What’s a Dollar Worth to You?

Go ahead and read articles by Forbes, International Living, review the complex world-wide indexes that measure cost of living and overall happiness, but if you ask me how it all adds up, I sum it up with what a ‘cold’ one costs me locally. The average beer bought in a bar or restaurant in the United States runs you a shocking $3.00-$4.50. If you want to go for a premium beer, you can pay upwards of $7.00. In Costa Rica, at your local ‘soda’, you’ll pay a dollar. Elsewhere, it can range upwards to $3.00 for local beers, and upwards of $4.00 for premium beers. In Panama, you’ll pay about a dollar as well for a local brew. If you take the median of each of the respective countries’ ranges, the US is almost twice as expensive!


A ‘soda’ is not a drink, but a small restaurant frequented by locals.

Now wouldn’t it be great, if indeed we could draw overall conclusions based on one median, and life was this simplistic? The truth of the matter is the cost of living is a lot more detailed and lifestyle dependent than any other factors, but for me, this is a good place to start! When you think of cost of living, most people consider groceries, housing, healthcare, transportation, and utilities; and each category can increase or decrease rapidly depending on how you live your life. Here’s what I’ve learned and how I’ve decided to make each dollar count:

  • Shop like a local. Groceries at local farmers market are laughably inexpensive. And we are talking whole-foods, the same types found in North America in Health Food stores, and sold with an attached premium price. In Costa Rica, you can walk away with five full bags of produce, making only a $15 dent in your pocket. On the other hand, if you head to your nearest Automercado or Fresh Market (specialty grocery stores geared towards serving the growing expat community) you can spend $100 for just three bags of groceries. Cheese, yogurt, and ice cream are particularly expensive. Everything that is imported will cost more. Which is why I learned to adapt my cooking and I’ve created my own cookbook, Becoming an Expat COOKBOOK: Costa Rica, to share what I’ve learned in the kitchen. The recipes I’ve developed won’t break the bank and are great for those people looking for their favourite comfort foods from back home.
  • Housing in Costa Rica can range. From a tico-styled modest home for just a few hundred dollars a month, to an oceanfront penthouse running $2,500-$3,000 a month. I rented a luxury condo in a lovely town along the Central Pacific Coast, just 400 feet away from an expansive, empty beach for just $850 a month. Before living in Playa Bejuco, I lived in San Diego, more specifically Mission Beach, just 30 feet from the shoreline. It was incredibly loud, packed with college-aged kids, and my entire apartment was shoebox size! Besides the size disparity, the cost was almost double. I paid $1,450 for my tiny Costa Rican abode, along the dreamy San Diego shores. Although I didn’t have an ocean view, it was indeed the private tiki hut on the outside terrace, with a built in travertine kitchen complete with grill, beer fridge, and wet bar that was the deal-clincher for me, and well worth the prime at the time.
  • Utilities are a mixed bag. If you opt to live in an elevated area, where it’ can be mid to low 70s F year round, then your bag is not so mixed. If you don’ t need to run your A/C units, then your bill will be very manageable. However, if you live by the ocean, or just like climate control be prepared to pay for it. I’ve seen electric bills ranging from $200-$500 with daily use of air conditioning. Without A/C I’ve seen monthly charges ranging from $50-$100. The water is inexpensive, with most bills ranging from $8-$20. Cable TV and internet services are available in all urban centres in Costa Rica and are decent in many rural towns. The costs are comparable to those in the US. Here again, I decided a much faster speed was worth paying extra, so got a plan for $55, where the basic plan started at $40.

Figuring out what the cost of living will be is always difficult to determine before you arrive, but once you do, work out what luxuries you can’t live without, and which are worth your extra dollar. You may find overall costs are comparable, I found  through experience they were similar to those in the midwest, but its the lifestyle that makes it all worth that much more. And, if in doubt, just remember, the cost of beer at your local Costa Rican watering hole is almost half the cost it would be in a bar in the States, and I can definitely cheers to that.


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