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Living Cheaply in Costa Rica

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The cost of living in Costa Rica, as with everywhere else, is a frequent topic of discussion. Before relocating here I read as much as I could on the matter, trying to get a feel for what to expect. The feedback varied. Some would say it was cheap, others would say it wasn’t. And then there were always those making the “back in my day” statements.

In piecing it all together, I estimated that if someone said it was inexpensive now, then it could be, in fact, possible to live cheaply in Costa Rica. And since moving here, that has precisely been my experience. For July, I decided to find out exactly how cheaply I could live here. I did pretty well.

Carombolo fruit, fresh from the yard.  Cost?  Free.

Carombolo fruit, fresh from the yard. Cost? Free.

One Month in Costa Rica

For the month of July, I lived on roughly $715. By lived I mean that it is now August and I’m still alive. Very little more, very little less. To put my expenses into context, I live in an efficiency apartment in Jacó, Costa Rica and I don’t own a car. Here is a basic breakdown of the outflow of dollars during July.

Housing: $240
Utilities (electric/internet): $25
Online Services: $60
Transportation (taxis): $5
Food: $200
Cigarettes: $100
Fees: $30
Entertainment: $55

The first three line items, there’s really no variance month to month. No room to move unless I were to, of course, physically move. I’m sure that were I to actually get out and look, I could find cheaper, perhaps even better, accommodations. One of my neighbors recently relocated to another place which is $40 cheaper a month and slightly larger. However, he did sacrifice location. I measured and it is exactly 100 steps from my front door to the sands of the beach of Costa Rica. Certainly, I’m not living a plush lifestyle but I’m not living poorly either (depending on your definitions of plush and poor). I have everything I need in my little efficiency apartment. My neighbors are friendly and the landlady is sweet. So I live comfortably in a comfortable community. And, well, I’m in Costa Rica 100 steps from the beach. So there’s that.

As for my food, I’m playing with it. My regular intake of junk which was a natural part of life in the US is virtually non-existent here. My diet has changed drastically. I eat fresh fruit daily now. Pasta, rice, beans, eggs, breads… pick a staple, I eat it. As a general rule, imported products are more expensive so I tend to avoid them. I drink coffee like mad (no change to my diet there). Not a whole lot of meat but that’s only because I haven’t figured out how to use meat sensibly. I don’t want to buy or make something that I’m going to waste and I haven’t found simple meal-for-one recipes that I’m happy with. It’s been an ongoing mission to find the right balance with food.

Mamón chino fruit.  Delicious.  Cost: free from the neighbor.

Mamón chino fruit. Delicious. Cost: free from the neighbor.

When I look at my monthly expenses, it’s somewhat maddening that, even with the low cost of cigarettes in Costa Rica, I waste so much money on them. I would love to quit for that simple fact alone. At $3 a pack for Dunhills, it certainly allows for cheaper living, but still. By the way, if you feel so inclined to mention the health issues caused by smoking cigarettes and that should be reason enough for me to quit, please resist that urge; it’s really a tiresome topic and I haven’t had enough coffee yet this morning.

The bank fees are personally annoying and I look forward to being rid of them. There’s an extra $15 in there that doesn’t need to be; I made three cash withdrawals when I could’ve gotten by with one. Sadly, my US bank charges me $5 for every ATM withdrawal and there are, naturally, ATM transaction fees on top of that. The rest of the fees that fly out the window come from simply using my debit card for any purchase outside the US. International transaction fees add up. All of these unnecessary charges can be avoided by “simply” opening a bank account here in Costa Rica.

Lastly, my entertainment costs were pretty basic including one night out where I purchased five drinks and then a really nice and long lunch one afternoon. Eating at sodas and other inexpensive meals I factored into the food category.

And truthfully, if it wasn’t one turd of a movie after another, I might actually include Netflix in the entertainment category and not in online services. As it is, I’m left raising my hands in exasperation in the evening hours and pleading, “Oh, come on” to my laptop monitor, having already watched everything enjoyable and semi-enjoyable available through their site. Digging through poop in search of a gem is NOT entertainment. It is a cruel, cruel exploitation of my slight obsessive-compulsiveness. (Get all the achievements!!)

All of this said, there was certainly a good bit of entertainment I enjoyed in July that money didn’t buy. Like looking out over mountaintops as far as my eyes could see.

A spectacular mountain view.  Cost: a little bit of my sanity is hiking/biking up there.

A spectacular mountain view. Cost: a little bit of my sanity hiking/biking up there. Otherwise, free.

Finding twelve monkeys.

The first monkey I would see in Costa Rica.  I couldn't stop laughing with excitement.

The first monkey I would see in Costa Rica. I couldn’t stop laughing with excitement. Cost of laughter? Free.

Getting up close and personal with some waves crashing on a rocky coastline.

The nearby fishermen I'm sure had a good laugh as I jerked my bodily frantically around to shield my camera a split-second before getting entirely drenched.  Worth it.

The nearby fishermen I’m sure had a good laugh as I jerked my bodily frantically around to shield my camera a split-second before getting entirely drenched. Definitely worth it. (Camera was fine.)

Watching surfers find that perfect moment of zen in the ocean.

Dancing like Michael Jackson on the waves of the ocean.

Like Michael Jackson on waves. Awesome entertainment, always.

And so on and so forth. The cost to satisfy my soul is minimal and Costa Rica offers it for the low, low price of free.

Worth it? Worth it.

There are other unusual expenses that come up, of course. For example, the cost of the border run every three months. Buying/replacing household goods, clothes, etc. Traveling throughout the country. If I get sick, I’ll have to deal with that. Bicycle repair is an occasional expense for me. I’m still undecided about a trip to the barber shop, though. If I go, it’s $6. And that’s a whole lot of pineapple so you can see my dilemma.

So there it is. $715 for one month in Costa Rica. $1000 per month is a much more comfortable and reasonable number. But from my experience, a person can live more cheaply. And most certainly a person can live more expensively. It’s just a question of lifestyle.

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