I feel I spent way too much money this month living in the Philippines -- there were extra provisions around the typhoon that hit us, a work trip to Manila (where I also had too much fun,) a few charitable donations, and I've been overspending on food. But I just looked up my bank balance and things are fine. How is that possible? When I lived in the United States, I grew accustomed to stressing about every dollar and always coming up short, so this feels almost too good to be true. How am I managing to live by the beach in exotic Southeast Asia and still spend way less than I would in the U.S.?
People often ask me how I can afford to live abroad in some of the most beautiful places on earth, so I'd like to share the financial aspect of traveling, to show you that it's obtainable. In fact, you should be able to live like a (modest) king for less than $1,500 a month, or $50 a day!
First off, there is a HUGE difference between being on vacation and living abroad. That image you have of sitting around on a beach chair all day with a coconut drink in your hand at a luxurious resort? Get that out of your head, because I live as simply and humbly as a local, but that doesn't mean I can't still enjoy all the benefits of my new home.
How much do you spend every month in the United States? If you add up mortgage or rent, utilities, insurance, your car and gas, food and clothing, etc., the average budget for one comes to around $3,200.
Now, let's look at my budget as I travel through some of the most beautiful locales in the world -- like Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Vietnam, Thailand, and the Philippines:
Rent: $360/month, $12/day.
One of the biggest advantages of living abroad, not just vacationing, is the savings you get when you rent an apartment. Hotels are expensive, but simple, clean, safe (nothing fancy) accommodations might run $250-$400 a month for one person. Often times utilities are included, or it still lands within that price range. Currently, I'm paying $360 a month in the Philippines on the island of Boracay, only a few blocks from one of the nicest beaches in the world!
Food: $300/month, $10/day.
You save a ton of money staying out of the tourist trap restaurants, where meals might cost you $10-$12 each. Instead, find out where the locals eat - the food is usually great and a meal will cost you $3-$5. In Vietnam, the best place to eat is on the street, where a full amazing meal might cost you $2! Or, you can brave the local market and cook for yourself, saving even more.
Medical insurance: $120/month, $4/day.
It's ironic that one of my largest expenses is something I never use, but I keep my U.S. major medical insurance policy in good standing just in case of emergency. Healthcare can be shockingly inexpensive in foreign countries but the quality of services can also be inconsistent. I once met a Canadian traveller who jumped into the bull ring in Costa Rica during their fiestas (not a good life choice) and was gored badly in the back. An ambulance ride, overnight stay, painkillers, minor surgery, 25 staples and 50 stitches cost him $110.
Local transportation: $90/month, $3/day.
You usually don't need a car when you're living abroad. I prefer small towns so I like walking everywhere (it gives me a chance to take in the sites and meet locals.) Or you can utilize cheap transportation like jeepneys, tuk tuks, motorcycle taxis, etc. the locals use for about $1-$2 a ride. Rent a scooter for the month if you want to be more mobile and still keep costs down.
Entertainment: $120/month, $4/day.
Of course you'll want to go out for beers with friends, a nicer meal, go dancing, or take in a movie from time to time. What you spend on that entertainment varies based on how often you go out and how hard you party, but beers can range from .50 cents to $1.50 on the high side. Of course, the best entertainment is going to the beach (I go in the morning and again at sunset) which is healthy and totally free!
Cell phone: $60/month, $2/day.
Bring your iPhone or smart phone from the U.S. and just buy a local SIM card. They have plans that include Internet for fairly cheap, but your apartment, every hotel, restaurant, coffee shop, and bar has free wifi these days. I kept my U.S. phone number but suspended service ($10 a month) and had it forwarded to a GoogleVoice number, where I can still get voicemails and make calls online.
Gym: $30/month/$1 a day.
You can swim, run, and get a great workout on the beach for free, but there is usually a grimy local gym that looks like something out of the 1970's for about $10 a month. I estimated at $1/ day just in case you wanted to bring three friends!
Giving back: $120/month, $4/day.
One of the best parts of living abroad is integrating into the local community and there's no better way than to be of service. Buy a local person lunch and chat, contribute to the school, or donate at church, but no matter where and what you give, you'll make some connections and lifelong friendships that will be invaluable.
Traveling/Tourism expenses: $240 a month, $8/day.
You'll want to see all of the best attractions your new home has to offer, so plenty of day trips and weekend jaunts should be on the agenda. Short flights are usually absurdly inexpensive -- I usually pay $30-$50 for flights within the same country!
Book a tour to go jump off a waterfall, scuba dive a reef, or trek through ancient ruins. The prices vary widely but you'll get a feel for it -- and the best price -- when you live there, or even can have a local friend show you around. I try to take one "touristy" excursion every weekend -- like the sail boat ride around the island I'm planning tomorrow!
Total: $1,440/month, or $48/day.
That brings us to a daily budget less than $50 a day. Of course you might spend more on food, less on entertainmnet, etc., but for less than $1,500 a month, you should be able to live comfortably -- and have the experience of a lifetime!