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Under Attack

Jim Wasserman  |  July 15, 2019

THE FINANCIAL site MarketWatch has been running a series about the lives and budgets of Americans who retire abroad. My wife Jiab and I—who moved from Texas to Spain—were one of the first couples featured, along with a husband and wife who now live in Chile. Both articles made clear there were plusses and minuses to such a move—experiencing new things, but also being away from family—and that we weren’t advocating this for everyone.

From some readers, we got positive affirmation, follow-up questions and many “good luck, but that’s not for me” comments. What surprised me, however, was the amount of hostility, which mostly came in three forms:

  • BWAs (“But what about…?”). Some people rejected the articles because all facets weren’t explained. “You don’t mention hunting, which I like” or even “You didn’t fully explain the tax impact of living abroad,” along with the suggestion that we must be tax dodgers. Did these readers really expect an article of under 1,000 words to explain every nuance?
  • BIBs (“But I bet…”). These were the commenters who accused us of hiding facts, such as we probably lived in a cramped “shoebox” or had to use witch doctors for health care.
  • PAPs (personally attacking people). The worst launched into ad hominems against us and the other couple, accusing us of being “disloyal” to our country, that we must “love living in the 1800s” and even “abandoning” our children.

This wasn’t just skepticism. Some readers clearly went straight into attack mode based simply on the notion of retiring abroad. All this made me curious. People who read financial websites are clearly seeking to be better informed. Many of the attackers also admitted to traveling little outside the U.S. Why the strong reaction?

Coincidentally, Forbes recently ran an article that sheds some light on the answer. Jonathan Look Jr. explains how travelers to exotic places are often met with a tepid reaction by friends back home. Look cites psychological studies that attribute this reaction to two factors: unrelatability and envy of the experience. Humans often prefer a less enjoyable but shared experience to an extraordinary one experienced alone.

We humans are tribal in our thinking. We look with suspicion on anyone who deviates from the herd—as those who go against the grain will tell you. We also like to have our paths clearly defined. Too many choices can be not liberating, but confounding.

If we scorn differences, not just socially and politically, but also financially, the loss can be ours. Maybe we shouldn’t claim Social Security as soon as we’re eligible, like all our friends say. Perhaps the broker used by everybody in our family isn’t the best choice. Maybe our neighbors are wrong and remodeling the house won’t be a big moneymaker.

A resistance to other options can lock us into existing decisions that may not be in our best interest. It can lead us to view alternatives not as possibilities to consider, but as criticism of our current financial choices. My fear: This sort of skepticism can too easily turn into cynicism, leading us to reject notions that could be useful to us.

Jim Wasserman is a former business litigation attorney who taught economics and humanities for 20 years. His previous articles include Terms of the TradeWhen in Rome and Bundle of Joy. Jim’s three-book series on teaching behavioral economics and media literacy,  Media, Marketing, and Me, is being published in 2019. Jim lives in Granada, Spain, with his wife and fellow HumbleDollar contributor, Jiab. Together, they write a blog on retirement, finance and living abroad at YourThirdLife.com.

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