One question I constantly get via email is how does my family of three manage to keep their cost of living in Antigua Guatemala under $500 a month. No, that is not a typo. In fact, more often than not, our expenses regularly come in lower than that.
Before I delve into how we do it, here’s something I need to clear up right away. Our lifestyles (whether yours or mine) depend on the choices we make and our definition of comfort. You may think we live grand – or live in a dump – based on your definition of happiness. And that’s fine. Everyone has their map of the world that they interpret according to what they see in it.
But let’s be clear about something. Somebody, somewhere, thinks you live like a pauper. So please, unless you’re Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, or a child of the Walton family clan, if you’re reading this from your high-horse, please be kind, get off it, and tie it to the post at the front door.
In any country (yes, that includes the US) you can find a broad range of living conditions. Depending on where you live, rental prices in Antigua will seem to be a bargain, or maybe even expensive. It all hinges whether you’re comparing real estate prices to those in Omaha or Manhattan.
In Central America, especially in places popular and readily available to tourists, like Antigua, it’s not difficult to recreate a lifestyle that closely resembles that of the US. Immense houses with beautiful courtyards are not hard to find if you’ve got $1,500USD a month to spare. There are enough restaurants here that you can eat out every day at a different place and not have to eat at the same location twice in a calendar year. That said, not everybody can afford – or wants to – spend money like a drunken sailor.
So, what do you do if you, like me, are building a business on the side, income is tight and have a family to feed? Same thing anyone would do, from Antigua to Zimbabwe, set a budget and live within your means. So how do we do it? Easy. We try to live like most of the locals do and leave the touristy lifestyle to the tourists.
That doesn’t mean we live like recluses, penny-pinching at every opportunity. But it’s far more affordable to live well here than it would be to do the same in a First-World country. The fact that we live near one of the most beautiful, walkable colonial cities in the world is just a bonus.
So, for those of you interested in how to live on a tight, yet affordable budget in Central America, read on.
This is the big-ticket item. Most people that come to live in Antigua want to have a place to live before arriving in town – this is usually a mistake. Why? Because most properties marketed online are priced with a loaded foreigner’s fat wallet in mind. The best deals to be had are found not through real estate agencies, but through word-of-mouth and getting a feel for the place so you can bargain accordingly.
Our rent is $125USD. We found this brand-new condo after living here for a year and getting to know the area. Why so cheap? For one, it was unfurnished and in a place tourists, and most expats have no idea it exists. Sure, it’s small, but it suits us fine. Plus, you can’t beat the views of Antigua’s valley. Click to see my video of Antigua’s New Year’s Fireworks here. If you want pictures of the house and community we live in, click here and here (new windows).
View from our Condo on New Year’s Day
If you want to live right in Antigua center, you’ll have to pay accordingly. We don’t mind living less than 10 minutes away to save hundreds of dollars. If being able to walk outside your door and be in the middle of everything is your thing, that’s fine with me. Just don’t expect it to come cheap.
Electricity is expensive in Guatemala. At least compared to what I was used to paying in the US. Fortunately, Antigua, unlike many other highly touted beach-side destinations (think some locations in Belize or Panama) is 5,000+ meters feet (thanks, Tim) above sea level, which is conducive to perfect, spring-like weather almost year-round. Don’t need heating, don’t need air conditioners either.
We switched all our light bulbs with energy-efficient ones, and our electricity bill has yet to top Q100 ($12.50USD) in many months – Q99.59 was the latest one. We don’t have a central water heater – only a shower-head heater – which cut at least Q300 from our previous bills elsewhere. Look into gas-powered heaters if hot water in every faucet is something that matters to you.
Water service, trash pickup, and maintenance fees total Q200 ($25USD). We use a small gas tank for cooking. The gas company delivers a full one when we run out – usually every other month – and the last 25lb refill costs us Q135 ($17USD), which is rather on the high side. We’ve purchased refills as low as Q95, but that varies seasonally. Since gas is a bi-monthly expense, I’ll add half the cost to the budget total listed on the Utilities heading (Q67.50).
We spent much more on transportation back when I had a V6 Jeep. Gas is expensive here, costing close to $5USD a gallon. These days, we walk a lot more. I can say that finally losing those 40 extra pounds (yes, forty!) has been worth it.
Since I work from home, I don’t need to go out as much, unless there’s a special event, church to attend to, people to meet, or festivities in town. My wife also volunteers regularly at Campos de Suenos. Public transportation is relatively efficient and inexpensive. Fare around town is about Q3 ($0.37) one way. Occasionally, we’ll go down to Guatemala City to visit relatives or for medical appointments. In that case, bus fare is Q10 ($1.13USD) one way. Monthly expenses, give or take a few quetzals are around Q400 ($50USD).
Most people rely on Internet provided by the homeowner. If that’s not available, you may have to set up your service, through Claro, the local phone company, something that isn’t complicated.
I now rely on one of the infamous Tigo modems, which work out well for most tasks. If I need to do a video interview (like today) or carry on a Skype video conversation, it’s much more cost-effective to head to an Internet café. If I need to do research or upload/download huge files, I head over to the public library in front of the park.
School tuition varies wildly, and it hinges on your expectations. On the high end, you can expect to pay $600USD a month at a school like AIS or close to $100 a month at one of the many private schools in Antigua. On the cheap end are the free public schools – often lacking in every measurable metric.
Currently, our daughter is enrolled in a semi-private school, run by the city. It’s only Q100 a month and offers English and computer classes. To be on the safe side, we do our homeschooling curriculum on the side. There are added expenses, like uniforms and books, but spread out over the school year, I’d say it’s about Q500.
This is the biggest variable. It depends on where you shop and what your diet is like.
We eat fresh chicken, meat, veggies, eggs, and fruits regularly. A whole, a 4-pound chicken, goes for slightly under Q50 ($6.25USD), fresh fish for Q15 (under $2) a pound, pork and beef regularly goes for about Q20-Q25 ($2.50 – $3.00USD) a pound if you buy from the local butcher. Expect to pay more at the supermarket for everything else. We eat tortillas, freshly baked bread, and indulge in the occasional tamale or chuchito. Rarely, if ever, do we go to the local McDonalds, preferring instead to cook up our own, tastier burgers at home. Our coal-powered grill sees frequent use.
To give you a conservative ballpark figure, I’m willing to bet we spend less than Q250 ($31.25USD) a week in food and eating out, all fresh food, nothing canned or junk food. This leaves plenty to eat out at a sit-down restaurant once or twice a month, should we choose to.
I’m being generous with this one. There’s plenty to do in Antigua and many ongoing activities where one doesn’t have to spend a penny. This week, for example, there was a car show on Calle del Arco sponsored by the BMW Car Club of Guatemala. Free and a good way to spend an hour doing something different.
Free Car show in Antigua
If you want something to do, entertainment isn’t hard to find, both free and for a fee. If you’re a homebody, you can find movies at the Mercado for Q5 and settle in for movie night. Many cafés (Bagel Barn, for example) and some restaurants have free movie nights. Dinner and a movie can be done very cheaply here.
This is another one that’s highly dependent on your situation. We don’t have insurance, preferring to pay out-of-pocket for medical visits instead.
A visit to the Doctor will cost about Q200 ($25USD). If I were to set aside that amount a month for medical emergencies, it would just about cover any emergency and then some. But again, this will depend on your situation. Suffice it to say that medical care in Guatemala is inexpensive and of excellent quality, even when out-of-pocket. I’ll add it to the total, even though we rarely spend money going to the doctor.
And the total is:
Being generous with my estimates and wildly overshooting on some (like medical costs), out budget total is $449.50 – this leaves us with $50USD every month to buy clothes (which we don’t have to buy every month), school materials, and other odds and ends. Sometimes the budget will be much less than this, other times it will be more, but $500USD about covers all our regular monthly expenses.
Is this doable for everyone? Of course not. Some people spend more than that on rent alone. Could a single person live here on less than that? I don’t see why not.
If you’ve got the money, you can live here (or anywhere, really), as comfortably as anyone in a First World country. Maybe even better, since maid service is affordable and often costs less than $250 a month for full-time service.
What’s Your Antigua Budget Like?