The Cost(s) of Living in Costa Rica


One of the questions I get most often is: How much income/money do I need to live in Costa Rica?

This is an easy one to answer… NOT! It is difficult because it depends on what YOU require to live the way you feel comfortable. Some locals and backpacker types can live on next to nothing. This might mean sleeping outdoors and stealing bananas from a nearby plantation. At the other end of the scale you can pay $9000 a night to stay in a private villa at the Four Seasons resort. I think food is included there.

Do you want to buy or rent? When you first come down, I highly recommend renting. Buying real estate is worthy of its own topic, but at minimum you should get to know the country as much as possible before making such a commitment.

As far as rents go, you can expect to pay from $300 a month for something barely acceptable to $2000 or lots more, depending on your means and tastes. For $300 you can get something in a passable neighborhood, furnished (shabbily) and probably a suicide shower (electric heater on the shower head). What constitutes a passable neighborhood is debatable, of course.

To live in the style you may be accustomed to in the USA or Canada, I would estimate that you will pay a bit less, but not a lot less than you would in your ex-homes. If individuals living here care to post how much they are currently paying and for what, I would appreciate it. In my own case, I am sharing a place with a roomie, and the total rent is around $450 for a 3br, 2ba unfurnished place downtown San Jose. We happen to have a water heater and running hot water but the other apartments in our building only have electrically heated showers.

Food costs depend a lot on your preferences. If you want the same brand name stuff you are used to back home, expect to pay more here than at home. Frozen foods are scarce even in the gringo style markets. Fresh fruits and vegetables are quite cheap. Local canned and baked goods are reasonable, though not significantly less than you’d pay at home. Meat is cheaper in the butcher shops, although the beef is quite tough. There is a good variety of fish available and not too expensive. If you cook at home, simple and basic food, you can probably get by on maybe $150 a month. I spend probably about $300 a month which includes a lot of eating out at inexpensive places.

One big savings is the lack of heating and air conditioning cost, at least in San Jose and the central valley. If you choose to live at lower altitudes, you will probably need A/C.

Clothing is not overly cheap due to taxes and import duties but it’s not like you are going to need a lot of different types of clothing. I wear jeans and a T shirt almost every day, and that’s acceptable in most situations. You may want to put on a nice shirt and slacks if you are going someplace swanky, but plenty of millionaires down here get by with shorts and a light shirt. Think Florida.

Having covered food, shelter and clothing, let’s turn to transportation. I did an entire blog on the subject of driving and owning a car: http://www.usexpatcostarica.com/2009/11/driving-in-san-jose-first-time-visitor.html

If your budget is big and you really feel you have to have a car, you should know that prices of vehicles here are very high due to taxes and such. Fuel is a bit more expensive than most places in the USA, though not outrageously. If you want to live in the outback, a vehicle is probably a necessity. In the city, it’s not really cost effective with the buses and taxis. But it’s your call. I suggest you read the blog.

As mentioned before, buses and taxis are cheap and convenient (usually). Most local buses cost from 20 cents to perhaps 50 cents (local currency equivalent). Taxis will run you from around a dollar on up, depending on time and distance. An average taxi ride in downtown will cost maybe $2, and to come in or return from one of the suburbs, expect to pay $5 or more. Still, not expensive by North American standards. If you want to live in the country, a car or even a 4wd may be necessary. Rent and housing may be cheaper away from the cities, but you may need a vehicle.

Other expenses might include entertainment and things you may want or need around the home. Electronic stuff is more expensive here, once again due to taxes and import duties. Same goes for almost anything imported. And since Costa Rica doesn’t really MANUFACTURE much, most of what you buy will be imported.

One area you can definitely save money is in health care. The system in Costa Rica is a hybrid system of public and private. Private facilities are generally more modern and waits are short to nonexistent. Costs are lower than in the USA, out of pocket, but not nearly as cheap as the Caja, as the public health system is called here. I pay around $500 a year and doctor visits, hospital stays and most medicine is free. On the downside, the system is inefficient and frustrating at times. Private insurance is available, but it does not cover 100% or pre-existing conditions. The healtcare system here deserves it’s own article. But however you go, even out of pocket, you won’t likely be paying what you paid in the USA (unless you are a Congressman or Senator, who get everything free for life, bless ’em’)

Just as a point of interest, the Costa Rican government requires a pension of $1000 per month or $2000 a month for those who do not have a pension (more about this when we talk about residency). It is possible to live on less than $1000 a month, but it won’t be luxury.

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