A reader asks: Can I live on $20K/year in Costa Rica?

Photo: David W. Smith

Readers of Living Abroad in Costa Rica sometimes email me with questions about starting a new life in Costa Rica. I’m honored and humbled by these requests, and often wish that I had a whole crew of people–living in different parts of Costa Rica and with vastly different experiences of the country–to help me frame my reply.

And so here, dear reader, is one of those emails. If you have advice or encouragement for the writer, please post a comment at the bottom of this page (it’s easy to sign in and I promise I won’t abuse your email). Sometimes it takes a village to help someone launch into a new life.

Hi Erin,

I want to thank you for your book. At the time I read it I was going through some rough times (death and divorce), and I decided to travel to Costa Rica to just get some relief. I was dazzled by it. I was there seven days, the Central Valley (San José and the Arenal area), and the mid-Pacific area (Jacó, Quepos, Manual Antonio), and you’re right, it’s a little bit of paradise.

I truly want to live there or try it. I live in Minnesota and except for summer cannot stand it. At present I work as a metal worker. I am a shop foreman in a steel/aluminum plant with 30 men under me. I have always been a man of the left (social democrat, democratic socialist, trade union type). I want to simplify my life, I am done with the rat race, and I just cannot do it any more. I want to live intentionally. If you know any community or communal style living, like a religious or spiritual group, I may be interested.

I am 58, and have about 4 years before I can get Social Security, but have a bit of money in my 401k plan (I lost a fair amount in the stock exchange). How much would I need a year to live, renting a house somewhere in a town outside San Jose or around La Fortuna? I have in mind a smaller two-bedroom home with a small yard for my Collies. Could I find something for $500 – $600 a month? I would also need to buy into the national health insurance; would that be about $60.00 a month? I own two motorcycles–I would ship both to Costa Rica, also mountain and racing bicycles.

Could I do it all on $1,600 a month, or about $20,000 a year?

Thanks,

Dan

Hi Dan,

Thanks for your note, and I’m glad Costa Rica dazzled you and provided some relief from rough times. It had the same effect on me when I moved to San José in the midst of many life changes. I came on my own, and found that struggling to make a new life in an unfamiliar place had the added benefit of helping me regain my confidence that I could do more than I’d come to expect of myself.

And I thank you for agreeing to have me post your questions on my blog. I will take a stab at answering some of them, and hope that other readers will chip in with their two cents. It takes many people to answer these kinds of questions-they touch on everything from cost of living to transporting pets to medical care. And under them all is a deeper question: How can I live a simpler but more satisfying life?

 

Come back soon
The first thing I want to suggest is that you come back to Costa Rica, as soon as you can, for as long as your life will allow. Seven days gave you a taste of the place but you need to see and feel more before making the commitment to relocate. Maybe spend a few weeks in the Arenal area to see if it’s for you, then come back again and explore some of the towns closer to San José. In the “Planning Your Fact-Finding Trip,” chapter, Living Abroad in Costa Rica has suggested itineraries for stays, of a week up to a month, and tips on how to integrate into a place to take its live-abroad temperature.

If you come back and stay in one place for a few weeks, you should also think about enrolling in a Spanish course. Knowing (even a little of) the language will make your time in Costa Rica much easier and more rewarding.

Cost of living
Can you live in Costa Rica on $20,000 a year? The short answer is, Yes, if you do some planning and set up your life that way. But make no mistake: Costa Rica isn’t cheap.  While researching  Living Abroad in Costa Rica , I did a cost-of-living survey that I’ll post here soon. Long story short: housing here can be (if you do your homework) a little to a lot cheaper than in the U.S., medical care is much cheaper, food is about the same, cars are more expensive, telephone and internet can be pretty cheap (unless you need something that your area doesn’t have much of, like broadband), and you can still travel around Costa Rica by bus for a song.

Check out the Costa Rica craigslist to get an idea of what rental houses are going for in various parts of the country.  A quick look shows me several options within your budget. (Of course these may be gone by the time you look, but no doubt there will be similar options available in the future).

  • $550 / 2br – Country Living: Farm Home w Utilities, Phone, Internet, SKY TV (Sarchi, 35 miles northwest of San Jose)
  • $150 / 1br – Cabin / Apt for Rent Fortuna
  • $620 / 3br – View of Volcano Arenal walk to center of La Fortuna

You can also spend as much or more than you would in Minnesota:

  • $1400 / 2br – THE MARILYN MUNROE APARTMENT: GLAMOUR, AND HOLLYWOOD FURNITURE (ESCAZU)

But I’m betting you won’t be tempted by a “Marilyn Munroe Apartment.”

You also say that you want to simplify your life. Perhaps you want to consume less and have fewer possessions. In that case, you’re on the right track for a more satisfying but economical life. And you can start to pare down now, even though you still have a few years to go before you plan to move. That way you’ll have less to ship or carry with you.

 

Intentional Communities in Costa Rica
Your openness to living in some sort of intentional community also signals to me that you may be able to economize that way. If you don’t need your own land, your own car, your own everything–in short, if you can and want to share, then you can probably live on a lot less that you now spend in the U.S.

The non-profit Fellowship for Intentional Community has a Costa Rica page that lists over 30 communities (and there are probably dozens more not yet on their list).

Many note that they are in the process of forming, so now might be a good time to look into them–to get in on the ground floor, so to speak. There are communities focused on eco-sustainability, like Finca Las Brisas (near Nosara, on the Nicoya Peninsula) and Rancho Margot (on the shores of Lake Arenal), others focused on yoga and alternative lifestyles, like Pachamama, and even some that emphasize treehouse living, like Finca Bella Vista in the Zona Sur.

Bringing Your Collies Along
I’ve worked with Angela Passman, creator of Guardian Angels Costa Rica and World Pet Travel, and I found her an excellent resource for news and tips on how best to bring your pets to Costa Rica. I think bringing your dogs is a great idea–they’ll be a living piece of home while you all adjust to a new environment. I’ve also found dogs better than any alarm system when it comes to home protection.

Well, I’ve gone on a bit here and still probably haven’t done more than skim the surface of your questions. I’m hoping others will pitch in. Whatever happens, Dan, buena suerte (good luck) and keep us posted on your progress towards a new life.

Sincerely,

Erin

  • By Stephen, May 25, 2010 @ 6:38 pm

    Erin is correct. The answer is “Yes, but…” We found a house near San Ramon for $180 a month a few years ago. We lived there while we built a house. But how do you find such a house? You need connections which you cannot find if you do not speak Spanish, or at least are on very good terms with a friend who does. The best way to lower expenses is to speak Spanish, because then you’ll be able to be part of Costa Rican life directly and you’ll find better bargains. English-only is the barrier that keeps you from lowering your expenses.

    If you can radically reconfigure your life and not expect U.S. styles of life, you can do it. This means changing your diet, growing your own food, not traveling very much and using public transportation. It means buying second-hand clothing, living simply, recycling, reusing, and adapting. It also means being part of a network of like-minded people and especially Costa Ricans with a campesino-style of life. That rules out urban areas and anything having to do with so-called developers who prey upon gringos. You have to go native.

  • By Andres, May 25, 2010 @ 7:39 pm

    Dan, Yes you can do it… I would probably recommend the Arenal area for you. As it is mentioned above I would seriously recommend to spend a bit more time in country before making the final move. Get to know more of the positives and the negatives, bit more of everyday life, talk to some expats and their experiences living in CR.
    Andres

  • By Julie, May 25, 2010 @ 10:33 pm

    Hi Dan –
    If at all possible, I would recommend that you make this move in steps. Perhaps (1) leave everything behind (motos, furniture, etc), and rent a small furnished place for a month. You will have better luck finding a place if you also leave your dogs behind, but then you won’t get the best idea of how it is to live here. (2) if possible, then move on to another area. (3) when you are more certain that you want to live in Costa Rica, and you have a better idea of which area you want to live, then decide what items you really want and need to have.
    This approach could cost you a bit more (furnished short-term rentals go for more, and each move will cost a bit), but it is better than shipping everything at once and then finding out that you really don’t like where you landed.
    We lived in several places, each very different types of places. Our “wish list” of amenities – our needs and wants – changed drastically based on how we ended up living.

    Certainly you can live here (quite well, in fact) on your stated budget. However, you should plan on a few start-up costs, for things such as furniture, appliances, shipping motorcycles, marchamo (yearly car/moto taxes and insurance).

    A friend recently gave some very good advice about shipping stuff. Think of it like this – anything you ship here will end up staying here. It costs a lot to ship things here, and if you decide to return to the states, it will cost a lot to ship it back.

    Don’t forget to have a cushion for things like medical and dental work, travel back to the states (family emergencies, for example), vet bills, etc.

    enjoy your new adventure!
    Julie

  • By Pete, May 26, 2010 @ 7:01 am

    All of the above responses are excellent. I too am a Minnesota who got fed up with long winters. Costa Rica called, and I have made my home there for the last nine years.

    Initially, I was blown away by the cost of living. In addition to my luggage, I brought with me a Minnesotan way of living, cooking, traveling and shopping. This will make your $20K stretch fairly thin. But there is hope.

    Two great pieces of advice: go native, and learn Spanish. Both of these things will lower your cost of living substantially. I have adopted a Costa Rican lifestyle as much as I can: I shop at farmers markets, where I get incredibly fresh produce for a pittance; I take public transportation whenever I can and leave the car at home (also saves on stress); I live in a Tico-style home, where my monthly mortgage payment is much less than most people’s car payments; and I follow the Costa Ricans when going out to eat or play, instead of sticking to the gringo trail.

    In my experience, I can tell you that I have been able to live a bare-bones existence for around $500 a month. $1,000 monthly will afford a comfortable, but not lavish, living. $1,500 might even allow you to put some money away and do some international traveling, but again you won’t be living like a king. But who needs a bejeweled crown when you’re reading the Star-Tribune online and see that it’s -14 in Minneapolis, when you’re drinking a rich cup of coffee under a mango tree while parrots sing to each other?

  • By Pete, May 26, 2010 @ 7:05 am

    Oh, and also, please do think about not shipping anything here. I drove a car here from MN and while the trip was gorgeous, the process of nationalizing the vehicle was so byzantine that I actually tried to sell the car for parts.

  • By Maria Morrison (nee Rojas), May 26, 2010 @ 8:30 am

    Please, Dan, stay in Minnesota – don’t come to CR with your liberal left wing union thoughts and ruin our beautiful country like you have Minnesota.

  • By David, May 26, 2010 @ 1:19 pm

    These are all great comments, with the exception of the one above.(Was that a joke?)

    I definitely agree with the comments concerning shipping anything to to CR. You can buy a ‘throw away’ Chinese motorcycle that will last you a few years, and set you back only a couple thousand.

    Also, I would definitely do some more traveling and exploring, as CR has many different micro-climates. It would behoove you to have an understanding of the variety of these before you make a decision to stay in one place.

    Learning spanish is a must. The less spanish you know, the more expensive EVERYTHING will be. There are many immersion courses available throughout the country.

    You might find the following link to be of interest. It is in a part of Costa Rica that you haven’t yet visited. I’ve never been there, but it is a very beautiful area, and there may be some like-minded people that could give you first hand information.

    http://www.durika.org/nwy/mt/eng-thecommunity-background.htm

    It sounds to me, that you could do just fine on your budget. My advice is to just be a little careful rushing into a situation where it might be much harder to find a way out. Buena suerte!

  • By Rich, May 26, 2010 @ 3:26 pm

    While you’re in Costa Rica I recommend checking out the work Feed My Sheep Association is doing in the Osa Peninsula, Tibas and San Miguel. Their website is located at http://www.feedmysheepassociation.org.

    You can also check out the Agua Dulce Lodge and Resort, also located in the Osa Peninsula and is associated with the Feed My Sheep Association: http://www.aguadulcelodge.com/

  • By DAN FRANKOT, May 29, 2010 @ 2:38 pm

    Thanks Erin and all, I learned a lot, yes I know I have to learn Spanish .I am working on that now. I also am planning to visit CR in November . I realize I just cannot run away from here I have to make preparations,I still have a house here I have to figure out what to do with it, rent it or sell it? If I sell ,I will probably loose money on it.I also do plan to visit Minn. in the summers.I checked out all the links,great pictures Julie.It looks like you and Rick are doing what I want to do. I want to do some type of buisness in CR maybe something connected to bicycle touring .I am avid biker .My friend knows of a couple who have a small coffee shop/ministry social gospel situation going on in SAN jOSE I am a spiritual Christian that may be something to pursue.It would not be hard for me to simplify my life style I have always been into the social ecological perspective.Some main points I get, learn Spanish,do not bring a lot of baggage,first spend a trial period in CR esp. check out various locations. My dogs are all I have, I have lost everyone that mattered to me but I cannot run, its full catastrophe liveing they have to go with me. Comrade Maria there is plenty of room in CR for the left and the right. I always thought CR was central Americas social democracy ,that is one reason I looked into it! Anyway thanks again all I would like to keep in touch maybe contact or visit some of you if possible in November? DAN

  • By Angela, June 2, 2010 @ 7:13 am

    My apologies form just now adding to Erin’s wonderful advice. She knows what she is talking about and I would follow her advice to the letter as she is an expert in the field of living in CR.

    So far as bringing your dogs. This is my expertise 🙂 We can help you bring your babies with the greatest of ease and Erin is correct when she says these are the best so far as alarms go. We had 2 large Akita’s and we had no need for an alarm system in our home while we had these dogs. The only time we had an issue with burglary was when we moved the dogs to a new home and left the old home unsupervised by the dogs. Best alarm system you can have are dogs.

    You must do your homework when it comes to bringing them down though. If you don’t follow the law, they will spend unnecessary time in the customs warehouse unattended without food, water or bathroom rights and we don’t want that. Or worse…..

    We can help you with getting your babies to CR when you get ready for that hurdle in your life. We have moved 100’s of pets in and out of CR over the years with great success. You can read about some of these moves on our website.

    We wish you the best and let us know if we can be of assistance.

  • By Master lister, September 1, 2010 @ 3:45 pm

    How do my wife Ora and I connect with Angela (above) to get more information concerning travelling with pets to Costa Rica? We have a female German Shepherd dog almost 9 months and two adult cats, 8 years old. We’re traveling at the end of this month or in the middle of October… Any information you can provide us will be greatly appreciated.

  • By Erin Van Rheenen, September 1, 2010 @ 7:13 pm

    Angela can be reached at Angela [at] relocationcr.com.

  • By Jamie, October 8, 2010 @ 2:40 pm

    Dan, my significant other and I live in the country, with beautiful mountain views and super sweet neighbors. We have a 2 bedroom house (very small by US standards) with a nice yard. It’s about 45 minutes outside San Isidro del General. We pay $100 a month. Really. It’s certainly nothing fancy, but it’s comfortable. Anything in a city, especially popular expat areas like Atenas/Arenal/San Jose/Escazu, etc., or near the beach will be much much more expensive. Our utilities (DSL internet, electric, water, and trash pickup) run are usually less than $70/mo. The two of us live comfortably for around $1000/mo, including some travel and going out to eat/dance/drink now and then. If you buy a car when you arrive (they are all at least twice what they’d be in the States), figure on adding $100/mo for gas if you drive a lot. It’s expensive. A full tank costs about $40. Be prepared to have some start up cash–you’ll need to furnish your home, buy appliances, etc. Rentals here do not usually come with a range or a refrigerator. Shipping isn’t worth it, even if your package actually arrived. Pack as much as you can and bring it as luggage on the plane. You can always (assuming you leave your things in some kind of storage) bring down more stuff whenever you visit MN. Or you can have friends who come to visit bring you things. I also cannot recommend enough that you learn to speak and understand conversational Spanish before you move. It will make your life here sooo much easier. Of course, you’ll still have to get used to the Tico accent and all the slang they use. I don’t recommend buying a Costa Rican Spanish book (there is at least one that I know of). You won’t remember the words/phrases until you start hearing them used.

    Good luck with your move!

  • By Erin Van Rheenen, October 9, 2010 @ 11:08 am

    Jamie,
    Thanks for your very informative post. Your situation sounds sweet, especially the rent. I paid more than twice that for a little apt. in San Jose. I concur about the car and gas–that really adds a lot to your monthly budget. Buses rule!
    Erin

  • By Chuck C., October 27, 2011 @ 11:39 am

    Great info. I plan to check out the CR soon and stay a while. I will know if I want to move there permanently after an extended stay. Thanks for the good advice.
    Chuck in SC

  • By Christopher Columbus, July 3, 2012 @ 4:07 pm

    The advice is sound. This place is very inexpensive, so please do not ruin it with ‘union’ and government thinking.

  • By Jenny, October 5, 2012 @ 5:21 pm

    Christopher Columbus, I agree with your post. I read the “leftist union” post and thought ” Oh God, don’t tell me they are moving there. They will be taking over and ruining that beautiful country.

  • By John, March 9, 2013 @ 6:29 pm

    I read these comments and am mostly in agreement. I personally am taking a slightly different road. I have been planning my future in Costa Rica for the last 4 years and plan on living the rest of my life there and am not concerned about the money issues as much as some due to good planning. I am not wealthy by no means so I have done these things with a salary that befits any average American. I have already bought and paid for a small home ( 1000 sq ft ) that I am truly in love with and also 2 cars which are also paid for therefore I will have no rent or car payments of such. I do have the cost of up keep of the cars and the taxes on the house etc etc but no where near the cost of renting a home or having to give up the luxury of having a car. We have owned one of our cars for 4 years and have spent very little money on maintaining it. Point is, plan and buy a little at a time until you feel like you’re ready and the hardships of the ” cost ” will not be nearly as bad as some anticipate. Just for you’re info . . . I have one more year to go before I make the final movr. Good luck !

  • By jerry reidelbach, April 11, 2013 @ 9:55 am

    Hi, my wife and I will be retiring soon and we are in our mid60’s. We plan on getting our Pensionado Residence on arrival and lease our home in Texas for one year and rent a small house in Atenas or Grecia and hopefully we will make it our permanent home. We have decided to use buses and taxis instead of buying a car. My better half is of Mexican decent and speaks Spanish but a little rusty,I Myself will need some classes on arrival.As I read the Blogs and Forums on how to adapt to CR I believe that absorbing their lifestyle will be the key on making it last, and much more enjoyable. Jerry R

  • By Erin Van Rheenen, April 11, 2013 @ 4:37 pm

    Hi Jerry! Thanks for commenting. It sounds like you’ve given this move a lot of thought, and I am in complete agreement that you should take Spanish classes and that “absorbing [the Tico] lifestyle will be the key to making it last.” Buena suerte, and keep in touch. — Erin

  • By Karen K, May 21, 2013 @ 7:43 pm

    I’ve been planning with a friend of mine, to relocate to CR as well. I have been emailing Terry Moran who has been a wealth of info. Also try this blog:
    http://lakearenalrealestatequarterly.blogspot.com/ I started with Ronan McMahon @ http://www.pathfinderinternational.net (who is an expert at finding great reasonable prices) and that led me to Margaret Summerfield @ Pathfinder Real Estate who sent me to Terry. I’ve gotten LOTS of good info, links to more and terrific contacts. I also went to a preparedness convention recently and met a man with Swiss America who advised me on how to transfer money legally to whatever country I want to which was a concern… how to do it and be legal. Don’t want to start on the wrong foot from the start. Anyway, check with Terry and ask every question you can think of. We are considering Lake Arenal because we don’t want to have to use air conditioning all the time and neither of us loves heat and humidity so the mountain areas are perfect for us. We are also considering Boquete Panama so we’ll have to spend some time visiting before we make a move… also need to do it at various times of the year. Good luck and correspond with this link to let us know how things are progressing.

  • By Mina, July 22, 2013 @ 5:24 pm

    I think for those who are averse to the ‘lefty’ or ‘union’ mindset of an American that posted, please keep in mind that American companies exploit workers like there is no tomorrow, even in, or in spite of ‘right to work’ states. Employers give 39 hour workweeks to avoid health insurance, require overtime work without paying, and since the jobs are disappearing, people have to just take it. So please, don’t be hard on the guy, he clearly isn’t a political subversive agent (á la CIA) but is a product of the American working class in this era. Costa Rica has a system in place to not only protect workers but has a socialised healthcare system that Americans will never have (Obamacare doesn’t come close). I’m sure he will be a wonderful addition to any neighbourhood and to Costa Rican life in general!

  • By Bud, August 25, 2013 @ 12:07 pm

    “Comrade Maria there is plenty of room in CR for the left and the right. I always thought CR was central Americas social democracy ,that is one reason I looked into it!”

    It’s pretty cheeky to tell someone in another country where you hope to be a permanent GUEST that you feel at liberty to haul your baggage of an unwanted social agenda into a society far less disfunctional than your own.

    If you are an avowed leftist, why not move to one of the many societies in the world whose people thrive on a socialist agenda? If none spring readily to mind, perhaps it’s time to wonder why you think Ticos would welcome your presence.

  • By WebProf, March 28, 2014 @ 4:04 pm

    Very interesting conversation here with lots of great tips and different perspectives. We are a couple living in Illinois and planning to retire in 6.5 years (exactly). We’ve done the math, traveled several times to CR, looked at several different areas and consider it a beautiful country but not always easy to live in. I think to adapt to CR, one must accept it as it is; not dream about changing anything or forcing US ways where they certainly don’t belong. They’ve succeeded in many areas where US has failed. We must respect the CR culture and people even if we might disagree with them sometimes as is the case in USA also. We are the ones that must try to fit in if we’re to be accepted by our Costa Rican neighbors. There are cultural differences between USA and Costa Rica. Geert Hofstede’s cultural dimensions is a good way to learn about the differences.

  • By Erin Van Rheenen, March 29, 2014 @ 10:46 am

    Hello WebProf and thanks for your comment. I agree that to adapt to CR (or to any new place) you have to take the trouble to see it as it is and not as you might wish it to be. Thanks for the tip about Geerte Hofstede. Their web site is fascinating–they’ve ranked most countries in the world according to a rubric that measures six tendencies, from pragmatism to conflict avoidance. Visit http://geert-hofstede.com/costa-rica.html and see what they have to say about Costa Rica.

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