Life in Spain: The trials and tribulations of retiring to rural Galicia

Heath Savage retired from the Sydney suburbs to rural Galicia. But she insists that doesn't mean she has slowed down.

Life in Spain: The trials and tribulations of retiring to rural Galicia
Photo: Neticola/Flickr

Some of my misguided friends and family seem to be under the impression that my Golden Years in Galicia entail all-day wine-drinking, punctuated by a spot of light gardening.

Permit me to share: my name is Heath, and I am a workaholic. Sure, I stop to smell the roses; while I am pruning and feeding them, or planting more. I am in perpetual motion. I have ADHD. This can be a friend or an enemy. It depends how I manage the condition. I have never used the prescribed drugs. Meaningful activity and short meditations that help me to focus work much better. Let’s just say: I am never bored.

‘Long-story-short, I worked in London, Los Angeles, Brussels and Bruges, as a chef and bar manager, for 20-odd years. I owned two successful restaurants. One of my favourite jobs was as chef on a Sydney millionaire’s vintage wooden sailing barque – preparing huge seafood feasts for up to a hundred guests. I nearly became Kerry Packer’s personal chef once, but I will save that story for my book!

When I hit my forties it all became too hard: the fourteen-hour-days, the pumping adrenaline rush, followed by the utter exhaustion. Working a six-day week for so many years took its toll on my health. Back then, my idea of a break was to take five minutes out by the bins, sitting on an upturned bucket, while I ran cold fizzy water onto my swollen feet and smoked a cigarette. Lunch was often a slice of bread swiped over the bottom of a gravy pan.

Reluctantly, I hung up my apron and re-trained. I chose counselling, and case management within the broad spectrum of community services. Eventually, I  coordinated a vocational education campus, wrangling a team of ten trainers, and 150 students, in one of Sydney’s toughest western suburbs. I was delighted to find that I could do this sitting down in a soft chair. At fifty-seven, after several serious stress-related illnesses floored me, I reckoned I had earned early release.

The rest, you already know: my partner and I did some research, moved to Galicia, bought an old house, and turned it into a very special place to work and live. Having a garden big enough to grow all my own food and keep animals, while I fulfill my dreams; writing a cook book, poetry and crime fiction is now a reality.

All very inspiring. How do I cope with setting my own schedule and pretty much pleasing myself day-to-day? No longer working on payroll  meant losing a very decent monthly income, so budgeting and financial planning had to become the first point of focus for us. Retirement is not a long vacation. It is a new staging post, and it requires a bit of practise to get it right. Without pensions or substantial savings, retirees are going to have to use any assets they have sensibly. My partner and I both work part-time online for overseas employers. We have to. We set this up before we left Australia.

Finances were only the start. A fear of intellectual stultification plagues me. Initially, I wondered if I would miss the interminable team, stakeholder and board meetings I had to attend daily (please excuse me while I laugh maniacally!) No, I’m coping without them. How about driving around Sydney, trying to find somewhere to park, in order to attend said meetings? Nah. I don’t miss that either. ‘Though I do miss screaming obscenities at other drivers, and the daily dramatic Mexican Stand-off for the one remaining parking space in Sydney. It’s just not the same winding down my window flipping off a stray cow for cutting me up.

Attending professional development courses to fulfill qualification update requirements, which ate up all of my spare time and money are not a part of my life that I gaze back at fondly. Nope. I cannot honestly say that I preferred sitting up until 3am on a Monday maintaining my compulsory PD matrix, to reading a book by the fire. The bliss that I experience when I just sit on the terrace staring contentedly into space with my snoring dog snuggled in my arms is medicine.

Joking apart, it is important to maintain an intellectual life that extends beyond vegging on the couch binge-watching favourite movies, while obsessing about renovations. I have found that revisiting all those projects and interests that never happened because work got in the way is good practise. I refuse to denigrate these dreams and ambitions and turn them into “hobbies.” Exploring the transferable skills that I have is exciting and energizing. What was I good at in my professional life, that can be adapted, or used now to earn some income? Retirement is not about passing the time.

Photo: Heath Savage enjoying her retirement.

Let me flip that: retirement is not about trying to justify having all this precious time to enjoy. The race is run. I crossed the finish line exhausted. I have earned a rest. A proper rest. Not five minutes on an up-turned bucket out by the bins. Besides, I quit smoking twenty years ago.

It’s all about balance. Not my forte! Yes, I still rise at six, sometimes five. But I allow myself the luxury of returning to bed after breakfast if I feel like it. The dog approves. I like to try to complete an hour or two of garden or house-work each day. The incidental exercise is beneficial, and it means not having to pay someone else to do it, like I used to when I worked full-time. I like to spend a couple of hours watching Youtube videos of things that I am really interested in: currently, I am enjoying an activity known as “Mud-larking” (treasure hunting on riverbanks), as well as craft and cooking videos. In the evenings I sometimes binge-watch movies, or tv series, and I read. Most importantly, I make time to write each day. Not enough, but I am getting there. Then, there is a little English teaching, for the extra income, and just because I love to teach. I am bloody good at it too. That gives me the professional self-esteem fix I sometimes need. You should never retire from what you do best, I think. Just seek new ways to use the skills.

I am not a finance expert, but I know that few people are fortunate enough to retire solely on savings and pensions, so a little income is essential. I also found that registering as Autonomo, and teaching just a few hours per week, makes better financial sense than paying through the nose for private health-care. This also gets you into the Spanish social security system, and contributes towards a Spanish pension. Please don’t rush to correct me. This works for me. You have to make your own enquiries and seek your own professional advice, as I did before you make important choices.

I am sure that most of you who are reading this are in a similar position to mine, so I won’t preach to the choir. I know that I need to throw as much enthusiasm, creativity and energy into my retirement from full-time work as I did into my careers. That’s how I roll. What’s the alternative? Atrophying agonizingly in a world of beige and daytime television? One retires from a career, not from life.


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Rampant branch closures and job cuts help Spain’s banks post huge earnings

Spain’s biggest banks this week reported huge profits in 2021 and cheered their return to recovery post-Covid, but ruthless cost-cutting in the form of thousands of layoffs, hundreds of branch closures and the removal of many ATMs have left customers in Spain suffering, in this latest example of ‘Capitalismo 2.0’. 

A man withdraws cash from a Santander branch in Madrid.
More than 3,500 Santander workers lost their jobs in Spain in 2021 and a further 2,000 more employees working for Santander across Europe were also laid off. Photo: PHILIPPE DESMAZES / AFP

Spanish banking giant Santander on Wednesday said it has bounced back from the pandemic as it returned to profit last year, beating analyst expectations and exceeding its pre-COVID earnings.

Likewise, Spain’s second-largest bank BBVA said on Thursday that it saw a strong rebound in 2021 following the Covid crisis, tripling its net profits thanks to a recovery in business activity.

It’s a similar story for Unicaja (€137 million profit in 2021), Caixabank (€5.2 billion profit thanks to merge with Bankia), Sabadell (€530 million profit last year), Abanca (€323 million profit) and all of Spain’s other main banks.

This may be promising news for Spain’s banking sector, but their profits have come at a cost for many of their employees and customers. 

In 2021, 19,000 bank employees lost their jobs, almost all through state-approved ERE layoffs, meant for companies struggling financially.

BBVA employees protest against layoffs in May 2021 in Madrid. Spain’s second-largest bank BBVA is looking to shed 3,800 jobs, affecting 16 percent of its staff, in a move denounced by unions as “scandalous”. (Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP)

Around 11 percent of bank branches in Spain have also been closed down in 2021 as part of Spanish banks’ attempts to cut costs, even though they’ve agreed to pay just under €5 billion in compensation.

Rampant branch closures have in turn resulted in 2,200 ATMs being removed since the Covid-19 pandemic began, even though the use of cajeros automáticos went up by 20 percent in 2021.

There are now 48,300 ATMs in Spain, levels not seen since 2001.


Apart from losses caused by the coronavirus crisis, Spain’s financial institutions have justified the lay-offs, branch closures and ATM removals under the premise that there was already a shift to online banking taking place among customers. 

But the problem has been around for longer in a country with stark population differences between the cities and so-called ‘Empty Spain’, with rural communities and elderly people bearing the brunt of it. 


Caixabank laid off almost 6,500 workers in the first sixth months of 2021. Photo: ANDER GILLENEA/AFP

Just this month, a 78-year-old Valencian man has than collected 400,000+ signatures in an online petition calling for Spanish banks to offer face-to-face customer service that’s “humane” to elderly people, spurring the Bank of Spain and even Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez to publicly say they would address the problem.

READ MORE: ‘I’m old, not stupid’ – How one Spanish senior is demanding face-to-face bank service

It’s worth noting that between 2008 and 2019, Spain had the highest number of branch closures and bank job cuts in Europe, with 48 percent of its branches shuttered compared with a bloc-wide average of 31 percent.

Below is more detailed information on how Santander and BBVA, Spain’s two biggest banks, have reported their huge profits in 2021.


Driven by a strong performance in the United States and Britain, the bank booked a net profit of €8.1 billion in 2021, close to a 12-year high. 

It was a huge improvement from 2020 when the pandemic hit and the bank suffered a net loss of €8.7 billion after it was forced to write down the value of several of its branches, particularly in the UK. It was also higher than 2019, when the bank posted a net profit of €6.5 billion.

Analysts from FactSet were expecting profits of €7.9 billion. 

“Our 2021 results demonstrate once again the value of our scale and presence across both developed and developing markets, with attributable profit 25 per cent higher than pre-COVID levels in 2019,” said chief executive Ana Botin in a statement.

Net banking income, the equivalent to turnover, also increased, reaching €33.4 billion, compared to €31.9 billion in 2020. This dynamic was made possible by a strong increase in customer numbers, with the group now counting almost 153 million customers worldwide. 

“We have added five million new customers in the last 12 months alone,” said Botin.

Santander performed particularly well in Europe and North America, with profits doubling in constant euros compared to 2020. In the UK, where Santander has a strong presence, current profit even “quadrupled” over the same period to €1.6 billion.

Last year’s net loss was the first in Banco Santander’s history, after having to revise downwards the value of several of its subsidiaries, notably in the UK, because of COVID.

The banking giant, which cut nearly 3,500 jobs at the end of 2020, in September announced an interim shareholder payout of €1.7 billion for its 2021 results. “In the coming weeks, we will announce additional compensation linked to the 2021 results,” it said.


The group, which mainly operates in Spain but also in Latin America, Mexico and Turkey, posted profits of €4.65 billion ($5.25 billion), up from €1.3 billion a year earlier.

The result, which followed a solid fourth quarter with profits of €1.34 billion, was higher than expected, with FactSet analysts expecting a figure of €4.32 billion .

Excluding non-recurring items, such as the outcome of a restructuring plan launched last year, it generated profits of 5.07 billion euros in what was the highest figure “in 10 years”, the bank said in a statement.

In 2020, the Spanish bank saw its net profit tumble 63 percent as a result of asset depreciation and provisions taken against an increase in bad loans due to the economic fallout of the virus crisis.

“The economic recovery over the past year has brought with it a marked upturn in banking activity, mainly in the loan portfolio,” the bank explained, pointing to a reduction of the provisions put in place because of Covid.

In 2021, BBVA added a “record” 8.7 million new customers, largely due to the growth of its online activities. It now has 81.7 million customers worldwide.

The group’s net interest margins also rose 6.1 percent year-on-year to €14.7 billion, said the bank, which is undergoing a cost-cutting drive.

So far, it has axed 2,935 jobs and closed down 480 branches as the banking sector undergoes increasing digitalisation and fewer and fewer transactions are carried out over the counter.

At the end of 2020, BBVA sold its US unit to PNC Financial Services for nearly 10 billion euros and decided to reinvest some of the funds in the Turkish market.

In November, it launched a bid to take full control of its Turkish lending subsidiary Garanti, offering €2.25 billion ($2.6 billion) to buy the 50.15 percent stake it does not yet own.

The deal should be finalised in the first quarter of 2022.