What Does it Cost to Live a Month on the Road in the Americas

Given his experience living in Mexico and Central America, I asked my friend Chuck Bolotin, founder of Best Places in the World To Retire, to write a piece about what it costs to live for a month in Belize knowing that he would, of course, come up with a different idea. Since he and his wife Jet had been mostly living month to month as nomads he suggested an article about what it costs to live on the road in various locations. This piece is a wakeup call for people who want to see what it is like to retire and live a life of travel, but are concerned about expenses on the road. 

Chuck run the website Best Places in the World ToRetire, which has over 6,000 answers to the most often asked questions about moving overseas, and over 200 expat stories and interviews of the most interesting people overseas, was started just over two years ago, the site currently includes Panama, Nicaragua, Belize they just added Mexico, and more are on the way. (They also just published a study Expats: Expectations & Reality, which can be downloaded for free.)

What Does it Cost to Live a Month on the Road in Northern California and Baja California

I have long had a theory that many people could live a much higher quality, more interesting and fulfilling life on the road while staying in good quality vacation rentals than if they stayed in their existing home, and to do it for less money than staying home; sort of like being on a permanent vacation, but with a reduction in costs from doing nothing.  Starting this May, as part of a road trip series for our site, Best Places in the World to Retire, and because I can work anywhere there is a good Internet connection, my wife and I put the theory to the test.

Our plans would be to stay 6 weeks to a month in each new place for a total of more than a year.  Starting from our home in Oro Valley, Arizona (near Tucson), our first two destinations would be Chico, near Sacramento, in Northern California, and then, a small village just south of La Paz, in Baja California Sur, Mexico.  We sold our house, and my wife and I sold, gave away, or put into storage anything that wouldn’t fit into a huge, white van, loaded up what remained of our belongings (not insubstantial; it’s a big van), and with our two dogs, set off.

Jet Metier and Chuck Bolotin and dogs at Cabo San Lucas Family

Jet Metier and Chuck Bolotin and dogs at Cabo San Lucas Family

In order to compare the cost part of the experiment, we need a baseline, so I provided below a rough rundown of our relevant costs in Arizona.  These don’t include all costs, but just the ones that are the most relevant for comparison.  I also made some assumptions.  For example, we owned our house, but in order to do an “apples to apples” comparison, I estimated what it would cost to rent it.

Rent…………………………………………………………………………………………………. $3,500

Electricity…………………………………………………………………………………………….. $275

Gas for the house…………………………………………………………………………………… $80

Water………………………………………………………………………………………………….. $130

Internet / TV / phone……………………………………………………………………………. $180

Health insurance…………………………………………………………………………………… $436 [1]

Food at the grocery store (about $10 / day)…………………………………………….. $300

Food at restaurants ($30 average)…………………………………………………………. $300 [2]

Pool service………………………………………………………………………………………….. $150

Gas for the car ($2.75 / gallon)…………………………………………………………….. $275 [3]

Total…………………………………………………………………………………………………. $5,626

1 Rising very rapidly; will probably be in excess of $1,000 per month within two years.

2 Assumed eating out dinner 10 times during the month for two people.

3 For gas for the car, in all scenarios, I figured about 1,500 miles / month at 15 miles / gallon, which would translate to 100 gallons.  The reason we didn’t drive more miles on our road trip is because, once we got to our destination, we tended not to move around as much.  For one thing, we didn’t see the need to take a lot of trips, because we were already in an interesting location.

Our first stop would be Chico, California, an older, middle class, agricultural and small college town north of Sacramento, California.  The reason we chose Chico was just because my wife liked it.  The highlight for most people about Chico is a beautiful, well-kept, huge, urban park called Bidwell Park with a creek running through it and also lots of large trees pretty much everywhere.  The trees are spectacular, but other than the trees and the park and going on walks, that’s about it.  For example, there’s not a lot of culture and other things to do.

We rejected many rentals in Chico because they were too expensive. After some heavy duty bargaining and good luck, we found a home we could rent for a month for $2,600 that, if it were sold, would sell for less than half the price of our old house.  The house was in a middle class neighborhood and it was I believe about 70 years old.

Being California, not only is the rent expensive, but pretty much everything else is as well.   The food in the restaurants (which were less than mediocre) and supermarkets was about 20% more than in Southern Arizona, and the gas was about a dollar more per gallon. Here’s the breakdown:

 

Rent…………………………………………………………………………………………………. $2,600

Electricity………………………………………………………………………………………………….. 0

Gas for the house………………………………………………………………………………………. 0

Water……………………………………………………………………………………………………….. 0

Internet / TV / phone…………………………………………………………………………………. 0

Health insurance (I had to keep the same insurance as before)…………………. $436

Food at the grocery store (about $12 / day)…………………………………………….. $360

Food at restaurants ($36 average)…………………………………………………………. $360

Pool service (no pool)…………………………………………………………………………………. 0

Gas for the car ($3.75 / gallon)……………………………………………………………… $375

Total…………………………………………………………………………………………………. $4,131

The total reduction in cost from the baseline from our old house was $1,495, or 26%.

As you can see, the largest differences where for rent (but admittedly, in a much less desirable house), and utilities, which were zero.  Utilities alone and the pool service used to cost me $815 / month. For any place we rented on the road, all those would cumulatively reduce to zero.  This is one of the main advantages of using vacation rentals.  So, on the road in Northern California can be less expensive than our old living situation and it was great to be in a new place, but it was an open question whether our lifestyle was better.

Next, we took our experiment to a fishing village of La Ventana, south of La Paz, Baja California Sur, Mexico.  We took about 3 days to drive there from the Mexican border, and had a fantastic time.  Interesting, good rentals along the way were $100 / night or less, which, given the short time we needed to rent them, I didn’t bother to include in the calculation below.  Given that we were in Mexico, I was able to get new, better health insurance that also covered us in the US, and was unlikely to increase in price as dramatically as I expected our US insurance to increase.  If I needed to go to a doctor in Mexico, I could pay out of pocket for about $30 a visit, and not even bother with insurance.

In La Ventana, we rented a 5 year old, 3 bedroom / 3 bathroom home on almost a quarter of an acre with a pool and an absolutely magnificent view of the sea of Cortez and Isla Cerralvo (also known as Jacques Cousteau Island), 9 miles in the distance.  We had a 7-minute walk to the beach in front of our home, and some of the best beaches in the world within an hour drive. It was “cathedral quiet.”  The dogs could run, chase birds and swim in the ocean on beaches where there was virtually nobody there.  The water was clear and warm. The restaurants were great and very inexpensive. Here’s the breakdown:

Rent…………………………………………………………………………………………………. $1,200

Electricity………………………………………………………………………………………………….. 0

Gas for the house………………………………………………………………………………………. 0

Water……………………………………………………………………………………………………….. 0

Internet / TV / phone…………………………………………………………………………………. 0

Health insurance…………………………………………………………………………………… $216

Food at the grocery store (about $8 / day)………………………………………………. $240

Food at restaurants ($10 average / meal for two)…………………………………… $100

Pool service ……………………………………………………………………. Included in the rent

Gas for the car ($3.75 / gallon)……………………………………………………………… $375

Total…………………………………………………………………………………………………. $2,131

The reduction in cost from baseline was $3,495, or 62%.

So we have answered the cost part of our experiment: yes, it can be much less expensive to live on the road and rent an incredible vacation rental (in this case in Baja California) for significantly less than half of what it would cost to stay home.  However, what about the quality of life component of the experiment?  In this regard, of course, people differ, so I can just report my conclusion.

Most people would agree that it is a nice feeling to own your own home.  With that nice feeling comes many not so nice feelings, given that you are the one responsible for repairs, regular maintenance, property taxes, etc.  Personally, I am happier not having these responsibilities and the fear that comes with home ownership.  (The responsibility has to do with spending most of my weekends doing repairs of some sort.  The fear comes with questions such as, “What happens when the air conditioner goes out and costs me $5,000?)

When you are on the road, you of course see new things and have adventures you wouldn’t if you were sitting at home. For example, on our Baja trip, we experienced amazing beaches, slept in a yurt, ate great food at ridiculously low prices, saw the Sea of Cortez and the Pacific on the same day, and met remarkable people.  We were essentially on vacation for the entire time we were in Mexico, and for less than half the cost of where I used to live.  Would I have done anything as memorable and fulfilling during a typical month in my old house?

Chuck Bolotin and dogs at Hot Springs Beach, walking distance from their rental in Baja

Chuck Bolotin and dogs at Hot Springs Beach, walking distance from their rental in Baja

The answer is obvious.

After our Baja experience, we stayed at a home in a beach area not to far from Puerto Vallarta where we regularly ate extremely good meals for $5 (for two), I got a better haircut than I used to get in Arizona, but for 50 pesos ($2.73), and the jungle drips right down to the Pacific.  Next, we’ll visit the highlands of Mexico, where it is close to 75 degrees all year long and the costs are about the same or less than in Baja.

 

 

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