I had started considering a move to Mexico long before the November 2016 election forced my hand. When I looked around where I lived in Alaska and any other place I wanted to live, I found one thing over and over again—life was expensive. It was expensive to such a degree that if I were to move anywhere I would enjoy being, I wouldn’t be able to enjoy it much at all because I would work all the time just to make ends meet. I don’t know about you, but that’s not a good life to me.
I needed somewhere I could have a better quality of life at a more affordable price, and as much as I searched I couldn’t find my slice of paradise by the sea in the United States. So Porkchop and I moved South. South of the Border, to be precise. Puerto Vallarta in the state of Jalisco in Mexico welcomed us with open arms and now three months in I’m settling into the place, making friends, and enjoying the quiet as the tourist season dies down for the summer.
A lot of people ask me how expensive it is to live here. I’d say as a general ball park average it is easily half as expensive as my last home in Anchorage without even trying to stick to a budget. With any effort at all, it could be considerably less.
A post on Facebook got me thinking about the details of all of that and how my budget and hers compared. She also lives in a beach town, but on the East coast in Progreso. She is also single, but has a baby instead of a dog. We both live in studio apartments, but hers is half the cost of mine. Somehow we still come out at the same $800 per month budget as a comfortable figure at which to live. We both agreed, as well, that a couple could easily live for approximately the same budget (Still under $1,000 per month) since the biggest chunk goes to rent and that wouldn’t increase. It’s also important to note that neither of us have listed health insurance for ourselves in our budgets and for similar reasons—we live below our means and pay out of pocket for the affordable care here as need arises. That being said, we admit the need to look into insurance for emergencies and are doing so.
Here’s my break down lately, and a few notes to help you figure out how things might fit into your own lifestyle and situation.
My rent is $400 per month for a small but new studio apartment directly fronting Banderas Bay with no one below me or crowding me from the sides. It is a simply appointed situation that includes basic furnishings and all utilities, including unlimited internet and cable. (The latter of which I don’t use as a TV wasn’t included and I don’t care to buy one.) I was specifically attracted to this place because it was sparsely furnished—most units are unfurnished or OVERLY furnished and generally not to my taste. I lucked out by finding this place on Craigslist, but it is very difficult to find good deals online. Anyone with the ability to post on Craigslist or other known English language site is instantly able to command a higher price because their listing reaches a wider audience, and the ones that don’t jack the price up get snapped up quickly. Best bet to pre-lease an affordable place is to track down local expat groups for the area and make friends. Puerto Vallarta: Everything You Want or Need to Know was my gateway to life in Vallarta, but similar groups seem to exist throughout Mexico with varying amounts of activity. You might find people “on the ground” willing to keep their eyes peeled for you, otherwise the best bet is an Air BNB or temp situation while you explore for yourself and call the numbers posted on the sides of promising buildings.
Admittedly, my place is small at about 200sf but I am a single girl and a minimalist so I’m quite comfortable in a studio about the size of a hotel room. There is just enough room to pull out an air mattress for a friend as I discovered this past week, but obviously, it’s tight quarters for more than one. My apartment is seven stories down a cliff to the water’s edge, and the stairs are my workout taking the dog for a walk each day! I have happily accepted these compromises for the view.
A few things:
- The best rates for 6 month or, more often, 12-month leases. Short term leases tend to shoot up exponentially because they target the tourist market and you’re back into the $1000+ USD per month range.
- If living cheap is important to you, don’t expect all the bells and whistles. In fact, many people find a place they like at a price they like and expect to go in and paint and do repairs before moving in.
- The best prices will be unfurnished and without utilities. To me, it wasn’t worth dealing with these things so I am happy to pay a little more to only pay one bill per month.
- In Puerto Vallarta proper there are many things that can make rents low, so if you find an exceptionally good deal be sure to check around as to why. Street noise, loud music, barking dogs, fireworks and other noise issues are VERY common, but also keep in mind how a place might be in both the hot dry part of the year and the rainy muggy part of the year—not only the long pleasant winter months. Open air living is common, and so are bugs! Ceiling fans and air conditioners are important commodities that you will likely want to add if they are not present.
- Many places in the older and more picturesque parts of Vallarta have a LOT of hills and/or stairs. Depending of the severity of these factors, it can send the rent prices plummeting, but they often have the best views and are worth it if you’re up for the daily hike.
- How low can they go? I have seen studios the size of mine reportedly for rent for as low as $50 per month with no furnishings, utilities, or amenities included. I have also seen three bedroom houses for a couple of hundred dollars occasionally with the same caveats.
Because I live South of Puerto Vallarta between the small towns of Mismaloya and Boca de Tomatlan, I pay eight pesos each way to and from Old Town PV. I generally stick around that area and can take care of most of my weekly business there and so 50 pesos (less than $3) per week is a safe estimate for me. Buses in Puerto Vallarta are plentiful, affordable, and quite easy to get the hang of quickly but they can be in poor repair and are sometimes quite an adventure. Taxis, if needed, are another option and also generally plentiful and affordable. When I have an extra large grocery run or miss the last 11:00pm bus to Boca it will cost me up to 350 pesos to get back to my house, which is about $19 at current exchange rates and still not bad for a 30 minute plus cab ride.
Honestly, this is the budget area I have tracked the least. My grocery estimate is about 500 pesos per week on average. (About $27.) This includes generally lots of fresh fruits and veggies, rice, tortillas, sweetened condensed milk and coffee, beans, chicken, cheese, salsa, eggs, etc. In other words, mostly whole foods which makes a big difference and drops the budget significantly. I love cooking and working with Mexican ingredients so this is no worry at all and often I feel I eat as well at home as when I go out.
Porkchop the Dog generally eats some dog-friendly variation of my own food since local brands of dog food seem to be very poor quality and the import stuff is expensive, and inconvenient. I think he is happy with this arrangement and seems exceptionally healthy lately. The food he used to eat is available here from Costco but because of my small space, bus transport, and many stairs, getting a 40lb bag of food around is not feasible, never mind the fact that it would become a major chunk of my grocery budget. He mostly gets a bit of rice and veggies before I add seasoning, plus a portion of whatever meat I have (he likes the parts I don’t like when I buy a whole chicken, for example,) and an egg. He’s only about 30lbs so not a huge eater but he seems to enjoy the variety and I think it’s probably better for him than eating the same dried up crunchy stuff every day anyway. It is also possible to make connections with a butcher shop or fish market for lots of good bits and pieces for a raw diet for a few pesos, but so far I have found it easier just to feed him what I eat. (One of those things where I could easily save more money with a little effort.)
I plan to track the grocery expenses more carefully in June and will update then, so stay tuned!
Obviously, based on the above my necessities are quite manageable at a modest $520 per month including housing, transportation, and groceries. If you’re going to have budget problems, you’ll have them on your entertainment spending. There are just so many things to do and each of them, though quite affordable, seems to add up quickly and the sky is the limit. There are ways to go out and enjoy things on a budget, however. A great meal from a street vendor will have you full to bursting for less than $3, and there is literally a happy hour somewhere in town going most any hour of the day. In fact, one of my favorite swanky places in town for a treat is Joe Jack’s Fish Shack right near my bus stop on Basilio Badillo and I’ll drop about $15 usd with tip for the most delicious serving of poke and fried wontons you’ve ever had and two-for-one mojitos to wash it down with. (Joe Jack’s also has delicious all you can eat fish and chips for under $12 on Fridays, and they’re a great example of how it is possible to eat at even the spendier places on a budget if you know where to look. More on that later!)
Aside from this potential for endless entertainment, my monthly bills in this category are at $15 for Netflix and Hulu and $80 for my AT&T phone with unlimited data and calls. (High because it also includes the payment for the phone itself.)
So, in case you weren’t keeping tabs, that’s $615 per month in regular expenses with $185 left over for entertainment to keep me on this modest budget of $800 USD per month.
While Puerto Vallarta is far from the cheapest city in Mexico, it suited my needs as an affordable coastal community with an international airport and enough English-speaking infrastructure to get me started while I learn Spanish.
It is also important to remember that you could always go cheaper if you must, as many locals do, but as I moved here in search of a better quality of life I was looking for a sweet spot between budget and lifestyle and I think I’ve found it. This is not bad for my own little place on the water with two sandy beaches within walking distance and a beautiful and vibrant cultural center a short bus ride down the road.