Brother, if I had a dime for every time someone asked that question, I could retire! Oh! That's right, I AM retired... Anyway, I will give you the short and long answers. The short answer is "(Almost) whatever you want to pay". The long answer is a bit more involved.
The reason that the short answer is accurate is because you can spend just about as much or as little as you want to live in Costa Rica. It really depends on two things:
What do you want and what you need, and boy they ARE different.
As of 2013, I know people here who live wonderful lives in Costa Rica on as little as $1000 or less per month and they are happy. Living here on a budget that low may require that one live away from San José and the infrastructure here and do without some "luxuries" like cable TV, Internet etc. I know people who rent rooms rather than live in a home or apartment and live here on as little as $800.00 per month. Always remember though that one man's luxury is another man's necessity.
Frankly, for one person to live comfortably in a small home, apartment or condo, I figure a budget of $1,200.00 per month is about the minimum. If in a home and renting a room, maybe $900.00. Less, and you have to start giving up some things that you really want.
For two people... maybe $1,400.00. Just depends on what you want and how you want to live.
My sister lives here in a very comfortable 3-bedroom 2 bath home in a safe, semi-gated area not far from my home. She has a nice front yard and a fenced area for her dog and she lives comfortably on her social security of about $1,300.00 per month. She has a phone, Internet, Cable TV and watches her budget when shopping. She has a housekeeper come in once per week. She has enough left over to visit her grand kids each year in the USA.
I also know people who spend $5,000 per month (and more) and THEY are happy! They are sitting in their fine high-rise in Escazu enjoying the high-life!
If I were to give you the average spending for North Americans couple moving here, I would say the range is between $1,500 to $2,500 per month for a comfortable lifestyle, occasional movie, some dining out etc..
Add kids? Add $$$.
Items like the cost to own a car, cost of utilities, or cost of education are covered elsewhere in this site.
Dining out! If you like to go out to eat, bad news. Restaurants here have gotten stupidly expensive and can cost far more than in the USA. This is especially true if you eat at Denny's, TGIF, Applebees, or many other chains here in CR. I have the money, but my wife and I simply never patronize those types of restaurants. We can eat out twice as much by just patronizing local, Tico (or other) owned restaurants.
Below are just some basics on housing, food, and a few other items as they often represent the lion's share of monthly expenses for many folks. Read on!
Here again is a personal decision that affects your monthly food budget. I am not going to discuss dining out as that usually can mess up anyone's budget. Suffice it to say Costa Rica has its fair share of pricey, but often excellent, restaurants, and if you eat out a lot, your food expenses will get higher. The exception is if you eat at many "sodas" which are usually very small eateries, often with very limited or no table space. You can often get an excellent and complete meal, and maybe desert, for about $5.00 - $6.00. I have a bunch I go to and while the ambiance might not be the greatest, the food is well prepared, tasty... and cheap!
What we are discussing here is what it will cost you to eat every day while living here, and it should now come as no surprise when I say, "It depends on you!"... specifically, what you eat and where you shop.
The average Costa Rican eats a fairly simple diet with a lot of chicken, pork, rice, beans, vegetables, fruits, meat, and pasta. All these are fairly good here with the exception of the meat which is kinda crummy. It is seldom if ever aged, and is generally stringy and tough. I am not a cattle person, but knowledgeable people tell me that the grazing and feeding is such that the animals here are not fattened and are in fact barely have meat on their bones. Fish is popular also but getting expensive.
Beans, rice, vegetables, chicken, and fruit are cheap, especially if you do NOT buy them in a supermarket. There are a zillion street vendors who sell the fruits and veggies, and the produce is first rate. Also, many towns, big and small, have street fairs (ferias), usually on Saturday mornings, where you can buy a huge variety of produce at excellent prices. We go nearly every Saturday to the one near me to load up the larders. Examples: a HUGE bunch of bananas is maybe $.40. Pineapples are about $1.00 for the really big ones as of March 2013. The biggest feria is in Hatillo on Sundays and is HUGE, almost a half mile long!
We then go to a local butcher, to buy chicken, pork, liver and tongue. OK OK... No comments on the last two. I like 'em.
Next to the butcher shop is a bread store (panderia) and baker where we get that kind of stuff. The bread is usually only minutes from the oven and is most excellent. A large loaf of French bread is 800 colones or about $1.25.
We go to the supermarket (mercado or supermercado) for the other stuff. The supermarkets here look almost exactly like the large chains in the USA. Large, airy, air conditioned, etc. Two chains, Automercado and Hipermas (now Walmart) carry a lot of products and brands that cater to North Americans living here. As, by definition all North Americans are rich, so you WILL pay a premium to eat the same food, and brands as you did before you moved here, but at least you CAN do it. Your choice! Many other markets also sell the same products, but with different labels and of course, different flavor and quality. I try not to load up on US brands as it is just a needless expense, but Costa Rica does not produce a decent peanut butter, and Jiff rules, so that's what I buy. On the other hand, the world's best ketchup (in my humble opinion) is made right here (Banquete). Sorry Theresa.... Your stuff is not comparable!
Of course you can simply make one trip to the super to pick up all you need and forego the street vendors, bakeries and so on, but you WILL pay a premium of about 30% more for doing so. Somebody has to pay for that air conditioning! But, to me, part of living in this culture is to do things in the Costa Rican way. I LOVE those Saturday AM jaunts, I like bantering with the vendors, seeing the families shopping, smelling the smells... I like the way the vendors often throw in a few extra 'somethings' into my bag... to me it is as much a social experience as it is a practical need. I also pay a lot less than many expatriates who don't care to venture forth into the markets.
OK, so let's get specific. Below is a sample of some common items and their cost (in colones). As of this instant, the exchange is about 500 colones to the dollar. These prices were from the feria (open air or public market) prices but are not maintained as current. Too much work.
Remember, the ¢ is the symbol for the colón and does NOT represent cents! Actually, the CORRECT symbol has two strikes through the c but I cannot get it to show correctly on this page, so I'll stick with the one shown.
Hint! 1 kilo is about 2.2 pounds and there are 500 colones to the dollar as of today, March 2013.
Click here to view prices for fruits and veggies as of 2013. It will open in a new window. PDF format. You can save if you like.
If you already enjoy a diet with lots of veggies, your food bill will be pretty low. Fish costs less then in the US, but has gotten expensive here. For dorado, I pay between ¢4,000 to ¢5,000 per kilo 2.2 Pounds.
Meat here is generally kinda yucky... cattle are neither fattened nor aged. You can find decent meat, but you'll have to work at it.
Chicken used to be a great value. Lots of meat and great flavor. Well the size and flavor are still there, but the prices have about doubled in the past 2 years. I now pay about ¢2,500 per kilo (2.2 ponds) of chicken breast. I am not sure how that compares to current US prices.
We live in the central valley. We like fresh jumbo shrimp but at 12,000 to 16,000 per kilo, it is not an every day treat. BUT... we often travel to the large (and smelly!) fish markets in Punterenas where those babies sell for just 8,000 colones. All fish is cheaper there as well, so we load up!
Finally, if you eat out a lot, especially at restaurants that cater to tourists or to North Americans living here, you'll pay the same prices as Miami.
Welcome to paradise! Where we live is probably the single most important factor (excluding personal relationships) in whether we are happy anywhere! Cost, while important, is not the only factor.
In Costa Rica you can build, buy or rent a home, condo, apartment, or room etc. on or near the beach, in the Central Valley near San José, or in the mountains or highlands. You can choose to live in gated, 'secure' communities, or on a normal street setting.
What's the difference? A LOT, and only part of it has to do with the cost. So much has to do with the lifestyle YOU wish to lead, and just as important, what you NEED to live in a certain location.
For example, the further away you get from San José, the lower the cost of housing (unless you live at the beach or course).. If you are willing to live 75km (50 miles) from San Jose, you can rent or buy at very attractive prices. How much? Maybe as little as $400.00 per month to rent a small-medium house! Maybe $75,000 to buy a small Tico style home. Property is likewise much less expensive.
I constantly get email asking how much it costs to live here. It is impossible to answer as I do not know you and I sure don't know what are your minimum requirements. But if you need figures, I'd say $1,100.00 per month minimum for a simple life in decent but far from luxurious home. Got more $$$? You can find superb accommodations to $4,000 per month for a pretty luxurious lifestyle.
So what's the catch? There are two. One I call it Infrastructure and the other I call Personal Preference and Need. Often they clash.
I define this as the combination of all services, communications, Internet, roads and highways, shopping, access to medical care, and the other many items that comprise our immediate surroundings. [Back]
Personal Preference and Need -
These are those personal things we want and need in our lives such as specific weather or climate, social interaction, need for standard or emergency medical care, entertainment, cultural fulfillment, etc.
I am going to provide one example, and from that, you should be able to figure out what it will be like to live anywhere in Costa Rica.
For instance, you'd LIKE to live on or near the beach! A LOT of people do, so let's discuss what you can expect.
Housing and rental prices? All over the place. The closer to the water, the higher the price. Remember... at the beach you may need air conditioning and THAT can be pricey. I know folks paying $400 to $800 per month just for air conditioning. Some folks are happy with a fan! They are the blessed as they can save a lot of bucks.
Infrastructure? Not great. Fewer hospitals and medical care. If you have a serious medical problem or an existing medical condition that may require immediate care, you will have to drive or fly to San José which can be several hours.
Roads and highways range from excellent to awful. Traffic can be a disaster. Shopping depends on where you are. Few malls or serious shopping centers. Few airports. TV reception, but not all locations have cable TV, though Sky TV is available almost everywhere. You may or may not be able to get phone service in your home. Cell phones will work in highly trafficked areas. Sometimes, no reliable high speed Internet connection is available, but this is changing. You can always use a modem (if you can get a phone line to your house) or a dongle if 3G phone service is available.
Summary? HOT and HUMID. Make sure you like this! Few hospitals and medical care. If you have a serious medical problem or an existing medical condition that may require immediate care, you will have to drive or fly to San José which can be a few hours. Social interaction? LOTS of tourists and some expatriates, but unless you live away from the water, not as much opportunity to learn and live with the true Latin culture. Entertainment and culture. Some movie theaters and the night spots tend to be for drinking and dancing. Some excellent restaurants serving great seafood. No museums, or other cultural activities.
Get the picture?
Here is MY profile! I live near San José because I have needs and wants from both lists.
I pay (rent) $1,100 per month for a four bedroom, 2.5 bath home with nice yard, patio, large kitchen. Yes, I do still rent. I have never seen much point in buying and maintaining a home at my age. Been there, done that many times back in the USA.
I want moderate temps daily... 78 or so... I like the beach but would never live there because of the heat. I am not fond of air conditioning, and prefer to leave all my windows open. Above 82 degree, I melt.
I LOVE movies, and I want to see them NOW and not wait until they are out on DVD. In and around the Central Valley, they are available and much cheaper than the USA. No $10.00 popcorn!
I need good roads because I often travel locally and have to get around.
I am an older person and although my health is good, I am aware that older people have more medical issues, so I want to be 15 minutes from good medical care and not 2-6 hours away.
I like the symphony, the theater and modern or classical dance and those are available in San José.
I own and operate several companies, and I absolutely require high speed Internet. I need reliable phone service and cell phone service every day.
I sort of hate shopping, but when I do need something, give me a mall so I can get it done in one trip!
Finally, I like living with Ticos. I like the culture, and almost all of my neighbors are Latinos. I like to speak Spanish, and my neighbors alternately laugh and help me with this. I am happy.
I suggest you make just such a profile listing your wants and needs. Then decide after living here for a year or so where you want to settle.
© Copyright 2003-2013 by Tim Lytle
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