[Want a later version of this? See the cheapest in 2016 post.]
If you’ve been following this Cheapest Destinations Blog for a while, you know that every year I do a post on the cheapest places to live in the world. It’s not that things change so drastically from year to year, but there are political and exchange rate changes that can make some places fall out of favor and others fall in. There are also changes in visa policies, banking regulations, or the environment for foreigners that can change the landscape.
This year is a bit different in the sense that I’m celebrating the release of my new book, A Better Life for Half the Price. Subtitled “How to prosper on less money in the cheapest places to live,” it’s a comprehensive guide to the why, how, and where on moving abroad to cut your expenses in half. There you’ll find more detailed info on the cheapest places to retire around the world, as well as the best places for location independent digital nomads, business owners, and families.
And yes, in any of the countries outlined below, you can easily cut your monthly expenses by 50% without trying very hard. You can “Cut loose instead of cutting back” because unlike most of the advice you see on frugal living blogs, I’m not telling you to give up what you enjoy or to sacrafice now in order to have a richer retirement (or an early one). If you just change your address, you can live a much better life: go out more, eat better, have a nicer apartment, and hire people to do things you would rather not do yourself—like clean the house. All while spending significantly less each month on bills than you’re spending now.
Here are the best bets for cheap living abroad. Sign up for the newsletter for regular updates and a free report, or get great detailed advice with the book or more advanced packages.
Cheapest Places to Live in Latin America
For Americans and Canadians, Latin America is the easiest region. You don’t have to deal with jet lag, you can usually find flights for a price that won’t kill you to go back and forth, and if you’re trying to run a business you don’t have to radically alter your schedule to attend conference calls or get in touch with those wanting to hire you for a project. The countries here are used to dealing with foreigners and have fairly straightforward residency application paths. They all give you at least 90 days as a tourist also, which makes it pretty easy to do a temporary move or a trial run.
When it comes to current events making a place more attractive for foreigners, Argentina is in the top spot this year. Combine a strong dollar with a local financial mess and you get a great climate for someone entering with foreign currency. You need that money from elsewhere to get the full effect of this though, so it’s best to use a service like Xoom unless you will be bringing in a briefcase full of cash on a regular basis. that’s because while the official exchange rate may be 8.6 or so, the “blue rate” you get on the street is currently around 13. See more info on that in this post: Argentina is Cheap Again.
See this other post on the cost of living in Argentina, based on real numbers I got from people living in the country. Besides bargains on rent, good wine, and good food, this is a very easy place to set up residency. You can get legal if you have the patience for Argentina’s legendary bureaucracy, or you can just leave the country every three months (Chile and Uruguay are neighbors) to get a new tourist visa. If you overstay your visa there’s a fine of about $40 regardless of how long you’ve overstayed, so you could go for years if you wanted to test it. Just be advised that there are serious import restrictions in place and the country could collapse at any moment. Locals say there’s a crisis every decade or so and the way things are headed it’s a matter of when, not if…
Always a great value on the USA’s doorstep, this favorite destination of both tourists and expats will be an even better deal this year. That’s because the peso is 14.7 to the dollar as I write this, way off its historic norm. Eventually prices will creep up, especially for anything imported or using imported ingredients. The main reason you can live a half price life in Mexico though is because of drastically lower rents, local food prices, and labor costs. Those three things will remain largely unchanged.
I’ve posted before on what it costs me and my family to live in Guanajuato, Mexico. This highland area is aided in costs by the fact that houses don’t need to have heat or air conditioning. The weather is nice all year round apart from some rain for a few months. Naturally if you want to move to Playa del Carmen or Puerto Vallarta, you’re’ going to spend much more per month because of higher utility bills and the prevalence of foreign tourists driving up prices. If it’s a place filled with gringos (including Ajijic and San Miguel de Allende in the interior), you won’t see the same savings as you would where there are fewer of them. You can still live a half price life in these places though—many easily do that—and you can always bring down costs by learning to communicate in Spanish and shopping/eating where the locals do.
Central America’s poorest country is a dream destination for anyone looking for a cheap place to settle down and live a laid-back tropical life. If you’re American or Canadian and you ask me where you could pack a few suitcases and take off with just a grand or two in your bank account, this is where I’d tell you to go. You can stay a while on a tourist visa, there’s a good expat support critical mass in place, and you can coast along for cheap while you get established. You’ll probably pay more to fly your surfboard down than you will for your first week’s meals and
groceries. The average after-tax salary in this country is around $600 a month, so if you’ve got just an average social security check to live on, you’re still going to be relatively well-off by local standards.
“My pension alone is 3-4 times what the average Nica makes,” American Jim Lynch told me over coffee in Granada. “We spend around $1,800 a month, which is extravagant by local standards. We live in a big air-conditioned house with a swimming pool. We eat out whenever we want, wherever we want. Medical care is so inexpensive here we don’t even have insurance. We just pay for things as they come up. I had to go to the best hospital in Managua for surgery and it was cheap enough that I put it on a credit card.” Gord and Elisha MacKay have lived in three cities in the country and have paid $300 to $500 in rent. They’re now paying $300 for a furnished house in San Juan del Sur and you can see a breakdown of their $1,400 in Nica living expenses in a typical month on their blog.
This favorite of International Living and the like has a lot going for it. The places where foreigners settle tend to be highland areas that don’t get too hot, like Cuenca, Quito, and Vilcabamba. So low utility costs are added to low costs for rent, labor, and food. The people I interviewed for my book were paying between $280 and $600 per month for rent in Cuenca, that last one being a house of 2,000 square feet. Many retirees have bought a house or condo outright for $100K or less and just have to pay maintenance charges. The family of three running the Gringos Abroad blog usually gets by on $1,000 per month—total. Nobody I talked to was spending more than $2,000 on living expenses, including the couple living in a luxury penthouse I visited.
There’s a lot to do in Ecuador at a variety of climates: you can hit the coastal beaches or jungle and be at sea level or head into the mountains and be at 10,000 feet or more. There are also good incentives for those 65 and older, like 50% off all national and international airfare, 50% off all cultural and recreational events, and 50% off some utility charges. As long as you can show $800 or more in monthly income, you’ll qualify for a residency visa. You don’t have to change money here: the currency is the U.S. dollar. Just don’t move here if you’re a lush though: alcohol prices are abnormally high. See more price info here: Cheap Living in Ecuador.
This is not one of The World’s Cheapest Destinations for travel, but it is for living. That’s thanks to great affordable health care, terrific residency incentives, and generally reasonable living expenses. On the health care side, it’s not unusual to pay $20 to see a doctor (or $45 for a house call), $35 to see the dentist and get a cleaning, $350 for a crown, or a shade over $10,000 for surgery at the best hospital, including a couple nights in a bed there.
Panama has the world’s best pensionada program for retirees, but really you don’t have to be retired or even old. You just need to show $1,000 a month in income and you can import your household goods, import or buy a car tax-free, and get a long list of discounts. These include 50% off recreation and entertainment activities, 30% off inter-city buses & trains, 25% off flights, 30-50% off the rack rate of hotels (depending on day of the week), 25% discount in sit-down restaurants, 15-20% off medical costs, 10% discount for prescription medicines, and a 25% discount on electric and water bills. They use the U.S. dollar here, the government is relatively stable, and there’s a solid banking system in place. Copa Airlines is based here, so flight connections are good, and there’s a lot to see and do in the country and in nearby ones.
This country of beautiful countrysides and beautiful women gets more popular each year as the safety situation continues to improve and the word gets out to more people. The favorite city for foreigners is Medellin and you can find out almost everything you want to know about that place from David Lee’s Medellin Living site. There are lot of posts on there with specific costs of living from him and others.
As I write this Colombia is more attractive than it has been in years thanks to a rising U.S. dollar—currently exchanging for 2,364 Colombian pesos. (You might want to keep that calculator app handy when you visit the ATM.) This is the headquarters of Avianca Airlines, so there are great flight options within and out of the country. Nobody actually likes flying on Spirit Air, but they can get you in and out of Colombia for cheap, flying into multiple destinations direct.
Other Cheap Places to Live in Latin America
These are just a few of the options covered in detail in A Better Life for Half the Price. Also look at Peru, where the dollar is stronger than it has been in a while. Or Bolivia, which is super-cheap for a three-month stay on a tourist visa or a longer one if you can get through all the bureaucracy. Speaking of frustrating waits at government offices, that’s the toughest part about moving to Guatemala, another bargain. The crime rate is high there though, if you’re spooked by that, as it is in another bargain place to travel or live: Honduras.
The Cheapest Places to Live in Asia
Whenever people ask me where the absolute cheapest places to go as a backpacker are, I’ve been giving the same answer for more than a decade now: India, Nepal, or Indonesia. Those also happen to be some of the cheapest places to live, but none of them make it easy for you to stay long-term. In general, unless you’re from there, have a work permit, or are married to a local, you’ll find it very hard to spend a long stretch of time in the country without doing visa runs. In the case of India and Nepal, you’ll also have to stay out a while too before coming back with a fresh visa to start over. If you’re a digital nomad though or you’re fine with taking off for a few months when the monsoon hits, the payoff is that you can live a good life for under $1,000 a month in any of the three. The dollar is quite strong right now against all three currencies as well.
There are some areas within these countries that are more costly than others, of course. Mumbai and Bangalore are quite costly by Indian standards and Bali is quite expensive by Indonesian standards. If you can venture beyond those, you’ll be much better off. For Indonesia, you’ll also have to factor in visa run expenses and for most people that means a flight to Singapore.
If you’re looking for the cheapest and easiest place to become a resident in Asia, Cambodia wins by a mile. You can buy a business visa that’s good for a year for $280 after arrival and you can get a new one easily (without leaving the country) when that one expires. And unlike in most other countries, here they don’t care if you work or start a business. As long as you don’t do anything to rub some official the wrong way, they’ll leave you alone. This is a rather libertarian country overall, with market forces guiding government decisions more than top-down planning. You can’t technically own land as a foreigner, but there are ways around that by setting up a corporation. You can easily buy a condo though or just rent.
A foreign hotel manager I interviewed in Siem Reap said, “I don’t know anyone paying more than $500 a month for an apartment or house.” If you go higher than that you’ll probably be sharing a huge place with a doorman and a pool. You’ll find some of the cheapest beach living prices in the world here as well. When I was doing research for my book, I found a whole slew of furnished houses for rent near Sihanoukville for $200 to $500 per month and one six-bedroom one for $600.
So what will it cost you to live in Cambodia? If you’re spending $1,500 to $2,000 here, you’re living large, like the elite. You could easily get by on half that amount and still live comfortably. Factor in flights to Bangkok though if you are going to need serious medical care. The hospitals aren’t exactly known for being world class.
As Vietnam’s economy has grown and the middle class has expanded, more foreigners have moved in and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) is now a major hub for digital nomads. It’s an easy place to start or run a business, with tech-savvy locals who speak English to hire and fast internet connections. You can fly in today and be in a furnished short-term rental apartment tomorrow for $400 to $800 a month, including internet and a regular maid who will do your laundry too. In smaller cities you can find a whole family-sized house for that.
A lot of apartments don’t have kitchens because it’s so cheap to eat out. You can get a good street stall meal for a buck or two and a large beer or fresh-squeezed juice for a dollar too. The Vietnamese dong usually trades at around 20,000 to the dollar, but right now it’s at 21,276.
I’m a bit reluctant to put Thailand in here this year because a bad visa situation has gotten even worse lately. This remains a very popular expat destination though for a variety of reasons. Prices are still relatively cheap, the food is terrific, and there’s a lot to see and do. Plus for many single men, the very liberal attitudes about sex are a big draw.
This is becoming a tougher and tougher place to live long-term, however, unless you’ve scored a work permit or are old enough to get a retirement visa. Otherwise you used to have to leave the country every two or three months and after doing that two or three times they wouldn’t let you back in anymore. Now it’s getting even more strict, so the days of unlimited visa runs are long gone. People keep coming though and there’s no deny that Thailand is a cheap place to live. Search “Chiang Mai $500 a month” and you’ll find all kinds of blog posts from people who have gotten by for that amount. That takes some frugal living, but $1,000 to $1,500 a month is easily doable while still eating well and having lots of fun, even in Bangkok or on Ko Samui island. Just be advised though you can’t just show up and start teaching English on a tourist visa. The good news is, they’re supposedly making it easier to get a work permit for this and it’ll be good for two years.
Other Places to Live in Asia
I also have detailed info on Malaysia in A Better Life for Half the Price and this is an easier place to get long-term residency than Thailand or Indonesia. If you’re of retirement age and are willing to buy property, you can get all kinds of incentives as well. There aren’t a whole lot of foreigners in Laos who aren’t working for some kind of NGO, but that’s another cheap option in the region if you’re drawn to there and are willing to put in the time and effort to get residency sorted out. Many older men looking for a young wife are drawn to the Philippines, plus it’s a good place to set up a business that’s going to hire from the large English-speaking labor pool.
The Cheapest Places to Live in Europe
The Western Europe country of Portugal is a pretty inexpensive place to travel, but it’s an even better deal as a place to live. Some of the people I’ve interviewed who live there are coasting by on less than $2,000 for a couple and it’s relatively easy to find a nice house or apartment to rent throughout the country for 350 to 800 euros. Foreigners can also buy any property outright and with the country still trying to climb out of their financial crisis, there are plenty of bargains around. Prices have remained stable for years on staple items since the population can’t absorb many increases with such high unemployment. You can eat well and drink good wine for cheap within the country and the only things that seems outrageously priced are the toll road charges.
This is a very easy country to get residency in if you’re already from the European Union. It’s much tougher for those outside the EU, but it can be done. It’s also possible to get a six-month visa if you apply at the embassy in your home country—twice as long as you’d normally get anywhere in the Schengen countries. If you do want to stay long-term though, be prepared to shell out a good bit of money for an attorney and gather up lots and lots of documents.
The gorgeous country of Bulgaria is the best travel bargain in Europe and it’s also one of the cheapest places to live in the whole world. You can buy a house on eBay for less than $20,000 and one couple I interviewed paid far less than that: prices were so low they ended up buying three properties and renting out the other two. You can buy a two-bedroom condo for less than $50,000 in a ski village and rents range from €150 to €500 throughout the country—that last amount being for a high-end place in Sofia. Here’s a recent guest post from a Bulgarian blogger on what you can expect to spend.
The people I’ve talked to who lived or now live in the country say that it’s quite easy to get by on $1,000 a month not counting travel outside the country. If you’re spending $1,500, that’s twice as much as the average local makes, so it’s not hard to be upper-class here on the equivalent of two social security checks. Right now the dollar is getting more euros than it did a year or two ago, which means you’ll get more local lev as well. Just be advised this a a real four-season country though, with relatively cold winters, especially at higher elevations.
This popular travel destination can also get cold in the winter, especially in Budapest, but the expatriates who live there say this is a fun and festive time at least. Hungary is a real bargain though if you want to live a European life at a fraction of normal European prices. It’s an even better deal right now for Americans, with the dollar fetching 260 forints. That means the hearty local food and excellent wine is costing less now than it has in quite a while.
You won’t pay a lot for rent here, even in Budapest. It’s unheard of to meet someone paying four digits for rent unless they’re a foreign executive living in a huge luxury apartment or house. More commonly you’ll hear prices of $300 to $650 for a one- or two-bedroom place in a good district of the capital. Move to a smaller town and you’ll get something large with a yard for that amount. For more info, see this detailed post on the cost of living in Hungary.
Other Places to Live in Europe
There are plenty of other reasonably priced places to live in Europe, including Romania, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and the countries in and around the Balkans like Macedonia, Montenegro, and Albania. From what I saw in Greece in October, for now you could probably live there (apart from the most popular islands) for half of what it costs in the U.S., Canada, England, or Australia with a little effort in finding a good apartment deal.
What About Africa?
In the book I feature Morocco as another place to consider for half-price living and at some point will have a guest post from an American blogger living there. Hobo Traveler Andy Graham has spent a lot of time living on the cheap in Togo. Most of the time South Africa—the most favored African country for expats who aren’t aid workers—has not been a half-price living option. But check out this chart of the rand rate vs. the U.S. dollar over the past four years. If you had your heart set on Cape Town, here’s your window.
There are probably dozens of places you could live for half price in Africa, but the challenge is doing it with the creature comforts you’re used to for that half price. The countries on this continent can be surprisingly expensive if you want to keep up your current standards in housing, internet access, and a balanced diet.
If you’ve made it this far and want to learn more, check out A Better Life for Half the Price or sign up for the Cheap Living Abroad newsletter and get a free report on where to stay four months or more on a tourist visa.