Panama can be one of the world’s greatest places to live on a lower budget than you could in a developed country, especially if you’re a retiree. It’s also a place favored by thousands of very wealthy Latin Americans and business tycoons, however. So whether you find the place a bargain largely depends on where you live and how you live.
As I’ve been mentioning lately, I’m working on a book called A Better Life for Half the Price, about moving abroad to a cheaper destination to lower your monthly expenses. Panama doesn’t figure into my World’s Cheapest Destinations travel book except as a brief honorable mention. While it’s cheaper than Costa Rica, it’s nowhere near as good a value as some other countries in Central America. It is a poster child for publications such as International Living though and has been for at least a decade. That’s for a lot of good reasons:
- It’s a very stable country politically.
- It uses the US dollar as its currency and inflation is minimal.
- The banking system is good.
- Health care is excellent and affordable in the cities.
- Taxes are low, including on alcohol and electronics.
- Regulations are minimal for setting up a business.
- It’s easy to get a residency visa.
- The pensionada program for retirees has terrific benefits.
Panama is no backwater dirt-poor country though relying on what they can grow or dig out of the ground to build wealth. There’s a large middle class employed in all kinds of decent-paying jobs, from call centers to quality construction to the Panama Canal to banking. Most multinational companies have a base here and the whole country is like a big duty free zone.
I did an interview that will air soon with Taylor White of the Overseas Property Insider Podcast. He’s stacking cash buying and selling real estate in Panama City, so he subscribes to the philosophy of “You’re going to spend what you’re going to spend, no matter where you are.” For some people that’s true and they didn’t move to Panama City to save money. Taylor spends about as much as he did in San Diego. You can spend a few hundred grand on a fancy condo with a view and there are plenty of temptations in terms of high-end restaurants, clubs, casinos, and beach resort excursions. For many, especially wealthy Latinos, the capital of this country is a “work hard, play hard” city akin to Miami. Living here can cost far less than Miami if you’re careful, but you can easily spend as much as you would there if you want.
There are retirees living in Panama City for less and the live abroad magazines and newsletters continually highlight people getting by on two U.S. social security checks—around $2,400 per month. A typical basket of goods and services is lower here, especially domestic help, transportation, domestic food, wine, and entertainment. Real estate is high for the region though as this is considered a “safe haven” investment for Venezuelans, Argentines, and others.
Outside the Big City
There are plenty of other places to live in Panama, however. Many retirees are attracted to the Chiriqui highlands around David and Boquete or the Bocas del Toro islands. Both these areas have far lower prices to rent or buy.
Former Texan Richard Kongable lived in a few places in Panama before moving to a rural area near Volcan, on the side of a mountain. I tried a few other places in Panama before settling here,” he says. “I like that I never need heat, I never need air conditioning, and there’’s always a gentle breeze. I’m on the edge of a valley, with a volcano on the left and two rivers. I can see islands in the ocean even though it’s an hour and 20 minutes away.”
Richard rented his house for years for $300 a month and thought he was going to have to leave eventually when the American owner put it up for sale. Instead the owner fell into health problems and needed to sell in a hurry, so with no buyers in sight Richard got the 1,600 square foot house for half price: $25,000. He estimates that his family of three spends about $1,700 a month, including car expenses and about $300 a month for his son’s private school.
Retirees Kris and Joel Cunningham pay $385 per month for a house in a nice middle class neighborhood on the edge of David, Panama and they love it. “We have woods and a river behind us, there’s only one way into the neighborhood so it feels really safe. We’re surrounded by local professionals who are just lovely people.”
The Cunninghams were paying $1,200 per month in Sarasota, Florida where they lived before on their mortgage and taxes. If they had been renting, it would have been more. “The house next to us, similar to what we have now, was renting for $1,500 per month,” she adds.
They have been living on her husband’s social security payment and have a little savings from selling their house in Florida. Kris was about to start receiving her own social security payment when I talked to her, which will double their income and enable them to meet the income requirements for the pensionada program: $1,000 for one person plus $250 for each dependent. “It’s already so cheap though, I feel kind of guilty getting all those extra discounts,” she says.
Kris Cunningham says she has been pleasantly surprised by low costs in Panama, particularly groceries. “Food is definitely a great deal, especially fruit and vegetables. If you spend $20 on those in our local market it will be more than you can carry. We paid two or three times more for almost everything at home, including meat and fish. If you buy what the locals buy and cook, living here is very cheap.”
There’s the key advice that applies almost anywhere in the world: eat what’s local and you’ll probably be both healthier and wealthier. The usual advice that goes with that is to avoid imported products. With some of the cheapest wine and liquor prices in the world here though, you don’t have to make any adjustments in what you drink. This is one of the few places in the world where California wine is cheaper than in Napa Valley and Chilean wine is cheaper than in Santiago. (See this post on prices to booze it up in Panama.)