In 2009 a lightning bolt of an idea hit me. Why live in a country where I couldn’t save a penny? Why not move to a place where I could actually save money and not give up any of the lifestyle I had become accustomed to? In most cases the simplest ideas are the best, so, in early 2010, after doing a lot of research, I decided to move with my wife, Lisa, to the island of Penang in Malaysia.
Of course, there were some adjustments. When we left home I was earning good money and I knew I was giving up a good salary to move to a country where I wouldn’t be allowed to work. That meant making sure that we could, at the very least, live off the interest of our investments, making sure that we wouldn’t be touching any of the principal. It wasn’t rocket science, but it did involve selling our home. Truth be told, it was a small price to pay for the lifestyle that we now have.
We also sold our cars. There’s no point having gas guzzlers on an island and there was no need to try and keep up with the Jones’ here either.
When we arrived in Penang we bought a new five-door hatchback for just $13,800—which is fantastic for island living—and I bought a new Vespa scooter for $2,070. The Vespa costs me just $2 a week to run, while the car, which Lisa uses daily, costs just $7 a week. Fuel is cheap in Malaysia and the maintenance for the car is under $69 per service. The Vespa costs even less.
There were savings to be had on insurance too. Health insurance, which we took out with a local insurance company, costs just $287 per person per annum. So far my insurance has covered a knee operation, a sinus operation and a colonoscopy. That’s pretty good going I think!
Doctors’ bills are inexpensive, roughly $12 per visit, and there are no waiting lists. You also don’t need a referral from your GP if you need to see a specialist. All of the doctors speak English and the majority of them were trained in the U.K., Australia, or the U.S. There isn’t a national healthcare system for expats in Malaysia so you’ll need to take out insurance or just pay as you go.
When I tore my meniscus on a Tuesday evening I was sitting in front of a sports surgeon first thing Wednesday morning. He recommended an MRI straight away and an hour later, after seeing the results, recommended surgery. He operated on me the following morning and I was happily playing tennis just five weeks later. The cost was just $2,000 and it was all covered under my insurance.
When it comes to living costs here, you get great value. Apartments can be inexpensive—there are three-bedroom, 645-square-feet apartments in the beach resort and popular expat neighborhood of Batu Ferringhi available for as little as $350 per month. They’re within walking distance to the beach, good cafes and restaurants and are in units with gyms and swimming pools.
The year-round warm weather means the only utility bill that amounts to anything for us is the air-conditioning. We use it nightly in the bedroom but during the day fans suffice and Penang is blessed with year-round breezes. Most apartments have very good cross-ventilation too, which allows the sea breezes to circulate.
Malaysia also has super-fast internet, great roads and everything from a shopping standpoint that you have back home. Malls here are state-of-the-art, air-conditioned and comfortable to amble around. Along with every modern convenience you’ll also find good old-fashioned values too. The country is home to a vibrant, rich culture, elders are respected and the locals are some of the friendliest people you’ll meet in all of Asia.
Making friends, both locals and expats, is a breeze. Penang has very well organized local and expat community groups and there are four private clubs with amazing facilities that you can join for a fraction of what they would cost to join at home. The Penang Swimming Club, The Penang Club, The Penang Sports Club and The Penang Golf Club are all open to new members and, depending on what you want to do, offer superb tennis, sailing, swimming, gym, yoga, fitness and dining options.
The savings we make living here go directly into a bank account that currently pays me 4.2% per annum. That leads to a healthy holiday fund. In the past 12 months we’ve travelled to Sri Lanka, Singapore, Borneo, Indonesia, Bali, France, England and the U.S.
When I’m asked if I will ever leave Malaysia I have to stop and think for a moment. Not because I’m thinking about where to go, but because it’s something that I actually never consider. I’m not a grass is greener kind of guy. If I’m happy in a place then that’s good enough for me and I’m certainly happy here.