10 Years of Blog Archive

Friday, March 06, 2015

The Minimalist Guide to Living Well Abroad for Less

 If we can do it so can you. When we first posted our family’s cost of living, some of our readers couldn’t believe it. Why? For the reason that we’re five people living on (about) $1000 a month in Cuenca Ecuador, and living comfortably.

In this guide we’ll show you what it takes to go local no matter where you live abroad. It does take a certain type of person to “let go of the money-oriented lifestyle” and that’s because most people work so hard all their life and when it’s time to retire they have the “I deserve to have the best money can buy” attitude. And there’s nothing wrong with that except for the fact that most pensions don’t really go that far in the U.S.  

Isn't that why many retired folks move abroad? Because its (supposedly) cheaper?  However, the way things are shaping up with the move abroad school of thought, is that westerners are mostly piling into the same little areas and causing unusual demand based skyrocketing price inflation.  Which is counterintuitive to the whole point of moving abroad in the first place.

Soooo, if you’re new to our websites, you will find that we have been living well and frugally ever since we got here.  Unusual demand based skyrocketing price inflation has not affected us at all.  Saying that a particular destination is “priced higher, but still cheaper” doesn’t help someone on a social security budget, because those that think it’s ‘still cheaper’ are comparing apples to oranges.

Frugality does not mean living in squalor or living without something; and it’s not that you can’t have the best; however, “the best” can mean different things to different people and so it can be very subjective.  To one person “the best” might be to live in a cabin in some peaceful woods somewhere in the mountains, while “the best” to another might mean living in a 3000 square foot luxury home on the ocean.

It’s all about how one decides to approach life. If a person has the attitude that a home is “where the heart is” then frugality living might very well be for you. If you’re the live in luxury type the minimalist guide will be of no use to you as far as any practical “put to use” purpose, however it might be entertaining to read just the same.

 How Our Family of Five Adults Lives Well on $1000 Abroad?

NO CAR: We live without a car, which has been a blessing ever since we got here. Not having to worry about car upkeep, insurance, registration costs, licensing, and vehicle taxes can save you several hundred dollars a month!  We do NOT miss driving. In fact we think we live better not putting up with the burden of car ownership.

There are hundreds of cities abroad to choose from that are considered walking cities; Cuenca Ecuador is one of them and that is where we happen to live. If we feel that we must be tied down with a car then it simply means we have not learned the art of “going without” even though there are suitable replacements, such as walking, buses and taxi service.

If frugal is what you are looking for then being car-less is a huge money-saver.

It’s all about how one decides to approach being without a car.  Sometimes all we need to do is look at all the advantages of something rather than the disadvantages.

- Think of all the money you can save every month by not putting your dollars into car ownership and maintenance.
- Think of how much healthier you will be walking to most places rather than sitting in a car.
- Think about the big weight from your shoulders of not having to drive in a foreign country.
- And when you decide to move somewhere else you can just do it without worrying about selling a vehicle.

Our Car Expense: $00.00

                  (No) Medical/Health Insurance

We have no need for medical/health insurance. Going without medical insurance is not for everyone. However, Frank and I chose early on, after having some health problems of our own in our 30’s that we would rather take good care of our health rather than risk going to doctors and being subjected to medications that do much harm to the body than actual good. 

The last time I went “to the doctor” was 27 years ago, giving birth to my second son. I had my youngest son at home. The last time Frank “went to the doctor” was 28 years ago when he got bit by a black widow spider and had to have an IV because he was going into anaphylactic shock.

For the past 25 years we have not eaten anything canned, boxed, prepared, or frozen. We are not big meat eaters, opting only to eat meat (chicken, turkey, fish) two or three times a month; we eat ground meat maybe twice a year. We cleanse, juice, sprout, organic garden, and eat all whole foods that we prepare ourselves at home. We buy whole foods from farmers whenever we can.  We rarely get sick and when we do it is for a unfamiliar causative reason, like the mold we found hiding in the back of our kitchen cupboards.

Frank and I still go out to lunch once in a while but almost every restaurant we go to is vegetarian and healthful. We bring our own avocados, garlic, olive oil, and cayenne and other things that help us to enjoy our meal and to make them more satisfying and healthy. Sometimes we splurge and have pizza but this is very rarely, maybe once a month. When you are physically healthy, splurging once in a while doesn’t cause any problems; it’s when you do it every day that the toxemia problems develop!

We grind all of our own flour for baking breads and pasta dishes. We basically live the Mediterranean diet but we exchange the white flour products (pasta and bread) for whole wheat flour.
And finally, we do not take any medications or vitamins of any kind. We eat international foods that we cook at home and live a healthy, natural lifestyle. We have been living this healthy eating lifestyle for so many years that it is not difficult to do; it is our way of life. Anyone can escape being dependent on outside medical by taking charge of their (own) health!

If we ever have an emergency we’ll figure on paying out of pocket, and living abroad does allow for not worrying about those costs, as long as we stay away from the unusual demand based skyrocketing inflation areas.  Our health and well being belongs to us; we shouldn’t allow other people to manage our body or well being. No one (really) cares about your health and well being more than you, so take responsibility before it’s too late.

Our Medical/Health Insurance Cost: $00.00


For most people rent will be the biggest monthly expense when living abroad.  Our rent is only $250 a month, but because we’re five people, our food bill happens to be the highest expense, which we’ll talk about in a moment.

If we want to keep monthly budget down to $1000 dollars it will take a bit of due diligence. Knowing the basic language of the country you’re moving to helps a lot when trying to get the best prices. If you’re moving somewhere abroad that has been relentlessly promoted and there are already a bunch of tourists going there, it will be much more difficult trying to get a good rental price.

Being frugal means procuring everything you need but not going overboard. A couple should not need more than a one or two bedroom house or apartment. Living well is not spending more for more space but spending less for the space a couple actually needs!

Frugality works great in a Latin culture when you live like them, but the minute you step outside that line with demands, pickiness, and high standards of living you will get raked over the coals. So then how much you want to spend depends on your attitude and how you carry yourself in the foreign country you are moving abroad to.

We think that if you want to stay under the thousand dollar mark, you’ll want to keep your rent between $200 and $400, which is VERY doable in many Latin American countries. The minute your rent goes over $400 you’re spending money that you don’t really have to, if you instead bought property.  Here's what we mean: $500 X 12 Month is $6000 a year and in 8 to 12 years you could have bought a property or had a home built for that in most Latin countries.  Of course things change if you go to a heavily promoted and touristy area.

Our Monthly Rent: $250

       Utilities – Electricity, Water, and Gas 

We are five people and spend around $90 to $120 on electricity and water in Ecuador.  Keep in mind that, this figure is not frugal.  The locals only spend about 25% of that, and they are very minimalist with their use of services.  So if you are one or two people and you are moving to Ecuador, we think $30 a month for electric and water and that’s being generous. The $30 dollar difference in the bill is in the winter we use two electric heaters a lot more.

Our Utility Costs: $90 to $120

                        Food Budget

Shopping actually becomes an art once you realize you can buy the same thing somewhere else for substantially less. Bargaining in Ecuador is how you’re going to get great deals and save on your monthly shopping bill. Here in Cuenca we find that when things are in season you can usually get great deals right at the regular grocery store.   

 Is Mercado Shopping Really Cheaper?

Contrary to popular belief, going to the Mercado and negotiating will not always give you the best deal. Lately, since around the beginning of 2015 we've noticed a lot more gringo gouging at the Mercados; when prices on produce go up faster than at the regular stores, something is amiss.  We now do the bulk of our produce shopping at Coral, always buying what's in season.

Mercado shopping is not for everyone, and you will surely get gringoed if you do not know how to bargain down the price to what the locals pay; so again, knowing what you’re supposed to be paying in the first place by knowing what the ‘in season’ price, not the ‘out of season’ price is for an item, and knowing basic Spanish is a plus to saving money in a Latin country.


Imported foods cost more in Ecuador than in the U.S. That means many of the brands you know and love will cost a lot. You may have to learn to go with the substitute peanut butter, or salad dressing rather than pay double, otherwise your food bill is going to get out of line.

The main reason our food bill is only $400 a month is because we cook most things ourselves and we do not buy packaged and prepared foods which always cost a great deal more!  We are fortunate as we do not have the need to buy cigarettes, alcohol or pet foods, which all cost substantially more in Ecuador than in north America.

Our Food Expense: $400 and this includes our luxury items such as extra virgin olive oil, Parmesan cheese, and organic coffee.  Oh, yes, Angie still likes her coffee ;-) While Frank enjoys cocoa.

                Cell Phone, Land line &Vonage

Cell phone: $10  calling on your cell is more expensive here than in the states. The way to keep the fees low is to text when you can.
Land line: $3 when making calls within Ecuador using the land line is much cheaper than using your cell phone.
Vonage: $39

Our Phone Costs: $52


You can spend anywhere from $32 dollars to $80 for high speed Internet. When we first moved here we had the fastest speed that ETAPA put out, but we were having so many issues where it would cut out all the time and since it was not working that great, we downgraded our service to the next level down, and found it to be exactly the same with no difference in speed.

Our Internet Service: $52


We mostly walk or take the bus. Buses in Ecuador, at the time of this writing are only $0.25 cents.  We take a taxi maybe twice a month at $2.50 each trip.

We know of some foreigners that lived out in the country of Cuenca where there are no buses so they were taking taxis everywhere and it was costing them about $250 a month. You will not be able to stay under $1000 if you only take taxis. They may be cheap in Ecuador but if taken all the time the cost adds up. Taxis in other Latin countries or larger cities may cost more by the way.

Our Transportation Costs: $50 to $60


Our monthly entertainment may consist of eating out four to five times a month.  How we keep that bill down, is by going out for the less expensive ‘almuerzo’ or lunch.  We’re usually but not always in a ‘local’ restaurant, not a touristy foreigner restaurant.  The price difference can be substantial.  Remember, our enjoyment comes from ‘just being out' since we make the best food at home! 

Many of the symphonies and other cultural activities are free in Cuenca; and Cuenca has something going on downtown almost every month, and so there is usually free entertainment to enjoy.

We also enjoy entertaining ourselves with walks along the picturesque rivers or looking for bargains on foods that we use for cooking, or visiting with friends, and let’s not forget reading and watching movies at home, all of which are free things to do.  When we eat out it usually costs anywhere between $5 to $12 dollars each time for the both of us. Consequently, spending a $100 a month for Frank and I is actually difficult to do so this figure is very generous.

Our Entertainment Costs $100

Our Miscellaneous Expense (allotment) $30

Total monthly expenditures for our family is: $1060

This is our family’s minimalist guide on living well, but we think two people could cut the grocery bill in half and easily cut the utilities in half, spending less than $1000 a month in Cuenca Ecuador. For more about being frugal and saving money, see our DIY projects and some of the ways that have helped us to live well for less, click here!

We're an Expat Family of Five Living Frugal, Healthy and Happy in Cuenca Ecuador! Enjoy our Discover Cuenca Ecuador blog!

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