From Alberta to Panama: “Our Cost of Living is Down 50%”

“We fell in love with the view,” says Susan Roussel of her ocean view condo on the beach in Panama. “We wanted to get away from Canada and experience a tropical climate for a while.” With it’s excellent infrastructure, schools, and safety, Panama was the best fit for the Roussels.

Susan and her husband, Denis, moved to Gorgona beach with their two sons, Jonah, 11 and Elijah, who is just 18 months. The tiny beach town is a 10-minute drive from Coronado, a growing center with restaurants, shops, supermarkets, a new shopping plaza, and a new top-notch hospital. Right in Gorgona, Panama Coast International School (PCIS) provides a place for Jonah to learn and interact with other children his age.

Though Susan and Denis are spending $250 a month on tuition and $1,200 a month to rent their condo on the beach (they can literally step into the sand from their building’s pool area), they say their costs have never been lower.

Watch this interview I did with them at their condo.

“We have been here almost four months now,” says Susan, “and we plan to stay till June.” After that, she says, the family will go home to Alberta and think about whether to move permanently. With the low costs and laid-back beachy lifestyle, Susan is tempted to live here full-time.

For Denis, life is Panama is convenient. He says the Internet is a little slower than back home but “amazingly reliable,” adding that it compares favorably to what he had in Canada. “We pay $67 a month for Internet and cable. Our electricity costs are averaging $80 a month. We find that we don’t have to use the air conditioning very much, thanks to the sea breeze.” That was a relief for the Roussels, who had expected their energy costs to be nearly triple what they are.

They have a lot of fun, but find they just don’t spend as much as they did back home on things like transport and entertainment. They travel to Panama City once or twice a month, where they might go to a deluxe grocery store or visit the mall. Susan was shocked the first time she wandered into the “designer” end of MultiPlaza mall in Panama City’s posh Punta Pacifica barrio.

“I was walking past Luis Vuitton and Tiffany’s in flip-flops,” she laughs. “I was shocked, it was like being in New York or something.” Clearly, one can splurge in Panama…but Susan is happy to ignore the high-end stores and spend her money on travel and fresh, fun food, instead.

Says Susan, they spend a lot of time at the ocean, a fun place to frolic (and it doesn’t cost her a dime). She finds that dining in Panama is unbelievably inexpensive compared to her home in Alberta. “Even a steak dinner is at least half the price,” she explains. “The most we’ve paid for a meal here was about $15 for a huge steak with salad and three jumbo prawns on top…and it was good steak. That dish would be at least $30 back home.” She had the steak dinner at Don Chacho’s Grill, a local eatery where $7 will get you a half a chicken (roasted over a wood fire), fried potatoes, plantains or yucca, and a drink.

“Then there’s the fish market,” says Susan, “which is crazy cheap. We buy straight from the boats at the fisherman’s co-op. We have bought 10 pounds of fresh-caught snapper for $7, enough huge prawns for eight servings for $8…and I’m looking forward to the ‘tuna season,’ which apparently starts this month,” she adds.

The Roussels say their cost of living has gone down by about 50%, and that it’s possible to live very well in Gorgona on $800 to $1,000 a month, including gas. Her estimate doesn’t include rent, which varies from $500 to $1,500 a month, depending on how luxurious the rental.

Best of all, they have been able to spend more time as a family together, and have fun without worrying about spending a fortune. “The cheap entertainment helps,” Susan says, “and there are waterfalls nearby, beaches, hiking, and springs that cost just $2 to use. But we also spend time reading; we don’t fill every minute of the agenda. We just have a different way of life here, we live at a slower pace.”

Editor’s note: Tropical beaches, First-World infrastructure, high-quality health care, welcoming people…there are many things to love about Panama…and several prime locations to live. That’s why, at the Live and Invest in Panama Seminar 2011, we’ll explore every inch of the country for you, from Panama City, to the coasts (both Caribbean and Pacific…plus along the sandy edges of a whole bunch of picture-perfect islands), to its mountains and hillsides. Find out more here.

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