I intentionally called my book A Better Life for Half the Price because I wanted to emphasize that many people who have moved abroad didn’t really need to cut their expenses. They were doing okay financially. But if you’re in that situation, upgrading your life can be another attractive aspect of going nomadic or becoming an expat in a cheaper country. You live large instead of just “doing okay.”
I don’t have any real stats on this, but I’d guess about 90% of the moving abroad articles and at least 95% of the YouTube videos out there on the subject are some version of “How to live in [insert country] for $1,000 per month.” I do less come-on versions of those myself outlining average expenses in different places.
That’s the life I outlined in my Part 1 post on moving abroad to cut expenses. Other people are not aiming for the cheap life though and don’t really have to pay much attention to costs because they have high earnings. So occasionally you get something like this guy’s CNBC video, which is about what kind of life he gets in Bangkok for $8,000 per month.
Yes indeed, he spends eight grand a month, high for a 40-something guy almost anywhere in the world unless you’re talking about the top 2%. As I write this, the video has gotten 361,000 views. It probably helps that you don’t see this kind of story very often: a guy who is nomadic and has lived all over but is making close to a quarter-million dollars a year while living in a cheaper city.
He could “get by” anywhere, even Tokyo or Geneva if he had to, but he chooses to live in Bangkok because he can drastically upgrade his life in that location.
Living Richly in Thailand
He got a lot of interesting reactions to that story, which you can hear about on this podcast episode or just scroll down and see in the YouTube comments. One point he tried to make is that yes, you could live on that amount in New York City, London, or Sydney, but you wouldn’t get nearly the quality of life he gets doing that in Thailand.
As crazy as it may sound, eight grand a month is not much money in New York City anymore for a childless couple, especially if you want to have the kind of apartment he has and go out to eat whenever you want. Plus you can easily spend half that just on an apartment in Brooklyn these days and it won’t be anything to get excited about.
For that budget in Thailand, however, he is living large and is definitely upgrading his life compared to how each month’s expenses would look like in one of the world’s most expensive cities. He never cleans, never drives, eats whatever he wants, experiences the nightlife whenever he feels like it, takes vacations often, and could easily afford an hour-long massage from a trained expert every day if he wanted. “The level of service you get in Thailand blows away anything you could get in the United States.”
You can see some of that reflected in where his budget goes, as in $300 on groceries but $1,600 on eating out and entertainment. His apartment costs roughly what you’d spend in a mid-sized city in the USA or Canada, but the amenities he gets create a lifestyle upgrade that provides more time freedom as well.
Live Rich on Less in Medellin
When I was in Medellin last year, I interviewed a few expats there who fell more into this category of living a rich life rather than trying to cut their expenses. They didn’t move to Colombia to escape high prices: they moved to Colombia to live a millionaire’s life without actually earning a million.
I got to visit with Carrie Bentley, a mother getting help from a nanny and housekeeper while she works with her husband Demir on a coaching and consulting business. Authors of the book Winning the Week, they have a client base that earns them a good living. By being in a high-rise apartment in the high-end El Poblado area of Medellin, they’re having the kind of experience a hedge fund manager might while living in the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
“The first place we lived in for any length of time was $1,300 per month, but three bedrooms, furnished, and in a great neighborhood,” Carrie says. “It didn’t last though because…”
“Our neighbors had the yappiest dog you’ve ever heard,” says Demir. “For our business, we need to have phone calls and record videos all the time. The dog would bark from morning all the way through the evening, would just not shut up. So after six months we upgraded to a different place that was $1,800, a quiet 1,800-square-foot apartment that was huge, with three bedrooms, fully furnished, and plenty of work space. It had a spectacular view of Medellin. It was a sweet place.”
After a year they decided to put down roots, buying a large apartment in a high-rise in El Poblado for “a fraction of what one would cost in a city this size in the USA,” they said. The condo fees are less than $200 per month. They pay about the same for utilities, including 500 mbps internet, but “We are not at all careful about those costs,” Carrie says. “We have a sauna and water is plentiful here so we take a lot of baths.”
They recently bought a car to be able to go places with the kids and in a classic example of using money to make a problem irrelevant, they exploited an incentive in the local laws to live better. There’s a system whereby cars are only allowed on the roads of the city certain days because of pollution laws, determined by license plate numbers. “So we bought an electric SUV,” Demir says, “which is exempt from the restrictions since there are no emissions.”
With expenses at the level they are in Medellin, this couple can have live-in help, have someone else cook meals, can send their kids to whatever preschool then private school they want. (Their current “fancy day care” place is $500 per month including two meals per day.)
They can eat out or order in whenever they feel like having restaurant food and they still never have to worry that what they’re earning isn’t going to be enough. “A dog walker that works three times a day for five days a week costs $120 per month here,” Carrie says.
Instead of being perpetually behind in their finances like the typical American, they’re staying ahead and saving or investing.
I also met with someone I’ve talked to over e-mail for years but never connected with in person: Marcello Arrambide of Wandering Trader. He’s got a few rare YouTube videos that touch on living it up instead of getting by for less, though in this 2023 one he lays it all out for every budget. In one from last year he outlines how he spends a few grand per month in Medellin having a rich life, leaving others to make those videos about $300 apartments and street food prices.
Again, much of the money he spends is going directly into the local economy through hiring people to take things off his plate, to the tune of $1,800 a month for labor. “I’ve got nine dogs but I offloaded all the annoying parts of owning pets: someone else feeds them, takes them to the vet, cleans up after them, and makes sure they’re getting exercise.”
Someone else cooks and cleans and most of the time he doesn’t even drive: he’s got a chauffeur at the ready when he needs to navigate the hills of Medellin.
By living in a place where his earnings will stretch, however, he has plenty left over to invest. He bought a Colombian coffee farm and has been building a hotel on the site to diversify his assets.
Where a Million-dollar House is Really a Mansion
These days in much of the USA and Canada, a million-dollar house is nothing to get excited about. In the most expensive markets, it’s “starter home” territory. When real estate developer Brad Hinkelman built his dream home in Medellin, however, that budget got him a stupendous mansion.
“I have bought, lived in, and sold a lot of properties here but I wanted this to be a special place for my family. I got a great plot of land and then hired the best architect, got the best contractor, bought the best materials. It was an investment of around a million dollars, but it’s an Architectural Digest kind of showpiece. A truly amazing house and we love it. I can’t even imagine what it would have cost to build something like this in California.”
He lines up investors from abroad and pools resources to purchase and run hotels, short-term rental apartment buildings, penthouse condos, and houses. His rental and hotel clients are often overworked and overstressed executives from New York or Miami who are looking to hang out in Medellin for a while and have fun. Meanwhile, he and many others are living that life every week and they don’t have to pay top dollar to do it.
“I moved here a decade ago and most of the remote workers then were not pulling in big salaries,” Brad says. They didn’t run seven-figure companies. Now that’s becoming more common and we’re getting people moving here who are doing it for the lifestyle upgrade and better investment growth opportunities.”
Marcello estimates that he spends between $3,200 and $3,700 per month on his expenses added together, including all the staffers, living in a mansion on a hillside with an awesome view of the sunsets over Medellin. His house is paid for, but he pays a monthly HOA fee to the subdivision in there and his property taxes are around $350 per month. He estimates that if you go full-on luxurious and you’re renting instead of buying, you could spend north of $5K per month. But it would mean a lot of eating out, partying, and shopping.
If you go out further out of the city, you can really live large for less. He says a friend rented a 5,000-square-foot house, fully furnished, for $1,000 per month in the countryside 30 minutes from Medellin.
Upgrading Your Life Through Better Healthcare
Ask any expat who moved from the USA to Mexico, including me, and they’ll rave about the service upgrade they got on the medical side when moving abroad. Doctors only see one patient at a time, they’re not in a hurry, and often they’ll give you their cell phone number in case a problem comes back. A follow-up visit may not even get charged. Two dental hygienists are working on me when I get my teeth cleaned and the dentist pops in to see how things are going. When I’ve had work done, it was high quality and I never felt like an upsell was coming—a nice contrast with the usual USA appointment these days.
It’s a similar story in Thailand, where your hospital might look like a five-star hotel and you’ll have multiple people solving your issues if you’re getting treatment. In Colombia, health insurance ranges between $25 a month for $100K of coverage up to $80 a month if you up the amount or you’re older. All the medical treatment prices are set and posted, so no surprise bills to worry about afterward.
So yes, you’re getting better prices on everything, but also much better service along the way. You won’t wait months for an appointment, service will be attentive, and the doctors aren’t buried in paperwork and lawsuit avoidance tasks.
Carrie raves about the medical treatment she has gotten in Colombia and how the only charges she saw after an emergency C-section were ones for food. Insurance covered the rest and the service was top-notch. “Plus I have the personal WhatsApp number for our doctors. I sent one a text at 6:45 at night, assuming she would get back to me the next day. Nope, she replied back right away with an answer, in English even.”
Then there are all the optional services you can get for less when living in a cheaper country. Maybe you can go for that teeth whitening, implants, or a nip and tuck if you want.
Cutting expenses is one option when moving abroad, but not the only one. If you are earning a lot, you might try upgrading your life instead.