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 to 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 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.
Outside 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 schools 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: