You Really Can Enjoy a Lower Cost of Living When You Move Overseas

An affordable lifestyle was definitely one of the reasons why my wife, Suzan Haskins, and I became expats more than a decade ago.

The opportunity to halve our cost of living and still get better weather, healthier food, lower-cost medical care, and a truly relaxed, “off the treadmill” pace of life was one we couldn’t pass up.

Since then we’ve lived throughout Mexico and Central and South America. And I can say from first-hand experience that you really can live better for less in some beautiful and interesting countries.

A Low Cost of Living in South and Central America

Right now we live in the highland town of Cotacachi, Ecuador, between the towering peaks of Volcán Imbabura and Volcán Cotacachi. The views are outstanding, the indigenous culture fascinating, and costs are low…my favorite lunch in town is a three-course almuerzo for just $1.50.

In Mexico, Panama, and Nicaragua, we’ve also lived in astoundingly beautiful natural surroundings, always at a much lower cost than we could have at home.

But don’t ask me to provide a spreadsheet that tracks, down to the last red cent, what I’ve saved during our time abroad. I don’t have one. That’s why, as a bonafide penny-pinching expat cheapskate, I’m a dismal failure…and proud of it.

Not that Suzan and I don’t watch our expenses. Like most regular, non-millionaire folks in these strange and volatile economic times, we do live within a budget. And we know we typically spend less than $2,000 per month…sometimes far less.

But a big part of the improved quality of life I was after when we moved abroad in the first place was precisely the freedom not to have to worry about every nickel and dime I pulled out of my pocket.

You Don’t Have to Worry About Watching the Pennies

For example, when I go to the local produce market where we live, I return home with my two reusable shopping bags full of fresh fruit, vegetables, and flowers—and have spent somewhere between $5 and $7. Did the onions and garlic cost a nickel more than they did last week? Did I get an extra green pepper this week for the same price as last week? Were the red and yellow roses marked up 100% this week because of some holiday I wasn’t aware of…did I pay $2 per dozen instead of $1? Don’t know. Can’t tell you. It’s all so affordable, I am happy to not pay much attention.

Same with my water bill. It was $3.78 this billing cycle. Was it more last billing cycle? No idea. I’m not even sure exactly how long a billing cycle is…one month? Two months? We aren’t actually “billed” for our water, we just go to the town hall and pay it when it’s due but I can’t remember its ever being past due… I just try to get over to the town hall every now and then and check if I owe something.

Sometimes I stop in and I don’t owe anything, but the town hall is right next to the central park, so it’s no bother to check in there when I’m out for a walk. I guess I could look at my past water bills. They’re around here somewhere, I’m pretty sure.

“I Don’t Keep Track of my Cost of Living”

That’s exactly the lifestyle I was after when we moved abroad…a lifestyle so affordable that we no longer did a double take at the total on the supermarket register or shuddered in fiscal fear each time the furnace or AC fired up. (Thanks to the weather where I live now, I need neither furnace nor AC, so my fiscal fear on that count has simply vanished.)

I have lots of expat friends who know exactly how much per pound they paid for fresh corvina at the fish market last week and whether it was more or less than the last time they bought fresh corvina. They remember precisely what a dozen hot corn muffins cost at the corner bakery this morning. They even know how much they paid this month, last month, and one year ago for electricity. (I paid $17.72 for electricity this month, but I only know this because the last bill happens to be sitting here on the table next to me. Otherwise I’d be clueless.)

I don’t pay close attention to all these details because, thanks to the local economy, I don’t have to. And that’s just the way I like it. I’m happy to let my other expat friends do the tracking and fill out the spreadsheets and compare bottom lines.

Some of them are very good at it, and every now and then I envy them their interest and discipline.

But most often I revel in the fact that I live in a place where my inherent lack of fiscal interest and discipline isn’t a huge threat to my financial health. I enjoy the fact that, although I’m not a millionaire, I’ve found a lifestyle where I can relax and have the peace of mind of one…even on a meager budget.

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