Posts tagged: reader mail

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?



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:


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.