When I tell people that my family lives in Costa Rica, they often respond with things like, “Yeah, I hear it’s really cheap there.”.
No, it’s not.
Overall, the cost of living is a bit lower than in the US. And you can live cheaply if you’re frugal and don’t mind a very basic lifestyle. But if you want the amenities that you have back home, you’ll be spending at least 60% of your usual budget, and possibly much, much more.
What Can You Live Without?
To explain, let’s start with how Ticos (Costa Ricans) live. Air conditioning, heating, hot water heaters and dryers are almost unheard of. You’ll be hard pressed to find lawn mowers, sprinkler systems, hot tubs or exercise machines.
Diets tend to be very simple. Almost everyone eats rice & beans with some sort of protein at lunch and dinner, and often, breakfast as well. For variety or special occasions, there’s fried chicken, pasta, pizza and pastries… but they’re pricier.
Gringos generally want more. Specialty items come with a painful price tag. In the southern zone (usually the cheapest place to live), a small bottle of Kikomen soy sauce will cost you around $8. A can of tofu (yes, “can”) costs over $4. If you want to eat cheap, eat like a Tico.
Does Owning A Car Make Sense?
Automotive costs are much higher than in the US. If you can get around by taxi and public transit instead, do it. Trade.gov says, “In short, about half the final price of a car in Costa Rica is comprised of a cascade of internal taxes.” Gas is also more expensive.
Importing your own vehicle comes with an obscene price tag. First, there’s the cost to ship it, plus the marine insurance. Then the Tico tax authorities decide its value (always higher than in the US), add the amount you paid for shipping and insurance, and then tax the total at 52-79%. This is all before registration, inspection, driver’s license and liability insurance, all of which can be a bureaucratic nightmare.
How Much Will Utilities Cost?
Utilities are higher than you might expect, though it depends on your location. For example, here’s the August 2016 costs for 2 people in a rural, 1,800sf house. The house has no air conditioning, heating, hot water heater, dryer or electric stove. The electric bill was still $69. The monthly ADSL internet (at a slow 191kbps) was $29.
Bright spots were mobile phone service ($18 a month), and water ($17). Keep in mind that the water bill didn’t include sewer, because rural residents must have a septic system. It also didn’t include recycling or garbage pickup. There’s no recycling service, and the trash pickup is once a week, from two large containers for the entire neighborhood. It’s paid annually, and is a bargain.
Bottom line… You can live more cheaply anywhere else in Central America, and some countries offer generous incentives to get you there. BUT you won’t get the same pura vida (pure life). Costa Rica is a beautiful, friendly, unique place. Just know what you’re getting yourself into before you bet it all!