Facts about Social Security for US Expats in Costa Rica

Here are 5 lesser-known facts about US Social Security the every Ex-Pat should know.

Social Security is often the foundation of retirement plans but many Americans have been paying into the system for years without knowing how the system actually works – especially when they retire abroad. Here are 5 lesser-known facts about Social Security that any retiring ex-pat needs to know.

Qualifying for Social Security benefits is really easy

To receive benefits at retirement, you must simply earn 40 ‘credits’ over at least 10 years of work. This boils down to about $1,200 a quarter, which is so low that you could probably qualify by working a seasonal job! Many ex-pats contribute to the US Social Security system even when living abroad so the ex-pat status does not ‘exempt’ one from Social Security benefits.

In addition, if you earned money in the US and paid into the US system, the credits you earned will remain on your Social Security record.

You can receive Social Security benefits overseas

Eligible US citizens can receive benefits when living abroad, with a handful of small exceptions. The Social Security Administration (SSA) is prohibited from sending payments to Cuba or North Korea but they will send all withheld payments you were eligible for once you leave the restricted country. Note that non-US citizens cannot receive payments for the months they lived in Cuba or North Korea, even if they move to a country where payments are allowed.

There are also a handful of countries where payments cannot be made, but for the purpose of this article we are talking about Costa Rica and yes you can receive your benefits here.

The Social Security system isn’t penniless (yet)

According to the 2014 annual report from the Social Security Board of Trustees on the financial status of the program, without policy changes, the combined Social Security trust funds will become depleted and unable to pay scheduled benefits in full on a timely basis in 2033. After that, Social Security could pay about three-fourths of scheduled benefits through 2089.

Analysts and reports differ as to what year the funds will begin to fall short but the guesstimate has remained between 2029 and 2042 for the past 20 years. Americans are encouraged to diversify their retirement portfolio to ensure they don’t rely too heavily on benefits that may (or may not) be available when they are needed.

Totalization Agreements prevent dual-taxation

The US has entered into agreements with 24 countries to ensure expats are not forced to pay into two Social Security systems. These agreements allow you to choose which system you would like to pay into.

If you are self-employed, this may not the case, as self-employed individuals are generally subject to the US Social Security system. These taxes are included in self-employment taxes, currently 15.3%, and are assessed on net business income. However, in countries with a Totalization Agreement, self-employed individuals who are subject to self-employment tax in the foreign country will be exempt from US self-employment tax. A certificate of coverage must be obtained from the country of residence to provide proof of the individual’s participation in another Social Security plan.

Self-employed individuals will be subject to dual taxation if they choose to live in a country with which the US does not have a Totalization Agreement, as in Costa Rica.

SSA benefits may be taxed

No matter where you go, US taxes will follow! US citizens and residents can expect up to 85% of Social Security benefits may be subject to federal income tax. How much is actually taxable depends on the total amount of your benefits and other income you receive.

Generally, the greater your total income, the higher the taxation. The taxes are calculated as follows:

Up to 50% of your benefits will be taxed if your income is greater than $25,000

Up to 85% of your benefits can be taxable if either of the following situations applies:

  • The total of one-half of your benefits and all your other income is more than $34,000 ($44,000 if you are married filing jointly)
  • You are married filing separately and lived with your spouse at any time during the year.

It is important to note that many foreign governments tax US Social Security benefits so we encourage you to check your country’s tax laws to get an accurate picture of your overall taxation.

Note: This article was written by David McKeegan and edited for Costa Rica, all credit goes to David.

If you want to keep up with what is happening in Costa Rica sign up for my monthly email. I never spam and will never pass on your email to any other party.

Costa Rica’s Caja, a basic understanding

Once you receive your official residency in Costa Rica, you become a “voluntary” member of Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social (CCSS or Caja).  This enables you to access the socialized medical system here in Costa Rica.  By voluntary, this means you are choosing to become a resident of Costa Rica and therefore are a voluntary member of the CCSS system. You are charged a certain amount each month based on your residency category.  Married couples pay as one unit.  In return, you are allowed to use the medical system in Costa Rica called Caja.  This is also a requirement of our residency.

Caja1

To Americans or other foreigners who are not familiar with socialized medicine, this can be a huge adjustment.  The main reason is that CCSS does not have fancy offices or waiting rooms that many of you are accustomed to seeing.

Caja2

With this said, I have found that once you learn how the system works it is quite easy to use.  The hardest visit is your first visit.  You will need to be fluent in Spanish or take someone with you that is fluent.  This is when they will set up your folder and develop a medical plan for you.  All your background information is taken and recorded.  If you are on high blood pressure medicine, are diabetic, have high cholesterol, etc., they will set you up with an appointment every six months to monitor your condition.  They will go over what medications you are taking and what medications they have that are either the same or similar.  At this time the doctor will give you a script for blood and urine tests, x-rays, mammograms, EKG or any other test they deem necessary.  The Doctor will prescribe any medications necessary and you can pick them up at the pharmacy there in the clinic.  Medications usually take a few hours to fill so you must be patient.  This is not Walgreens!  Go grab a bite to eat or run some errands.

Caja3

If you still have private health insurance in the country you are moving from you may want to take all CCSS results and let your family doctor review them.  I have been very pleased to find out that my test results have been spot on.

One thing you may hear about Caja is that it is a slow process if you need an MRI or other diagnostic procedures.  This is can be true depending on the situation, so you will have to decide if you feel you can wait or if you need to seek private screening.

All in all, the system does work.  You just have to be patient, literally, and I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised with the results!

Have a few questions about Costa Rica?  Feel free to drop a comment below or contact me via my main website.

If you want to keep up with what is happening in Costa Rica sign up for my monthly email. I never spam and will never pass on your email to any other party.

Costa Rica eggs not refrigerated? Porqué?

When I take new clients around to see the sites and the many great offerings in the Playa Hermosa area of Costa Rica, I always get this question all time when I take them to the grocery stores; “How come the eggs are not refrigerated?”

Most expats from Canada and the United States are brain washed in to finding their favorite breakfast item in the refrigerated section of the grocery store along with cheese, milk, yogurt and a whole bunch more. However, most of the world, including Costa Rica, doesn’t refrigerate their eggs. Now don’t get sick on me, let me continue. Both washed and unwashed eggs are safe to eat, as well as unrefrigerated eggs as long as they have been handled properly. That’s the KEY handled properly!!

Eggs in Costa Rica Stores

The main concern with proper handling of eggs has to do with avoiding salmonella and we all know what nasty things can happen when you get a dose of it and I won’t go into it.

The United States is one of the few countries that washes and refrigerates its eggs to deal with salmonella. One of the other main reasons is so that manufactures or farmers can get a few extra days shelf life out of the product they are selling. When a chicken lays its eggs they have their own natural protective coating, but the process of washing them removes this first line of defense, making the shells more porous. It comes down to trying to make the eggs look more appealing or clean, this process actually increases the risk for salmonella passing into the eggs, hence why they have to stay refrigerated until they are used. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), washed eggs should be kept at temperatures no higher than 45 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the supply chain.

In Latin America and many other countries worldwide, there is no wet washing process, the eggs are cleaned while dry, and transported at room temperature. If the eggs stay dry, they keep their natural protection against pathogens.

In Costa Rica eggs are required to be stored in clean, dry areas, and transported at room temperature out of extreme heat. Any eggs that are wet, broken, or, in the case of any producers who do wash their eggs, if unrefrigerated for any period of time after washing, are prohibited from sale. Fresh eggs as a whole only have a 20 day shelf life. I bet you may have eggs in your frig longer than that?

Personally I purchase my eggs from a farmer up in the mountains. He makes weekly runs down to the beach area and to be honest with you his eggs are better than any I have ever had in the US or for that matter even here in Costa Rica that I bought in a store. His eggs come from true free range hens and are the best I have ever had. Eggs like any protein are very perishable so as soon as I get them from Herbert I put them in the refrigerator anyway. I have never had a bad egg yet nor have I even gotten sick from eating his eggs.

Costa Rica Free range Chicken

Hens that already have salmonella can pass the bacteria into the yolks of their eggs, even if the shell is in good condition and the eggs are properly handled.  So do not ever eat raw eggs! After doing some research for this article I found out that the FDA and the Costa Rican Nutrition and Health Research Institute (INCIENSA), recommended cooking eggs through and keeping all egg-based dishes refrigerated. They also recommend that during food preparation, whether home or professionally, avoid cracking eggs on the lip of the container you are using to avoid any pathogens transferring from the outside of the shell into the food being prepared. So when you baking that surprise birthday cake for your loved one, don’t use the egg shell to separate the whites from the yolk.

Just remember, so long as the eggs are fresh and handled the right way, you should have no worries buying unrefrigerated eggs in Costa Rica! I will take mine over easy, please!

If you want to keep up with what is happening in Costa Rica sign up for my monthly email. I never spam and will never pass on your email to any other party.

Guanacaste, Costa Rica. Tons of Fun!

From surfing to canopy zip line tours, howler monkeys to luxurious spas, spectacular water falls to sunset cruises. Now that the low season is here there are many good deals to be had. Here is my list of what not to miss when you visit Guanacaste, Costa Rica.

Playa Del Coco – The closest happening beach town to the Liberia International Airport, in the Guanacaste Region. Coco as it is called for short by many locals and expats offer many restaurants, nightlife, casino and beach scenes that draw travelers and locals looking for fun in the sun.

Boardwalk

Sport Fishing – In Costa Rica it is legendary, and many fishing charters operate from Playa del Coco and many of the other beach towns along the coast in Guanacaste.

foto 4

Sunset Ocean Cruise A great way to enjoy the ocean breezes, coastline scenery and sunsets over the Pacific, is on a sailing excursion with a stop or two for snorkeling. Some sailing trips visit deserted beaches or linger at sea watching whales and schools of dolphins as the pass by.

Fun in the Costa Rica Sun

Santa Rosa National Park – For travelers who want to get away from it all, the beaches of Santa Rosa National Park are the place to go. In fact, the only time it gets crowded here is in the fall, when thousands of sea turtles storm the beach to lay eggs. This park teems with flora and fauna in immense forests that give way to virgin white-sand beaches.  Be warned it is not an easy trek but worth it if your adventurous.

Santa Rosa National Park Costa Rica

Rincon de la Vieja National Park – Only 1 hour and 20 minutes from Playa Hermosa, this bountiful parkland is famous for its volcanic craters, diverse wild life, thermal mud pots, lush vegetation and hidden waterfalls. Keep your eyes open and you will see some amazing animals.

rincon de la vieja National Park

Adventure Tours– Take a zip line tour through the canopy or go horseback riding to towering waterfalls, take a tubing run down a river and hang out and relax in nature’s natural hot tub, the thermal springs from the volcano. My recommendation is to visit Hacienda Guachipelin at the base of the Parque Nacional Rincon de la Vieja

Hacienda Guachepelin River Tubing

Palo Verde National Park – This is a must-see for all bird-watchers.  Palo Verde National Park is one of Costa Rica’s best-kept secrets. The Tempisque River lowlands are the place where of thousands of waterfowl and forest bird species abound. Best way to view this wonderful location is by boat, there are many operators that you can choice from. Be ready with your camera as you will see howler monkeys, scarlet macaws and crocodiles.

barra Honda National Park

Barra Honda National Park – This is not for the week at heart. Close to Palo Verde, this underground national park features limestone caves that were part of a coral reef millions of years ago. Strap on a headlamp and climbing gear and descend into an underworld filled with dazzling stalactite and stalagmite formations.

Palo Verdr National Park

River Tours – Take a rafting tour of the exciting rapids of the Tenorio River, again there are many tour operators that can line this up for you. For those that want it a bit calmer, the Corobici River is excellent for families looking to float down a gorgeous jungle river, surrounded by nature and wildlife.

River Rafting Costa Rica

Surfing If you are interested in and always wanted to surf, there is no better place than going to Tamarindo.  The Surf break is perfect for the beginner and the experience, with many options of for instructions and rentals. Tamarindo is also a hoping mecca of great restaurant, clubs and shopping. Head a Bit further south and there are many great surfing beaches without the crowds. Playa del Coco has no surf; however it is a prime jumping-off point for boat trips for surfers that want to head to the popular surf breaks of Witches Rock and Ollie’s Point.

surfing Tamarindo

World Class Spas – Many of Guanacaste’s world-class spas are located along the beachfront. After all these exciting outdoor adventures, soothe tired muscles with a massage, while watching a glorious sunset over the Pacific.

Spa

For the Do It Yourself person you can find all these location on line. For those that would rather have a tour guide, feel free to contact me and I will give you recommendations of my favorite tour operator that will treat you like gold.

If you want to keep up with what is happening in Costa Rica sign up for my monthly email. I never spam and will never pass on your email to any other party.

Playa Hermosa’s Blue Flag Ceremony

Playa Hermosa in Guanacaste is one of the most beautiful beaches on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica.  I tend to be a bit biased as I have lived in this paradise for 8 years now.

The town has for many years worked hard to keep the beach clean and beautiful and it pays off.  If not for the great people of the Playa Hermosa association who dedicate their time, effort and hard work it would never be this way. Playa Hermosa was recognized, by the Costa Rica Blue Flag Ecological Program (Bandera Azul Ecológica) for a 14th straight year and achieving 2 stars this year. Below is a press release from the organization and below that a great blog explaining the Blue Flag program:

http://playahermosabeach.org/ecological-blue-flag-2015-bandera-azul-ecologica-2015/ 

http://blog.natureair.com/index.php/2013/07/what-is-costa-ricas-blue-flag-program/

Enjoy the reading, enjoy the beach and let’s share a cold drink when you come to my part of paradise. Looking forward to seeing you here!

blue flag

If you want to keep up with what is happening in Costa Rica sign up for my monthly email. I never spam and will never pass on your email to any other party.

Interesting and Fun Stuff about Costa Rica

Here is a list of fun stuff to know about Costa Rica:

Pura vida” Your here it everywhere you go in Costa Rica. This is the national saying, a literal translations is “pure life,” It is used for many types of responses to a question or as a greeting, goodbye, or if someone asks how you are doing.

“Ticos” for men and “Ticas” for women are terms the Costa Rican people call themselves. It is not derogatory in any way; while foreigners are often called “Gringos” and “Gringas” basically referring to any person from North America.

If you see someone walking around with a machete, don’t panic, you’re not going to get attacked! Ticos use machetes for almost everything and often keep one on them. A machete is the Costa Rican equivalent of how Americans use duct tape. It is more common in the agricultural sectors than in the city.

Costa Rica is not a very big country it measures only 285 miles (460 km) from the north to the south boarders and at the narrowest, it is only 74 miles wide (120 km). It is smaller than Lake Michigan and about the size of the state of West Virginia. However Costa Rica features over 801 miles of coastline along the Pacifico Ocean and Caribbean Sea. From its highest point, Cerro Chirripó, with an elevation of 12,533 ft. you can see both oceans.

There are more than 121 volcanic formations in Costa Rica, and seven of them are active. Poas Volcano has the second widest crater in the world and Arenal is one of the ten most active volcanoes in the world.

Monkeys are one of the most common mammals in Costa Rica – next to bats. The four common species are the Howler, Spider, White-Faced and Squirrel.

If you have a phobia for bugs – look out! There are about 750,000 species of insects that live in Costa Rica, including about 20,000 different types of spiders! Also, more than 10% of the world’s butterflies live here.

Costa Rica claims a 96% literacy rate. In very poor and rural areas, where children can’t get to schools, they teach classes over a national radio station.

When a woman is pregnant they say she is “con luz,” or “with light.”

When a Tico/Tica is referring to their spouse or significant other or their other half, they are your “media naranja,” or the other half of your orange.

Names are confusing in Costa Rica. Children take their father’s name, but add their mother’s maiden name to their full name. So when you see a name on a business card like Carlos Jose Gomez Guzman, this person’s name is Carlos Gomez and the Guzman is his mom’s maiden name. Often this is abbreviated as an initial thus: Carlos Jose Gomez G. or even more commonly, Carlos Gomez G.

Costa Rican women do not take their husband’s last name. The woman uses her full maiden name for life. No changing of national ID cards, drivers licenses, etc. She also adds her mother’s maiden name.

Prostitution is legal but possession of pornography is illegal. They even have unions, membership cards, health benefits, and police protection.

You aren’t allowed to wear sunglasses or hats inside of the banks

They have bullfights but instead of the bull being harmed, it runs free around the ring and tries to harm the brave teens and men who jump in there for sport. Almost every little town has a festival with bullfights during the holidays.

In Costa Rica, nearly all Catholic churches face west.

In Costa Rica, speed bumps are called “muertos”, or dead persons.  In some cases they are called “policia muerto” (dead policeman) because, like a policeman, seeing them makes you slow down.

There are usually no street names in Costa Rica so people get used to giving directions in relation to landmarks. In rural areas people will describe their official, legal address in ways such as “blue house just north of the big tree,” or even “150 meters south of where the cow is tied up.

At 7:00 a.m. every morning, all Costa Rican radio stations play the national anthem. Many also play it again at night.

Costa Ricans has a life expectancy is almost 77 years, one of the highest in the world.

Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula is what’s called a “blue zone”- an area with an abnormally high amount of centenarians (100-year-olds). Five “blue zones” have been identified around the globe, but Costa Rica’s is the largest (the others are found in Japan, Greece, Italy, and Loma Linda, CA).

Need sunglasses or a phone charger? Just roll down your window at most intersections in town and someone will be there to sell you one!

So there you have it!  A list of fun stuff to know about Costa Rica.  Come spend some time in Costa Rica! You’ll have fun living here and learning new things every day!

If you want to keep up with what is happening in Costa Rica sign up for my monthly email. I never spam and will never pass on your email to any other party.

A Day at the Feria in Liberia Costa Rica

The cost for 3 medium pineapples = ₡1000 or $1.87. Yes….you read that right! These are the juiciest, best tasting pineapples ever!

The Feria in Costa Rica means “Farmer’s market”.  The Feria in Liberia is open on Thursday afternoons and all day on Friday. Each of the vendors sets their own prices and they are competitive. And yes, you can even negotiate with them! In addition to fruits and vegetables, you can also purchase homemade smoked cheeses, fresh farm eggs, fresh squeezed juice, plants such as basil, mint & rosemary, coconuts, and even bags of really good dirt!

Another great purchase this day was bananas! 22 bananas = ₡1000 or $1.87! where in North America can you get a deal like this?

You can save a good amount of money by purchasing your fruits and vegetables at the local Feria. There are several smaller Ferias in Playas Del Coco that are open daily. The Feria in Liberia is about 30 minutes away but it is much larger with more vendors.

Can you buy your vegetables at the local supermarket? Of course! But again, you’ll save money by going to these local Farmer’s Markets. Plus, spending an afternoon at the Feria is a lot of fun. You get to interact with the locals, discover new vegetables and meet a lot of great people! It’s a great adventure!!

So next time you come to the Playa Hermosa area, take a day and a short ride to Liberia and experience a true farmers market Costa Rica Style!! You won’t be disappointed.

If you want to keep up with what is happening in Costa Rica sign up for my monthly email. I never spam and will never pass on your email to any other party.

A Big Mistake Some People Make When Selling Costa Rica Property

I hate titling an article with the words “Big Mistake, but I feel it’s important to warn potential sellers about an issue that frequently occurs in this country.

Let me start by saying – as a professional real estate broker in Costa Rica, I come across some crazy situations.  Sometimes sellers are unrealistic. Of course, this happens to brokers worldwide but it seems to be a recurring theme here. Let me give you some background and facts before you start slamming me with your thoughts, as I am sure this article will provoke some from sellers that may read it.

Here in Costa Rica, realtors are not licensed by the government; meaning just about anybody can be a realtor (and believe me many do try). However, there are two government recognized real estate associations, CCCBR “Camara Costarricense de Corredores de Bienes Raices” or in English “Costa Rican Chamber of Real Estate Brokers” and the other is CRGAR “Costa Rica Global Association of Realtors”. I happen to be a member of both and a past board of director member for CRGAR. To be a member you have to go through the associations’ classes and pass tests in order to receive a license from them. By being a member of both associations, I am also a member of NAR, the National Association of Realtors that is based in North America. So I have a really good working knowledge of what’s what in Costa Rica real estate as I have been here for almost seven years now do it.

Most people believe that a realtors’ main job is to get the best possible price for the seller, which is true, but it is only part of what we need to do to help the seller. The responsibility of the broker is also to help the seller understand the ramifications of holding onto a property to long. As an example, more taxes, or homeowners’ association fees, maintenance of the property, property manager and the list goes on. The broker is also a sounding board and has a wealth of information to help the seller.

Here in Costa Rica most of the sellers invested between 2000 to 2006 when the market was a new “up and coming” market and screaming hot. Many people purchase property because of all the great things that Costa Rica has to offer. But over 60% of buyers never really planned on living here full time. They purchased either for investment purposes or for a second vacation home. As we all know in life, the best-laid plans can quickly change.

Well, the Costa Rica real estate market has changed over the past 5 years.  More and more buyers are actually looking to relocate to Costa Rica full time – for tons of obvious reasons (but that’s a topic for another article) – and many of those selling have changed their plans as well.

So, getting to the point, one of the biggest mistakes a real estate seller makes, but not the biggest, is overpricing their property from the get-go. Even though the brokers may interview and finally decide on telling them otherwise, they just do not listen. I personally have been interviewed by some sellers that when I recommended a selling price they call me every name in the book. I have heard statements such as: “Oh your just trying to get me to a lower the price so you can make a quick buck” or “ are you kidding me? I paid $$$$ for my property and I want to make a profit on it!”…and the list goes on.

In my professional opinion, a big mistake a seller can make is to say “I am insulted by that offer, it is too low and I will not even counter back”. This is just plain lunacy! Real estate is a business.  Too many sellers let their personal feelings get in the way of selling a property. Never be the one to walk away from an initial offer, always counter back!! You have nothing to lose and everything to gain – such as selling your piece of real estate!

I am writing this because I am facing a situation like this right now. I presented an offer to a seller. The seller’s property is priced according to the market and not overpriced, although it did take two-plus years to get the seller to see the light and finally price it right. So you can’t say I was trying to make a quick buck. So I presented an offer to this seller two days ago, I immediately called them to discuss and emailed then the signed offer to review. We spent almost two hours on the phone discussing it and the seller said they would get back to me. This morning I get an email from the seller basically saying “I do not accept the offer and tell the buyer to jump in a lake”. Here we go, BIGGEST MISTAKE EVER and dumbest mindset ever!!! By not countering back they let a potential sale slip through their hands. The smart thing to do is always counter back. Take the advice of the broker they hired.  He or she is the pro (at least if they hired a professional). Yes, the price may not be what they want, but in three years with no offers at least it is a starting point.

So after receiving this email I called then right away and discussed. They hired me to sell the property not fold like a house of cards when the table gets knocked a bit. I spent another two hours on the phone helping them realize based on market comparable properties, the present condition of the market, the condition of their property and a whole lot more, that they should never be the ones to walk away at the first offer. Let the buyers be the ones to walk away from a counter offer.

Just because an offer is low does not mean the buyer may not have more money to spend.  Think about it – let’s say you want to buy a car – do you offer to pay the sticker price? Or do you try to negotiate the price down? Real estate buyers do exactly the same thing. They are trying to get the best price for a property they like. So, don’t be offended! Be smart and don’t make the mistake this seller just made when you are trying to sell your Costa Rica property.

If you don’t own property in Costa Rica, you should consider it as there are still some really good deals out there.

Thanks for stopping by and send any comments to me. If you have an interest in real estate or just starting to get a feel for the Playa Hermosa area of Costa Rica, click this link to my personal web site for more information. www.costarican-american-connection.com or send me a note and I will help point you in the right direction. “Pura Vida”!

If you want to keep up with what is happening in Costa Rica sign up for my monthly email. I never spam and will never pass on your email to any other party.