Can I Really Live in Panama on $1000 a Month??

  Several weeks ago we posted an article about what it is really like to live in Panama from an expat's perspective.  We addressed where people chose to live, the experiences of their actual move, and the emotional side of living in a foreign country.  However, we are continually asked, “Is it realistic?  Can one really live in Panama on $700/month, $1,500/month or $2000/month??”  So, this time we felt it would be interesting to interview a different set of expats to find out what it really costs to live in Panama. People often arrive here with the expectation that their monthly cost of living will be dramatically less than in the States or Canada.   Once here, however, they are often surprised to discover that it can sometimes be more expensive than they thought. If you are considering a move to the beach area or to Panama in general, you will find that this article offers some valuable, first-hand information that you can use as you are making your decision about a move to Panama.  However, before we examine certain costs, let’s first look at the criteria for our interviewees in order to get a bit of a demographic.  We interviewed expats who are presently living in homes from 1100 to 2400 square feet, with the average being around 1500 square feet.  And, of course, here in Panama that space includes your terrace!  Four of our respondents reside in Coronado, two in the town of Chame, one in Gorgona, and one in the Costa Esmeralda area.  And, two of our eight respondents chose not to live in gated communities.

panama_cityCost of living is always more relevant when you are living on a fixed income, but we know that not everyone who moves to Panama is retired.  So, in order to get a broader demographic, we polled five fully retired people, two who are semi-retired, and one who is not retired at all.  What did they have to say?  Below are the questions we asked with a summary of the answers received.  

1.    Approximately how much do you spend monthly on your electric bill?  Do you use air conditioning?
Answers here were all over the map. Two of our respondents did not use air conditioning at all, and their bills were $30 and $60 a month respectively.  Most people only used the AC in the bedrooms; and, of course, many households are retired couples so they are only running it in one room each night.  Two of the respondents also run pool pumps, and their bills averaged $85 to $180 per month. (The $180 has two bedrooms with AC every night.) There were three other expats who replied that they average $120 per month but ran the air in only one room and did not comment about pools.  The answer to this question hinges on three things: Do you receive the Jubilado discount? Do you have a pool? Are you in the mountains or near the beach?

2.    Approximately how much do you spend monthly on your water bill?  Do you have a well or a water tank?  If so, how often do you use it?  

The consensus here is that your water bill is cheap in Panama! The average bill was $7 to $8 per month. However, it seems you get what you pay for.  Three of our interviewees had wells, or their development did, and almost everyone else had a backup tank.  And that tank was used frequently or always.  Conclusion: if you are moving here either dig a well or make sure you install a backup tank!  You will need it.

3.    Approximately what is your monthly grocery bill?   

Well, the answers to this one depended on whether or not you included booze as part of your grocery bill!!  Our 2 single respondents were $500 to $600 per month, including booze for one!  We had 4 replies from couples who were between $240 and $500 per month.  And we had two replies from families of 3 people who spent between $350 - $500 for one and $550 - $700 for the other.  We did not ask people where they shopped, but we do know that we now have more choices here at the beach and, in addition, that expats often shop in the city for groceries to help keep the prices down.

4.    TV and Internet.  Do you have both?  What do you pay?  Are you in an area where you can get regular cable?

It appears that most of our interviewees have Cable Onda for their TV and Internet service.   However, Cable Onda is not yet available in every area, but the good news is that they are continuing to expand.  Pricing here really varies because it depends on what speed of internet you choose and what level of cable service you need.  But, please note, Cable Onda now offers services very similar to what you can get in North America.  The average here for both TV and Internet, assuming basic cable and 2mbs of service, was between $60 and $80 per month.  One Internet was only $19 per month, and one Internet at 4mbs plus a PVR rental, HD channels, and movie channels was $105 per month.

5.    Do you have cell phone?  Contract or cards?  Approximately how much do you pay?  Do you also have a home phone?  

Without a doubt the resounding response was, “Yes we have cell phones, at least two.”   We had 3 out of 8 replies on monthly contracts from $22 a month to $50, and 7 replies use pre-paid phone cards averaging $20 to $30 per month. Many expats also use Skype for their long distance calls.

6.    Do you have a maid and or gardener? How often do they come and what do you pay?  

Having a maid and a gardener seems to be the norm here with 6 out of 8 interviewees having both.
Maids averaged two days a week for about $15 a day, and gardeners were anywhere from 1 day a week to a live-in maid and gardener. Gardeners averaged around $20 a day for one day a week.  However, keep in mind that if you employ on a more fulltime basis, you will need to look into paying an additional amount for their social security benefits.

7.    Do you own a pool?  What is the maintenance cost?  Do you do it yourself or do you have a        pool guy?  

The replies here were all quite similar. We had 3 people who maintained their own pools with the cost of chemicals ranging from $15 a month to $40 a month. There were 3 people who had their gardeners or caretakers maintain the pool.  Their chemical prices were similar, but they did not confirm what they paid for the pool maintenance person. (Often the gardeners do this as well as the yard, so it's hard to break it down.) One of our respondents did not have a pool, and the other resided in a resort where someone else took care of the pool, and the maintenance cost was included in the rent.

8. What does it cost you to drive your car in Panama?

This question appears to have been interpreted differently by many of those asked, so our answers don't quite show a pattern.  It would seem that the answers here vary just like they do back home.  It really depends on how much you drive, whether it is a gas or diesel, and how old the vehicle is that you are insuring. Gas/diesel was anywhere from $65 per month to $100, and car insurance ranged from $550 to $650 to $780 per year.  It would appear that all of these things are cheaper here in Panama; but, based on the variables, it is hard to determine by exactly how much.

9.  How often do you travel back home?

It would appear that many of our interviewees have made Panama their permanent home!  Most respondents answered that they do not go back to their home countries frequently.  Many responded that they either did not go back as there was no family left or that they went only when necessary.  Two responses were once a year; and two responses were two times a year.  It appeared that it depended on where home was and perhaps the cost of getting there.

So, is it cheaper to live here in Panama? For some things, yes!  However, you need to determine for yourself if these prices are less than you are paying now based on your lifestyle and where you currently live.  Also, we did not delve into the cost of eating out or purchasing appliances or furniture. Perhaps that is material for another story.  Hopefully our research has provided you with a little more food for thought. Not every magazine or article you read is correct about living in Panama for as little as $1,000 a month. As you can see, the variables are just too numerous to get that specific.