A penthouse apartment, weekly housekeeper, fresh flowers, regular massages, and spa treatments. Sounds like an episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous?
Hardly. That’s a thumbnail description of what our life in Cuenca, Ecuador, was like for over 10 years. On a social security budget.
Impossible, you say? Nope, it’s all true, and we’re going to “open the books” and share the details of our monthly budget.
First, though, we want to tell you the backstory of how we ended up in a country we knew little about and a city we weren’t even sure how to pronounce.
In 2008 the Great Recession wiped us out financially — careers gone and the value of our home, investments, and savings plummeted. We decided our best option was to move abroad to someplace we could live with the money we had managed to hang on to.
Cuenca almost magically popped up on an internet search and the description seemed to fit everything we were hoping to find — low cost of living, temperate weather, affordable healthcare, and so much more.
A quick scouting trip exceeded our expectations and in May 2010 we stepped off the plane to start life in a new country. Against all odds, an event that almost destroyed us instead opened the door to a life beyond our wildest dreams.
Almost overnight those financial nightmares became a thing of the past. Although we started traveling full-time almost two years ago, we maintain our permanent residency and health insurance in Ecuador and recently returned to Cuenca for a lengthy visit.
Let us describe to you a bit more about what our life in Ecuador looked like and give you some details of what it cost.
We didn’t have our hearts set on a penthouse apartment. Truth is our furnishings we had naively shipped without first securing an apartment were en route from the U.S. We were desperately trying to find anything we liked that could hold all our stuff.
A “Se Arrienda” (For Rent) sign in a window saved the day. We immediately fell in love with the place, and the landlord miraculously agreed to the rent we said we could pay.
We moved into a four-bedroom, four-and-a-half-bath, two-story unit of approximately 3,000 square feet. The rent started at $600 per month and gradually increased to $700 over the years.
Cuenca has a year-round springlike climate so there is no need for heating or AC. Our combined monthly bills for electricity, water, gas, and sewer were about $65. Fiber optic internet of 30Mbps is $30.
Food prices in Cuenca for locally grown or produced items are quite reasonable. Because of taxes, imported goods are more expensive.
Supermaxi is the main grocery chain in the country. When we first arrived, the selection was, to be kind, minimal. Need mustard? Your choice was limited to the size, not the brand. Also, you never knew from one visit to the next what you would find on the shelves.
Now the options are staggering — microgreens, wasabi, tomahawk steaks. Even Jif peanut butter (Edd’s favorite).
The runaway inflation in the U.S. and Europe doesn’t seem to have found its way south of the equator. We’ve noticed small increases in price, but if a head of broccoli is now 80 cents instead of 75, who’s complaining?
Our weekly grocery bill, including alcohol, averaged $125.
What about cell phone charges? Honestly, we’ve never bothered setting up a plan. We don’t need Google maps to get around because it’s a cinch to flag a taxi ($1.50–$3) and whatever news happens while we’re out and about will still be there when we look at the computer later.
When we ran out of data, we went to the pharmacy up the street and added $10 to our SIM card. Movistar and Claro, the two main companies, have monthly plans starting at less than $13 per month.
As indicated in the opening description, we were blessed to enjoy a lifestyle in Cuenca that was anything but frugal.
Having a weekly housekeeper was a wonderful luxury that would have never been possible in the U.S. She came for half a day each Thursday and we paid her $20 per week.
Ecuador is a major exporter of flowers, especially roses. Greenhouses dot the countryside outside of town. When fresh-cut roses are only $5 for two dozen, we regularly had arrangements around the house.
Health and wellness is a major focus of our daily life. Cynthia was lucky to have a yoga studio right in the lobby of our building. Unlimited classes cost $40 per month. We also walked to a nearby gym where monthly membership was $30 each.
We treated ourselves to a monthly massage and occasional spa treatments as well. A 90-minute massage with our excellent American therapist was $45 and facials at a spa in the neighborhood cost $30.
Although we both enjoy cooking our favorite dishes, we also ate out a few times each week. Almuerzos, a fixed menu lunch with fresh juice, soup, entree, and dessert, are served all over town at small eateries and cost from $2.75 to $3.50.
The food scene has exploded in Cuenca in recent years. We don’t go out for dinner as much as we used to, but our bill for a meal including wine and tip generally ran around $35.
As members of Ecuador’s national health care system, we have 100 percent coverage with a $0 deductible and no restrictions for age or pre-existing conditions. Not bad, huh?
That’s not even the best part. Our monthly premium for this fantastic program is less than $45 each. Wait times for specialists can be lengthy, so we pay out of pocket to see our ophthalmologist, dermatologist, and dentist. Office visits cost $40–50 and appointments are often same-day (we call our doctors on their cell numbers or contact them on Facebook).
Most medications are over the counter, by the way, at costs a fraction of what you’re used to paying.
Since Cuenca does not have an international airport, you must fly to either Guayaquil or Quito to leave the country. Round-trip flights, which take less than an hour, are as low as $60 per person. Of course, the fares from those two airports will vary depending on your final destination.
Detailed Breakdown Of Our Monthly Budget
|Building maintenance fee||$50|
|Utilities (water, electricity, and gas)||$65|
|Internet (30 mg dedicated fiber optic line)||$30|
|Cell phones (no plan—minutes bought when needed)||$10|
|Housekeeper (once a week)||$80|
|Groceries (including alcohol and flowers)||$500|
|Gym & yoga studio memberships||$100|
|Transportation (buses and taxis)||$15|
|Eating out (food, drink, tips)||$160|
|Medications and personal care products||$45|
|Grooming (hair & nails)||$45|
|Massage and spa treatments||$100|
Our Budget While Living Abroad
You’ve seen our monthly budget of less than $2,000. What would yours look like? If you own your residence and pay no rent, the total would be much less. Party like a rock star or travel frequently and the sky’s the limit.
Our travels these past two years have taken us to Europe and Latin America. The great news we’ve learned is that you can live very comfortably on a social security budget not only in Ecuador but in many locations outside of the United States.
We know from over a decade of experience there’s no better way than living abroad to dramatically lower your cost of living while at the same time raising your standard of living.
Perhaps our paths will cross someday in this big expat world!