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Upgrade: How this couple retired to the gorgeous Spanish countryside for about $40,000 a year — and you can, too

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Jim and Jiab Wasserman

Jim and Jiab Wasserman

Parades, wine and tapas are high on the Wassermans’ to-do list these days.

Indeed, when I first tried to schedule an interview with the couple — who retired nine months ago in their 50s to Granada, a culturally rich college town in southern Spain, from Dallas — I laughed when they sent me this response: “It’s a big holiday here (Dia de la cruz) with parades and wine and tapas, so we will be ‘engaged’.”

Festivities like these — as well as a rich history (Granada boasts hundreds of centuries-old buildings, castles and churches, most notably Alhambra, a breathtaking palace with Islamic decor that’s a UNESCO World Heritage site) and lots of cultural offerings like a plethora of live music and flamenco performances — compelled the couple to move to Granada.

The delicious and affordable, culinary scene didn’t hurt either: “The tapas is included free with the drinks,” 54-year-old Jiab jokes. (It’s one of the only places in Spain that still does that, so you can eat and drink well at a restaurant for about $10 dollars.) Before they retired, Jiab Wasserman was a banker and credit risk manager, and her husband Jim was a lawyer turned economics teacher.

But what sealed the deal was the cost of living in Grenada. They were considering Costa Rica too, but Jiab, a former banker and credit risk manager, and Jim, a former economics teacher, crunched the numbers and realized they could live in Grenada for about the same cost. (More on exactly how Jim and Jiab spend their money each month below.)

So that plus Grenada’s other perks really set it apart for the couple. “We just fell in love with Grenada,” she says. “It’s a really international city, I love its size [250,000 people], it’s really vibrant and we can walk or take the bus everywhere.”

What do you spend each month? In a typical month, the Wassermans spend a little over $2400 (not including travel), they say, with their biggest expense being their 800-square-foot apartment that’s about a 15 minute walk to the city center. They live a frugal lifestyle by doing things like not having a car (they walk or take the bus everywhere), using a cheaper mobile plan (we talked using WhatsApp, they also use Vodaphone), and doing a lot of free or cheap things like free music, public dances in the square or just hanging out with friends. Jiab notes that it helps that groceries here are pretty cheap, and she often makes a meal of the free tapas she gets with her drinks. “We don’t need a lot,” she explains.

Rent (this includes utilities and internet): €1000 (about $1120)
Groceries and household items: €450 (about $505)
Entertainment: €500 (about $560)
The couple goes out for drinks or dinner a few times a week and plays tennis.
Health insurance: €180 (about $200)
If they need a prescription, it is paid for out of pocket but Jim notes that they are very affordable.
Phone: €30 (about $35)
Transportation (mostly buses): €40 (about $45)

The couple also has some miscellaneous other expenses every now and then like the occasional event or buying hiking gear. “Funnily enough, one of our biggest add-ons is stuff related to our two cats, who dislike Spanish litter and hate Spanish cat food, so we go to a particular store to get American stuff,” Jim says.

What’s your biggest splurge? Both agree that it’s travel, but they try to do it as cheaply as possible. Last year, they went to Asia — Jiab is from Thailand — but paid for the flights with credit card points and then mostly stayed with family. This month they went to Madrid, but took the bus there. They go back to the States about twice a year, and though they rent out their Dallas townhouse their to their son’s friend, he’s agreed to let them stay in the spare room when they come back. The couple say they’ve spent about $14,000 in the last year on travel, which included five international trips and monthly trips to different cities in Spain (which typically run about €50 – 75 a day).

Jim and Jiab Wasserman

Jim and Jiab Wasserman

How did you save up to retire early (the Wassermans are both in their 50s)? “We lived way below our means — we didn’t starve, we took family vacations — but we just practiced cutting corners whenever we could,” says Jim.

Though they lived in a good school district (the couple has two sons who are now 22 and 23), they lived in a very modest home and didn’t do things to it like renovate the dated kitchen (“I didn’t need shiny new floors, I like old fashioned cabinets — we didn’t go for the upgrades,” says Jiab.). They also always drove modest used cars and drove them for years (Jim’s last car was a Toyota Scion, and when the handle to the trunk fell off he simply duct-taped it back on and kept driving it).

Finally, “we don’t overbuy, we just buy what we need,” Jim — who still uses an iPhone 5 — adds. “I don’t need the latest bells and whistles and do-dads.”

How hard was it to make new friends? The Wassermans note that Grenada has a thriving ex-pat community that frequently has meetups so they easily made friends. “We expats welcome each other,” Jim says. And he adds that those Granadinos at first may seem standoffish — enter a restaurant and they will simply say “dime” which means “tell me” or “what do you want” — but once they realize you’re part of the community, “they will welcome you with open arms — and multiword sentences,” Jim jokes.

Jim and Jiab Wasserman

Jim and Jiab Wasserman

What’s the deal with health care in Spain? The Wassermans both say they’ve been pleased with their options — Jiab got bronchitis a few months back and says she got in to see the doctor promptly — and the low cost. (International Living notes that private health insurance in Spain will cost about $100 – $150 per month for ex-pats depending on your health.) And Spain is known to have one of the best healthcare systems in the EU, according to expat information site Expatica.com.

What do you miss most about the U.S.? Jim says he misses spicy TexMex like he used to get in Texas. “Spanish food is not Mexican food. It does not have picante, does not have spice,” he says, though he adds that it is flavorful in its own way. “When I go back to Texas, that’s what I’m getting.” For Jiab, she misses the easy, free access to tennis. “Paddleball is bigger here,” she says. “It’s not really a tennis community.”

Bo ttom line: The Wassermans love the new pace of life. “Granada has a way of slowing you down, you’re more present,” says Jim. “Here we walk everywhere, we’re in the moment — the lifestyle means we sit outside, we see people.” Indeed, they’re often without a laptop: When I had a few questions for them last week, they let me know it might take a couple days to answer, then sent me a photo of them in Madrid watching a tennis match with the jolly note: “We are in an important meeting.”

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