, and with two dogs, launching upon a grand adventure and experiment—we would drive through Mexico to visit the most popular expat destinations, to see if we liked it. Our trip through Mexico was amazing (see: "Our Year on the Road & Living in Mexico," available for free download), but a long trip is not the same as day-to-day living. After our road trip was over, for more than the last year, we had settled in one place in Mexico, living a stationary, day-to-day life much as we would in the US.
So now we could compare.
The airport in Tucson was very nice, not unlike the airport we had just left in Mexico. The area around the Tucson Airport and where we took the Uber to pick up our U-Haul, quite frankly, is pretty seedy by most any standard, so I certainly didn’t yearn to live in that part of town.
However, arriving at the vacation rental in the very pre-planned community about 25 miles from the airport and near where we lived in Oro Valley was quite a bit different experience than being in Mexico. Like many other pre-planned communities in the US, it had broad, perfectly maintained streets, and what very little traffic it had was extremely orderly. I’ll have to admit that it was a struggle to change the habits I had developed in two years of driving in Mexico (see: “Tips and Observations About Driving Through Baja California, and the Release of Your ‘Inner Mexican’”) to view stop signs and traffic lights as commands, rather than off-handed suggestions. Constantly reminding myself of how much it would cost me if I got a ticket, both in terms of time and money, I forced myself to trade the “barely slow down ‘rolling stop’” I had perfected in Mexico for the “full, count two seconds before proceeding stop” they taught us all in Drivers Training.
After finding our vacation rental, I searched for a way to remember where it was. With eyes after two years living in Mexico accustomed to the wild and often chaotic diversity of buildings, houses, streets and landscaping one lives in there (not to mention smells and sounds), in this part of Arizona, every cluster of buildings looked absolutely identical to me, with absolutely no discernable characteristics. Luckily, we had two vehicles, so we could keep one outside to mark the entrance to our vacation rental. Other than that, for any organism other than a carrier pigeon or a salmon returning its ancestral home, it would have been nearly impossible to distinguish one building from another.
The next morning, I took an early walk, to check out the neighborhood. Again, I experienced the same mind-numbing monotony. Everywhere I looked, I saw the same purplish rocks, the same house and building color, the same architecture, the same plants arranged in the same landscaping. It was like a Chinese water torture of sameness. From my new, Mexico-influenced perspective, it was stunning, and frankly, I didn’t like it. In a phrase, it was “agitatingly boring” —like being inserted into the land of pod people in “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”. I could almost imagine one of these Oro-Valley Arizona residents coming up to me and pointing me out with that terrifying screech they used in the movie.
However, unlike most places in Mexico, there was zero trash (and I mean, zero), the roads were impeccable, there were no stray dogs, no horses, no burros or cows, very little density, no street vendors selling food or those in cars hawking gas, and, from a Mexico perspective, an absence in the air of an appreciable amount smells or sounds.
We had visited the Arizona Wal-Mart the night before to stock up. Along with a side trip to Trader Joe's, my wife Jet hungrily stocked up on products she either couldn’t get in Mexico, or were too expensive, like Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, kosher dill pickles, apple, pecan and peach pies, and chocolate. Other than these types of items, the prices were interesting. Some were lower than in Mexico, while others were higher. On average, leaving out the “only reasonably available in the US” items, we probably paid about 20% more in the US for comparable items we could buy at our Mexico Wal-Mart, while Jet assured me that if we had gone to the 99 Cents Only Store, the prices for many items would be much less in Mexico.
Shopping for home goods (not coincidentally at the store named “Home Goods”) was a delight for Jet, a particular emotion attached to shopping she hadn’t felt in Mexico. While Mexico does have very good prices on Mexican-manufactured and Mexican-style home goods, it either has very high prices on everything else, or they’re just not available at all. Jet also found the same thing shopping for clothing in places other than Wal-Mart but below Neiman Marcus (think Ross, TJ-Max, etc.)— the big advantage goes to the US.
In thinking about this, it became clearer to me why I used to see so many Mexican nationals driving across the border to Tucson to do their shopping. The parking lot at the Tucson mall is filled with license plates from the Mexican state of Sonora. Also, I don’t consider it any coincidence that the Cielo Vista mall in El Paso, Texas (next to where we later drove to deliver our car) is located what seems to be about a 10 minute light jog from the border with the Mexican city of Juarez. Just like Jet, Mexican nationals who can afford it are drawn as if by gravitational force to US retail.
After a morning of giddy shipping, we arrived at a restaurant we used to go to often when we lived in Arizona. Even though I was mentally prepared for it, emotionally, receiving the bill was still shocking… and I must admit, not in any way pleasant. Also, unlike the charge for restaurants in Mexico, in Arizona, diners are treated to another unwelcomed event—sales tax. It’s 8.6% in Arizona but included in the total you see on the menu in Mexico, so the total, without tip, for our very modest meal was about $18. In Mexico, it would have been slightly less than half of that amount. When you’re the one paying for it, restaurant food tastes much better when it’s more than half off.
In the past, it could have been said that the only way you could directly enjoy US media culture would be to live in the US, but this is no longer the case. In Mexico, I can and do listen to US radio stations and watch US TV. The difference, of course, is the cost. In the US, a company I really didn’t like (OK, I'll say it: Comcast) charged us around $185 per month for 10 Mbps Internet, phone, and a very moderate selection of TV channels. Here in Mexico, I pay about $30 for Internet, use my cell phone, and get our TV on-line. Like food, watching TV is just a better experience when you pay so much less, and unlike in the US, in Mexico I don’t have to spend two hours on the phone every six months arguing with Comcast when they raise my bill due to the most recent “promotion expiration” I had “negotiated” six months earlier.
While I’m on the topic of costs, I should mention that the one-way flight from our airport in Mexico to Tucson was $170, while the flight from Juarez, Mexico (just over the border from El Paso and about the same distance to our home in Mexico as Tucson) to our airport in Mexico was an almost unbelievable $37. I had to check the price several times before giving my credit card number, with almost the same unbridled, giddy joy that Jet experiences when she walks into Home Goods, but for entirely different reasons.
I recognize that I’ve talked a lot about costs and that low costs alone are not enough of a reason for anybody to move. If you hate where you’re living but are paying less for it, that’s not a good choice. As I wrote above, life is too short for that. However, at least for me, lower costs lead to all sorts of other happy circumstances, and a significant lifestyle upgrade that we see expats enjoying every day in Mexico. It’s really nice.
If this lower cost (it’s like having a coupon for 60% off on life) would be enough for you would depend in large part on if you have unlimited funds and if you are the one paying the bills. The person who trades part of his or her life to earn money (i.e., working) to pay for things will generally have a different attitude towards the lifestyle importance of a significantly lower cost of living than one who isn't. With no cost constraints, I would probably prefer to live in a place like Maui or Monaco, but I live in the real world—the one with constraints and trade-offs. (Maybe you do, too.)
Life is just so much better when you know that you can easily afford a lifestyle you really like. You’re not worried, or as they say in Spanish, you’re not “preocuparse”; you’re not “pre-occupied.” You can live life in the moment.
I can’t say that I missed that much in the US, but as they say at the end of all those advertisements for investments: your results may vary. Are there things that I don’t like about living in Mexico? You bet. The electricity goes out more often, as does the Internet. Except for downtown areas in the US, in Mexico, there is generally more trash around, as well as poorly cared for dogs. And there are other things. I made a list of them in “The Top 7 Worst Things About Living in Mexico”. And for some people, any of those things may be enough to keep them in the US or Canada.
One of the things that occurred to me on our trip back to the US is that, all other things being equal, as one gets used to the routine of a new place, stress goes down, thereby providing emotional room for enjoyment and appreciation. The longer you live in a place, the easier living there becomes, sort of like breaking in a new pair of shoes. At the end of a year, we had developed a routine and knowledge about how to live where we were in Mexico, so our metaphorical shoes were nice and comfortable.
One of the main stressors of being in a new place is having to think through even the littlest things—where is the light switch, where are the items I want to buy at the supermarket, etc. After a year in Mexico, we knew where the light switches were, and we knew exactly where the goods we wanted were located at the local Wal-Mart and all the other little family-run businesses that are so much fun to visit. We also knew where to get our sewing done, where the best restaurants were, how to get the water to work properly and that we could trust our housekeepers and gardeners. After a year or so in Mexico (or in any new place, in the US or anywhere else), these questions are largely answered, so we could stop thinking about them… and relax and enjoy ourselves.
And speaking of relaxing and enjoying ourselves, within the first week of our return to Mexico, my wife and I enjoyed:
- One-hour physical therapy: $35
- One-hour session at the podiatrist: $12.50
- Very clean house, organized just like we like it (it takes a while to work with your housekeeper, and ours do a GREAT job, to the extent of lining up by size all the items in the bathrooms; nice touch): $2.50 per hour
- Very manicured garden (like housekeepers, it takes a while to get your gardener to know what you want, and ours now does): $3.00 per hour
- Haircut (for which I overpay, but… she does exactly what I want): $6. (If I were near Puerto Vallarta in Lo de Marcos like on our road trip, I could repeat my experience of getting a very good haircut for $2.76. You can see the YouTube here.)
- One-hour facial: $17.50 (dermabrasion included)
- Free exercise classes (our neighborhood subdivision provides them)
- 72 – 85-degree weather (it was 100 when we were in Arizona and in the high 90s in New Mexico and Texas)
- Breakfast buffet on the lake, complete with waiters and white tablecloths: $6.50
- Timing belt replaced on the car we brought back from the States that would have cost over $1,100 to fix there, fixed here for about $200.
- Health insurance premiums of about $800 per month less than in the US.
To those who look at that list and accuse me of being shallow, I plead… guilty, but with this proviso: all these things I mentioned serve to reduce stress and increase a sense of well-being, so that, if you are a much deeper person than you would suspect I am from looking at my list, you would have the time, the money, and the attitude to pursue those more meaningful activities. This is a big deal.
On a personal level, I must tell you that I missed the friends we had made in Mexico, so it was good to see them again.
It was also great to see our dogs and the happy faces our housekeepers graced and rewarded us with when Jet gave them the gifts we got for them in the US, which is priceless.
Back in Mexico there is a guard named Narciso whose job it is to ask for your membership card upon entering the club in our subdivision where I go to work out or play tennis (all included in the rent at no extra charge- ha ha ha). I have gone so often that he knows me on sight and therefore, I don’t have to show my card every time. The first time back from our trip to the US, I walked up as I normally do.
“Buenos dias, Narciso.”
“Hola, Senor Chuck,” he said heartily, just like he always does, smiling broadly and waving me through. “Pasale (go on in).”
The water aerobics class was about to start, and my friends were already in the pool.
I was home.
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