The question I’m most often asked is, “How do you afford living in Tulum without working?”
The easy answer is I live a frugal life. I live well. I love this life. I could never afford to do this long-term if I had stayed in the U.S.
First, I’ll give the average monthly cost in short form. Then in a longer version, I’ll explain what the money actually buys.
I used four months – August through November in 2015 to illustrate what it costs for one person living alone. (My husband joined me as of December 9.)
Here is the short version:
$333 – studio apartment
$200 – food & drink
$144 – Spanish lessons (Monday – Saturday, one-hour class)
$60 – charity donations
$50 – transportation, including beach cruiser bicycle and round-trip colectivo to Playa del Carmen
$100 – miscellaneous / medical / entertainment
$897 total per month
(Emergency fund withdrawal for a trip home because of a death in the family. More detail on this in the longer version below.)
Here is a more detailed breakdown for people who want to know more.
I sold everything of any value, except a couple of stocks. Every possession, including my car, gone, except for a few clothing items and some sentimental stuff.
I never had a mortgage to weigh me down. I long ago made a lifestyle choice not to have children. I only bought one new car in my life, the others were used and I either ran them into the ground or it was sold in excellent condition.
Add everything up and my net worth pre-marriage would have allowed me to live this lifestyle for many, many years at $900 a month, or $10,800 a year, barring any major life-changing emergency.
Except for the high cost of living in San Diego my last few years in the States, I had lived a frugal life compared to most single women. That would help prepare me for what came next on my path – living in Tulum and beyond.
My simple studio apartment in Tulum came furnished. In this case, that meant it had a bed, bedding, kitchen and deck tables and chairs, shelving unit, curtains, basic kitchen dishes and cups with a few pots, ceiling fan, air conditioner, (intermittent) hot water and wifi (which was not lightning fast).
Electricity was included, which is rare, as long as I didn’t go over a certain kilowatt limit each month.
All that for $5,500 pesos a month. That’s roughly $313 to $333 between August and December, depending on the exchange rate.
Let’s take the higher rate, $333, for this breakdown example. That’s roughly $11 day for an apartment. This is key – keeping housing costs down as much as possible without sacrificing basic comfort. (And yes, the bed is comfy, and not the traditional hard Mexican bed.)
There were some obstacles I had to overcome, such as bugs, electrical issues and a wet wall when rainy season finally came this year (it was unusually late, arriving mainly in mid-October, November and little in December).
But, I like my landlord a lot, and he was very attentive compared to some other landlord stories I’ve heard. I absolutely would rent from him and his wife again.
It’s worth noting that Tulum has a housing shortage. Not everyone can afford to live at the beach for extended periods so many people scramble to find living arrangements, especially during high season. Compared to other rentals in less popular Mexican cities, Tulum costs more because of the high demand.
Food & drink
I’ve been on mostly a raw food diet since I’ve lived here. Between that and riding my bike, overall, I’ve never felt better – or looked better – in my life. And I’m 44 years old!
A typical trip to the market to get fruit, veggies, almonds or walnuts, beans, cheese and natural yogurt ran me around $15. A major haul would last about five days, but I liked to buy fresh veggies every other day at least, so add another seven dollars. (Note, Pool’s is the best veggie market in town.)
Cookies and milk every couple of days were another couple of dollars. (Hey – mostly raw food, not all, lol.)
At least once a week, sometimes twice, I would buy freshly squeezed spinach and banana juice from Natty Dread, down the road from my apartment for about $1.50 USD.
Also, once a week I’d go out to eat and get fresh fish ceviche and take home the leftovers for around $8-$10.
Coffee was the most expensive item on the shopping list. A one pound bag would last me about 10 days.
Looking over my expense book, I’m calling it roughly $50 a week on food. (I picked an average week in October.)
I should mention – I don’t drink alcohol. If you like wine with dinner at home, or want to have drinks while dining out, your food and drink budget will be higher. Drinks are roughly half the price you’d pay in the U.S., even on the beach, but this will quickly add up for people who like to imbibe.
Like rent and food, another constant expense was Spanish lessons. I could have spent hundreds or thousands of dollars. There are language schools here in Tulum.
Instead, I decided to take one-hour daily lessons with a friend who lives here and is multilingual. Since he is a friend, he only charged me $100 pesos a day. That’s roughly $6 USD.
Then, I’d practice Spanish around town and at the beach on my own time. I am living here, after all, so I created my own immersion program. I have found most Mexicans I’ve encountered and practiced with to be patient and helpful. Most Americans don’t bother to learn anything beyond “cerveza” and “bano” – let alone try to string full sentences together.
Tulum’s town is not on the beach. Taking a taxi is not cost effective for the long term, and the minibus service is sparse, and very crowded with workers who have jobs on the beach. So I bought a bicycle. It was just under $100 USD, and I bought a hefty bike lock for about $12.50 USD. Bikes are like gold here. Most Tulumians don’t own cars. They either walk or ride bikes.
I also spent money on colectivos to get to Playa del Carmen now and then. Colectivos are 15 passenger vans and act as minibuses. It’s roughly $4.50 USD round trip and it takes roughly one hour, depending on how many stops are needed.
Side note, during the low season, it was 35 pesos one way. Once December hit, most colectivo drivers I encountered started charging 40 pesos. As of this writing, you should not be charged more than 40 pesos, but if the peso keeps sinking against the dollar, the peso price could go up again.
My charity donations are personal, but they are an expense that I must include. I’ll just say that during the low season, I gave much more. There is a greater need when there aren’t as many tourists here. If I had kept up the higher donations, the average on this line item would have been much higher for the monthly average.
Miscellaneous / Medical expenses / Entertainment
In the miscellaneous category, I did buy a few things for the room, like a sharper cutting knife for my veggies and a cheap coffee maker. And I had some wonderful massages by Margo in Mexico.
Medical expenses were low here compared to the U.S. I did get sick twice while here. Once I had parasites, and needed medication to rid my body of those suckers. The second time the doctor said she believed I had Chikungunya, which is a virus from a mosquito bite. There are at least three other mosquito borne viruses with similar symptoms.
The biggest expenses in the medical category were two blood tests at the biggest lab in town to determine exactly what the hell I had. The first time I was tested for Dengue and Chikungunya, and both tests came back negative. The second time I was tested for Chikungunya, but that again came back negative. There is no lab in town that tests for Zika, yet.
The CDC has documented there are false negatives, especially if you are tested too early.
If it hadn’t been for the relatively expensive lab tests, my medical expenses would have been much lower. Medical consultations by doctors can be had for 45 pesos here. That’s less than $3 USD. Or, if you are really, really sick, there are doctors who speak English who charge $50 USD per visit. I never went that route, but I did come close.
Ironically, as I write this, I have a low fever. Last night, my fever was nearly 101, which is very high for me. Other symptoms similar to what I had a month ago also have returned. The local Tulumians tell me the Chikungunya fever comes back roughly three to four weeks after initial onset. But basically, I still don’t know what I have for sure.
Getting sick while living alone in another country really tested my resolve for independence. While I did it – I won’t lie: I’m really grateful my spouse is here now.
Moving on to entertainment. For me, it’s usually self-made. For example, I have my own prescription snorkel gear. I read a lot, and download books from the Cuyahoga County library. I also think a lot. I’m a wanna be philosopher. Plus, riding to the beach and back will take about an hour to 90 minutes out of the day, depending on where I go and how fast I pedal. So physical exercise is a decent portion of nearly every day.
Various activities can be had for pretty cheap, if you ask around. For example, you can take a boat out to snorkel the reef for 90 minutes for 200 pesos per person, or $12.
Or, walk the beach and find a DJ spinning out towards the ocean and buy a soda as you enjoy the tunes by the sea.
And there are always cenotes – there are tons around here and a few are within bike riding distance near Tulum. Others are a short cab ride away, for a few dollars. You can always hitchhike back, if you’re the adventurous and trusting type. We’ve done it.
I wanted to go home in October because of a death in the family. I did not figure the expense of that trip into this breakdown, as I’m considering the trip as a withdrawal from an emergency fund.
Living abroad means I may have to be called home now and then, and while that is absolutely an expense, I chose to keep that separate from the monthly averages. This record-keeping method could change in the future as we travel more.
Going beyond Tulum
Tedly arrived in Tulum on December 9. We are spending more now that he is here, and I didn’t include this month because of that.
Long before we were married, my husband and I started writing down our vacation expenses about a decade ago. It became clear that a simple lifestyle away from mega resorts and boutique hotels could be done on a permanent basis with relatively little money. We have always dreamed of doing this, and now we are.
By recording expenses, it was all there – in black and white – what went out. It gave us tangible examples on how this could really be accomplished with some spending diligence.
I’m filled with gratitude and love and I’m extremely blessed that my husband has quit the rat race and retired early and we are really doing this – living abroad, getting ready to roam around the Earth.
With my husband now ready to roll, we are ready to pay more than $333 a month when needed. And I will want it. After staying in a 200 square foot room with a 100 square foot deck for five months, four alone and nearly one with Tedly, I will not object to something larger.
We have the first few months of 2016 planned. In January, we’ll be in northern Belize, in the Corozal Bay area. We are renting a three bedroom house and it will undoubtedly feel like a palace! (This kind of accommodation will not be the norm.)
For February, we’ll be in the region of Tikal, Guatemala, and then we may hit a few Belize islands for a short stay. By the end of February, we’ll land in Mahahual, Mexico until late March. By April we’ll be ready for a larger city, so we decided on Playa del Carmen. That’s as far as we’ve gotten with the plans.
We want to exhaust seeing what we want to see in this region of the Earth before we move on. After all, we have a transportation budget to meet.