People thinking of moving to El Salvador often ask expats here, “What does it cost to live there?” Just like anywhere else in the world, it depends on many factors like lifestyle, family size, and needs. Lifestyle is the biggest defining factor, and if you not expecting to change it, expect to pay more. I like how What’s up El Salvador puts it:
You can also show up expecting the moon for fifty cents, and find your expenses are close to what you left behind, and be miserable. How? Don’t really move.
Exactly. Transport your lifestyle with all its trimmings, and that’s exactly what you’ll get: an American life, inside of another country, with a hefty price tag. Why not just move to Cancun!
El Salvador is of course, much cheaper to live in than Western countries, and still cheaper than the country my husband and I love to hate – Costa Riiica ( gotta be rich/rica to live there now). But buyer beware, some things cost less, and some cost more.
What’s Cheaper? We can start the list with tropical Fruits and Vegetables.
Sit down before reading this. The papaya on the right set me back a whole $2 last week.
ALL of the vegetables in the picture below cost me $7 on June 28, 2012.
I bought them off the veggie truck, so if I’d have gone to the market, would have been even cheaper. Nice huh? What would this be back home, pushing $20? The only ‘expensive’ fruits and vegetables I run into are apples, and potatoes aren’t too cheap. Cabbage is gigantic here compared to the states, and some of the carrots and cucumbers have been very large recently, too. El Salvador is great for vegetarians and health nuts!
Oranges (7) .50
Plantains (3) .50
Cucumbers (30 .50
Chayote (giant) .35
Tomatoes (16) 1.00
Onions (8) 1.00
Potato (1+ lb) 1.00
Avocado (2) 1.00
– “What else is Barato (a bargain)?,” you might ask. –
Cheap or lower-end type products, like ones you can find in the U.S., can be found for even better prices here. For instance, these “ginas,” or plastic flip-flops, cost me $2 at the Aguilares market the other day, and nearly two years ago a pair identical to them, but in black, cost me $2.5o in Chalatenango. Geez, I was ripped off of a whole .50 back then. Other items I can think of,: I saw tweezers in the store for 50 cents recently, and Super Glue – it’s always the same brand – chimera – is only .25 cents a tube. You get what you pay for. I’ve tried to get more than one use out of a glue tube, but once I open and squeeze it, no matter how well I cover or seal it the glue dries out. Don’t kill yourself to save a quarter, just buy a new one.
Housing. You’ll find housing costs anywhere from 1/4 to 1/2 what you might pay back home, which makes sense since your salary will probably one fourth what you’d make, too. There are probably 5 or 6 different areas that gring@s like to live in, in or around San Salvador, and outside of the city are pockets in the country that people consider safe and comfortable to live in. Our house in Los Planes, with 2 small BR on one floor and an ‘open loft’ area on 2nd floor, and 2 baths – one with hot water, one without, on a big lot, was only $350. It had some paint and a few shabby issues, but who cares? We live OUT-side here, right? That same house and lot in Escalon might have been $1000 or more. I’ve heard of pp renting a very small place for $150 in Antiguo Cuscatlan, and then you go back up in price again in Santa Elena – very chi-chi. It’s cheaper to live near the beach than the city, but you won’t get much work out there.
Local Restaurants and Stands. Operative word = local. There are numerous local restaurant and “champas” (stands) where you can buy pupusas, sandwiches, tacos, etc. After you give your stomach a few months to get used to El Salvador, you can be eating off local food stands everywhere. Pupusas, on the ‘high’ end are .60 apiece, or .75 for the double-size at Boomwallos in Los Planes de Renderos, and four is a decent adult’s meal. Plus, the further into the country you get the cheaper things are. Pasteles – which are deep fried corn-meal pockets, stuffed with chicken and potatoes are yum. They’re either four for a dollar or eight, depending on if I’m in the “city” or the “country”. Hmm. did.I hear you say you might want Wendy’s, Chicken Wings, Indian, Thai, or something else? Ok, no problem, we can do that. Just pull out the American dollars from your American wallet and pay the American price. Same exact price you’d pay there as here. Pollo Campero is included in that list, though they originated in Guatemala.
Fruit Juices, Shakes, and Hot beverages. A quart-size bag of fresh-squeezed orange juice was $1 the last time we had it in downtown Chalatenango, “Frescos” ( fresh drinks) made of fruits like tamarind or hibiscus or ‘horchata’ (an orgeat one) are often 25 cents apiece, and large shakes, called “Liquados,” made with fresh fruits are a dollar, or a dollar fifty if you choose a pricier fruit (like strawberry). The famous “atole de elote,” a sweet, hot corn-based drink can be found for 60 cents a cup or less. Drinks “in a bag” are also cheaper, like soda or water.
Market versus Supermarket. If you can go to a market that’s decent and safe (like one in Merliot for instance) you can find fruits, vegetables, meats, and cheap household products. Vegetables at the supermarket are often twice the market price.
Food and other products made here. The more Salvadoran you become, the fatter your wallet will be. Stick with locally made items, especially at the supermarket. Yes, there are numerous items Americans are accustomed to that are not locally made. You can find staples for basic recipes everywhere, and the more Salvadoran you eat, the easier it will be for you. Salvadoran foods do not contain Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Middle Eastern, or Indian ingredients that we see stocked on shelves in our country everywhere. You will find soy sauce at almost all stores, but oyster sauce and fish sauce, now you’re pushing it. A gringa new to El Salvador was just mentioning the other day how hard American or imported food products are to find, and how expensive they are. ( It seems like we all go through a ‘familiar foods longing’ when we first arrive here). Things like Classico spaghetti sauce, or specialty or exotic foods (say Thai curry) will cost more, and even boxed American cereals made in Latin America cost about the same as in the U.S. But I can’t help myself – I give in to the occasional splurge, like manchego cheese or those wonderful calamata olives (yum yum). One thing we never found here, which is funny because you’re up to your ears in oatmeal here, is “Cream of Wheat.” My husband calls it “spider eggs” and grew to love it back in the U.S. We had people send it here to us.
Movies. I have never been here once, but heard it’s just a few bucks to go. But speaking of…
Pirated DVDs and CDs: $1 apiece. Sometimes only fifty cents. I know, it’s “pirating,” but heck, who’s gonna pay $15 for a CD when they don’t even make that a day? I feel it’s totally justified, sorry if you don’t like it, let the Westerners pay full price.
– What Costs More? –
The biggest one is gasoline. It costs about 20% more to fill up your tank in El Salvador than in the U.S. (based on an average nationwide prices I looked at).
Cars - They cost more here, just like other imports – no Nissan or Toyota factories here. Sending a car here yourself also includes an import/duty fee you must pay, and depends on how new it is, currently ranging anywhere from several hundred to a couple thousand dollars. NOTE: Cars older than eight years cannot be brought into the country. I recommend our make of car if you buy one here: Toyota Corolla. There are tons of them here, often in gray for some reason, and they are great because they are amazing on gas mileage, and cops seem to pull them over less at road-stops. It’s a nondescript vehicle, and the ones they usually pull over are big SUVS and chitty-chitty bang bangs.
Road stops in El Salvador, btw are another Salvadoran oddity to get used to – cops can and will pull you over at stops all over the country. So don’t drive drunk and do NOT ever carry an unregistered pistol (Here is a great article on gun registration at Life in the Armpit). You need a license after being here more than three months, but if you’re nice to the cop, s/he will often let you go. I’ve been stopped on 3 separate occasions and played ‘dumb gringa’ each time, always off with a warning.
Another “hit” is furniture and electronics. That’s likely due to import costs, and laws against cutting trees (we’re 20 years post-deforestation here). You can save on furniture by buying the “Salvy” style country-looking wooden dressers and beds and things. Those items are often sold on the side of the road, or near the “mercado central” (downtown San Salvador) so if you have a car, you’ll probably see them, or go with someone downtown and walk around.
Electronics – they don’t make much here from what I know. Usually more. Go to the market and look for second hand.
Appliances – ha ha ha. Dinky refrigerators for not so small prices. The $600 low-cost brand in Home Depot is no where to be found here. And the insult gets better when you read the label: made in Costa Rica. Don’t they make enough money off of tourism? Where is OUR Salvadoran appliance factory!!!!!
“American brand” or American style things – like American clothing. Anything that is imported or designed in such a way to look exactly like something you’d buy in American (which is really made in China anyway) costs more. You can take a walk through malls and mini-malls in Santa Elena (like near the embassy) and Colonia Escalon and spend to your heart’s content on overpriced furniture and home goods just as you would at a Crate and Barrel or more “chi-chi” kind of place in the U.S. But if you’re coming to live here or stay for awhile, and have to stick to a budget, you’ll have to let some things go. “Eddie,” a recently returned Salvadoran after living in the states for eight years, and back in our country ‘hood, is attached to “Michael Jordan” brand shoes and mentioned he has 15 pairs (he’s caught the gringo consumer-bug I’d say). He said he went looking for the “Jordan” store in the mall. I had to hold back a laugh and keep a straight face. There ain’t no Jordan store here, babe!
An alternative to buying American clothing here: second hand clothing stores, selling American discards. For instance, variedades Genesis is one, and almost every major urban area or large pueblo will have a used American clothing store. The only issue I’ve seen is they tend to have a lot of XL and XXL sizes, especially mens. Guys here would swim in those shirts!
Textiles. What UP with the expensive towels and sheets that are also such poor quality? And often made in El Salvador – embarrassing. Is cotton not grown here much? Tip: buy them at the 2nd hand store.
Tools & Hardware. More items we’re stuck importing from other places, unless its simple tools like hammer or wrench. They usually cost the same or more than in the United States. Don’t even both walking into EPA if you live on a Salvadoran sueldo (salary). It’s more expensive than Home Depot. This store chain, from Venezuela is definitely not allied with the socialist ideals from back home. So, most tools are same or more. Unless you’re buying a ‘corvo’ – Salvadoran word for machete. Those can cost as little as $5. They often sell the blades separate at the market for pp who like to make their own wooden handles, and corvos have these really cool leather holders, often with fringe, which you strap to your belt so you can be a bad *ss walking down the street like that. I’ve always wanted to get a corvo with a white leather case, so I can strut down main street in el campo with matching white hat and boots.
Tool alternative: used tools at the market. Same with small appliances.
PHONES. I almost forgot, how could I? Our dear friends at Tigo, who provide us with our beloved cable and internet, are also a cell phone provider in El Salvador. The rates here are OUT-rageous. Phone-to-phone calls, if you don’t have a “favorite” number set up are 20 cents a minute, and that’s calling a client on Tigo. That said, you can save a TON by setting up your favorite number, and paying a regular charge for it. Also, one money-saver here are “blackberry” plans, which if you are a texter (I’m not), is great. Talk away with your thumbs, it’s pretty cheap. In fact, that’s what most pp in El Salvador do with their phones – text messaging. The other favorite thing they do with their phones is listen to music.
What does it cost YOU to live there? – someone might ask
When we were renting a house for $350 a month, our entire nut was around $1100 to live on, for two adults, living a very pared down lifestyle. A thousand on a good month, $1300 on a month with, say a car repair or bigger non-monthly expense. We have specific goals while here, and have to preserve savings for our return to the U.S., so our cost of living is very much outside of the American “norm.” We live frugally, so keep that in mind for your own planning. This $1100 budget includes rent, food, light, water bill, cable/internet bill, groceries, cheap snacks, gas for the car, and minor repairs. We did not carry health or car insurance. (neither is obligatory here, but car insurance may be soon). Neither of us has had a cell phone plan since coming here. No “weekend trips” here & there – but we do visit friends and family and go on day trips. No eating at restaurants like Tony Roma’s except a blue moon with friends from work, avoiding fast foods (we do treat ourselves and mother-in-law once a month or so to Pollo Campero. Heck, she deserves it for all she does). No Starbucks or fancy cafes. We do allow ourselves the luxury of store-bought beer and wine 4+ nights a week or drinking a few at a local ‘chalet’ for .75 – 1.00 a piece. Our internet/cable bill of $57 is a luxury for El Salvador, but I consider internet here a necessity and would never give it up.
You get the idea. No splurging. It’s about living a different type of life. But don’t get me wrong – we’re not “suffering” from frugality. We are living what’s important.
Living in El Salvador, without many luxuries allows us to enjoy the finer things in life, like the constant sunshine and warm weather we won’t have outside of El Salvador. Swimming in the river near our house instead of a weekend trip with hotel stays and restaurants. Eating pupusas with my in-laws and enjoying that time with them, instead of going to a steakhouse; they’re not getting any younger, and we won’t be in El Salvador forever. Playing with our nieces and nephews. Getting to know our neighbors in Los Planes, unlike back home, where so many people don’t get to know their neighbors, because everyone is working all the time (not that that’s a bad thing, it’s just different).
I recommend this pared-down lifestyle to anyone living anywhere in the world, not just people thinking of moving to El Salvador or becoming an expat. All the money in the world can’t buy you sunshine, or a warm breeze, or the thrill of a tremendous thunderstorm with water gushing buckets off the roof. ALL THOSE THINGS ARE FREE.