How much does it cost to live as an expat, anyway?
The answer might be “it depends on your teeth.”
When you read about expatting to Southeast Asia or another part of the third world, one of the first things you’ll hear is that you can live quite comfortably on some absurdly small amount of American money – Per month, you’ll hear anywhere from as high as USD $2,000 to as low as $500 per month, which is incomprehensible to the majority of us (though this is a robust income for most locals). Most often you’ll hear numbers like $1,200 or $1,500 bandied about if you try to google this question, all with the codicil of “it depends on how you live.”
When I was first considering leaving the U.S., this was a question I tried to drill down into so as to ballpark how much I’d need to leave, how long that would last, and what my budget for lodging and travel would be. My working plan at the time was to allow myself $1,800 per month, which I figured was generous enough to allow me to live well but stingy enough to force me to be frugal.
As it happened, though, when it came time to leave I pretty much ignored the whole budget question. I had worked my ass off non-stop for eight months and not only had piled up more money than I needed for the initial stretch, but I was burnt out from keeping up that pace and desperately in need of some R ‘n’ R. So for the first three or four months I avoided doing anything too ridiculously expensive (like random trips to different countries) but I did whatever I needed to do to get my health back in shape, including some medical tourism checking up on health stuff that I’d lived with for a long time but was too much of a pain in the neck (and too expensive) to deal with in the States.
By the time month four rolled around I was ready to get serious about budgeting, and started to track all my purchases with a plan to log them into a spreadsheet to analyze. The very next day, however, I busted my ankle, requiring surgery. With nearly $4,000 instantly gone from my bank account, and the event being such an outlier, it seemed pointless, so I dropped it.
SHIT GETS REAL
When I let my ticket home lapse eight weeks later, shit got real. I was amply resourced for a six month stay and in theory, I was good to go for a year or even longer, but with several paying music projects delayed and the unexpected medical bills, I knew I should start thinking long-term sooner rather than later. Even though I still had the option of going home and replenishing my coffers, I didn’t want to get into an endless cycle of having a life in Asia and then disrupting it to go back to the U.S. and restarting again…and as one of the main points of leaving the U.S. was to separate myself from the increasing political chaos there, having to go back periodically (as opposed to doing it because I felt like it) defeated the point. The first step to sustainability was to stop spending like a tourist (albeit a frugal one) and start pricing things more like a local.
So when I was in Vietnam I finally started the spreadsheet and began tracking pretty much every dime that I spent. Initially my target was $1,500/month but I soon realized that with much of the following weeks to be spent in Manila (the priciest of the places I hang out), plus two expensive transit days and more doctor visits in the offing, there was no way this was doable. I also realized that there was no point in separating out one-time expenses like doctor bills, visa extensions and airplane tickets because it was all coming out of the same account anyway. So I finally arrived at a target of $1750/month all-inclusive – doctor bills, plane tickets, phone bills, the works.
The first month – ending on the 22nd — I didn’t even get close, though I spent significantly less than my previous trips to Manila and started to see how it could be done. I had high hopes for my return to Bali, however, where I had secured a place for less than $300/month, and where the food is cheaper.
Almost immediately upon arrival in Bali however a monkey wrench went into my plans – one night after a meal I suddenly noticed that the top half of one of my teeth simply wasn’t there. Not much pain or anything, but clearly an old crown had fallen off. Reluctantly, I googled around for a dentist and found one that was recommended by westerners right around the corner from where I was staying. She confirmed that I needed a new crown and that I had a couple of other minor cavities that I could take care of later. The bill for the crown would be about USD $250.
On the one hand, coming right at the beginning of my fiscal month, this was bad news for making my target. On the other hand, I hadn’t been to the dentist in nearly 10 years and the difference in cost to an American tooth specialist alone paid for my plane ticket here, so it was actually a pretty good deal. But I still had to sit down with a calculator and factor in that, and all my other anticipated expenses, to try and come in under $1750.
Yesterday was the last day of my fiscal month and I made it! My total expenses for the month were $1740.50 USD – including my new crown. This is still a princely sum for southeast Asians, many of whom live on as little as $200/month – and indeed, I can easily see how you could live here for $1,500, $1,200, or even $1,000/month, if you knew where to cut costs. For my own benefit, and for the benefit of anyone pricing a similar move, I’m going to get into the nuts and bolts of what I found analyzing my expenses below.
Locals live on much less than we do, but there are certain expenses we have to contend with that they don’t (and they also have support systems we don’t have). Anything relating to maintaining our American life, or living legally in a foreign country, costs money.
For me, I was carrying costs to keep my American smartphone turned on, (shitty) health insurance copay, and a couple of internet subscriptions, totaling $182 in all. This motivated me to move one of my internet subscriptions to a cheaper plan for next month. In theory, nearly all of these charges could be eliminated if someone committed to a long-term stay in another country. Looking ahead, I’m going to be thinking about this.
If you’re gonna live in another country, you gotta stay right with immigration, and that means visa fees, which vary a lot from country to country. Here in Indonesia, you can get a 30 day visa waiver but once that’s elapsed, you have to leave the country – no exceptions, no extensions. To stay 60 days, as I do, you have to pay a $35 upfront fee at the airport (which I did last month), and I have to pay for the extension, which along with agent fees came to $46.50.
DOCTOR BILLS AND OTHER ONE-TIME EXPENSES
In terms of budgeting, this is the biggest question mark. Obviously you can’t incorporate a surgery – no matter how discounted by American standards – into a monthly budget. On the other hand, ignoring that shit happens all the time (particularly in the Third World) is foolhardy and, when you can buy your way out of most problems, unnecessarily stressful.
Besides the dental visit, I had an unexpected visit to the emergency room owing to a literal brush with a sea snake, but the doctor there was kind enough to send me home after an exam without charge (imagine THAT in the U.S.). But that illustrates one of the disadvantages to living in countries with less developed infrastructures and liability laws – not to mention unfamiliarity with where poisonous snakes hang out – there are just so many ways to hurt yourself that are less likely to happen at home. It’s a lot cheaper to deal with those problems (assuming they don’t kill you) but you have to price them in.
For one time expenses this month, there were a few random things like a guitar repair ($7 for a new jack!!!) that aren’t worth thinking about. The dental bill, inclusive of new crown, X-ray and credit card fees, came to $270 – a steal by American standards (and not particularly cheap by Asian ones).
STANDING STILL IS CHEAP; MOVING IS EXPENSIVE
This mantra is repeated by nearly everyone that has ever tried this kind of life, and I have to echo it. Transport relative to the U.S. is mostly cheap (with a few exceptions) but keep in mind most of us don’t drive, so you either have to get a ride everywhere you go, or invest in a motorbike (which most expats do, but which also exponentially increases your risk for a serious injury and the associated expenses of that). Either way, you’re going to be paying for that every time you go somewhere outside walking distance.
If you’re on short term visas like I am, you’re also going to have to leave the country at some point, and that means paying for a plane ticket. Likewise, if you’re carrying around your whole life with you (as I am) you’re going to be paying for extra baggage fees as well. Your transit day usually gets pricy too – paying for airport transport and food while there, buying new data for that country, groceries when you get to where you’re staying. Even smaller excursions can cost you. You can hire a car and driver on Bali for as little as $35 a day including gas – but that’s still eating up your whole budget for that day before you even start eating and drinking and paying for parking.
I walk most everywhere I go (to the consternation of the local transport drivers) and use GrabCab when I can’t (ditto), so my transport costs were low. I did, however, have to lock in my onward ticket to Manila while it was still relatively cheap. All that together came to $148, of which $116 was the plane ticket.
So for those keeping score, out of the $1740.50 I spent:
American utilities and insurance: $182
Visa fees $46.50
Medical bills $270
Transportation costs $148
That leaves $1093.50 for food, lodging and entertainment.
CHOOSE YOUR ROOM CAREFULLY
Besides not moving around very much, the main key to living cheap in Asia is living cheap. Though my condo in Manila is a steal at $23.50 a night with its central location and great wi-fi, it’s still too expensive to be able to get under the line with an ambitious budget. You really need to get under $15/night to pull it off. Keep in mind that even a $1/night difference in price means $30 by the end of the month. If you’re trying to live on $1,200/month for example, that’s a lot.
As ridiculous as this sounds by urban American standards, it’s very doable here, but you have to try to get around extra utility charges, cleaning fees, Air B’n’B markups, and things like that. My current place costs a little over $9/day and I found it through Facebook. Going through local sources always saves you money BUT it leaves you at greater risk for fraud and unpleasant surprises, so it requires much greater care. Generally, the longer you stay in one area, the more you are hip to the local bargains (and local scams) and the easier it is to find a good value. So again, the longer you stay in one place, the cheaper it gets, in more ways than one.
I actually don’t do much here. I walk around, talk to people, study the language, and (because I have chronic neck problems, more so since I started this blog!) I get massages. I probably got a massage every other day this past month, but since the going rate in Bali is about $7/hour including tip, this isn’t a huge expense (The ability to get a massage every day if you want to – or even two or three – is one of the vast perks of living here), but it does add up.
(You didn’t ask, but we are talking legit massages here, nothing with a special ending – which would jack up the price considerably. Or so I’ve heard)
This is the final category, and other than lodging it’s the biggest discretionary item. On this budget, I still was eating out almost exclusively, sometimes broken into as many as 4-5 times a day – just less food at cheaper restaurants, which here in Bali still can offer a very satisfying eating experience. Like lodging, you have a lot of options available to you in terms of how much or how little you want to spend. I can easily see how I could shave this budget down substantially if I wanted to.
As it was I spent $611 on food which averages out to a little over $20/day. So yeah, if you did some grocery shopping and only ate one meal out on average per day, you could cut that down by a lot. But eating out is one of my great ways to connect with people here, so it’s worth it to me to not be isolated in my room cooking food. Plus the food here is awesome…and if you’re going to be a guest in another country, it really is part of your responsibility to contribute to the local economy, and well-being of the locals, a little bit.
One thing to note is that alcohol can be a budget buster, especially here in Muslim-majority Indonesia owing to substantial sin tariffs (similar to how we treat cigarettes in the U.S.). I don’t drink much here anyway (red wine, my favorite tipple, is extremely expensive and the one local brand is basically undrinkable) but I noticed that when I went for a cocktail with dinner the budget got really difficult to keep to. I understand better why so many expats stick to the ubiquitous, and cheap, local beer, Bintang.
It’s easy to forget about this, but unless you have a washing machine in your place (and even if you do, sometimes it doesn’t work or its operation is incomprehensible to a westerner), you’re going to have to get your laundry done and, given how hot it is here and limitations on how many clothes you can pack, done often. Prices vary widely, and this is one expense where it really pays to get out of the tourist areas, since it costs literally double what I pay in the local district to get my laundry done near the beach. My laundry bill for the month came to approximately $15.
HOW TO BUDGET EFFECTIVELY
Just based on the past two months, I can see that successfully living within whatever means you want to live on is based on realistically assessing your expenses, how you want to live, and also anticipating what your fixed one-time costs are going to be. You also need a separate reserve in case of large medical expenses or other expensive disasters like your computer taking a crap. None of that is that different from budgeting anywhere else – but there may be greater-than-expected costs in areas we don’t always think about when we make budgets.
Looking ahead to the next month, I know that I have to buy my onward ticket from the Philippines (required to travel to that country), more incidental dental work, my one-time yearly fee for my travel credit card, and getting some cheap lab work done. That should all come to a little under $400. Possible budget busters would be getting assessed for additional utilities charges at my place (likely) and the cost of buying more plane tickets if I travel around the Philippines as I plan to. It will also cost me more for lodgings once I arrive in Manila. But the great news is…that’s it, everything’s already factored in. It’s less than last month, so I have the option of having a few more massages and cocktails, or trying to bring the monthly number down even further. Or maybe both!
Next goal: keep meeting that budget, and increase my income to get closer to that number. 🙂 More on that process in future blogs (and your support of this blog definitely helps in that regard, so thanks in advance to those of you who have made, or will make, a contribution or subscribed).