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5 countries where life is good on a Social Security check alone

Granada, Nicaragua
Jane Sweeney | Getty Images
Granada, Nicaragua

In the best-value countries outside the United States, American retirees are finding that they can live better than they could at home — for less. In fact, many report, they can enjoy a genuinely comfortable, low-stress retirement on their Social Security alone.

That's relatively hard to do in the United States, where the average Social Security benefit is $1,374 for a retired worker — or $2,090 for a couple.

"If you're looking at retiring on your Social Security check alone in the United States or have just a modest amount to supplement it, you're likely to find yourself living frugally," says Jennifer Stevens, Executive Editor of International Living.

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"But take that modest budget overseas to a place where your dollars stretch, and you'll find you can be free from money woes.

"Boomers living on modest budgets overseas may not be living like royalty, but they're dining out when they feel like it, they're benefitting from good-quality healthcare they can afford, they're no longer living hand-to-mouth. And with less stress and better weather, they report a much higher quality of life than they'd have in the United States on the same budget."

Five low-cost countries International Living's editors have pinpointed as good-value escapes for retirees include Ecuador, Mexico, Nicaragua, Colombia, and Cambodia.

Ecuador

"I no longer feel anxious and worried when I review my finances," says Bartley D'Alfonso, retired in Ecuador. "It is very comforting to know that I can now occupy my mind with what fun activities I will do daily, rather than how I would try to survive day-by-day if I had stayed back in the U.S.

"A few years ago, I found myself as a solo retiree with an expensive California condo mortgage to pay for, along with excessive property taxes and increasing monthly homeowners' association fees.

"Month by month, it was becoming harder and harder to live only on my fixed Social Security benefits and retirement pension. I was feeling trapped, with high anxiety—how was I ever going to continue to live like this? How could I survive? Something had to change..."

It did, when Bartley moved to the highland university town of Cuenca, Ecuador.

"After a three-day real estate tour, I sold off my Californian condo and bought a newly built condo in Cuenca," he explained. "My three-bedroom, three-bathroom, two-story condo cost $115,500 and get this — my annual property tax was $88 in 2015… $55 in 2016…and this year I paid $44, compared to $4,800 annual property taxes back home.

"And talk about having the senior citizen discount kick in. Under Ecuadorian law, all citizens who reach 65 years of age and have a cedula (national identification card) get to enjoy substantial reductions with the expenses of daily living.

"I recently turned this magical age, and my bus fares were lowered to 12 cents per ride, instead of the regular 25 cent fare. My annual property tax will be halved down to about $25, and all notary fees are now free, saving hundreds of dollars.

"My water bill is discounted by 50 percent, dropping down to an average monthly fee of $3.85. Every six months I can turn in my receipts and receive a maximum refund of $105 per month for any sales taxes paid, which is deposited directly into my local bank account."

Mexico

One of Chris and Rex McCaskill's favorite things to do these days is relax on their rooftop terrace, enjoying views of the stunning surrounding countryside and the comfortable, never-too-hot climate that stays in the 70s most days.

After rewarding but long careers in the U.S., the couple (self-confessed workaholics) were ready to retire. Chris, 66, worked for elected officials in the field of public policy and Rex, 65, was a software developer. Five years ago, they moved from Austin, Texas, to San Miguel de Allende in Mexico's Colonial Highlands.

Affordability was a big motivator, since in Mexico a couple can live comfortably on as little as $1,800 a month.

"In Austin, we were paying $700 a month for heat and air conditioning. We were paying property taxes of $12,000 a year and now live comfortably with taxes of $200 a year," says Chris.

"Here in San Miguel, economics and lifestyle go hand in hand. We spend money on quality of life things, not air conditioning or taxes. We can take our money from Social Security and our quality of life is pretty darn good."

Nicaragua

"Moving to León has not only saved my life financially but enriched me so much," says Dolly Lee.

"I was a single parent raising a daughter in the U.S. and working in logistics management. Every time I was laid off, which happened several times, I was thrown into complete panic—how would I pay my bills and keep a roof over my child's head? It was the most horrific fear I've ever experienced. Each time I built up savings, the next layoff would deplete them. I endured this for close to two decades.

"In May 2016, I suffered another layoff. After being at home for a few weeks, I realized that I was now eligible to collect Social Security at a reduced rate.

"My Social Security check would not be adequate to pay my bills and the private medical insurance I would need to purchase. So, I started looking into the best places to retire on a budget."

Dolly discovered Nicaragua, and in June of this year moved to Leon, the country's second largest city.

"So far it is the best move I have ever made," says Dolly. "My budget with housekeeper, rent, utilities, groceries, internet, cable TV, phone, and food for three animals is about $1,000 a month. This includes going out to dinner and drinks twice a week, a movie on Sunday, and at least one out-of-town trip with other expats monthly."

Colombia

These days, Colombia offers something for everyone—including lush green coffee plantations, sparkling crystal beaches, cosmopolitan cities, and quaint colonial towns.

And retirees are discovering they can stretch their retirement dollars, thanks to a lower cost of living and favorable exchange rate.

"The Colombian peso has been hovering around 3,000 to the U.S. dollar since late 2015," says IL's Colombia Correspondent Nancy Kiernan "Obviously, cost of living will depend on what type of lifestyle an expat wants, but monthly rental costs range from about $300 in the smaller towns to $1,500 and more for a penthouse or a sprawling country home.

"However, in many areas of Colombia the total cost of living can easily be $2,000 per month, or less. I live in Medellín´s upscale neighborhood of El Poblado for 60 percent less than it cost me back in Maine. My combined utilities (water, waste, gas, electric, trash removal, cable, internet, home phone) average $94 per month."

Cambodia

Southeast Asia is another region that offers great value for money and a cost-of-living much lower than in the United States. San Diego-native Tom Richter lives in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

"This country has made me feel 15 years younger, compared with living in the States," says Tom. "I made the right decision coming here, and I know it.

"My check from Social Security comes to just over $1,000 per month. But in Phnom Penh that's a sizable amount. What I like most is that there is a very local vibe that comes from people in Phnom Penh.

"Apart from being extremely friendly and happy to meet foreigners, it is just really cool to be able to go to the street corner in the morning to grab a fresh coconut and a newspaper, while shooting the breeze with some of the tuk-tuk drivers who speak good English."

Commentary by the editors of International Living. Follow IN on Twitter @inliving.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinionon Twitter

This article originally appeared on InternationalLiving.com.

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