9 Places So Cheap You Might Not Need To Work
Now that 2020 is over, it’s time to start living for the future. What does that look like for you? Chances are it might involve quitting your day job, ditching it all and moving to paradise. While many people have been able to get a taste of this new reality by working remotely in 2020, that time will soon come to end. So there’s truly no better moment to start thinking about how you can live the dream by moving to another country where the cost of living is so low that you can stop working. Since 2017, I have been providing plenty of inspiration in this column by showcasing the cheapest places to live around the globe. (You can also see past reports for 2020, 2019 and 2018 here.) In this fifth annual report, I again tapped into the experts at InternationalLiving.com, which has just released its 30th Annual Global Retirement Index for 2021. And this list isn’t just for retirees: It’s a great resource for anyone who has ever thought of moving to a country where the cost of living is considerably cheaper than in the United States.
In this year’s Global Retirement Index, International Living’s editor scored 25 top destinations across 10 categories, including cost of living, governance, climate, healthcare and more. In addition, International Living tapped into its vast network of contacts and correspondents around the globe to add real-world, practical, on-the-ground intelligence, experience and opinion.
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The resulting list of top spots is packed with safe, good-value destinations where you can live a comfortable, carefree life on very little money—but in reality, the whole list is valuable. “All 25 destinations are worth your attention,” says Jennifer Stevens, International Living’s executive editor. “Whether you’re looking for a friendly, good-value city, a tropical beach, a cool, highland retreat, an historic colonial enclave or a quiet lakeside getaway, this Index can help point you to your best options on the planet today.”
Read on for the lowdown on the top nine places on the list, which represent some of the cheapest—and most amazing—places to move in 2021. These are also locations where it’s easy to feel healthier, happier and less stressed than in America. And for more destinations on the Global Retirement Index—like Vietnam, which came in at Number 10, plus the individual rankings in all 10 categories for all 25 countries—you can see the full list at “The World’s Best Places to Retire in 2021.”
1. Costa Rica
Why: Coming in at the top of the list for 2021 is Costa Rica, which has been called the “Switzerland of Central America,” due to its peace-loving democracy in a region that can be plagued by political and civil unrest. In this heavenly slice of Central America, you’ll find a society that cares about its people, an affordable cost of living (including medical care), vast real estate options, natural beauty and friendly locals. “One of the things you hear often from expats is how warm and welcoming the ticos (Costa Ricans) are,” says Kathleen Evans, International Living’s Costa Rica correspondent. Unfortunately, like most places, the pandemic has dealt a harsh blow to Costa Rica’s economy and put strains on the healthcare system—even so, it’s a winner for anyone looking to live abroad. “The country remains a good long-term bet as we move towards a post-COVID world, given its natural beauty, resilient population and progressive vision,” says Evans.
Where to Move: With a dozen climate zones and hundreds of microclimates, there’s a place for everyone in Costa Rica. Many people love the temperate climate in the capital of San José and the surrounding Central Valley, while others gravitate to the beaches of Guanacaste or the jungle landscapes in the south and Caribbean side of the country.
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The Cost: A single person can live comfortably for around $1,615 a month, while a couple can live on about $2,000 a month, including rent for a two-bedroom home with air conditioning, plus groceries, entertainment, transportation and healthcare.
Why: “Panama has ranked at the top of IL’s retirement index many times for many reasons. Even after all these years, the country consistently delivers when it comes to overall value,” says International Living correspondent Jessica Ramesch. You’ll get ocean views, warm weather and big-city amenities in a hurricane-free environment. It’s also one of the richest countries in the region. The Pensionado or Pensioner visa has consistently earned Panama a top score in the “Benefits and Discounts” category of International’s Living Global Retirement Index. The gist: If you have a pension—regardless of your age—you too can apply to become a resident pensionado and gain access to a wealth of discounts, including 25% off power bills, 50% off movie and show tickets, 25% off plane fares, 20% off medication, 25% off meals at restaurants and so on.
Where to Move: The infrastructure in the capital, Panama City—Central America’s most modern, happening metropolis—is top-notch across the board and there’s tons to do. “From sky-diving clubs to motorcycle enthusiasts, I’ve seen it all,” says Ramesch. Other places to check out include the Caribbean region of Bocas del Toro, the mountain hamlet of Boquete, beachy San Carlos, the rural village of Santa Fe and the crater town of El Valle.
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The Cost: A single person can live in Panama for $1,590 to $2,940 a month. The country is also known for its excellent, worry-free healthcare: For instance, you’ll pay just $10 to $20 to see a doctor.
Why: “More than one million Americans and a half-million Canadians call the country home today, living there either full-time or part of the year (often in winter, to escape cold weather),” says International Living correspondent Jason Holland. “This makes Mexico one of the most popular—if not the most popular—expat destinations in the world.”
Where to Move: Because Mexico is so large, there are many climates, landscapes and lifestyles to choose from—ranging from big cities to rural villages to funky beach towns. Some top expat choices include the temperate climates in the Colonial Highlands, the dry heat of Los Cabos or the southern California “perfect” climate of northern Baja. Then there are also the Pueblo Mágicos (or Magical Towns), small towns that are celebrated because they represent the architecture and customs of traditional Mexico.
The Cost: You can live well in Mexico on a fraction of what you’d spend back home. The cost of living, of course, depends on your lifestyle, but on average, a single person could spend as little as $1,700 a month and have “a life filled with fun, no scrimping necessary,” says Holland. A couple could live on under $2,000 per month. “This is possible because of low-cost real estate (to rent and buy), affordable food at the market and in restaurants, cheap transportation, low-cost medical care, free and affordable entertainment options and more,” says Holland.
Why: “Colombia is no longer Latin America’s best-kept secret because more and more expats are moving here to start a new life in this beautiful country,” says International Living correspondent Nancy Kiernan. Plus, the dark days of Colombia’s past are gone, and the country is now thriving. Moving to Colombia is simple: You can come for 90 days with a U.S. passport, then extend for another 90 days. After that, you will need a retirement visa, which is relatively easy to get.
Where to Move: Medellín is one of the fastest-growing expat spots in Colombia, due to the near-perfect climate. If you want hot and tropical, there are the Caribbean coastal cities of Santa Marta and Cartagena. Or check out the quaint town of Salento, within Colombia’s coffee triangle.
The Cost: Your dollars go much further in Colombia. A single person can live on as little as $1,030 a month, while a couple can live in many cities around Colombia for $2,000 per month or less. Living is cheap: For instance, you can get a modern, top-floor apartment with a gym and a balcony in Manizales, Colombia—a city in the mountainous coffee-growing region—for just $500 per month
Why: “It’s no wonder that Portugal has topped the charts for the best places to retire through the years,” says International Living correspondent Terry Coles. “This tiny country in the southwest corner of Europe has something for everyone. Vibrant cities, miles of golden sandy beaches, green rolling hills, some of the best healthcare in the world, low cost of living and safety.”
Where to Move: Looking to live without a car? For a city full of old-world charm, check out Lisbon or head north to visit Portugal’s second-largest city, Porto. Alentejo is the largest and most rural region of the country, with fields of wildflowers, historic towns and a sparse population; check out the cities of Beja and Évora. “Life here is slow, winters are cool, and summers are hot and dry,” says Coles. Another great place to consider: the Algarve, known for its Atlantic beaches, fishing villages and hot, dry summers. English is widely spoken.
The Cost: Although it depends on many factors, you can live on about one-third less than America. That’s starting at around $2,020 for a single person, while a couple can live comfortably, but not lavishly, starting on $2,500 per month. If you want to live in Lisbon, Porto, Cascais or the Algarve, bump that number up to $3,000. Coles says that she and her husband used to rent a fully furnished, three-bedroom home one hour north of Lisbon near the city of Caldas da Rainha for just $400 per month. Now they rent a two-bedroom condominium in a gated complex with a pool for $1,030 per month in Vilamoura, an unincorporated area near the city of Quarteira.
Why: “Whether you want to live, vacation, retire or simply relax in Ecuador, you’ll find the perfect combination of climate, culture and affordability to make your dreams come true,” says International Living correspondent Donna Stiteler. “There are few places where living is as affordable as in Ecuador—there is something for everyone, regardless of your budget.”
Where to Move: Many expats settle in Quito (lined with shops, chic bars and restaurants tucked into historic buildings) or the modern Andean town of Cuenca (the cultural center of Ecuador). Other large expat communities include the beach town of Salinas, the sleepy village of Cotacachi and Vilcabamba, known for its laidback cafés.
The Cost: A single person can live in Ecuador for $1,210 to $1,525 a month, depending on location and lifestyle. A couple can live here for anywhere from $1,650 to $1,825 a month. Rentals are affordable: A two-bedroom, two-bathroom condo in downtown Cuenca will cost $500 a month. Or you can buy a home on a Pacific Coast beach or a condo with great views in the Andes for less than $150,000. Food is also cheap: It is difficult to carry more than $15 worth of fruits and vegetables. Household help is available for $20 per day, and services (pedicures, haircuts) are just a few dollars. Plus, you can get by in most places without a car, paying 30 cents or less for buses, and $2 to $5 for cab rides.
Why: When International Living correspondent Keith Hockton and his wife, Lisa, vacationed in ultra-affordable Malaysia in 2008, they ran the numbers when they got home. “We realized that we could actually live in Malaysia and vacation back home, effectively reversing our situation and saving a heap of money,” says Hockton. “We started to make plans to do just that and moved to Penang in early 2010.” Beyond the affordability factor, Malaysia’s appeal includes weather that’s a tropical 82 degrees all year round, gorgeous beaches, islands and jungles, buzzing cities, some of the region’s best food, shopping malls and movie theaters. Another perk: “Malaysia’s an easy place to make friends and integrate as English is the unofficial first language, so you don’t have to learn another language here if you don’t want to,” says Hockton.
Where to Move: Loads of expats live in Kuala Lumpur and Penang, and there are direct flights to more than 30 different countries from both cities, so Malaysia makes a perfect base to explore the natural, historical and cultural treasures of Southeast Asia.
The Cost: A single person could easily live on $1,705 a month; for a couple, it’s less than $2,000 a month. You can rent a two- or three-bedroom place for about $550 to $650 a month. Want to live like royalty? A 2,300-square-foot condo with three or four bedrooms, three to five bathrooms and a balcony overlooking the ocean in a modern high-rise with a pool, gym and 24-hour gated security will cost between $750 to $1,000 per month.
Why: “While France keeps pace with modern times, much of its attractiveness lies in the time-honored traditions practiced throughout the country,” says International Living correspondent Tuula Rampont. “Long lunches with fine bottles of wine or picnics among the local vineyards are examples of the joie de vivre that comes with living in France. Life is never rushed and great care is taken to ensure that each day is lived to the fullest.” Plus, there’s no shortage of things to keep you busy in France—cooking lessons, arts and crafts, outdoor clubs and volunteer opportunities, just to name a few.
Where to Move: Living in one of France’s larger cities (Paris, Lyon) is a costlier option, but the country is full of affordable regions. Popular destinations that combine attractive real estate deals with a high standard of living include the seafaring regions of Normandy and Brittany (check out beautiful seaside towns like St. Malo and Dieppe), the Dordogne with its romantic landscapes and the Occitanie (formerly known as the Languedoc). “Leaning heavily on Spanish influences, the university towns of Toulouse and Montpellier are full of the ‘fiesta’ attitude,” says Rampont. Aix-en-Provence is another popular expat spot in the south of France. To the east, Alsace and Lorraine captivate with their cozy villages and proximity to Germany. Some other fascinating areas include Bordeaux and Burgundy (which attract wine-lovers), the Loire Valley (which offers stunning castle-filled views) and the pretty beaches of the Mediterranean.
The Cost: A single person can live comfortably for as little as $1,959 a month—make that $2,083 for a couple, with some living on less than $2,000. The big savings comes from housing costs—in some areas, you can buy a two-bedroom, one-bathroom home for under $150,000. Healthcare is also affordable: After living in France for three months, expats are eligible for universal coverage, meaning you’ll pay $9 to see a doctor.
Why: “Sitting right at the heart of the Mediterranean, Malta blends the best of southern-European graciousness with one of the best qualities of life to be found in Europe,” says International Living correspondent Mary Charlebois. Look for high standards of service and infrastructure, a vast history (with historical and architectural treasures to show for it), a population where everyone speaks English, ideal weather with an average temperature of 72 degrees and endless sunshine. This island nation is tiny—one-tenth the size of Rhode Island—but there’s tons to do. One of the best reasons to live here is its location. It’s just 60 miles south of Italy and 176 miles east of Tunisia, with places like Greece, Turkey, Israel, Egypt, Morocco, Spain and France just a short ferry ride or flight away. Permanent residency is easy to obtain for 12 months at a time.
Where to Move: Malta is made up of three islands, including Malta (which is home to the capital city of Valletta), Gozo (where there are lots of bargains to be found) and Comino (which is virtually uninhabited).
The Cost: A couple can live well in Malta for $2,331 a month. Food prices are up to 25% less than in the U.S. and meals in cafés and restaurants cost less, too. Since these are small islands, a car really isn’t needed and public transportation is efficient and cheap with a monthly bus pass costing just $26. Housing is also affordable: A modern one-bedroom apartment, fully furnished, including utilities and Wi-Fi, can run as low as $460 per month. It will cost you a little more to live in one of the Maltese cities than in the countryside, and harbor or beachside living will cost a bit more, as well. Still, it’s a lot cheaper than being in the United States. And the best part, according to Charlebois? “You will be living the charming, easygoing Maltese way of life.”
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