Obvious budget savers for living in a foreign country include ensuring lower rent, cooking at home, using a bike instead of a car or taxi. But there are other ways to save money – and still have comforts.
Here are ten things I’ve learned about finding basic comforts abroad on a budget in the two months I’ve lived in Tulum, Mexico.
Maybe this will help someone new to this – like me.
(Points two and five are more for women.)
- Use a laundry service once a week.
- For the first couple of weeks here, I was hand washing everything. It was a pain in the ass, it was very hot outside, and it only costs $3 to drop it off at the local service. I can afford $12 a month to wash sheets, towels, bathing suits, clothes and underwear. If you travel really light, hand wash an item or two as as needed to tide you over.
- Thongs or briefs?
- I am a thong woman preferential to lace without any elastic bands to avoid panty lines. But here, briefs are so much easier to hand wash if needed – they’re sturdy and can take a good scrubbing better than a lace strip. Also, the tropics are steamy hot and I want to be as dry as possible all day, and that’s more likely for me if I’m in briefs. And finally, I couldn’t find thong-sized panty shields at any store in Tulum, and the brief shape is universal for all feminine products.
- Luxury essentials – despite a tight budget – small wireless music speaker, Turkish towel, strong sunblock.
- I have a Monster Clarity bluetooth speaker that is four or five years old. It was around $75 on sale back then. The sound is not great – but it’s better than nothing and you can see its size compared to a small tube of sunblock – great for light traveling. When renting more basic accommodations such as mine, music systems aren’t part of the furnishings.
- Turkish towels are amazing. Thin yet pretty absorbent for not being a thick terry cloth towel. It dries fast. Sometimes towels won’t be part of the furnishings in budget apartments. They range around the $20 mark on Amazon. Have towel will travel.
- I am almost out of strong sunblock, and have only seen SPF 50 in stores. I’ve bought some 50 and have been switching on and off with the 70. It works, of course, but I have to reapply more. Also, I like the Neutrogena brand but have not seen it in stores here.
- Use your library in the States to rent books.
- First, there are no English book stores in Tulum, and you never know if you’ll get something you really want at a book exchange. My library at my stateside address has electronic checkouts. I keep the books for two weeks and then they are automatically wiped from my device when the time is up.
- Second, I don’t want to constantly buy reading material on Amazon, even though I will get instant gratification. I’ve only had to wait for one book through the library because it was checked out. (I’m still waiting for that one book for about three weeks later. Apparently it’s a hot book.) On the flip side, I’ve never asked for an extension, but it’s possible.
- Hair essentials in the tropics include sulfate-free products, oil, trims.
- I learned about sulfate-free shampoo and conditioner living in San Diego. The water there was really rough on my blond hair. Especially the bleached-in highlights. Sulfate-free really does make a difference. But not enough of a difference in the tropics, apparently…
- I suddenly noticed how straw-like my hair had become with constant sun and sea exposure. Fellow fair-haired amigas who live in Playa del Carmen told me to put either coconut or olive oil on the ends of my hair and thoroughly rinse. Or, buy argan oil leave it in. I’m trying the latter. It’s been three days and the difference is amazing – my hair feels a lot better. Don’t have to cut it all off again, yet.
- I spent thousands of dollars on my hair over the years. I was laid off in March 2015, and haven’t had a cut since then. Since I was way overdue, I chose a place that charges women $3. I knew it wasn’t going to be a glamour ‘do – you get what you pay for. It’s choppy for sure, but the proprietor was pleasant enough, a large amount of dead ends are gone, and I don’t have to work in an office :-). Obviously, blow dry was not included.
- Side note – I haven’t had highlights or coloring since January 2015, and never plan to do that again. It saves me a ton of money and upkeep and I prefer to let any gray join my party.
- Solar Shields — an alternative to pricey prescription sunglasses.
- When the ocean swallowed by top-of-the-line Maui Jim shades in early 2015, that stung more than a jellyfish encounter. I wear progressive lenses, so I paid way too much money for them – nearly $700. (But gosh, I loved those Maui Jim shades!) Instead, these Solar Shields sunglasses cost $25 at Walmart.
- They are huge, but they cover more of my face in the sun. I can pretend I’m a movie star. They hide the wrinkles I don’t cover with makeup. Also, I don’t have to change glasses going from outside to inside, etc. I just lift these up.
- Thanks to my husband for suggesting these. I had a hard time ‘coming down a peg’ to wearing these things after a lifetime of wearing groovy glasses for fashion when I wasn’t sticking contacts into my eyes. (And I haven’t worn contacts once in two months, either.)
- Do whatever you can to promote ‘good’ bacteria in your gut.
- There are different kinds of bacteria here that I’m not used to coming from the States for an extended period of time. Mexicans often get sick when they go to the States because our bacteria is different for them. Good gut bacteria can vastly help uncomfortable tummy situations, such as traveler’s diarrhea. Your chances increase the longer you are in a foreign country.
- After antibiotics for parasites, a doctor said “everything was dead” in me and we had to build up the good bacteria to build up a more healthy immune system. He suggested supplements – guava extract in pill form, and a pill containing three good bacteria: L. acidophilus, L. rhamnosus, B. Longum. These supplements were very expensive for my budget – but was necessary for me. I still have half the bottles left and will continue taking them. By the way – I’m happy to report I’ve recovered from the tummy invasion!
- Fermented foods with little-to-no-sugar are essential for good bacteria and cheaper than supplements. Yogurt, pickles, kefir, sauerkraut (though I haven’t found sauerkraut here yet) are examples. Take the time to read food labels in Mexico. *Everything has sugar. At the three supermarkets here in Tulum, it is difficult to find processed foods with no added azucar. This is one reason I eat very little processed food.
- Don’t go it totally alone (even / especially if you’re an introvert like me).
- I have gotten a little lonely now and then, but I’m never alone. I have God. That said, I always feel better when I interact with people who speak English. I had one friend here in Tulum before I came. Now I have a few more. I’m an introvert and love time alone – but these beautiful people make me feel connected, alive, happy. I will feel it more as I learn Spanish.
- Also, FaceTime and Skype help lift my spirits when I can see people I love in far away places while talking with them.
- Patience is free – use as much as you can.
- Everything takes longer here in the tropics. My days are filled with bike rides to here and there because I don’t have a car. Neither do millions of Mexicans. From doing things – like getting groceries – to getting things – like service in some restaurants – things take longer. Which brings me to the next point…
- Time is relaxed – accept it, slow down and go with the flow.
- No one bats an eye if someone is ‘running late’. Maybe the colectivo (mini-bus) was full and you had to wait longer to be picked up. Maybe there’s a thunderstorm and you had to wait for the downpour to end. Maybe a dog barked all night last night and you slept in a little. Anything can happen and punctuality is not usually a primary concern (when Mexicans deal with tourists, especially on tours and in resorts, they are punctual).
- For this former television news producer, a slower, relaxed pace is a huge, major adjustment. Time was a big deal on so many levels in my former life. Eventually I just had to let it go here and realize – I’m not in an office or on a schedule or working for the man anymore. I’m not on vacation and don’t have to pack everything into one day. I’m still learning this.
- Time goes faster when I’m happy – even when I’m living at a slower pace. All the more reason to enjoy. Every. Single. Day.
I’m still learning – it’s only been two months. If you have some good experience to share beyond the obvious – I’d love to read about it!