A California man moved 7,000 miles to escape debt and stress.
Editor’s Note: Readers may contact Robbie Cristillo directly at [email protected].
Robert Cristillo, known as Robbie, lives in heaven on earth. At 42, he has real balance between work and life. He can get within ten feet of endangered penguins on a nearly deserted beach. His dog can run free, no leash. In his town children walk to school; you pump your gas before you pay for it. Cristillo’s slowed down enough to watch the clouds go by on a windy day.
But he had to move to New Zealand to find serenity.
Identifying now as a kiwi (he measures in meters and liters), he’s doing the same job in New Zealand that he did in the Sacramento area — for half the money.
“My company controls New Zealand’s power grid, and my job is to keep the lights, TVs and refrigerators running. People like me make sure that whenever people like you flip the switch, the lights will come on.
“We’re air traffic control for electricity.
“Six years ago I knew I was on the verge of a breakdown because I had insomnia, rapid heartbeat all the time, drinking too much, not eating right, oh, and high blood pressure. I was working in an environment conducive to fear-mongering from upper management. Pressure made me reevaluate my life.
“It just wasn’t fun anymore. I couldn’t escape the negativity, some of which was my issues. I couldn’t disconnect from my job.”
His expensive El Dorado Hills home was not a sanctuary. He had fallen for the social conditioning that says “you are what you own.”
Materialism Made Him Sick
“I felt I was owned by my possessions, and I was upside down on the mortgage of a house worth $450,000 when I purchased it. I had $100,000 of cars in the garage and driveway, a motorcycle, a TV in every room, and stuff I never used crammed into every storage area.” The predictable divorce had already occurred before the crisis came.
“A lot of it was professional pressure. I lived with constant fear of losing my status, losing my possessions. I even got to the place where I feared Security would tap me on the shoulder one day at work and tell me to leave.”
Did you feel you had to keep up with the Joneses?
“I was a materialistic bastard. I don’t like to admit that, though. I couldn’t wait to get my nephew to come over so he could sit in the new Mercedes.
“When you drive past the Mercedes dealership every day, literally, you think, ‘Maybe I should have a new car.’ Something I didn’t realize is how heavy debt weighed on me. Once you graduate high school and go to college, you start accumulating debt and never experience the liberation of being debt-free.”
“Debt is the Devil,” Testifies the New Kiwi
Cristillo said, “Living a debt-free life is true freedom. But I would never have known this if something hadn’t snapped. I started to make a point of asking myself if the things I wanted were things I needed, and vice versa.”
You were tolerating a stress-filled life. But before you were too far gone, you turned things around.
“I was sitting in the bar at Chicago O’Hare airport on a nine hour layover. I struck up a conversation with an active member of the U.S. military. We spoke candidly about the state of the world, and how it was seemingly going down a depressing path. I said to him, ‘I think I’m going to move to New Zealand.’ I don’t know why I said that, but it seemed like it was far enough away to make a fresh start. He responded with genuine honesty and understanding: ‘You should do it then.’
“Much later I realized that was when I started to change.
“I got rid of the Benz and the 4-wheel drive pick-up truck that you could hook the world up to and tow to the lake, and down-sized to something more functional.” Cristillo has become a kind of male Marie Kondo: “Hold every single possession in your hands before deciding its fate, and ask yourself if it sparks joy. If not, then into the jumbo-sized trash bag it goes!”
Now he has a permanent visa to live in a country 900 miles from Australia, 6700 miles from his California digs. New Zealand ranks highly in health, education, economic freedom and quality of life. The two main islands comprise 103,500 square miles of land considered the fourth most peaceful country in the world according to the 2014 Global Peace Index. It is also rated the 7th best education system in the world.
In a few months Cristillo will have completed the required five year residency and become an official kiwi. He says, “Now I live for experiences, not possessions.”
How Cristillo Got to Heaven
42 year old Cristillo rode his tricycle into the pool when he was two years old. “When my mom pulled him out he wasn’t breathing. The ambulance was able to resuscitate him, but he was gone for about ten minutes,” said sister Veronica Anners of Placerville, California.
Cristillo said, “Because I was in heaven when I was two years old, that’s why I’m living in a town of 30,000 in New Zealand. It’s the closest thing to heaven on earth.
“I visited before I moved, yeah, but what got me interested wasn’t the Lord of the Rings. It wasn’t a travel website. There was a comedy show called Flight of the Conchords; I fell in love with the sense of humor. I found out the two stars are from New Zealand, and I said ‘That sounds like the place for me.’
“It was also pure serendipity. Not long after seeing that show I ran into someone who put me in touch with the man who is now my boss, all on a whim. It was meant to be. It was! Almost a year to the day from meeting him I was on an airplane to New Zealand. My dog Daisy came with me. She had to be quarantined, but only for ten days. I would not have left her behind, since I like dogs more than people sometimes.
“The big move was what I needed to do. I didn’t have kids. Most can’t just up and leave due to their other responsibilities. Trying to implement the Blue Zone principles just wasn’t enough. I needed something drastic.”
His hobbies are golf, cycling, and exploring striking landscapes like Tongariro, Mt. Tara Naki and Moeraki, seen in the photos here. “I recently got a mountain bike (a 29” Merida). If I had more stuff, I’d be going against my philosophy. I don’t want to have closets full of things I don’t use, and I don’t want a garage full of things I don’t use. Generally whenever I bring something new into my home, I like to get rid of something to make room for it. I’m constantly making sure I don’t get that build up of possessions that weigh me down.
“To get out of El Dorado Hills I had two large garage sales and still had a truckload for the Salvation Army when I left. Now, with the exception of furniture, I’ve got probably 3-4 car loads of stuff. I have one TV. But I’ve got everything I need and there’s not a whole lot that I want!
Do you at least have a facebook account? “No social media for me,” he said curtly, but with a smile.
“My current community interest is a friend’s school fair for his children. I’m going to start volunteering for an organization where people with disabilities can ride horses and stuff like that.”
The Cost of Living and Working in New Zealand
Robert Cristillo finds New Zealanders to be more polite than Americans. He also thinks they walk their talk when it comes to “work-life balance.”
“In California the Human Resources Department would bang a drum for work-life balance, but that’s all it was, only beating the drum, no substance. Here, work-life balance is considered very important. It’s part of the manager’s responsibility to make sure people have the balance.
“The only negative thing I’ve heard from management is that I have too much vacation time saved up. They demand you recharge your batteries and have a life outside of work. I’ve never worked for a more fair or honest group of managers. Most are native born kiwis, and some expats, too. Currently my management team is all kiwis.
“The respect for work-life balance is the trade-off, because the pay is less compared to similar jobs around the world. I came here specifically for the work-life balance and I had to take a pay cut to have that.”
The estimate is that his New Zealand earnings are 50% of what he’d be making in the U.S.
“My house is about 1000 square feet, and the rent is $1850NZ. That’s about $1200US and I’m paid in New Zealand dollars. We have socialized medicine which comes out of my taxes and my rate is 32%. All you pay here is what is similar Federal and sales tax, but no state tax.
“My money does fine here but it doesn’t go far in the U.S. When friends and family come to visit, their dollar goes to $1.50. My car cost $10,000NZ used, and had about 18,000 miles on it.”
This vehicle would never have been allowed in his California driveway.
Trouble in Paradise?
The unimaginably wealthy are descending from Davos to buy up huge parcels. “Financial experts attending the January 2015 World Economic Forum revealed many wealthy hedge fund managers have already started planning escapes for themselves and their clients should life in the northern hemisphere descend into chaos.”
Cristillo confirmed that. “Lots of foreign investment is coming in now. Property values have been rising rapidly for the last five years. A lot of that is driven by foreign investors who buy up beautiful, big chunks of land. A lot is corporations, for example the Chinese buying up dairy products, one of our biggest exports.”
What impact will there be on kiwi life and society if the 1% buys up huge amounts of land?
“Veronica can attest to this: I try not to be bothered with a lot of media fear-mongering that’s shoved down everyone’s ear holes, because that was part of what was burning me out in California. I worried about things that were totally out of my control. I’d say don’t just consume the news blindly, be objective, do your homework — or ignore it altogether!”
Do you see crime or social violence?
“Yeah, but it’s a lot more rare. The land mass is about the size of California, and the population is about four and a half million. Imagine if you stripped away 38,000,000 and put 1.5M of them in the San Francisco Bay area and spread the rest around. . . . There’s more crime where there’s more people; it’s all about population density. Violent crime doesn’t randomly happen here, and people aren’t running into each other.
Sister Veronica got to visit Cristillo in 2015. She said, “Every single time we stopped at a beach we were the only people on it, whereas here they’re crowded from one end to the other.”
What Kiwis Think of Americans
“I can give you my observation of what I think kiwis’ opinions are. From a political standpoint New Zealand has so little turmoil that they live and die by the controversies of the bigger countries they admire. They admire the U. S., or at least they like and enjoy all the stuff the U. S. provides.
“Personally I’m a social liberal and fiscal conservative. I think government needs to be smaller, not larger. Most kiwis expect Hillary Clinton will be the next President of the USA, and laugh at the possibility of Trump becoming the leader of the ‘free world’.”
Are New Zealanders aware of or worried about climate change?
“There’s a group that is and a group that isn’t. It’s definitely a big topic. The skin cancer problem is true, but is because there’s too little particulate to filter the radiation. The air’s so clean that the sun is more intense. The country in general has the reputation of being very forward thinking and progressive when it comes to social issues. New Zealand was the first country in the world to give women the vote. It was also one of the first to legalize same-sex marriage.”
Have you had to make adjustments to kiwi society?
“One of the things I learned, and discounted until I got here, is that just because you’re in an English speaking country doesn’t mean there aren’t differences. Now I use colloquialisms such as go to the loo, wee bit and sweet as. If you invite someone to a party, they might say, “Sweet as! I’ll be there.”
Cristillo continued, “As an American I am definitely an outsider and have to make myself part of the community. I’m not just accepted right off the bat because there’s a bit of hesitation investing in expats who might leave. I have made some relationships as strong as life-long ones in California.”
Rx: Remove Stress
Cristillo continued, “Some say living here is like America thirty years ago. The funny thing is that I could have had all the same experiences in California, but I wasn’t in the right head space to go looking for them.”
New Zealand seems to be a kind of a spiritual counselor for the former slave of his possessions.
“That’s a good analogy,” said Cristillo. “In the years since I’ve been away, I’ve come to realize that mainstream media has an agenda, and it ends up programming people’s beliefs, without their even knowing it. I’ve gotten out from under that propaganda by being here. I believe I see the world more objectively as a result. I’m very aware of inequities, of corporate malfeasance that prevents people from getting the basics they need just to survive.”
Veronica Anners has seen a great change in her brother. “Robbie isn’t caught up in trying to impress everyone with ‘stuff’ anymore. He is living a very simple life in a small town where he has everything he needs within walking distance. He lives for his dog (or baby girl as he would say) and loves where he lives. He has an amazing group of friends there who treat him like family, and I can tell that he is genuinely happy and healthy. I couldn’t be happier for him.”
What would you tell someone who has lost their work and life balance, but can’t drop everything and move 6,700 miles?
Cristillo answered, “I would ask them if they had the flu what would they do? They’d probably say go to the doctor and get medicine, whatever.
“Then I’d say I was so sick with the stress I had from the lack of work-life balance that I needed to do something for it, and moving here was like going to the doctor for a miracle cure.
“Stress is like cancer, it’s poison to people and I don’t think they realize it. Life can be so much better if you make reducing your stress a priority. A large part of my stress was being suffocated by material possessions.
“I do not have to be surrounded by material wealth to feel emotionally wealthy anymore. Just sitting on my back porch with Daisy and watching the clouds go by is enough to put a smile on my face and warmth in my heart.”
Does Robert Cristillo have a last word for those of us who work too hard to buy too much stuff and still feel unfulfilled?
“You don’t have to move a million miles away to change your life. You can find sanctuary in your own back yard if you’re willing. I’m pretty damn lucky to have found mine on the other side of the world.”
Photos courtesy of author.