stretching a nickel abroad
June 25, 2008 8:54 PM   Subscribe

I've got this ongoing fantasy about living cheaply abroad. Is it doable to live for $500 a month or so in some foreign locale?

I read about people choosing to retire to inexpensive places. I've read of people finding homes in Mexican pueblitos, on the beach in Belize, or in Malaysia and living on not much per month, as in $500 or so in expenses and having decent lives, perhaps not full of consumer goods but still finding a place to live with all expenses covered.

I'm wondering if anyone has personal experience of this type of lifestyle, or where you could find more places that potentially could fill the bill?

Call it a midlife crisis. I''ve been wondering where I could stay for a substantial period on savings and spend $500 per month to get by reasonably. I know of people doing this in Mexico, for example. Where else might qualify?
posted by D-ten to Travel & Transportation (27 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
"Decent" is all in the eye of the beholder, truely. For example, do you want Internet? Here in Armenia ADSL just came into town but it is $40/month. But my other utilities (gas, water, electric) are about $10/month.

Here in Armenia foreigners live in a variety of apartments and houses. I pay ~$400/month for a nice 1 bedroom in the center with a hot water heater, an HVAC unit, and pretty nice furniture. But a lot of people I know have much nicer places for $700-1000/month in the center. Lots of other people live outside the center and pay closer to $200/month.

Food in the summer - I spend about $60/month and I don't eat meat, but I do splurge on dining out 2 times a week, I eat lunch at a cafeteria daily rather than packing, and I spluge on some foreign goods like nice coffee and foreign yogart.

I also splurge on transportation. If you take a minibus to and fro, it is 100 dram (33 cents) per ride. I take taxies sometimes and they are 600 dram ($2).

Here in Armenia, you can live on less than $500/month if:
- You don't live in the Center of the city (Depending on how you want to live, you can get an apartment for $100-500/month. $100 is bound to not have A/C, not have a hot water heater and not be "Euro Remont" (European fixture in bathroom, for example), and probably a hot plate.)
- You only go out to eat once a week
- You are generally frugal
posted by k8t at 9:04 PM on June 25, 2008

Also, if you're an American, mind that the dollar gets worse and worse every day and developing countries ARE developing, so prices go up. 10 years ago it was much cheaper here in Armenia at least, when I spent $100/month on food and $200/month on rent.
posted by k8t at 9:42 PM on June 25, 2008

$60/month = $60/week. Sorry!
posted by k8t at 9:43 PM on June 25, 2008

I don't know what your definition of "abroad" is, but I know people in Montreal who pay $250 (CAD obvy) for a room in an apartment with anywhere from one to three other people. How the other $250 would be spent depends on your lifestyle -- if you're the kind to cook your meals from scratch (ie beans, rice, vegetables from the market); walk or bike everywhere; and don't smoke, do drugs or drink a tonne you can get by on $500 per month here. This is also a place where there are almost always enough free events going on that you can amuse yourself for free, especially in the summer.
posted by loiseau at 10:16 PM on June 25, 2008 [2 favorites]

I don't have personal experience living there, but from traveling I am pretty sure Southeast Asia fits this bill or at least comes pretty close. If you are used to a little higher standard of living, I ran into a lot of expats doing well with small side businesses (particularly in Laos and Cambodia).
posted by liverbisque at 10:18 PM on June 25, 2008

Seconding liverbisque.

I'm currently in Singapore but was born and raised in Indonesia. 500 USD (4.7 million Indonesian rupiahs) is definitely enough to live there or in nearby Southeast Asia countries. Many people earn probably 1/2 or even lesser than that. Of course this automatically exclude major cities like Tokyo, Hong Kong, ...

Personally I'd set the acceptable minimum sum / month to be 1000 USD for a more comfortable living. Assuming 500/mo is from your savings, it won't be very hard to supplement it with an english teaching job to reach 1000 USD or more.
posted by joewandy at 10:29 PM on June 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

With the budget of $500/month you can live comfortably just about anywhere in Asia, easily. I would suggest China, but it will be very hard to get a long-term visa until after the Olympics (this has resulted in many people who were doing just what you are talking about having been forced to pack bags and go home recently). How about Thailand or Vietnam?
posted by blindcarboncopy at 10:36 PM on June 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'd suggest Thailand or Malaysia... but I'd think you'd have issues with visas. You can have, IIRC, one or three months just for turning up in Thaliand. If I had the cash to try this, I'd start in Southern Thailand, so I could pop over the border to Malaysia every now and then to renew visas.
posted by pompomtom at 10:41 PM on June 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

You could live on 500USD/month in Malaysia; plenty of Malaysians do. It will be easier if you can purchase a scooter first, are comfortable cooking and eating rice, and are not in KL. At today's rate, that's 1,625RM/month.

- 400-500 for rent,
- 100 for fuel,
- 50 for phone,
- 80 for DSL internet,

leaving 900 - 1000/month for food. If you ate out at hawker stalls three meals a day, you'd spend 15-20RM/day. If you cook, you'd spend about the same but eat nicer food. You could easily spend much more than that if you eat at nice restaurants or need imported food in abundance. Assuming a more or less local diet, that leaves 3-400 for spending money. Nothing lavish, but enough to get by.

You can get a 3-month visa at the airport, renewable at the border. If you are thinking very long term, you could check out the Malaysia: My Second Home program, aka the Silverhair program, for semi-permanent residence. This program requires a substantial deposit in a Malaysian bank, a few hundred thousand ringgit if I'm not mistaken.
posted by BinGregory at 10:55 PM on June 25, 2008

Oh electric and water - another RM100, more if you require 24hr air-conditioning.
posted by BinGregory at 10:57 PM on June 25, 2008

I lived in Indonesia for a year teaching English earning $800 a month. The school I worked for reimbursed me for my flights and took care of my visa.

My rent, for a three-room bungalow with cold water and electricity in a kampung (ie, not a gated community...more like an urban village, really), was less than $100 a month in the city of Bandung, the fourth largest city in the country. I actually paid $1000 for the year up-front, plus another $30 or so a month for weekly cleaning and laundry services from my landlady, which was well worth it.

I spent about $100 to kit it out with a fridge and a cooker (like a gas stove with two burners). Utilities came to $10 a month; another $10 a month went to internet cafes - no internet/computer at home, but it was cheap enough for me to just spend some time on the weekends and after work. Visits to a great English-speaking doctor were around $5 whenever I wanted to see him. Prescriptions cost just about nothing - like $1 each time. Didn't need antimalarials.

My weekly "big shop" at the fancy supermarket near work, where I bought all manner of imported things, was about $15. A cheap meal from a roadside stall or little place on the corner was around 30 cents, a meal at a fancy restaurant about $5.

My trip to work in a minibus everyday was around 20 cents each way. A motorcycle taxi ride across town was around $3-$4. A two-hour train to Jakarta was around $7 for a super-fancy-express first-class seat. A flight to the other side of Java was around $100.

Indonesian is really easy to learn - I bought a few books on Amazon and didn't pay for classes and did fine.

Though I had some start-up costs, I sent $500 a month to a US account for seven months.

So is it possible? Yes. But my visa didn't let me leave Indonesia for a whole year, and my job was, you know, a job. Be sure you're running to something, not away from something.
posted by mdonley at 11:01 PM on June 25, 2008 [7 favorites]

When travelling in India, my rule-of-thumb for costs was always US$100 per fortnight*.

And that's travelling, as a tourist, all restaurant / street food meals, transport, hotel rooms paid by the night, souvenirs & treats etc.

Depending on what comfort level you want, where you choose to shack up, and the extent to which you'd be prepared to cook for yourself & negotiate cheap rates for long-term accommodation, I imagine you could turn that ~$250/mth into far less.

SE Asia is cleaner, though, and with a wider range of decent available day-to-day products (eg food, coffee (!!!), clothing etc) & greater efficiency / less hassle for just about anything you might care about.

* costs have gone up; probably more like $150/fortnight now. note that you probably can't get more than a six month visa, and may have to cross to Nepal / Lanka / Bangladesh etc for a new visa
posted by UbuRoivas at 11:45 PM on June 25, 2008

I would remove Thailand from some of the previous lists-- partially due to rising food prices, partially due to the new strict visa policies, and partially due to the possibility of another coup.
posted by sharkfu at 12:27 AM on June 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

With the budget of $500/month you can live comfortably just about anywhere in Asia, easily.

Not in Korea, not comfortably, and I strongly suspect not in Japan, either.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 12:51 AM on June 26, 2008

Definitely not in Singapore either :P

You'd need a minimum of USD 1000 just to survive here.

Same goes for Japan I guess ...
posted by joewandy at 1:18 AM on June 26, 2008

Japan is definitely not the way to go in Asia. In Japan, I spend roughly:
$1,000 (US)/mo for rent, utilities
$300/mo on food (this is a mix of eating out and grocery stores. I buy a lot of fruit and there are some imported foods like cheese that are a big chunk of this)
$100/mo on transportation (gas, trains) - but this is a low figure; I car-pool a lot

Your bare minimum (11m2) apartment, in Tokyo, can go for $500/month. If you bicycle everywhere and stop eating out, you can cut the food to maybe $150/month.

Also, Japan is a really hard place to get a visa or an apartment just for the hell of it. And the deposits you'll pay on an apartment are non-negligible and usually not refundable.
posted by whatzit at 4:04 AM on June 26, 2008

As long as we're naming places in Asia where you can't live comfortably for $500/month, might as well throw in Hong Kong--last I knew, it was the most expensive city in the world.
posted by box at 5:00 AM on June 26, 2008

The exchange rate is going to kill you in most places. You still might have a go of it in Argentina although the dollar is starting to lose out to the Peso this year. The best way to make it work is to know somebody in that foreign locale. With friends in the know you could make it work.
posted by JJ86 at 5:42 AM on June 26, 2008

As has already been said, Indonesia was the bees knees in terms of affordability. Much more so than Thailand or Malaysia. You can get by on $500/month easily in Indo--even in Bali, which is overrun with tourists. Other inexpensive choices are Vietnam, Cambodia or Laos.

Personally, I would pick Laos.

Singapore, HK, Japan and Korea are simply not options unless you have someone to stay with and won't be paying rent.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:50 AM on June 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm in Cairo, and you can live easily on less than that here. My rent is well under $200 a month and is in one of the nicer areas of town. With some connections, you can find housing much cheaper than even that - I know people living in pretty decent apartments for well under $100 a month.

Unless you're determined to eat the same things you eat in America, and thus shop at Alfamarket or Carrefour, food is extremely cheap as well. My roommates and I live mostly on vegetables and grains, and it costs next to nothing. The local restaurants that serve things like koshari and fuul, both of which I like a lot, are often under a dollar.

I don't make a lot more than $500 a month here, and it's enough not only to be comfortable but to feel quite wealthy.
posted by ecab at 6:16 AM on June 26, 2008

Very possible in Dakar, though getting less easy every year as prices go up and the dollar goes down. Rent at or under under $200 for a nice place if you don't mind living in the outskirts. Internet is $50, water and power another $40. Busses are cheap and plantiful, and a scooter can be had for $300 plus $20 or so a month in upkeep. You can blow your budget on food in a big way if you are so inclined, but you can also get a good meal in a local place for $0.50 to $1.00.

Raise to $600 a month or more if you want AC.
posted by Nothing at 7:58 AM on June 26, 2008

Most places in South America, with the exception of Chile. Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Argentina are particularly cheap.
posted by c lion at 8:49 AM on June 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

If you're willing to put in about 20-30 hours of effort a week then you can stay in a lot of places for basically nothing through the WWOOF network.

I'm only familiar with the UK branch, but here you can find opportunities lasting from a few days to several years, in places ranging from urban (I know of WWOOF hosts in the middle of Bristol and Brighton) to remote and rural. With food and board covered your $500 will go a long way. And because no cash is changing hands its a good way to stay under official radar with regards to visas, permits, taxes and the like.
posted by boosh at 9:11 AM on June 26, 2008 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for all the replies. The information has been great. Indonesia sounds like the real deal, Laos something to check out, and Egypt.
posted by D-ten at 11:24 AM on June 26, 2008

Well, it really depends a lot on your definition of "decent." I have friends that live off of barely more than that in New York City, but they definitely live a, uh, bohemian lifestyle.

I lived in Berlin and definitely didn't spend much more than that, but that was 2006 and the USD has fallen quite a bit since then. I had roommates, never paid more than like 250EUR a month for an apartment, and spent about 5-10EUR a day on food and whatever. I know people who are still doing this in Berlin and loving it.
posted by atomly at 11:28 AM on June 26, 2008

Guatemala is probably the cheapest country in Latin/South America, along with Bolivia maybe. I haven't been to Bolivia, but you can easily live in Guatemala for $500/month, and it is an absolutely beautiful country. Depending on your interests/lifestyle, you can live among the locals, but there is also a significant expat community. I would really consider Antigua - it's a beautiful colonial city with Spanish architecture, surrounded by volcanoes, and close to the international airport. It's about half westernized, so there are parts of the town where everyone speaks English and parts that haven't been touched. You can live extremely cheaply there.

One thing to consider, if you are planning on doing this for an extended period of time, is medical/dental care. Particularly as you age, you will want to have access to quality health care, and you will also have to pay for these services.
posted by btkuhn at 7:23 PM on June 26, 2008

My Dad and my Step-mom live in Mexico full-time, having emigrated there from the States.

It's been a while since I talked with them about the details, but if I remember correctly, the special visa program that allows foreigners to live in Mexico requires you to have an income of c. $1000-1100 a month.
posted by jason's_planet at 1:54 PM on June 30, 2008

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