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Cost of Living: Costa Rica vs. Panama

By Betsy Burlingame

Summary: People considering a move to Central America often narrow down their list to Panama and Costa Rica. Expats talk about the cost of living in Panama and Costa Rica - housing costs, gas, car, electric, internet, groceries, budgets for various lifestyles and more.

Cost of Living - Costa Rica vs. Panama

Can you live in Costa Rica on $2,000 a month

When we asked expats in Costa Rica, how much can they live on comfortably, they wrote:

"Depends on lifestyle. I eat all my meals in restaurants, go to coffee shops, have a big social life and go on a lot of dates, I travel every month. My expense including all this are around $3500/mo," said one expat in San Jose, Costa Rica.

"In Costa Rica, this is a difficult question as there are many different communities, some more popular with expats and others more with a local feel. You will certainly live comfortably at $2,000 per month. If you are renting, consider adding more to this amount. Again lifestyle is important to consider. High end dining and shopping, live concerts will be more expensive. Consider also these activities may not appeal to you upon retirement," mentioned another expat when asked about living in Costa Rica.

"This is probably the number one question that people ask. Honestly, there is no 'correct' answer to this because everyone has different needs. All I can say is Costa Rica is NOT as cheap as it used to be. It is one of the more expensive destinations but it is still much cheaper than the US. Housing, taxes, maid service, drivers, medical...these items are significantly less. Food, utilities, gasoline, dining out....can be close to US prices in an affordable city. Shopping at the 'feria' [farmers' market] for produce is your best bet for keeping costs very low," commented one expat who made the move to Costa Rica.

"Per capita GDP in Costa Rica is about a third as high as it is in the US, and the cost of living is commensurately lower. However, the prices of some goods are set at a global rather than a local level and the prices of others are actually higher owing to taxes and import costs. Realistically, the cost of living is about half as high as it is in a similar location in the US, although individual tastes and circumstances vary. As for a dollar amount, some expats say $2000/month is the minimum, though I think that's high and others think that's low. I will say that the pensionado minimum of $1000/month is doable, but pretty lean," wrote an expat from living in San Jose, Costa Rica

An expat in Ojochal wrote, "The cost of living is less than most tourist towns. For example if you own a restaurant in a non-tourist town and your food is not good or overpriced, you will quickly go out of business. Yet many well know restaurants are located in Ojochal. Water is abundant and you never need heat and most don't use AC. The temperature is more temperate than many other areas in Costa Rica, because the largest lowland forest in all of the entire Pacific region starts in Ojochal and continues to the south. The largest mangrove estuary in all of Central America is just to the south as well - so there is lots of clean air. The newest hospital in the CAJA system is located just two towns to the south in Cortez -- so healthcare is close and inexpensive."

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Can you live in Panama on $2,000 a month

When we asked expats in Panama, how much can they live on comfortably, they wrote:

"Panama is no longer cheap, though not expensive. In most places you can live without a car if you want. Utilities are cheap, except electricity-keep this in mind if you want to live at low elevation. Real estate is slow now and deals can be had on rentals and purchases (but rent to try out before buying). A couple can rent and live comfortably, but not extravagantly, on $2000 a month," wrote one expat in Panama.

"We do fine with $2000/monthly for everything. But, no mortgage, car payment, credit card bills," said one expat on Taboga Island, Panama.

An expat in Neuva Gorgona commented, "A couple (renting) can live in a condo and a very comfortable lifestyle, eating out a time or two a week, for $2-2.5K/ month in this area [Neuva Gorgona] or less depending on where you live. We are pretty spoiled."

"We live about 15 minutes from Boquete and David. We own our own home and live well on $1500/mo. Our electric is $50/mo., propane $20/mo., water, $3/mo.,trash $4/mo., internet $37.45/mo., insurance (highest liability coverage) $250/year, food $250-$300/mo. We go out once a week to socialize for a few drinks and appetizers $10-$20 for two. We went back to the States in August and were shocked at the prices there. Here tomatoes $.90/lb, potatoes $.60/lb, onions $.80-.90/lb., chicken $1.15-$1.50/lb. etc. I buy fresh whole Tuna for $2.50/lb and shrimp $6-$10/lb. I buy whole pigs for $1.75-$2.00/lb., butcher and freeze and raise my own veal. So, I keep busy and couldn't begin to live a good life in the States for what it costs me here. the only thing I pay more for here is asparagus and plastic containers, but the asparagus is getting better because it is getting popular. Not to mention a case of national beer $13.50, 6 pack of Guiness Stout $6 and a liter of good Anejo Rum $10," wrote one expat near Boquete in a forum discussion.

"I live in Panama City... I have 1800 square feet and use AC in one room only and my bill is 150-200 monthly. Food (I eat out a lot) $60 - when I go to a supermarket I can spend this on a bottle of wine, 1 pound of strawberries (e.g. those are alone 8 bucks) and a piece of cheese. Groceries are easy double the price comapred to the US in average. Restaurants $120 - this translates into maybe 6 average meals in Panama City if I do not eat empanadas every day. Gas for car (diesel) $60 - this would fill up my truck once," replied another expat.

Is Costa Rica more or less expensive than you expected?

We asked expats in Costa Rica, "Financially, has living in Costa Rica met your expectations? Exceeded them?" Here's what they had to say:

"No! Costa Rica is far more expensive than I thought. I eat out a lot and most of the time the prices are equivalent to US. You can eat for less at sodas and the market, which I do. Buses are a bargain, but cabs cost far more than any other major city in the region: Guatemala, Managua, San Pedro. Also, since everything is exported, prices for shampoos, soaps, tooth paste, razor blades, and things of that nature are much higher than the U.S. Also, my rent is much higher than anticipated," said one expat in San Jose.

"Living abroad in Costa Rica has definitely exceeded our expectations financially. Imported products such as electronics can run 50% higher than our native country so this is definitely a downfall. Some imported foods are expensive too. However, it is not difficult to learn to live without all the high end electronics and the latest gadget. Learning to shop locally for food brings your grocery budget to a reasonable level. Fruit and vegetables are inexpensive and living on the coast, fresh fish is a great deal! Property taxes are inexpensive and a fraction of what we paid in the states. Vehicles are expensive as is gas; however public transportation is widely available and very affordable," mentioned another expat when asked about living in Costa Rica.

Is Panama more or less expensive than you expected?

We asked expats in Panama, "Financially, has living in Panama met your expectations? Exceeded them?" Here's what they had to say:

"By far exceeded my financial goals and predictions," replied one expat who retired in Chiriqui, Panama.

"It's not as cheap as I thought it would be. Food is the same or more. Restaurants are cheaper. Transport much cheaper. Clothing and appliances are probably cheaper in US. We have better sales in US," said one expat in Panama City, Panama.

"We paid cash so no mortgage which is great. The prices have risen since moving here 8 1/2 years ago. Food prices have skyrocketed. Transportation costs have also risen quite a bit as well. The medical, however, is great. I spent 4 nights in a private room with round the clock care and paid $1,800 for everything," mentioned another expat when asked about living in Panama.

"The cost of living in Panama is not as low as it once was (we have heard) but is still lower than the US. There is no way we could afford to rent a condo right on the beach in the US for what we are paying here. We knew there would be adjustments but it has been easier than we anticipated in part due to the strong expat community. No expectations means no disappointment," commented one expat who made the move to Panama.

Housing Costs in Costa Rica

We asked expats in Costa Rica, "Are your housing costs higher or lower than they were in your home country? What is the average cost of housing there?" They answered:

"Our housing costs are lower than in the states. Taxes are very inexpensive in CR and the taxes in the states substantially higher. Private home insurance is less expensive in Costa Rica from our experience. It is very hard to determine the average cost of housing. In this area, the closer the location to the beach, the higher the price. Direct waterfront may cost well over $500,000 to the millions depending on amenities. However in a lower profile condo building with less amenities, you can absolutely find something at half that price. Knowing the market is really key here and return on investment must be weighed in if you plan to rent the unit, seasonally or long term," said an expat in Playa Hermosa.

"Cheaper, undoubtedly. Unless you want to live in the most expensive/foreign-overrun areas of the country or unless you insist on staying in the same level of housing that you stay in back in the states. Costa Rica is not the USA. It's Costa Rica. Learn to live more simply, you probably won't miss it in the long run," commented one expat who made the move to San Jose.

"Many beach locations in Costa Rica are expensive. However, Playa Jaco has a strong mix of locals and tourists which helps to keep the cost of living lower. You will find many types of housing here from single family, condominium complexes and beachfront homes in a multitude of price ranges to fit all budgets. The community has a local farmers market (feria) which is always a good deal to purchase locally from regional farmers. The price of fresh fish is an incredible value. Costa Rica is one of the more expensive countries in Central America but shopping locally in Playa Jaco can provide good savings. Due to it's proximity to the beach (and the Equator), one of your largest expenses will be electricity. The beaches are very hot all year around. Typically property taxes are low in all of Costa Rica and Playa Jaco is no different," wrote an expat from living in Playa Jaco

"Costa Rica is an expensive country. You will in any case be fleeced as a foreigner, but if you haggle (use as much as 2-3 weeks if necessary) you might reach an almost fair level. There are far too many houses for rent, so be patient," said one expat in San Jose.

"Much, much lower. I wouldn't pay more than $300 per month in rent for a house in this area," remarked another expat in San Marcos, TarrazĂș.

Housing Costs in Panama

We asked expats in Panama, "Are your housing costs higher or lower than they were in your home country? What is the average cost of housing there?" They answered:

"Our rent (including electric, gas and high-speed internet) is less than half of just our mortgage in S. Florida. Tip: if internet is important to you, don't ask, 'do you have internet' since everyone can get it. Ask, 'what speed internet can I get and how much does it cost?' We pay about $50 for 5G megs mo. Five minutes away it is $150 for 1meg," remarked an expat in Boquete.

"Monthly rental is $905.00 per month cheaper. Housing here is between $600 $700 for two bedrooms. There are real estate people here who will find a house or apartment for you. Be prepared, every local has his hand out. Everyone from the cab drivers to our exterminator will offer to find a house for you. They have contacts and get commissions. But make no mistake, the Panamanians are all good-hearted and mean well. Sometimes strike gold," explained one expat living in Alto Boquete.

"My housing costs here are 1/4 of what I'd pay in the States for a house and yard," said another expat in Boquete.

"Housing costs are still lower than the U.S. Smaller homes in town run 300 to 800 per month to rent. Condos rent from 900 to 1800 per month to rent. Condos for sale between 200k to 450k, depending on amenities and the floor," replied an expat in Nueva Gorgona, Panama.

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About the Author

Betsy Burlingame Betsy Burlingame is the Founder of Expat Exchange. She launched Expat Exchange in 1997 as her Master's thesis project at NYU. Some of Betsy's more popular articles include 6 Best Places to Live in Costa Rica, 12 Things to Know Before Moving to The Dominican Republic and 7 Tips for Obtaining Residence in Italy. Betsy loves to travel and spend time with her family. Connect with Betsy on LinkedIn.

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First Published: May 01, 2020

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