“So, Gar. What is a “less expensive” country?”
I’m glad you asked that. A less expensive country is one where you can live cheaper than you are living now. If you are in the USA, that would be Mexico, Central America, most of South America, Southeast Asia (Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam), India, and several countries in Eastern Europe. For the more adventurous there are also large portions of Africa that would fall under the less expensive category. (I have not been to Africa nor have I read much about traveling there so I can’t speak with any surety about expenses there.)
When traveling, a person has three major expenses. They are food, shelter, and transportation. Of these three, a person must spend some money on food and shelter daily. This will be an ongoing expense that you can’t escape no matter where you are or how frugal you live. Transportation, on the other hand, is different: you don’t have to spend money on transportation everyday — or even at all if you just want to stay in one place.
Food expenses when retiring abroad
For myself, I don’t find that I save much money on food, but it is possible. I prefer to eat whatever I want to eat when I want it. I eat a lot of yogurt. Yogurt in Mexico costs roughly $1.85 USD per liter. I eat a liter a day.
Don’t eat in restaurants that cater to tourists whether the tourists are gringos or domestic. Don’t eat in restaurants at all if you can avoid it.
Beer is about 10 or 11 pesos (about $0.85 USD) a bottle if bought in a grocery store. They are 15 to 20 pesos if bought in a restaurant. I drink two beers a day (well, okay, sometimes I drink three). To cut down on food expense further, don’t drink beer or alcoholic beverages.
There is also the cost of water. Most water that comes out of the tap (assuming you have a tap) is not drinkable by the average gringo in many places in the world. The cost of water can be as low as 20 pesos for twenty liters – if you have some place to keep a large bottle. It can cost as much as 10 pesos for half a liter if you buy a small bottle.
Other ways of cutting food expenses are to eat from street vendors and small hole-the-wall restaurants. The food is usually good. The problem with this is that eventually you are going to get a bout of tourista before long. You may get it several times until you develop the stomach flora that will handle the local conditions. That is why I eat yogurt and drink beer (really), as it seems to help prevent against stomach illnesses to some extent.
Optimally, you want a place to cook for yourself. If you have such a set up, buying food from farmer and super markets and preparing it yourself will save some money.
Saving money on housing and utilities
Where I do save a lot of money by living in “cheaper countries” is in the cost of housing and utilities. In Catemaco, Mexico where I am now, a pretty good hotel room costs about 200 pesos a night. That is about $13 at the current exchange rate. That’s about $400 a month for good accommodation. That is a pretty good deal if you compare it to what you would be spending in the USA/ Europe but you can do better. I have a little house (casita) that I rent for about 2,000 pesos a month here – roughly $130 – and that includes utilities.
Before you get too excited about that, let me tell you about my $130 a month casita. It is weird. My lady-friend says it is “funky.” It has a “shower room.” There are three shower heads but only one of these has hot water. It is the only source of hot water in the place. The other two showers have only cold water. The shower room also has the only sink. The sink looks like a trough with three water spigots. But only one of the water spigots works. It only has cold water.
Another room in my casita is the “commode room.” There is one commode. There is no sink in this room. There is no commode seat. (Boards placed on the sides work fine but are a little rough). The commode leaks, and the leak is just small enough that the landlord won’t ever bother to fix it.
There is a kitchen in my small house that includes a table and a refrigerator. But there are no cabinets, and there is no sink. There is one light on the wall by the refrigerator. The refrigerator runs constantly BUT it does work.
The only other room is where the bed is located. There is a table and two straight back chairs that are so uncomfortable nobody ever sits in them. There is also a bookcase that belongs to a friend of mine. It does have two fans though. They are bolted to the wall, one at each end of the room.
So, housing is where I save money. $130 per month is well within budget. How long I stay here will depend on where I want to go next. Which brings us to a discussion of transportation costs.
My rule of thumb of transportation is to avoid getting on an airplane unless it is unavoidable. Planes are an expensive way to travel, and the hassle of security is a pain in the ass. If your plans change after you have purchased a plane ticket, you are also going to get the royal shaft. This I guarantee you. The only times I fly are when I have to cross oceans or it is more economical when food, housing, and alternative transportation costs are all figured in.
Land transportation options in Latin America are abundant. Mexico has a wonderful bus system, as does most everywhere else in this region. There are also taxis, collectivo taxis, pirates (pronounced Pee-RAH-tuh – a pickup truck with a cover over the back and two benches), and local buses. The cost of taxis depends on where you are and where you are going. To completely cross the town of Catemaco, a taxi costs 15 pesos (about $1.10 USD). Collectivo taxis which usually travel to the next city cost 10 pesos. Pirates are 7.5 pesos for about 10 miles. A bus will take you across town for 5 pesoes or to the next town for 7 pesos.
For traveling long distances in Mexico there is ADO (pronounced Ah-Dee-oh). This is a first class bus, very comfortable with on-board movies (in Spanish, of course) and a bathroom. To go from Catemaco to Veracruz, a journey of three to five hours depending on traffic, is about 90 miles and cost about 110 pesos.
And, don’t forget walking. It is good for me and it is cheap. Unless I have a heavy load (like groceries) I usually walk in town.
I stated earlier that a person doesn’t have to spend money on transportation. This is true in the sense that mechanized traveling is an option, not a necessity for living abroad. However, if you are into a traveling retirement this can’t be done without traveling (duh). So, when it is necessary, I bite the bullet and get a plane ticket, as I just did recently when I went to Australia. What is not obvious in that statement is that before I went to Australia, I lived a relatively frugal life in Guatemala and Mexico for almost five months. During that time, the difference between my daily expenses and my monthly income accumulated until I had the extra cash to pay for the plane ticket.
“Relatively frugal” does not mean that I suffered any. I ate well. I lived in nice places – nicer than my present casita. Perhaps more importantly, I did see what I wanted to see in the areas I was in. I did “travel” but I did it by local transportation. I stayed a few weeks in San Marcos, Guatemala. I stayed a month in San Pedro, Guatemala. I stayed a month in San Cristobal, Mexico. I stayed a couple of months in Catemaco, Mexico. All of these are beautiful areas with their own attractions. I visited ruins, old churches, outdoor markets, waterfalls, mountains, valleys, and the Caribbean. In short, I traveled. I just did it slowly.
This is how I did it and am doing it. Anyone with even a small monthly income can do it this way too. If – and this brings us to Key Three – you have the desire to do it. We will get into that next week.
Until then, Vaya Con Dias.
Read the other articles in the Senior Vagabond series series.