Reporting from: Bangkok, Thailand Yesterday was a day of extremes. I had a fantastic lunch consisting of smoked duck and gruyere spring rolls, followed by a great spicy pasta with wine. My dinner was far more spartan: a $6 two-course feast of “Muslim Thai” food in a back alley in Bangkok. And I washed it down with a one-hour Thai massage for $9 before heading to bed. Friends and colleagues of mine are always interested in knowing just how expensive it is to live overseas. They hear the stories about living like a king for $500 a month and want to know if it’s true. The answer is a rather nebulous: “it depends”. Just like my day here in Bangkok yesterday, anything is possible. You can lead an international life with western-style amenities in most places in the world – if you want to pay for it. The question, “is living overseas cheaper?” is dependent entirely on your way of life. For me, living overseas is about escaping the USA. To some, it makes no sense at all, but as someone who thrives on living a truly free life, it makes perfect sense. The US government is hellbent on listening to every phone call, empowering the police to crack down on almost any offense, and sucking any economic motivation out of productive people. While we frequently talk about ways to get around those issues by creating your own cocoon of freedom, the ultimate freedom is packing your bags and leaving. That’s what an abused spouse should do, and it’s what I recommend anyone who values liberty plans to do in the future, as well. So in this regard, the motivation for living overseas isn’t entirely on cost. There’s a reason I don’t write breathless articles about how to live on such and so beach for $11.28 a day. It’s because I believe you’re smarter than that. You see the bigger picture that there are more freedoms and better business opportunities outside of a socialist nanny state that has turned into 1984. That said, I do have plenty of conversations with expats and would-be expats on a budget. Just yesterday, I spoke with a young kid fresh out of high school with dreams of taking on the world. He sees that his ability to make money in a free way just isn’t there in The Land of the Free anymore. But at a young age, he doesn’t have a lot of free cash to throw around. It is possible to live a lot of places for really cheap. My friend Shannon O’Donnell, who is speaking at my Passport to Freedom event, told me how she lived in Chiang Mai, Thailand in a fully furnished house with wifi, fueled up her motorbike, and ate meals out for $500 a month. (She’ll be talking about how to live in Southeast Asia – be it cheaply or lavishly – at the event.) It would be hard to do that here in big city Bangkok, but I do have an expat who does some contract work for me and lives in a $200 a month apartment further afield. Pair that with eating $2 street food meals and you could get by rather cheaply even in Bangkok. On the other hand, I spent Saturday night drinking $11 Jameson’s shots at an upscale bar not far from my house. In addition, I frequently pay as much for dinner as I would in the west in exchange for good wifi (3G here is throttled on the cheaper plans a tourist would use) and a nice place to sit. If you’re a young entrepreneur just getting started, or a college-age kid taking my advice to ditch college and learn life and business out in the world in a cheap country, you can get by a lot of places for $500 a month. Heck, some people do it in the United States and even Europe. Just be careful about taking too far the idea that to live overseas is to live dirt cheap.
The reality is, sheep intestines – or whatever else is considered a delicacy in some far-flung place – aren’t cheap where you live because they’re not popular and they have to be imported. The same applies overseas. If you can’t live without wine and cheese, Asia may not be the place for you; the stuff is expensive here, at least by French or American standards. However, fresh pineapple, guava, mango, and papaya are plentiful here. You can buy half of a large fruit cut-up and ready to eat for less than $0.50 on the street here. Chicken, which seems to be locally sourced in just about every civilized country on earth, is also cheap from street vendors who BBQ it all day long. There is no way to bypass the laws of economics just by changing your geography. If Rolex had to sell watches at half-price in Thailand, they wouldn’t sell them here. Stuff of international value isn’t cheaper anywhere in the world; if anything, it’s more expensive in the developing world because such a high price commands value from the nouveau riche who don’t trust locally produced goods in places like China, Vietnam, and Cambodia. While you can have a pretty good chicken thigh for $0.50 on the street, if you want a slice of pizza, it’s going to cost you $3. You can live in a place with no hot water for $100 a month, but if you want luxury carpets and drapes, don’t expect some great bargain. In fact, I was talking to my friend Josh from Viva Tropical the other day, and he told me that living in Costa Rica costs him more than it does in the United States. That’s not to say you couldn’t live cheaply in Costa Rica, but when you add in the $75 a month maid service and sending your laundry out for a fraction of the cost at home, you begin to add luxuries you might not in your home country. There are a lot of people telling you just how cheaply you can live out the rest of your days pinching every penny. They’ll regale you with tales of the $0.75 lunch they had yesterday and how they didn’t tip the waiter to save an extra nickel or two. As an entrepreneur, I have faith in my ability to earn money now and in the future – an “abundance mentality”. I don’t want you to move to Thailand, or Panama, or Europe, or anywhere else because you want to save $200 a month. To do so would be to lose sight of the forest for the trees. While I do enjoy the occasional $1-foot massage, I believe the benefits of living overseas are access to opportunities you wouldn’t have in your home country. The guy who does website work for me was able to start his business here because you could live a better life than he could at home for $600 or $700 a month (he finds the women more agreeable than in New York and Miami, too). However, as his business grows, he’ll get a nicer apartment closer to the city and begin spending his money the same way he would at home. The difference is that he has more freedom to run his business as he pleases here, without the constant barrage of government paperwork and nitpicking. And since Southeast Asia is teeming with opportunities for investment, he just might find someplace to invest his money in the years to come. That’s the kind of thing you wouldn’t be able to fully understand sitting in an apartment in South Beach. It’s why I recommend making living overseas more about living a better, freer, richer life, rather than how to stretch that $73,000 you have in the bank into fifty years of living on the cheap.