We're often told that it is cheaper to live in places such as Panama, Nicaragua or Belize than in North America, but is it true? And if so, how much cheaper? A survey titled "Expat Report: Is It Cheaper to Live Abroad?" recently released by Best Places in the World to Retire provides the answers from nearly 400 expatriate respondents. (The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 5%.)

Participants (mostly from the U.S. and Canada) were asked to compare the cost of living in Central America with the cost of living in their home country. Among them, 43.1% reported that the cost of living in Central America was 25% to 50% less than in their home country, and 34% said that for every $100 they would have to spend in their home country, they would have to spend only $50 or less in their new expat home.

Among expatriate residents of Nicaragua, 60.5% said the cost of living there was half or less than the cost in their home country. The percentage was 45.3% for Belize and 19.9% for Panama.

 

Several categories of expenses helped account for the lower cost of living, and in some cases, there was a lack of certain expenditures. Examples include paying for heat or (in some cases) property taxes.

Michael M., from the U.S., living in Panama for two to five years, wrote, "We paid $600 / month on our house for property taxes in Rockwall, Texas. In Panama, we have another 15 years on the tax exemption," so for the next decade and a half, he pays zero property taxes.

Just how much less expensively one can live abroad was illustrated to us by Linda Jensen, formerly from the U.S., now living in Panama. Linda and her husband, Arne, live in Boquete, a beautiful village in the mountains of Panama where the temperature is almost always around 75 degrees. "It took over $2,400 a month to live in a town in Texas that at that time was 25% lower than the average for cost of living in the U.S. Here we can make it on $1,600 easily."

Happily for our expat respondents, the lower cost of living abroad translated into less worry about money. Asked what the level of their concern about money in their homes abroad, 35.7% reported "much less" and 27.7% responded "a little less." Only 10.7% reported "a little more" or "a lot more," which, of course, could result from many factors particular to the individual.

In general, expats took advantage of the extreme difference in the cost of domestic help by hiring maids and gardeners much more readily than they would have in their home country. A middle-aged woman from Canada now living in Belize wrote, "Labour in Corozal, Belize is very cheap. Unskilled labour is $12.50 US for a nine-hour day. I have a house-keeper! :)"

Interestingly, a good percentage of our expat respondents didn't reduce their personal overall level of chores. They did, however, shift their chores to things they liked, as told to us by a retired man from the U.S. living in Nicaragua for more than 10 years, "Labor is so cheap I only work at what I enjoy."

A female from the U.S. now living in Nicaragua wrote, "I could hire a maid for next to nothing but then what would I do? I need the exercise."

The results to the question "If you spent the same amount of money in your home abroad as you would in your country of origin, where would you have a better lifestyle overall?" was the most lopsided of all in this study, with 74.8% reporting that their life would be "much better" in their expat home.

We learned that this response was the result of two factors: 1) being able to buy more things in their home abroad; and, 2) not wanting to buy more things in their home abroad.

Relative to being able to buy more things, Roy Cannon, from the U.S. and now living in Panama for more than 10 years wrote, "I can run the house, including helpers here in Panama for less than my utility bill and taxes in the U.S. cost me." 

Another common theme we kept reading and hearing was one of gratefulness. According to Pamela Cournoyer, formerly from the U.S. now living in Mexico more than two years, "We are living on a marina within blocks of the ocean in a 3-story 3,000+ square foot, very up to date home for less than 1/3 of what we would have paid in the States. It includes pool and yard maintenance. We couldn't afford a pool in the States or to live on a marina. We are beyond blessed."

Even though the vast preponderance of expats reported a substantially lower cost of living, many told us that there were even better deals to be had, after one gained additional street smarts. David R. Smith, who moved from the U.S. to Panama more than two years ago, wrote, "Our first 6 months here we spent about 65% less than what something comparable would've cost back home - but we discovered we were paying three times the going rate for ex-pat residents and almost 5 times the native rate."

We were struck in the study as well as in our conversations with thousands of expats by how, for many of them, their level of materialism dropped when they moved abroad. Caitlin Addison-Howard, from the U.S., living in Belize two to five years, wrote that leaving her country was sad, "but I have lived long enough to know that a few walls and a roof should not consume your soul. A simple palapa keeps out the rain, lets in the breeze, and I can listen to the sounds of the waves crashing on the beach."

This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.