Forever horizontally mobile, Paul and Vicki Terhorst have gained some useful "hands-on" experiences, as they trip to wherever in the world their fancy takes them. Learn from them, first hand, what it really means to be a full-time PT.
My wife Vicki and I are PTs, perpetual travellers. We wander the world, from Paris to Bangkok, from Las Vegas to Buenos Aires, enjoy what we find, and then move on. Sometimes we stay a month or two, sometimes a year or two. I like to think of us as homeless. Not the destitute homeless, but homeless in the sense that we own no home, have no home base, and have no place to return to. Home, for us, is wherever we plug in our notebook computer.
I used to stay in one place for years at a time, and work for a living. I was a CPA, and eventually became an audit partner of Peat, Marwick, Mitchell, the big accounting firm now known as KPMG Peat Marwick. In 1984, when I was 35 years old and working out of the Buenos Aires office, I hung up my pencil and retired. I wanted more time to myself, more time with Vicki. We wanted to travel, see old friends, make new friends, and play. During those early retirement years, we kept a small apartment in Buenos Aires. We returned every summer, after six to nine months of travel. We kept our stuff there and used the apartment as our home address. In 1991, however, we decided to get rid of the apartment.
For one thing, Argentina revalued the peso. Our apartment expenses quadrupled, and Buenos Aires came to cost more than San Francisco or Rome. The main reason we wanted to lose the apartment and become PTs, was because we were tired of returning to the same place every year. When you have a home base, you have to check in at home now and again. We didn't want to do that. We wanted to be free to stay or go, anytime, anywhere.
We became true PTs, and hit the road in early 1992. We immediately fell in love with our new lifestyle, so full of freedom and adventure. During our travels, through friends and eventually through our home page, we started meeting other PTs. We now know a good number of active PTs, ex-PTs, and almost-PTs. We exchange travel, and other tips, through E-mail and a private forum on the Internet. Active PTs generally begin their E-mail with: "We're in Rome (or Glasgow or Buenos Aires or ...)."
Are You A Candidate For Becoming A PT?
The PT lifestyle is not for everyone. To find out if you're a likely candidate, ask yourself three questions. Have you ever worked for the government? How attached are you to stuff? Do you use the Internet and E-mail?
Whom Do You Trust?
Have you ever worked for the government? If you have, the PT life is probably not for you. You may be an exception, but in my experience those who work for the government tend to trust the government. They also tend to trust other institutions, such as insurance companies, Microsoft, the AMA, and public education. They like security and predictability, and they associate those things with government.
PTs tend to trust people rather than institutions. If PTs need a hospital in Thailand, we get our innkeeper's recommendation rather than call the consulate. We steer clear of lawyers and courts, and we steer clear of situations that might lead us to need lawyers and courts. If we need travel and emergency assistance, we seek help from a fellow traveller rather from American Express. We travel as tourists, if at all possible, rather than beg bureaucrats for residence permits. Don't get me wrong. PTs like security and predictability, too. It's just that security to us is a trusted friend, a helping hand, rather than a government program. Vicki and I trust people, and we like people to trust us. For example, when renting an apartment, we make it a rule to deal only with principals, not agencies, and never to leave large damage or security deposits. We sit down with the owner, explain who we are and how we live, and tell him why we want the apartment. The owner gets to know us and, presumably, to trust us. We'll pay a deposit of a month's rent or so, if we have to, but that's it. Paris rental agencies ask for two or three months rent as a deposit or pre-payment, and one even asked us for five months. Forget it. These people don't trust me, and I don't trust them.
Leave Your Stuff Behind
How attached are you to stuff? A friend with a 96-year-old mother tells me her mom's afraid to die because of what will happen to her stuff. She figures her son, my friend, will irreverently get rid of her stuff, which, of course, he will. Since she can't bear the thought, she's decided not to die.
PTs live with very, very little stuff. Vicki and I have three boxes in a friend's garage in Buenos Aires, three more in Las Vegas, and four more in Los Angeles. That's it. Except for tax returns and a few other records, we could dispense with even those few boxes if we had to.
Can one be a PT and still keep a small apartment or house trailer? We hear that question a lot. My answer is that living as a PT is an attitude as much as a lifestyle. The point is not how much stuff you have, but to what extent your stuff controls your life. In general, if you find yourself flying back home to take care of your stuff, when you'd rather be doing something else, you probably have a long way to go before you become a PT.
At Home On-Line
Do you use the Internet and E-mail? PTs tend to make friends all over the world. We plan trips around trips other PTs take. The only practical way to do this is with E-mail. Using E-mail is like having your friends in your living room, whenever you want them. Vicki and I receive about 30 E-mails a day; half from friends and family and half from information services I've subscribed to. In a very real sense, our home address is our E-mail address, the best address you can have. If you distrust government and other institutions, can live without lots of stuff, and like the freedom of E-mail and the Internet, you may well be a candidate for PT.
A Gradual Transformation
First, work into the PT life gradually. To "retire" is a big step; to retire and become homeless is an almost impossibly big step. Take these things one at a time. While you're still working, travel around a bit and decide where you'd like to spend more time. Travel for a month rather than a week. When you retire, you'll probably want to do nothing for a while; this feeling typically wears off in six months or so, however. That's the time to set up housekeeping in that special place you've dreamed about. For us it was a small beach town on Argentina's Atlantic coast. After a couple of months in the new location, ask yourself a couple of questions: Do you want to stay or return home? Do you want to move on or move back? The answers to these questions will help you decide the next step. Should you decide to become a PT, your next step should be to get yourself a residence address. You need a residence address even if you don't have a residence; for bank statements, tax returns, credit- card bills, etc. Vicki and I use the address of a brother in Washington. Another alternative is to use Mail Boxes Etc. or a similar mail-forwarding service.
A Strategic Address
The best mailing addresses are in states with no income taxes: Washington, Nevada, and Texas, for example. Because the United States taxes its citizens on world-wide income, whether they live in the States or not, American PTs pay U.S. income taxes. You should avoid getting caught with a residence address in a state which has a high state-income tax. Over the years, many wannabes have told me they'd like to be PTs but don't have a relative or friend whose address they can use as a mail drop. I was perplexed. After all, I figured, everyone must know someone with an address. I finally realised that these wannabes expected too much. They wanted their relatives or friends to open, read, and answer their mail, pay their utility bills, fight tax assessments, manage rental properties, fill out applications, and make investments. Too much. My brother simply tosses my mail in a box. On the rare occasion when I need something, I send him an E-mail. He digs out what I need and mails it to me.
All of that brings me to my third tip: Simplify. Consolidate accounts, sell real estate, cancel little-used credit cards, and get rid of vehicles. Buy index funds, or individual stocks you plan to hold for a while. Cancel memberships, subscriptions, and obligations. Again, if you need someone to open your mail on a regular basis, you're probably still too complicated for the PT life.
Vicki and I have four data files: names and addresses, boxes in storage (where they are and what's in them), important information (credit cards, passport numbers, birthdays, etc.), and bank and broker information. We keep these four files on our travel computer and print them out when we get to a printer. The printout is 12 pages, which we then copy on both sides of six pages for easy travel. Our lives in six pages! We leave backup copies of the four files on the Internet, on disks we carry with us, and on a friend's computer.
Find Your Favourite Places
Fourth, choose your favourite places. This is the fun part of being a PT, and it deserves much time and attention. Since leaving Buenos Aires in 1992, Vicki and I have lived from one month to two years in Austin, Texas; Chapala, Mexico; Puerta Vallarta, Mexico; London; Chiang Mai, Thailand; Bali; Sydney; Las Vegas; and Paris. Sometimes we just hit the road for several months. When we do, we tend to revisit our favourite countries, but we also like to explore new ones. Right now, for example, we're thinking of Burma, Sri Lanka, Cuba, and Egypt. We're also looking at another round-the-world trip, for six months or so, beginning in a few weeks.
We get our ideas about where to live from other PTs, from friends, and from research on the Internet. We also know what we like and dislike. For example, although we've enjoyed living in small towns and villages, we prefer big cities that offer more variety, interest, and excitement.
Use Convenient Cheque Cards
Fifth, use Visa or MasterCard cheque cards. These used to be called debit cards, or combination ATM/debit cards, and they're available from big brokers like Fidelity and Charles Schwab. Cheque cards let you access your cash directly. You can stick the card in a cash machine anywhere in the world and get the local currency you need. To access a larger amount, go into the bank and ask for it. You'll get a good exchange rate, often far better than on the street.
I have two cheque cards, one for everyday use and a second for backup. I also have a credit card, although I prepay estimated amounts due. That way, I don't have to worry if statements catch up to me, though they rarely do. I use the Internet to access all my accounts. Periodically, I check for unauthorised transactions, monitor my exchange rate, and get balance statements.
Forget about traveller's cheques. You pay to buy them, get a lousy exchange rate when you cash them, and have a hassle when you lose them.
PTs, The Few, The Free
Here in Paris, Vicki and I go to conversation groups to practice French. Group members often talk about their lives (you have to talk about something) in French. When it's our turn, we explain the PT lifestyle. Invariably, the younger group members swoon. "How wonderful! What freedom! Just to leave the routine!" The older, more mature members tend to look at us thoughtfully. They too see the freedom from routine but ask themselves the tougher questions: what about our books and mementoes; our kids and ageing parents; our dream home, and the finally affordable mortgage; our cars? I never argue with them; their sentiments are well taken. The PT life calls out only to the few.
Thanks to Escape From America Magazine for the use of this article.
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"Living as a PT is an attitude as much as a lifestyle."
"We plan trips around trips other PTs take."