If you bring up the idea that you’re thinking of moving to another country to save money, or for any reason really, be prepared for some resistance. Just as some people won’t support your year-long trip around the world, you’ll probably encounter lots of objections about living abroad, especially if you’re American.
I know: I get the e-mails, I get the blog comments, and let’s not even talk about the trolls on YouTube. Sometimes when I tell strangers I live in Mexico, they look at me like I have three heads. I’m not sure whether these attackers feel threatened, patriotic to the extreme, or are just grumpy that they’re stuck with their bad situation in life, but it’s a common tendency I deal with every month.
I can’t have much impact on all the negative comments that get posted when I get quoted about moving to another country in the likes of USA Today or The Street or Kiplinger’s Personal Finance. Plus it’s a hopeless battle to discuss crime stats with people who don’t want to let the facts get in the way. For the benefit of the future skeptical readers of this Cheapest Destination blog, however, here are the objections that come up on a regular basis that I can address. Consider it a FAQ for “frequent annoying questions” that often aren’t really questions.
“You people that write about moving abroad always quote prices in expensive cities like New York, San Francisco, or London. Where I live in [insert small town nobody has heard of] I pay $500 a month for rent.”
Well, good for you Bubba. I once paid $300 a month for rent in the USA too once, for a one-bedroom apartment in the 38th largest city. But that was in 1986. You’ve generally got to be in a small rural town with no jobs available and a stagnant real estate market to get that kind of deal today. Unless you want to live in a depressed place like Flint, Michigan or Gary, Indiana, you’re going to be paying U.S. market rates for rents—which went up 17% in 2021 and “only 3.8%” in 2022.
The median apartment rent across the USA passed $1,400 in 2018 then crossed the $2,000 mark last year. This increase applied almost everywhere too, including my two former homes of Nashville (up 32%) and Tampa (up 30%). Until I moved out of Tampa in 2018 and high-tailed it back to Mexico, I was paying $2,100 for a three-bedroom apartment in a good school district and that was a good deal for the area. Now the same apartment complex has identical ones listed for three grand a month.
In comparison, even when my daughter was living with us we have never spent $3,000 per month on everything living in Mexico, even when traveling locally on vacation. A couple can easily live in dozens of countries, even in Europe, on just what the median rent alone costs in the USA.
This isn’t just a NYC/San Francisco kind of issue anymore, or even a top-50 metros one. Even if you move to a poor rural state like Mississippi or West Virginia, average rent prices are higher than you’d pay in any country I’ve featured in A Better Life for Half the Price for a comparable apartment.
The bigger point though is when I bring up those big city prices, I’m comparing them to prices in other capital cities. My examples of people I’ve interviewed are usually those who are moving abroad from NYC to Buenos Aires, L.A. to Mexico City, or London to Lisbon. It’s apples to apples. If I’m giving an example of someone moving to Vilcabamba, Ecuador or Bolson, Argentina, then it makes sense to use small-town-USA prices as a comparison. It’s oranges to oranges.
Here’s the thing though. Even if you move from undesirable rural Iowa to very desirable Antigua, Guatemala, your expenses will still go down and your standard of living will go up. That’s because prices are still far lower for health care, restaurants, domestic help, a haircut, entertainment, vegetables, and on and on. You’ll still save a small fortune. Just not as much as someone moving from a comparable attractive city.
“The residency (or work, or real estate purchase) laws listed on the government website say you can’t _______________”
You can believe what you read from whatever source you’ve dug up or you can believe what the people actually living there are saying.
Rules aren’t black and white in the USA either, remember. Marijuana is federally illegal (despite being legal in many states), you can’t drink in a U.S. university until you’re 21, the speed limit is 65 on the interstate, your lease says you can’t put an apartment you rent on Airbnb without a landlord’s permission, politicians can’t accept bribes…
In developing countries, the laws are even more fluid, and money talks. Yes you can get in trouble if you break the rules and if you look hard enough you’ll probably find someone who has gotten in trouble for it. But for every one of those who encountered problems there were probably hundreds who had no issue. So the world won’t come to an end if you overstay your visa in Argentina, work illegally as a bartender in the EU, or buy real estate under a partnership agreement in Cambodia or Indonesia. Yes, all these things can be risky, but often statistically not as risky as getting in your car to go to work.
I often hear objections from people about buying property near the coast in Mexico because of the land trust agreement in place to keep foreigners from snatching up all the oceanfront property. People who have never left the USA are ready to lecture me on this point, even though I’ve bought, used, then sold a beach house in Mexico. Technically you own the house but are leasing the land it sits on for 50 years, which can be extended to 99. This is only a problem if you intend to become the longest-living human on the planet. Otherwise the clock starts over when you sell the place so who cares?
Keep in mind too that visa rules can change quite a bit from year to year. It’s been a major hassle for me just to keep up on the current laws for living in Thailand, which have changed at least four times since the first edition of my A Better Life for Half the Price book came out. They will likely change again (for the better) this year. An article on the internet may not have a publication/update date listed, so check local message boards to find out the real deal.
“You can’t find a decent apartment for the prices you’ve listed and if you have children in private school that can cost a fortune.”
Sure, I’m just listing examples from real expats who actually live there and are sharing what they spend each month, but you must know better, right?
Usually people who make this comment haven’t traveled much and they expect everything abroad to work the same way as it does in their home country, in English of course. They do a cursory inspection of a website or two, maybe the Airbnb rental prices, then assume that’s what the real market is like. It’s not of course. Often you need to physically be there to find a good rental for a month or more at something close to the local price.
In terms of schooling, I had my daughter in private school in my city in Mexico and we paid roughly $300 per month. For the best one in the city—but in Spanish.
Yes, it can cost a fortune if you live in the capital city of the country you are moving to if you insist on sending your kid to the top international school with English classes, the one attended by the children of the president and the CEOs of the country’s largest companies. That place is for the elites. Take a stop down and it gets a lot more affordable very quickly.
Or I hear this objection from someone who has been transferred to a country because of their job and they insist on having the exact same kind of apartment and schooling for their children that they would have in the country they left. In other words, exact same life, just different weather.
If that’s your desire, yes you will pay much more than the person who adapts to the new location and adjusts their expectations accordingly. Landlords and real estate agents love to see you coming. Which leads to…
“I’ve heard they always try to rip off the foreigners because they think we’re all rich.”
This one puzzles me a lot because if you’ve left your $2,500 rent in your current city and are paying $1,050 where you’re going, aren’t you far better off no matter what? Is it really worth losing sleep over whether a local could have gotten that furnished 2BR apartment for $50 less per month than you did? If it’s a great deal regardless and you like it, take the deal and move on.
Hey, I’m against getting ripped off as much as the next guy and have come close to a fistfight with taxi drivers in India and Egypt. The taxi cartel in Cancun/Playa/Tulum makes my blood boil and I’ve walked away from plenty of vegetable sellers when they quoted an inflated price. But eventually you have to accept the fact that sometimes the rich get soaked a little more. If you move to Nepal and are living on your combined $2,400 per month social security checks, that income puts the two of you in the top 2% in that country. So sorry, you are now rich. Stinking filthy rich! Not in your eyes maybe when you think of where you came from, but in the eyes of the locals you are loaded.
This doesn’t mean you have to roll over and pay twice the normal rate for everything, but it does mean you should probably start thinking like a person who has more money to spare than nearly everyone around you. Life’s too short to get riled up over a few extra bucks going into the local economy if you’re in one of the cheapest places to live in the world. If you overpay the maid by $5 a week compared to what your working-class neighbor pays, is that so terrible? Your maid is better off, happier to work for you, and feeding her family better.
In general, I think this concern is overblown anyway unless you’re in a tourist resort area where they’re used to squeezing what they can out of short-term foreign visitors. Otherwise, if your local hairdresser, fruit vendor, butcher, and baker see you coming back, there’s little chance they’ll overcharge you. If you speak at least some of the local language, the taxi drivers will probably charge you the correct fare. (I have never once been overcharged for a taxi ride in my home city in Mexico, in 10+ years.)
If you do occasionally pay more than a local does after moving to another country, consider the few extra dollars a local economic stimulation. My property taxes are $123 per year, so I think I can afford to pay the handyman who does repairs around my house a bit more than the going rate. It’ll probably do more direct good than donating money to a charity, where half (at least) goes to overhead and fundraising. Compared to what you would pay where you come from for domestic help, it’s a pittance anyway.
“There’s so much conflicting advice out there about moving to another country. How can I trust anyone?”
Look, A Better Life for Half the Price doesn’t have all the answers and even though I have interviewed more than 100 people and heard plenty of expat stories, I still don’t have all the answers. That’s because everyone’s situation is different and there’s seldom a surefire way it’s done in order to avoid any unpleasantness or uncertainty.
But you can be assured that my advice is well-grounded in reality and if the answers are variable, I’ll say so. I spend my time based in Guanajuato, Mexico or renting apartments abroad for weeks or months at a time when I’m elsewhere. I’m constantly talking to others who have moved abroad and I keep up with trends and news for the Nomadico newsletter.
Sometimes the situation is fluid and there’s no quick and easy answer, especially on what you will pay to live somewhere. Prices vary drastically even within a country depending on the whole rural/urban and tourists/no tourists divergence. In general though, if you move to any of the destinations profiled in that book, you will lower your expenses dramatically, even if it’s not apples to apples in terms of city size.
Moving to another country is no longer strange, unusual, or rare. Millions of people have done it already and the growth of remote work means that millions more now can while continuing to earn the same paycheck. So if your neighbor who rarely travels acts like you’re crazy when you say you’re moving to another continent, just smile and wish them good luck.
If you want predictability, consistency, and a clear logical path, then stay home and keep your routine. That’s what your neighbors and relatives will do. I think that’s what most people who leave these irate comments will do. It’s what they were going to do anyway because they are too scared to leave their comfort zone and like to lash out at anyone who suggests that the grass is greener elsewhere.
But now I can just link to this post instead of posting the same responses over and over.