Home About Spain The Basics How expensive is it to live abroad?
Last update on November 07, 2019
Written by Karen McCann

Karen McCann thinks about living costs and whether ‘life abroad’ is really more expensive.

I am often gobsmacked by the highly personal and/or utterly impossible questions my Spanish friends put to me. It’s perfectly normal for Sevillanos to ask, “what a nice apartment; how much do you pay for it?” or “have you gained weight?” or “who do you think is prettier, me or my daughter?” They expect an answer; evasions are considered rude.

Once, out of the blue, my hairdresser said, “you don’t have any children. Is it because you don’t want them or can’t have them?” This was a bit forward, even for a Spanish woman, but it did lead to a discussion more interesting than the comparative merits of mousse versus hair spray.

Expensive or fairly priced?

As a child, I was taught that it’s particularly bad manners to ask or answer questions about money. Lately, this has placed me in an awkward position on various occasions when friends, acquaintances, even total strangers who write to me on my blog or Facebook ask how much it costs to live abroad. Since the only figures I can cite with any accuracy are my own household expenses, I often return rather evasive answers to these enquiries and do my best to change the subject.

Luckily for me (and the enquiring minds around me) others are far more forthcoming in these matters. I was delighted to discover  a recent Wall Street Journal article called “The-Let’s-Sell-the-House-and-See-the-World Retirement” about Lynne and Tim Martin, who have taken to life on the road as “senior gypsies.”

The Martins cheerfully share with everyone who reads the WSJ the details of their income and monthly budget, including a breakdown of what they pay for lodging, a cleaning person, groceries, dining out, entertainment and transportation in various cities around the world.

Not surprisingly, the most expensive place to live was their original home in Southern California ($7,750 a month); once they sold that, they began travelling between cheaper places, such as Mexico ($3,450 a month) and pricier European cities (about $6,500 a month). Their overall annual living expenses are likely somewhere around $65,000 to $70,000 a year.

Lynne Martin has a blog called Home Free Retirement and a forthcoming book called Home Free, where you’ll be able to learn even more about their senior gypsy lifestyle.

Expat costs of living abroad

Don’t have the Martins’ income? Not to worry, you can live the expat lifestyle quite comfortably on far less. Despite my don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy, various friends – both working and retired – have volunteered enough information that I can calculate their income to be somewhere between $3,500 and $4,000 a month, or about $42,000 to $48,000 a year. This is still a substantial chunk of change, especially in these troubled economic times, but it shows you don’t have to win the Mega Millions lottery in order to think about moving overseas.

Still finding the price tag a bit out of reach? You’ll want to read how Wandering Earl has been “Living Abroad for Less than $1,000 a Month” since 1999. In this 2010 blog post, he wrote, “I’ve almost never, during the past 11 years, spent more than $1,000 USD in one single month of living overseas.

And I’m not always a super-frugal nomad! If there’s something I want to do, I’ll pay for it without worrying too much about the cost and rarely have I had to skip out on something because it was too expensive.”

Living abroad in Spain

I was recently giving a talk about my book, Dancing in the Fountain, to a group of retirees in Sausalito, California. Most groups are dying to talk about the Spanish lifestyle, food, wines, flamenco dancing, tapas bars, late-night parties, singing in streets and dancing in the fountain, but this one group was fixated on how much it cost to live in Europe.

I explained that’s a “how-high-is-up?” question that depends on factors such as where and how you want to live; yes, a luxury penthouse in London or Rome is astronomical, but if you chose sensibly, Europe can be quite affordable. However they “knew” it had to be terribly expensive, and nothing I said could convince them otherwise. 

At the end of my talk, one woman left grumbling, “I could never live abroad. It just plain costs too much.” Later, I looked up Sausalito and found the cost of living there is more than twice the national average; the median household income is more than $109,000 and the median cost of a home is more than $900,000. Moving out of Sausalito, whether to another part of California or to, say, southern Spain could cut their cost of living in half. But I’ll never convince those retirees of that.

Once again, my mother has been proved right; no good comes of answering questions about money. Not only is it none of their beeswax, nobody believes a word you say anyway. Luckily, whenever this subject comes up from now on, I can simply refer people to this blog and let it go at that.