Cost of Living in Central America: Expat Advice

Many people have been asking me about the cost of living in Central America. The Short answer, is “What do you want to pay?”

Many move Cost of living in central americato Central America (for us El Salvador) to live a happy, safe and comfortable life for a fraction of the cost of an equally comfortable life in the United States. You can actually retire early to a beach home in paradise and do quite well.

You can also show up expecting the moon for fifty cents, and find your expenses are close to what you left behind, and be miserable. How? Don´t really move.

Instead of moving to Central America, and trading away what you had for what you want, cling tightly to everything American. That’s not being a true expat woman.

Let me preface this article with a disclaimer. I rant, editorialize and don’t even pretend to back up my numbers. I did actually save receipts and make comparisons, but there is a lot of blatant opinion too, because I’m not working for anyone. This is my site so deal with it.

Let´s look at some of the different areas of spending, and how they are affected by how much of America you hang on to.


Pre-packaged, name-brand foods are as expensive here as in the U.S. Kellogs cereals, Mott´s apple juice and Red Bull are not less, and frequently cost more. If you shop with a focus on convenience and familiarity, you will find your grocery bill here is close to what it was before the move.

It makes sense if you think about it. Much of the stuff is imported, and with the added cost of boxes and marketing added on, how could it possibly be less? I am very confident saying you would save more money, and eat better buying all your meals out at small locally owned restaurants and shops (seriously you can get a couple great pupusas for $0.65/ea, toss in some fresh juice..YUM, all for under $3.00). Mind you I said local vendors, not fast food!

Fast Food (yes, fast food is a seperate topic from food)Cost of living in latin america

Fast food in Central America is as pervasive as in the United States, if not more (at least in the big cities. You still can get far far away from the golden arches if you want to). The prices for fast food meals in Central America are close to the same as in the United States. How is that possible when 40 percent of the population in El Salvador earns less than $300 dollars per month? I don´t know. How is it ethical when the building costs, labor costs and many of the product costs are so much less? It´s not.

But the Pizza Hut´s, Burger King´s, and Mcdonald´s are everywhere, and they are packed, and not with American Expat woman. If you eat here, you are spending like an American. That´s fine if you have the cash and don´t mind leaving your stomach behind in Orange County. There is plenty of great food in El Salvador.

If you buy lots of produce, make most of your meals, and otherwise eat real food made by humans for humans, your food bill can be surprisingly low. It will be lowest if you buy from market vendors rather than the supermarket. You will also be spreading your dollars across a wider range of people who can use it. Nice, healthy, horizontal. Money has a way of not filtering its way down here.

If you change how you eat, to suit where you are, your budget will thank you. Eat like your neighbors. Unless you live in a condo complex full of homesick embassy workers who just want to make it through the assignment and go home, in which case, don´t eat like your neighbors.


It´s all a matter of where you want to live, and whether you need everything to be exactly like home. Depending on where you originally came from, you may be shocked at how inexpensive housing can be. On the flip side if you absolutely must live in the capitol, and absolutely must be in the area where most of the other expats are, you will realize some, but limited, savings.

In the wealthy areas of San Salvador, rent ranges from $500 for a nice apartment all the way up to $4,000 for a very large furnished home. These areas cater to foreign workers and business people with plenty of furnished and unfurnished homes at prices that you would consider inexpensive if you come from Los Angeles, San Francisco or New York. If you are from the midwest you won´t be very impressed.

the true Cost of living in latin america and el salvadorOutside the very wealthy zones, prices for homes get very low very quickly. There are nice family sized homes just outside San Salvador in areas I would feel comfortable living, for a fraction of the cost. There are also some neighborhoods within the capitol itself that are both less expensive than San Benito, and just as safe.

Do some research with regard to safety, as some poorer metropolitan areas are controlled by gangs or are otherwise heavily influenced social problems such as substance abuse, and other crimes which are the inevitable outcome of crushing poverty. Be prepared to redefine poverty if you come here. If you come here and do not see it, I encourage you to venture out as far as you feel comfortable because it helps you put your position in perspective. I’m not talking about feeling guilty. I’m talking about understanding where you are.

If you plan a move and are not certain what your comfort level is for different zones, I recommend finding a home to rent for three months or so, and that you spend those months out and about, getting used to the lay of the land, the culture and the climate differences. You should be aware of how quickly the temperature goes up as the elevation drops, And adjust your eyes to see what is normal here and what is not.

If you are going for the paradise beach home consider what I just said. The beaches in El Salvador are STUNNING! The surf is AMAZING! The temperature is also BLISTERING, and you will not find a tiny version of the Miami nightlife. But you will be able to relax in that heat, and dine on very fresh, very inexpensive, very healthy foods.

I would personally love to have a beach house here and if I ever get to a point I can afford one I will absolutely buy one. That said, I want to advise anyone considering it to make sure you don´t make assumptions about what living at the beach is like. Try it out over a period of time.

To sum it up, almost anywhere other than the wealthy parts of the capitol you can rent a nice 3 bedroom home for somewhere around $350/mo, but many expats get roped into a relatively expensive lifestyle that might not really be necessary if they paused, shook themselves loose, and opened up to being the only extranjero on the block, consider a “regular” neighborhood instead of a retirement colony, and be careful about that stunning piece of oceanfront.

There may some differences in what to expect in a nice home. Remember this is a different country, so some things are different. Hot water, water storage, air conditioning, laundry, cooking with a stove, are all different unless you are in the Americanized zone. All the differences can be learned and paying 75% less rent is a pretty good motivation to learn a few new tricks.

Gas and Electricity

Both are currently higher than in the United States. As in about three times higher. I compensate by not having as far to drive, and by learning long lost arts like hanging the laundry up on a line to dry, and tolerating a certain amount of the warmth during the day before turning on the air. An expat woman can kick ass simply.


My 5-year-old child´s preschool bill at a very nice bilingual kinder place, is $90/mo. The largest exclusive private tips for finding the Cost of living in central americaschools have combined admission fees and tuitions that add up to approximately $1,000/mo/child, if you were to have the child there for only one year. The very high admission fees are paid only once in the lifetime of the child through, so the true cost of tuition really depends on the length of your stay.

There are many less expensive private schools with strong curriculums and staffs for less than half that price. A very good private elementary school for less than 400/mo is low by comparison to the metropolitan U.S. and you can find much lower prices for credible schools outside the capitol.

Maids and Nannies

If you choose to have a live in nanny (niñera), I see advertisements ranging from $160-300/ mo. plus room and board depending on the details (bilingual for instance). Advertisements for full time live in maids range $160-250. I have neither. I like to walk around looking like a zombie in my underwear, plus my sensibilities can´t handle the term “servants quarters”. I´ve been approached by out of work maids. Plenty of unemployed women want to use the empty “servants quarters” built into my house, eat my food and clean up after me and my lazy family for what sounds like a crazy low wage. Maybe I’m just being selfish. Anyway, it´s around $200, in most cases less, for full time live in help.


As you would expect, since cars here are all manufactured in the same places, the prices are not lower. For my eye used cars appear ever so slightly higher and I´m not sure of the cause, but the difference is not that great.

Public transportation is a little chaotic and intimidating to a newcomer, but you can get around for pocket change. I do recommend good Spanish skills and a little consultation with a friendly Salvadoran if you are timid. Regardless of last years string of attacks on public transportation, the biggest danger on the busses is outrageously aggressive driving. Except that at this point I have the option not to (knock on wood), I would ride the bus here, and consider it a reasonable option.

Think of those real-estate and retirement commercials in context. El Salvador and Central America as a whole, are really crappy at being cheap versions of the United States. You cannot get a tropical version of your hometown for a fraction of the cost. But why would you want that? Skip the pre-packaged scams.

Central America, and El Salvador specifically, is in and of itself a wonderful place (yes, with real problems but that’s another post), where the cost of living is quite low, the natural beauty can amaze you, the beaches are underdeveloped, and the mountains are cool fresh and fertile. You may not need the things you left behind.

I encourage you to look into other blog posts about the topic. Several of my recommended blogs have very good information on the topic, so click around and see what living in Central America as an expat woman is all about!

Some good books to read if you are interested in El Salvador:

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About Nanelle

Nanelle is a 43 year old former Ballet Dancer and Police Officer. Join her on their move to El Salvador, Living life in El Salvador as an American expat woman and loving it.

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36 Responses to “Cost of Living in Central America: Expat Advice”

  1. Miriam Says:

    What i like abaut your your dicriptive writing and you tell it like it is .it make whana move soon. I am glad you guys are enjojin your move

  2. Tim Says:


    I'm new to your forum and really enjoyed your article. Very realistic, not extreme like so many others I've read.Thanks.

    I loved what you said about food. Myself, I'm an American living and working here and I've found it easier, cheaper and more fun to simply eat out everyday (Although I don't do fast food). I've found the good, bad and the ugly and continue to explore. It keeps me entertained. Perhaps I'll contribute and article or two..?

    I also have another transportation suggestion which I realize might not be for everyone. Although I have a car, I often find it simpler to ride my motorcycle around the city. It's cheaper, much faster and of course a lot more dangerous but it is an option. I work with the Police here and they BEG me not to ride the buses for my own safety.

    Also, tell Andy that I was in Kreef the other day and had an Italian Beer he might like to check out, very good but I don't remember the name.

    Anyway, keep the articles coming!


    • Andy Says:

      Tim, I would love you to contribute! That's good info about the buses, but I'd be pretty scared on a motorcycle without significant skill! I'd love to hear more about your life here. I'm learning more every day, and there are so many people here with much more experience living here than me.

  3. Cathi Whitehead Says:

    I'm really enjoying your blogs. I travel to El Salvador several times a year with our ministry. Unfortunately, we don't see too much of the good life in the areas we visit. We have a student ministry with supporters for approximately 200 students to attend school. We buy their supplies, uniforms, shoes, etc. Without these they can't attend school. We also have a Feed the Hungry Ministry. We are providing food for 30 families monthly as well as providing food for an orphanage. We travel into dangerous areas where the very poor live. We work with local people who are part of our staff. They truly are family. I absolutely love El Salvador!! Even with all of the poverty and violence, the people are wonderful. Thanks for making me feel like I'm there with your blog. I was just there 2 weeks ago. We do always reserve one day to spend at the beach. Good times! Thanks!!

    • Nanelle Says:

      Cathi, thanks for the comment, and for the volunteerism. I appreciate the work, and think education is one of the many keys to getting the economy up. That and some jobs that don´t just send money or resources right back out of the country. Kudos!

  4. Andy Says:

    Awesome comments friends! thanks !

  5. Kurt Says:

    I enjoy your posts. Very humble and informative. How can I convince my family to move there?

  6. Juan Carlos Says:

    Nanelle, thank you so much for having this blog. I am so happy to hear positive things about mi El Salvador. I was born there and I go visit family at least once a year. I love how you described everything. I am currently deployed in the Middle East and for the past year and a half… I have been thinking about moving back. Your information is very helpful to people that are considering moving to El Salvador. Thank you again for publishing this blog on my facebook page (El Salvador).

  7. Andy Says:

    Bought tires today for our car. they were the same price as the US, maybe a bit cheaper. but the installation and balance was $3.00 total. so many things cost less to DO but not to buy.

  8. Jesse Bailey Says:

    I really like the fact that you tell it like it is and being an expat living in Central America, I am missing my El Salvador. We are making up for it having more trips on the weekends to visit family and friends. Being from the OC myself, instead of heading back to the US after finishing my gig in Guatemala, we have decided to move to El Salvador too, I guess it is time to start thinking of home base. I love the fact that you can be at the beach in 30 mins. (I love the water, growing up in an archipelago) and these few years have been the farthest I've been from the beach. Hope to catch you around soon, too bad we missed you at Jiquilisco, looking forward to have a great time in ElSa. Salud!

    • Andy Says:

      Thanks Jesse, yeah we hoped to see you guys at the hotel too. It was a great time for sure! gald to hear you are moving back to El Salvador! we are hearing about a LOT of people moving to El Salvador now.

  9. Donald Lee Says:

    Good post and good comments, i had a vehicle in Central America, registered in Guatemala in 1987, until 2002, when I sold it with 850,000 km. and four overhauls on it, unlike other "ex pats" who move to a certain area of a certain country, over the years I got to know Guatemala, Southern Mexico and Mexico City, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and parts of Costa Rica as well as El Salvador, in th 1980s when I was a Guatemala City ex pat, I visited frequently Antigua, Lake Atitlan, Xela (Quetzaltenanago) and the Rio Dulce Marinas on the Caribbean Coast and was the ONLY "ex pat" in Guatemala who knew and was friendly with "ex pats" in all the different areas of Guatemala.

    As for missionaries, why does a country as religious as El Salvador require 'missionaries' from the USA? One told me in the Supermarket one day if I do not get 'baptized' and come to ——– I will not be raptured into "heaven", still not baptized and guess I am planning to spend eternity in the 'tropics' with friends of mine! Some of the sacred 'NGOs' as well are corrupt to the core with the needy getting very little, while high salaried staff live in luxury in Escalon, San Benito or San Francisco

    Sorry do not think very much like an "American" I am an 'estadounidense' some one born in USA, my Mom was an immigrant, mainly left the USA because I despise the puritanism there and my personal life is personal, saludos y buena suerte

    click on and join the travel journal, almost daily, not 'politically correct'

    Everyone gets flat tires, I got about 200 of them driving in Central America 1986-2002, once caught in a crossfire in a conflict zone in Guatemala, 1987, got 3 bulletholes just hit the fender, the flats always came unexpected and at the worst times and places…life in the tripics..another shi***y day in paradise, saludos.

  10. Andy Says:

    This guy has some great advice on eating cheap while abroad.

  11. Nanelle Says:

    a good article in the wall street journal

  12. Rodrigo Says:

    I'm Salvadoran, I enjoy reading posts about El Salvador.

    A tip on fast-food: Most fast foot chains have a non-advertised selection of 'combos económicos' or 'econocombos' which are one or two dollar specials. You can ask for them at the counter, even if they are not advertised.

    • Nanelle Says:

      I had no idea, thank you for the tip! That makes sense. Plenty of sense, because I was seriously wondering about the prices, vs average income what with how very packed the fast food places are. Keeping it off the menu is odd (in the US they promote the heck out of anything cheap!), but it must work.

  13. Jennifer Says:

    This is why I love your articles. Spoken from the heart and from your personal experience. Such a breath of fresh air. Everything you said is dead on and the quicker that expats learn that they better off they will be. I had 7 months to sell off all our possesions and save as much money as possible before our arrival. It musn't much but it was more than a lot of my neighbors will see in their life time. We blew through it all in 6 months. Dinner out for us is either pupusas (out here they are 3 for a $1) or panes con pollo, $2.50 for a sandwich so big that I split one with my son. Pizza Hut is only for special occasions and the Despensa Don Juan is where we shop when we absolutely need items that are not found in the neighborhood stores. ie body wash and decent razors. I wish someone like you was around 3 years ago giving out this advice. It would have saved me a ton of money. Keep writing

    • Nanelle Says:

      Jennifer thank you. I have to admit that my husband and I are straining not to blow our savings as well. We chose to rent a house that is bigger than we need (to host visitors who will be few and far between), and underestimated the cost of catching our balance, and we keep forgetting we don´t really make money right now. It takes a while to truly realize where you are, and what saving money actually means in the new environment. Dinner out for us, to be honest is still to frequent and though the prices are quickly coming down, they are still too expensive. I think you could teach a class for expats on how to get by on the figures some Move-Abroad sites claim (so they can sell realestate). I do hope both of our mistakes and both of our successes reach others planning their moves!

  14. Jennifer Says:

    Nanelle I am curious to know if you have the same problem as I do as a Mom. Sometimes the guilt of uprooting my son and forcing him to live in this unfamiliar place makes me overcompensate by buying him basically whatever he wants. As a result he has more toys than probably our entire town combined. This alone puts a major strain on our budget. How are you coping with your daughter without breaking your bank?

    • Nanelle Says:

      Jennifer…..absolutely! Im slowing down, and trying to systematic about family time instead but yes, I am still doing it. Not just toys, but much of our eating out too, is trying to create entertainment for her. Im only barely coping with that part. We recently created a habit of playing either UNO, or Micro golf, or painting together in the evenings, but to be honest…I get lazy, and take her to a restaurant with a playpark more than I shoud.

      The two areas of our budget that are out of control….Emme entertainment and my love of air-conditioning. I thought I had kicked the habit a few weeks ago, but keep relapsing!

      My big hope right now, is that as the school year starts she will be tired after school, and have homework to do. Right now after she has been more or less home all day we both get a little freaked out, and nothing soothes a mother like getting a treat for her child. Some of the toys last about two days and are never seen again….just like the money that will be very difficult to replace!
      Basically you and I are in the same place. The evening rituals keep us home together, my assignment is to stick to the plan!

  15. Jennifer Says:

    It amazes me how alike we are, even down to playing UNO. My problem is that by the time I finish cleaning the house, cooking lunch and making my 100 phone calls (all while minding the store) I have no energy left for my very rambunctios 7 year old. He goes to school from 7 to 12 but that doesn't seem to help. And right now, it is vacation and I am ready to pull my hair out. And it is only Tuesday!! If I had hot running water I oould say CALGON TAKE ME AWAY!!

    • Nanelle Says:

      my girl turns six soon… exact same spot. How is your son doing with the changes? does he have neighborhood friends? What has your experence been with neighboring families? In my case I find the rules of play are a little different. NO kids came out to the little park prior to emme and I playing there day after day. Not they do…and it drives the moms and nannies nuts. Emme also gets hurt when she invites kids in, but the moms and nannies are SO not ready for that. On the other hand they are more than happy to let her in their house for a bit. I don´t know if they just don´t trust us, or if customs are a little different, so they are willing to let a harmless little girl in play with their child, to try something new, but not to allow their child to do the same.

      I ask because I notice Emme is the only kid who goes to anyone´s house, or asks ther kids to come out to the park. (the afternoons are chaos at the park now, and it is funny how irritated the ladies look. I don´t understand!)

  16. Jennifer Says:

    When we lived in San Miguel it was almost ritual for all the kids to go outside in front of the houses to play every evening. This was more to escape the heat. This was a good oppurtunity for my son to make friends. He would go play inside their houses and the parents had no problem sending kids to play at our house. Sometimes for hours. Here is different. We are on a main road so there is no playing outside. He does go to the neighbors once in a while but they never come here to play so I feel start to feel guilty and keep him home. I have extended the offer more than once but the mom has never taken me up on it. Don't know why, she can see into our yard. My house is clean and I am not some kind of witch so I can't figure out what the problem is. But I guess it is hers, not mine.

    At times I think he is adjusting well, but even after two years he still talks about Georgia and everything he left behind. And he constantly compares the two with El Salvador definitely losing. For example recently he told me that there are no dirty men in Georgia like there are here. I also worry about his education. You guys are lucky to have access to high quality school. Last year we sent Juanito to a semi public school and it was a nightmare. There was more than 40 kids in the class and the teacher had absolutely no control. The other kids were awful to him. I can't count how many times he came home bruised and cut. Even the lady who stands outside selling churros warned me to be careful, that she had seen a boy push my son to the ground and kicked him repeatedly. Of course the teacher saw none of this and we had to take it to the principal. I even had to follow children home so that I could send my husband to talk to the parents. This year he is in a totally private school. With only 20 students in his class the teacher has much more control and is able to give some one on one time to the students. Juanito has learned so much this year compared to last. But I still do worry about the future and if he will be able to return to the US one day and be successful with the education he gets here.

    • Nanelle Says:

      That sounds very rough. I hope that the private school is up to international standards. Actually one of the main reasons we opted to live in the city (when we actually like the mountains very much AND the climate up higher is better for making beer AND it costs less is that the schools in the city seemed if anything, and improvement over California public schools., I have heard that most private schools here, even out in the more rural areas, are pretty good, but I don´t know what that means yet! I wonder if you could supplement his work with home-school material. My sister in law homeschooled her kids, and they were always lightyears ahead of their peers. She …. no seriously she actualy is…. a much better woman than I. I could never handle homeschool! But as a supplement maybe?

    • Harry Says:

      I've seen this in a school behind my home in Noe Valley. It's a predominantly hispanic school and they boast that they are bilingual. One day a large hispanic girl was beating up a much smaller black girl who was sitting on the ground trying to defend herself with her arms from the blows the other girl was trying to deliver to her head. A lot of hispanic girls had formed a circle around the black girl to watch the bigger girl deliver the blows. It wasn't until I yelled at the girl to stop what she was doing that one of the yard monitors casually walked over to the little crowd and told the girl that she was aware that it was "only a game" but it might not look that way to others. I picked up right away that the yard monitor was actually getting as much of a kick out of it as the girl who was delivering the blows.

  17. Rolando Rodriguez Says:

    Hey Guys,

    remember me? Someone sent me an email with your post! glad you decided to stay in El Salvador. have fun , patience and enjoy it!!!


  18. Jon Says:

    New to post. Great forum! I am looking at moving somewhere in Latin America in about 3-4 years. It sounds like my pension (about 2000/ month)is way more than what people make in most countries. Obviously people live there for way less than 2000 (roughly my pension) a month, but I realize they are not spoiled Americans. But, we partly don’t want our kids being raised as affluent American brats.

    I think it is great, Nanelle, that you are raising your girl there. I actually have a large (US standards) family of 4 kids, all young. That’s what makes it such a serious move, not like an old couple going to retire in a little apartment. We need a bigger house, more food, gas in the car, etc…

    Biggest obstacle is to convince my wife, as she is scared of crime and that sort of thing. Because I have such a good wife, capable and smart, is the only reason I think we can make it. We eat real food (we can both cook well) instead of fast food. We school our kids so there is no tuition cost to worry about. I can come there with enough money to buy a basic vehicle, a bit of household furniture, and maybe some bicycles and surf boards. I know the biggest catch is not to try to move to a ‘retirement colony’. We are not old anyway..will be 40 with young kids. I’ve been to 3rd world countries and I’m ‘used to it’ (worse than ES) but my wife not so much. It will be an intesting next few years deciding.

  19. El Salvador from the Inside Says:

    Hi Nanelle, this article makes so much sense and I hope would-be expats take it to heart. You can't keep all the great things you had back home and simply add to them great weather and perks of living in El Salvador. Have to live in one place or the other, so pick one! Great no nonsense advice, I especially like the tip for living in a place a few months to check it out first. I will say this, though El Salvador has more problems than Costa Rica, it's way cheaper and not overrun yet by retirees and tourists at every corner. Yayyy!!!

  20. El Salvador from the Inside Says:

    Hi Jon, I want to respond to your comment, in particular. My husband and I spend about $1000 a month, for the two of us. We live a spartan life and do not go out to restaurants or clubs, movies, anything like that, once in a blue moon. Biggest "luxury" expense is beer and wine. Our house is $350 a month, 25 minutes away from the city in Los Planes. Your house would need to be bigger (our is too big for us, but could fit a family with 4 kids if you put two in a room). My guess is the 2000 may get all spent, with 4 kids more to clothe and feed, all depends on your lifestyle. But lucky you only 40 and $2000 pension. You should check out Los Planes de Renderos – the very top part, start checking out neighborhoods just above the hospital as you drive up the mountain. There are some nice neighborhoods, just rent a car and drive around, have a look. They also have a gated community called "Quintas Doradas" which is ok, but I like the regular colonias around here. Good luck.

    • Jon Says:

      Thanks for the insight. It seems the biggest hurdle is not to live like an Esadounidense. If I wanted to do that and live cheap I would move to Oklahoma or Mississippi (no offense anyone, I was born in Miss.) I think the thing to do would be to move with enough money to either buy a house to live in and/or start a business that would at least make some extra cash. I think a good scouting trip to look around is the first step. Maybe I’ll open a private English school and work for peanuts…or locally grown produce.

  21. Harry Says:

    I don’t know how people eat the pupusas. From what I understand, most of everything eaten is eaten with a knife and fork. The pupusa is the exception to the rule. The pork meat is an unbelievable color of orange. It looks really odd. I was living in a community in which all you could find as far as food went was pupusas. I bought a refrigerator so that I could eat what I wanted when I wanted, just like my neighbors did. Tried to talk a pupusa vendor into making a selling pizza. Even gave her the ingredients to do so a couple of times around. She loved them but she didn’t have the guts to make them and sell them she simply wanted me to keep handing her the ingredients so that she could enjoy them. No chance.

  22. Taiiye Says:

    great article. We have been living here in El Salvador for more than five years, and it is exactly like you say. You can come here, and this inexpensively but you have to be willing to shed some of the things that you are custom to back home. It doesn't mean life is less comfortable, it just means that it's different.

  23. Andy Newbom Says:

    There is healthcare. I recommend purchasing private insurance, because the public hospitals run out of medicine etc, but the private medical practices have a good reputation, and I have received good care when needed


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