Living the Mexpat Life

“So what’s it like living there in Mexico?”

I started this Cheapest Destinations blog way back when as a place to provide advice on traveling well for less. That mission has stayed basically the same, so while some may say I’m foolish to not exploit my “personal brand” on here more, I’m usually content to help others find travel bargains instead of talking about myself and what I’m doing every week.

I keep getting e-mails from people asking me what it’s like living in Mexico though, so here’s a quick post on life as a Mexpat.

I moved to Guanajuato, Mexico on June 30 with my wife and daughter and have been loving every day of it since. This is a beautiful colonial city that was already a city before the pilgrims landed way up north. It’s surrounded by mountains and most of the traffic moves in tunnels underneath, meaning the pedestrians outnumber cars about 30 to 1 in the center. I walk almost everywhere, only taking a taxi two or three times a week when it’s too far or too late.

This picture below is a view from our roof deck. (Here are more roof deck views.) We pay $800 a month for two furnished side-by-side apartments, utilities and internet included, a total of four bedrooms and two baths. One of the apartments I use for my office and for the steady stream of visitors we receive. A maid comes once a week and cleans up: $12 to $16 depending on whether we have her do both apartments or not. Our babysitter charges a shade under $3 an hour. Not everything is cheaper here though: here’s a sample list of what’s cheap and what’s pricey.

We are at 6,500 feet, so the weather is gorgeous all year. The lowest it gets in the winter is about 40F, the highest it ever gets in the summer is about 85F. Most days the range is 60-80F. Apart from a few rainy days in July and August, it’s sunny all the time.

Few people speak English here (unlike nearby San Miguel de Allende, which is dominated by retirees from the U.S. and Canada). So every day I use at least a little Spanish every time I leave the house and I regularly take lessons and study at home to improve. My daughter is becoming very fluent: she goes to a Spanish-only Waldorf school and her neighborhood friends don’t speak any English. She was quite upset when we told her we were packing up the house and moving to Mexico, that she would be going to school in Spanish, but now that she’s in it—and thanks to some intensive study at a language school in the summer—she’s absolutely loving it.

Overall, this has been an easy experience. The hard part was packing up our house in the U.S., taking care of all the address changes and such, selling off a lot of possessions, and putting things in storage. Once we actually made the move, life got easier. There’s less stress here, people move more slowly, people aren’t so obsessed with their work, and there’s far less of a “buy buy buy” consumer culture.

There are adjustments, of course. Nothing gets done as fast as we would like it to, but you go with the flow because that’s the way it is. Living in a cash-based society is tough sometimes, especially when you get dinged $5-$7 every time you hit the ATM machine to access your bank account back home. You have to always have a lot of money on hand: the doctor and dentist are paid in cash, you shop at the market or the butcher shop with cash, you go out to eat with cash.

Speaking of the doctor and dentist though, I’ve found a great way to solve the U.S. health care crisis: move everyone to Mexico. A cleaning and checkup at one of the best dentist offices in town is under $50. A visit to the doctor is $35 to $50, including follow-ups. Most prescription drugs are far cheaper here—probably because the companies are not spending millions a day on TV ads trying to convince you to “ask your doctor about…”

We picked a great year for our sabbatical: this is the year Mexico is celebrating its bicentennial—the time it started the revolution to become independent. Someday soon I’ll put together a video and photo montage of some of the crazy and just plain interesting things we’ve seen here, but with the Cervantino Festival going on right now and Day of the Dead coming up, I’ve got to add some more material to the mix first.

  1. Mario B

    What, you haven’t been kidnapped, beheaded, and thrown down a mine shaft? That’s what happens to everyone who goes to Mexico. I heard it on Fox News, so I’m sure the story was fair and balanced.

  2. Kyle

    About those ATM fees: We’ve had a checking account with Schwab since we started traveling and have been pretty happy with it, except for some ridiculous paperwork. At the end of the month, we get reimbursed all ATM fees. Might be an option for you as to not get dinged every time you need some cash.

    • tim

      Thanks for that info Kyle. I can’t remember now why I chose the Fidelity cash account over the Schwab one as I have retirement accounts at both, but I’m glad to hear your experience is going well in terms of the ATM fees. Good that there’s another option for international travelers!

      • Spring Hawk

        Guanajuato City, or Guanajuato State ?

        • tim


          I’ve never met someone who said they were from the state of Guanajuato. They say San Miguel, or Salamanca, Leon, or Dolores Hidalgo.

          • SpringHawk

            and to confuse matters more, there’s…

            Mexico (the Nation),
            Mexico (the State), and
            Mexico (the City)

  3. Cathy

    Spanish is not that hard to learn at any age, so similar to English. Are crimes that bad there as are reported on news?

    • tim

      Well, learning any language is a pain in the rear when you’re an adult if you ask me, but Spanish is certainly easier than Mandarin or Thai. As for safety in Mexico, here’s an article with real statistics:

      As I’ve said before, you’re more likely to get shot in a church or post office in the U.S. than you are to get killed as a tourist in Mexico. (Though moving to Ciudad Juarez is certainly going to increase those odds of harm coming to you exponentially.)

  4. jim johnston

    I was struck by your words ‘There’s less stress here, people move more slowly, people aren’t so obsessed with their work, and there’s far less of a “buy buy buy” consumer culture.’ The same applies to my current home town, Mexico City. Despite the 20 million+ population, a surprising calmess reigns. If Mexico could import that instead of drugs, our problems would be solved.

  5. Michael H

    [quote]Most prescription drugs are far cheaper here—probably because the companies are not spending millions a day on TV ads trying to convince you to “ask your doctor about…”[/quote]

    Are the prescriptions you’re getting the actual medication or are you getting cheap knockoffs?

    My understanding was that the drug companies do a lot of R&D and that all happens in the US where we have strong IP laws.

    Enjoyed the read though. Keep up the good work.

    • tim

      Michael, anyone who tells you drugs from Mexico or Canada aren’t as effective is probably a lobbyist for Big Pharma or is in their pocket. Same stuff, just more affordable. Like in the U.S., you can get the name brand or you can get a generic, often times both sporting the same manufacturer as in the states, but as a drastically lower price. There’s a long tradition of U.S. retirees taking trips over the border just to stock up on their meds. (India and China are a different story, however…)

  6. Jeremy

    Michael H – U.S. drug companies used to do a lot of R&D to solve real problems. Now they’re spending most of that on me-too drugs to give you a longer hard-on or keep your forehead from showing any emotion.

    The prescription drugs in Mexico (and Canada) are the real thing. They just don’t cost as much because nobody will put up with an 80% profit margin for the drug companies in those countries. In the U.S. we pay the highest drug prices in the world, by far. That’s partly because of our screwed-up health care system with few cost controls, but the bottom line is we get screwed.

    • David

      80% profit margin for drugs, that’s not health care that’s extortion.

  7. Boo

    “you get dinged $5-$7 every time you hit the ATM machine to access your bank account back home”
    Easily solved. I’m in east Asia, and the first thing I did was start to get cash flowing directly to my local bank here. Even if you have significant transactions continuing in the US, HSBC is set up to handle that kind of thing in their premium accounts. I have no remaining financial connections there, and it took me about a year before I closed my US account. Mainly it took that long for sentimental reasons.

    • tim

      Boo, that only makes sense if you don’t run a business anymore that interfaces with U.S. customers. Or you’re not freelancing for companies in your former country. For a long list of transactions I conduct, a U.S. account number and routing number is necessary. Also, Paypal doesn’t work with many foreign bank accounts, or your ability to transfer funds quickly and in large quantities is hobbled. Last, many U.S. companies that pay me do so with direct deposit into a U.S. bank account. If they had to transfer that money internationally it would be $25-35 on each end for every transaction. (Believe me, I’ve dealt with this with European clients and it’s a royal pain if they can’t use Paypal.)

      For the long-term expat who has given up on the U.S. for good, your situation will indeed save a few bucks. For those of us doing a sabbatical or working as a location-independent worker or business owner, maintaining a bank account in the home country is essential.

      I’d love to hear more about how your program works in Asia, but I know in Mexico your HSBC account is not really linked to your home one: a person can’t deposit money in your account in the U.S. and you be able to withdraw it in Mexico. For whatever reason, they’re treated as two different accounts. Same with ScotiaBank.

      • boo

        HSBC Premium here allows you to open HSBC accounts in other countries in the world (including the US) and tranfer funds to and fro at no charge. Major advantage. Then, you use the local account. Of course, that’s the Premium, which has a minimum deposit.
        I used to freelance too, and agree it is difficult to get paid without a presence in the customer’s country.

  8. Tracy

    Hi there, I have enjoyed reading your articles about Guanajuato! Do you have any recommendations for apartment rentals? We’re thinking about spending 3-5 weeks there this summer. Debating whether or not we want to add a week or two in Oaxaca or devote the whole time here learning Spanish and working remotely. I saw you suggested the language school which we will do but I was wondering if you have any other contacts you would recommend. Is it easy to just turn up and find a place within a couple of days? Thanks!

  9. Jim

    Well, I agree with your smart daughter. It’s too noisy. And mariachi and banda music are dreadful. Now if one could just live among considerate neighbors without worrying about the no zoning and the threat of some bar or metal shop opening next to your house, I’d be more sanguine about living in Mexico. Chaos can be fun for a week, perhaps, especially if you’re young, but not as a permanent feature of life. Of course, the sterile, consumer lifestyle in the rapidly emerging US police state is far worse; but there are better places in the world than either of these two.

  10. Jason Pelker

    Tim, your life and writings inspired me to move to Guanajuato.

    After five days in Mexico City for Dia de Muertes, I landed in Guanajuato on Sunday. Today, I rented a house in Pasita and climbed that big brown mountain. I also ate a platter of sushi for less than $4.

    I love this place. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life and I’m sure that it will change my better significantly for the better.

    Thank you.

    • Tim Leffel

      Thanks Jason—that’s great! You’re in my neighborhood even, so let’s grab a beer sometime.

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