Charles Thomas was a man in a hurry, dropping out of college to quickly rise in the ranks at Bank of America in San Francisco. But at age 42, retiring early in San Miguel de Allende became his dream.
Originally from Eureka in Northern California, Thomas, 58, moved to San Francisco when he was 19-years-old to attend San Francisco State University, but he dropped out to return home when his mother became ill.
“When I came back to San Francisco I was behind in both work and school,” he said, “so I decided to continue working instead of going back to school.”
Thomas began his financial career in Bank of America’s mailroom and worked his way up to assistant vice president in eight years before leaving for a start-up opportunity.
“I was recruited by my former bosses to work at First Deposit, which became Providian Financial,” Thomas said. “When I joined the company we were just 500 people, but we grew to 13,000 by the time I left.”
At age 42 and now the vice president of technology and operations for the company’s human resources department, Thomas began reconsidering his life when Providian Financial got involved in the sub-prime credit card lending business and began failing.
“I had read a book about retiring early in Mexico and it changed my life,” he said. “The company offered me a separation package, I took it and began looking for a place to live in Mexico.”
He had vacationed often in Puerto Vallarta but thought the summer tropical heat would be too much for him. He also considered Lake Chapala, but after researching the demographics, decided that he was too young to comfortably fit in. Then, a friend of his recommended San Miguel de Allende.
“I rented a place for a month but within the first week I knew it was the place I wanted to be,” he said. “It was a small town, so it kind of took me back to my roots in Eureka. In San Miguel, I made friends with a wide range of people, from starving artists to millionaires. It was such a diverse and welcoming community.”
Thomas had sufficient assets that allowed him to purchase a home in 2006 and live well until the financial effects of the U.S. real estate bust of 2008 began rapidly depleting his income. Fortunately, he was asked to work in local real estate and now is a partner with Realty San Miguel.
He shares his large home in the country, about 25 minutes from downtown San Miguel, with his partner, Rodrigo, who is a dog breeder and handler.
“We found this country place that happened to be built as a summer home,” he said. “It was being used as a rental but we bought it for about US$225,000 and then gutted it and added a 600 sq. ft. guesthouse. It’s worth about US$550,000 today.”
Set on two acres of land with a creek that runs during the rainy season, the main house is 2,800 sq. ft. with three bedrooms and three bathrooms. The guesthouse has one additional bedroom and a bathroom.
Thomas is not as active in the large San Miguel expat community as he once was, but still most of his social time is spent with expat friends.
“I read something in one of those books about retiring in an expat community that said you may find yourself socializing with people you might not find yourself socializing with at home,” he told us. “I found it to be true initially, but after living here for so long you kind of find your core group. We are very blessed to have people in our lives that we would keep in our lives even if we moved.”
Although Thomas tells people that he speaks restaurant and taxi Spanish to “feed myself and get where I need to go,” he is conversant enough to use Spanish everyday in his real estate transactions. But his language skills are tested when Rodrigo’s family comes to visit.
“I am married to a Mexican man who has a very large family,” he said. “They were here for Semana Santa, Mexico’s Holy Week before Easter. We hosted 55 guests over three days. They pitched tents in the yard and we had a big camping party. Only a handful speak English, so my Spanish got a good workout.”
Mostly homebodies, Thomas and his partner still enjoy driving into San Miguel to dine at some of the city’s excellent restaurants, especially when out-if-town guests visit.
“San Miguel is a dining destination that attracts a lot of tourists from Mexico and all over the world,” he said. “We tend to favor places that are outside of downtown. For example, there is a place called Rojo Vivo that’s an old hacienda. They have the best rib-eye steak you’ve ever tasted.”
Quality is not inexpensive, particularly in San Miguel. This city of about 140,000 hosts over 1 million visitors each year and many are upscale with money to spend. Thomas said dinner for two at high-end restaurants can easily add up to US$150 with wine and tip. For more traditional Mexican restaurants, the tab rarely exceeds US$50 for two people with drinks and tip.
Although the cost of living in San Miguel is often higher than many other inland cities, Thomas thinks it has many advantages for expats looking to put down roots in Mexico.
“The property taxes here are ridiculously cheap,” he said, “I pay less than US$300 a year on my home and guesthouse on a two-acre property. You can also hire domestic help very inexpensively. We have a maid that comes in three times a week for about US$50. We pay our gardener US$75 a week because he also takes care of Rodrigo’s 11 dogs.”
Thomas was also attracted to San Miguel de Allende by its multiculturalism, which includes expat communities from the U.S., Canada, Germany, Italy and other countries. He also loves the beauty and architecture of this 500-year-old city and its vibrant art and music scene.
But no city is perfect. Thomas cautioned that as the city grows, so does crime.
“When I first moved here 15 years ago you could walk home at night without a worry in the world,” he said. “That’s not the case anymore. That part of the bloom is off the rose. Traffic in our hilly city with narrow streets is also growing daily, made even worse during high season by the influx of so many tourists.”
Putting aside the negative side effects of growth, we asked Thomas to tell us his top three reasons for loving San Miguel.
“If I had to choose just three reasons why I love living here, I would choose the friends I’ve made here, the wonderful year-round climate and the diversity of San Miguel. But it always comes down to friends.”