Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
Somewhere in the world right now someone a lot like you is paying 1/3 what you do for a meal out, 1/4 what you do for a similar house or apartment, 1/5 what you do for transportation each month, and 1/10 what you do each year on health and dental costs. And they’re having a blast.
“May you live in interesting times” is a wish that’s certainly coming true for many in 2012, but not always in a good way. The U.S. recovery feels like the act of winching a sunken car out of a lake and it’s taking years to pull it off. Europe is in full meltdown mode, with little agreement on how to fix the problems. The boom in the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) seems to be braking fast as demand from the rest of the world slows and internal politics make the situation worse.
[Note – there’s a newer version of this article with updates. See The Cheapest Places to Live in the World updates at that link.]
Even in countries doing relatively well, like Thailand, Vietnam, Turkey, Chile, Panama, and Mexico, when Europe and the U.S. get the sniffles, everyone else comes down with a cold.
A good $1.50 reason to live in Thailand.
But some people are living quite well right now without being wealthy. They’ve moved to one of the cheapest places to live in the world instead of staying where they were born and whining. If you’ve got some cash or a stable income, temporary economic problems present great opportunities. In some parts of the world, historic opportunities are here that may not appear again for decades or more. Even in stability, however, some very nice places to live just have a lower cost of living. So you live well for less.
As always, renters face different circumstances than buyers. Young mobile workers face different challenges and have different needs than retirees. In all cases, take what’s below as a starting point and do your homework! Every year when I do this post, I get dozens of comments and e-mails saying basically, “Here’s my situation. Where should I move to?” Perhaps there’s a business in there somewhere for a consultant, but I suspect most of the people asking this are looking for a free shortcut. There is no such thing. Research and personal visits are the only ways to find a place that’s right for you. Travel, try places out, and invest as much time in this choice as you would any other major life choice. And rent at first in case you make a mistake! Some places look better as a tourist than they do as a resident.
Now that House Hunters International has been exposed as being totally fake almost every episode, forget the idea you can travel to some place you’ve never visited, pick from three houses to find the perfect one, and be done in a weekend. Finding your perfect spot and a good value—renting or buying—requires some time and effort. Just like it would in your own town you know so well. Subscribe to International Living Magazine, find articles and expat message boards on places you’re considering. Look at Craigslist for that city to gauge rental prices. (Here’s the apartment rentals page for Ecuador, for instance.) Buy e-books written by people who live there. This is your future life we’re talking about, so invest in it!
And remember—moving abroad is not some freakish thing nobody has done before. Foreigners own the equivalent land area of New Jersey in Argentina. There are over a million Americans and Canadians who live at least part of the year in Mexico. If you added up all the expat Americans abroad, it would equal the population of Connecticut. So ignore the paranoid naysayers and go find your cheaper, more relaxed destination with a sane and humane health care system.
Cheapest Places to Live – Asia
Much of Asia is dirt cheap and there are plenty of places where you can live well on a fraction of what you spend now. Good food, lots of beaches, easy transportation, but…difficult visa issues.
In one interview I read, Godfree Roberts talks about his living expenses in Chiang Mai: $850 per month. He admits he has been living a pretty simple life, but that does include eating out for every meal. (In some countries, there’s not much savings in cooking for yourself.) So no, Thailand is not as cheap as it once was, but it’s still a bargain. Take a look at his medical expenses there especially. In the past you had to do visa runs from there though unless you had a corporate sponsor or were wealthy. That’s changing, finally. In short, if you have verifiable income of $2K a month and invest $25K or more in a condo or business, you’re in.
Indonesia is even tougher because your tourist visa time is so short. Almost every expat who lives there has a work permit or an Indonesian spouse. You can’t really buy property otherwise and you can’t stay long enough for a long-term rental. If you could and didn’t have a child in school, you could easily live on $1,500 a month without trying. It’s the same story with Vietnam, where the price is right but a tourist visa is only good for one month.
Laos and Cambodia aren’t much easier, though with some patience and persistence, you can live in those places a pretty long time if you go through the right steps. If you check one of the forums for people living in Cambodia you’ll find people paying $400 a month or less (sometimes far less) for rent. A foreigner can buy condos there and supposedly you can buy citizenship if you flash enough cash.
You could live here for next to nothing, but you might want to upgrade…
Here’s a great, detailed article on Living in Laos, where it would also be very easy to get by on less than a grand a month. You’ll be renting for sure: for now a foreigner can’t technically own so much as a motorbike.
Malaysia is still the easiest place in Asia to buy your way in. Their My Second Home program officially asks for proof of income of $3,000 per month and if you’re going to buy property they want you to spend at least $147,000. If you can do these though, it’s a very cheap place to retire, with great health care and excellent food.
India and Nepal are easier places to live, at least for a while, because you get 6 months on a tourist visa in India 60-150 days in Nepal. Moon Living Abroad in India will give you advice on the official and unofficial steps people take, as well as all the cultural pitfalls. In either of these countries it would very easy to live on $1,000 a month or less unless you’re in one of the major Indian cities. (Most people, given a choice, would not live in one of those uber-polluted places anyway).
Bargain-priced cafes on a pedestrian street in Transylvania.
Cheapest Places to Live- Europe
You will pay a lot more to live here, but Europe is down for the count right now and the list of countries in serious trouble is long. If you just look at debt crisis problems, the ones getting the most attention have been Ireland, Greece, Portugal, Spain, and Italy. I don’t expect Italy to get all that much cheaper unless all hell breaks loose, but you can already see massive real estate mark-downs in the others, in some cases going back to levels we last saw 10 years ago or more. If you’ve been thinking of buying a Spanish seaside condo or an ivy-covered cottage on the Emerald Isle, take a vacation and start looking at listings, especially auctions if you’ve got cash to invest.
I’ve seen a few articles that have Greece and “freefall” in the same headline. If you’ve got lots of time to wait for appreciation or want to buy a Greek island house to leave to your kids, you’ll find plenty of sellers. Remove the uncertainty though and just rent to get a deal for real. Look on Craigslist for Greece and you’ll find apartments for 250 to 500 euros all over the place, including one studio I saw with a penthouse view of the Parthenon. Start digging around locally on the islands and there should be plenty of vacation homes/condos for rent from people who can’t go on vacation right now.
In Spain, banks are in much the situation as the U.S., with lots of foreclosed real estate on their books they would love to get rid of. In some cases prices have dropped 50% and you can get 95% financing. Go for quality though and high-occupancy buildings for condos. There’s lots of junk on the “Costa del Concrete.”
Or you can just go where the living has been cheap all along. Head east to the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, or Bulgaria and you’ll see prices too low to believe. You have to get out of the tourist zones of Prague and Budapest of course, but look at this photo for what condos are going for in Sofia, Bulgaria. I saw ski resort ones going for even less in an overbuilt resort zone and towns I liked up north had full homes for similar prices. And everything else is a bargain too. See prices for travelers in Bulgaria.
The USA Outlook
There’s a good reason Florida is filled with Canadians each winter. With the loonie appreciating greatly the past few years and U.S. real estate prices tumbling, it’s been a good time to look south. If you were looking at picking up a bargain here though, better get on it. Prices declined by double digits in most states in 2009 and 2010. In 2011 they only went down 2.1%. This year they’re expected to rise a modest but significant 0.2%. So the trend line is clear. Barring a new disaster, we should be on our way back up right now.
Some places are already seeing a clear uptick. Bidding wars have returned to some spots in California. I saw more Sold and Pending signs in my Tampa neighborhood this summer than I saw the previous 9 months combined. New home builders are getting lots of orders again. If you’ve got good credit and a down payment, you can take advantage of record low interest rates.
If you’re renting though, the U.S. is not so attractive right now. A flood of new renters have come on the market and inventory is tight nationwide, especially in good school zones and areas with lots of young professionals. Again though, locality matters. The average rental price of a 3BR house in Detroit is $721. In San Francisco it’s $4,770. If your job is mobile, use this cool rental prices tool to check out options.
Plaza in Grenada, Nicaragua
Cheapest Places to Live – Latin America
When it comes to value and ease of moving, Latin America is a no-brainer. If you live in the U.S. or Canada, your best bet is probably somewhere to the south of Texas. Most of these countries welcome foreigners with savings or a pension with open arms. Health care costs are reasonable and in cities at least, the quality is on par with home. Sometimes better: a doctor in Uruguay or Ecuador will make a house call for $40 or less and a doctor’s visit in Mexico includes free follow-up visits to check progress. It’s not unusual to see health care costs anywhere south of the Rio Grande for 1/5 or even 1/10 the cost of the U.S. – and that’s in major hospitals with more well-trained doctors and nurses waiting on you. The doctor will hand you a card with his/her cell phone number in case you need it.
This is often the easiest region for a trial run too: you typically get to stay three or six months on a tourist visa. Becoming a permanent resident is about 100 times easier than it is for foreigners coming to the U.S.
Kitchen in a $500 per month 2BR/2Bath apartment in central Cuenca, Ecuador
Here, for example, is what’s required to become a legal resident of Guatamala: pension and/or investment income of US$1,000 per month and additional income of US$200 per month for each dependent. Show them the money and a clean police record and you’re done. If you don’t want to become permanent, this is an easy place to kick back for a few months and then leave. Find a $200 apartment on Lake Atitlan and chill…
Your living expenses will drop massively, even in Mexico, if you don’t try to keep the exact same lifestyle you had at home. I actually upgraded my family’s life substantially living in Mexico (eating out and traveling more) and still spent 2/3 what I do at home—in a popular tourist town. Here’s what EscapeArtist.com says about costs in one of my favorite small towns in Honduras: Copan Ruinas:
There are apartments and houses tucked away all over the village. While there are no real real estate offices most locals will point you in the right direction. Within the city limits a house will rent for anywhere from $80 to $300 (3 bedrooms, 3 baths, maid service, laundry hookups, garage area, etc).
Room and Board (3 homecooked meals a day) in a modern furnished room will go for about $200 or less per month. Note that these are the higher end places, there are many many houses and rooms available for less, it is a matter of looking around.
In general, the most expensive places are the most developed and have the most foreigners (Santiago, Buenos Aires, Panama City, coastal Costa Rica, San Miguel de Allende, Ajijic), though even those will be less than home for many expenses and you might not need a car. The only places in the Americas you’ll probably spend more than in the U.S. are Brazil and Canada.
So where are the absolute cheapest places in Latin America? It depends on urban/rural and buying/renting, but in general Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and Ecuador are the best values. Be advised though that the last one is seeing a deluge of retirees. International Living has been singing its praises for years and the last retirement seminar they ran there got hundreds of attendees flying in. Any prices you see for Cuenca that are in an article more than a year old are probably prices you won’t get anymore.
Keep an eye on Argentina. Many economists see a huge second crisis on the way soon. Last time one hit, prices dropped like a rock.
The Africa Conundrum
Many of the world’s poorest countries are in Africa, but you hardly ever hear about foreigners moving there except as missionaries, Peace Corps workers, NGO workers, or other higher-calling reasons. That’s because although a place is cheap, that doesn’t mean its a place you want to move to in order to save money. If you want to live a simple life in a $20 per month block on a dusty plain, sure, you can live in lots of African towns for cheap, east and west. Most of the locals only earn a few dollars a day, after all.
It can be a bargain in rural Morocco with your squat toilet, but not so much in Marrakesh. If you’re looking at going somewhere pleasant to settle down and live better than you do at home, that can be tougher. Morocco and Egypt are the only African countries I have in The World’s Cheapest Destinations book because to travel with all the amenities you expect on other continents you’ll spend far more here than you should have to. The same applies to living expenses.
South Africa is lovely, but not really cheap. A beach on the coast of Mozambique sounds nice—until you try to sort out residency and get a decent internet connection. I’m ready to have my mind changed with good examples, but I’ve seen so few up to now I can’t recommend moving to most spots there unless your job is taking you and covering living expenses.
You don’t read one article and then decide where to move to. At least you shouldn’t. Start with International Living Magazine as they’ve been covering this beat well for decades. You can get some stuff for free, but if you’re serious, subscribe. It’s a great investment for narrowing down your search and avoiding pitfalls. They sell detailed reports and e-books that are good. You can also buy Living Abroad in… books from Moon Handbooks, like the Mexico one pictured here. For free articles and more dependable e-books/reports, see EscapeFromAmerica.com.
Nobody, even if they know you really well, can tell you where you’ll be happy and fulfilled in this world. That’s true whether your budget is tiny or massive. You need all five senses on the ground in places you’re thinking of moving to in order to find the one that’s right. If you’re already traveling, that’s easy. Many travelers come to a place that seems like paradise, start looking around at apartments, and never leave. Others bop around from place to place every few months. Still others rotate back and forth between two destinations. You won’t know until you get there if you can have the life you want with the budget you have.
There’s already some expat living where you’re going unless you are incredibly intrepid. Chances are there are dozes to thousands there. Nose around, find out how to contact them, and ask questions. Buy them a beer or lunch when you arrive and they’ll save you weeks or months of hassles. Trial and error can be fun for shopping and restaurants, but it’s not so fun when you bust your budget for nothing. Search message boards, article authors’ e-mail addresses, and the local expat hangout after arrival.
4) Surround yourself with people who aren’t skeptics.
Only 13.1% of the people in the state of Mississippi have a passport. (The other four worst are West Virginia, Arkansas, Alabama, and Kentucky). In New Jersey, it’s 50%. (The other highest ones are Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut, and New Hampshire). So obviously if you’re in a “blue” state you’re going to find more encouraging people than in a “red” state. If you’re in the latter, beware of the rah-rah USA types that think foreign travel is for commies and our dysfunctional health care system actually makes sense. Find your community virtually and get advice instead of scorn.
[Editor’s note – If you landed here from a search on the web, you might want to check out this newer version: Cheapest Places to Live 2015.]
Like this post and want to learn more? Snag the RSS stream to see when a new post is up.
Interested in halving your expenses? Sign up for the Living Abroad for Less e-mail newsletter.