Cost of Living in Costa Rica

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Cost of Living in Costa Rica

Amazing scenery, incredible nature and wildlife, cloud capped forests at nearly 5,000 feet above sea level, to white sandy beaches by the beautiful clear sea, Costa Rica offers some of the most incredible natural environments the world has to offer. At the same time it offers modern cities full of cultural attractions and entertainment venues, reliable infrastructure and access to high-quality health care. The unit of currency in Costa Rica is the colón, named after explorer Christopher Columbus, the first European to visit Costa Rica on September 18, 1502. The colón tends to fluctuate in value between 500-550 colons per 1 US dollar and whilst the cost of living in Costa Rica might be higher than other countries in Central America, it is still significantly cheaper than in the U.S. or Europe.

Of course, the cost of living in any country in the world is a little subjective and depends largely on personal tastes, habits and requirements, so here we have tried to give a general comparative overview of the cost of living in Costa Rica compared to other countries such as the US and Europe. On the whole, most American, Canadian, and European expats in Costa Rica find that they spend significantly less on a day-to-day basis than they do in their home countries and in most respects, Costa Rica is much more affordable than back home.

Let’s start our summary based on the minimum amount needed for a decent standard of living for a single person. This is estimated at $1,500 to $2,000 a month and is broken down in the analysis below, whilst at the other end of the scale, retired couples can live well on $2,000 to $3,000 a month which includes all housing costs, transportation, medical care, utilities, food, and entertainment. Generally speaking, real estate / property, whether you buy or rent is more affordable in Costa Rica, with North American-style homes reasonably priced, even in great locations.

An important element of the living cost in Costa Rica is Medical care, and fortunately this is very reasonable with a high level of quality care. As a legal resident expat, you can enjoy use of the government-run universal healthcare system known as Caja, where, for a low monthly fee based on income, you get doctor’s visits, prescriptions, surgeries and care free of charge. Another aspect is private care and again, clinics and hospitals are a fraction of the price of Europe and the US if you pay cash. Insurance is also available and is well worth consideration.

Food is reasonably priced if you shop and eat out like a local. The feria, or weekly open-air farmers’ market, is an institution in just about any Costa Rican town or village where you can find farm-fresh fruits and vegetables, seafood, beef and chicken, eggs, dairy products, bread, coffee, and just about anything else! Prices are low and once you get into it you can fill your fridge for about $30 per week for a couple.

In terms of locations in Costa Rica, bear in mind that, as in most places in the world, areas such as beach destinations that are popular with tourists will have a higher cost of living on average because prices for eating out and food shopping tend to be more expensive, plus you will use air conditioning, which drives up your electric bill. Still, wherever you are in Costa Rica, there are many ways to save money and meet your budget.

We have compiled some average cost of living in Costa Rica figures:

Monthly Utility Expenses                              U.S. $

Condo (large, luxurious)                                        $500 to $900

Home (two or three bedroom)                              $500 to $1,200

Electricity (house)                                                    $75 to $100 (Central Valley); $100 to $200 (on the beaches)

Water/sewage (apartment)                                    $12

Telephone                                                                   $13

Cable TV                                                                      $40

High-speed internet (ADSL)                                   $25

Maid/gardener                                                           $2 per hour/$200 a month full-time


Other Costa Rica living costs, just for reference based on average numbers:

Annual Expenses

Expense                                                         U.S. $

School tuition                                                    $7,200 (US accredited private school)

School bus                                                          $1,600

Marchamo (govt car insurance)                    $700

Riteve (car reg / annual inspection)             $200

Car Repairs                                                         $500

Health Insurance                                              $1,700

Home Insurance                                                $400

Taxes                                                                    $400

Annual Expense Total                               $12,700


On average, the cost of living in Costa Rica can be around 35% lower than in the US or Canada and about 29% lower than the UK, whilst property rental is around 50% lower than UK.

A few comments on the above estimates and some general pointers regarding the cost of living in Costa Rica and some of the rules and regulations that also need to be considered when compiling a budget:

Cost of living in Costa Rica – Household

One of the attractions of living in Costa Rica is that you can afford to have a maid and/or a gardener at a very competitive rate, although please note that by law, you must pay your maid a minimum of $140 per month, plus food and lodging. Furthermore, she must not be made to work more than 12 hours per day (up to 16 hours if you pay overtime) and you must give her 1 hour off each day, to coincide with meal times. She is also entitled to a half day off per week, a half day off on holidays and 15 days of paid vacation per year. You should also enroll her in the Costa Rica Social Security system, so you would deduct 9% of her salary for this tax, but at the same time you must also pay 11% to the “Caja”.

Cost of living in Costa Rica – Groceries

As a general rule, your weekly grocery shop should only cost about 2/3 of what it would cost in the U.S. although obviously a lot depends on what you buy. Many products have price controls under what is called the “basic food basket”. Products imported from Latin America under free trade agreements, or products grown locally or considered local cuisine (rice and beans) will have a lower price than imported “luxury” items. Here are some sample prices and sizes (in metric measurements – 1 kilo = 2.2 pounds) 1 kilo onions – $1.10; 1 head broccoli – $1.14; 400 grams Mozzarella Cheese – $3.00; French’s Dijon Mustard 340g – $1.87; ACT II Extreme Butter Microwave popcorn – $.58; 3 kilos RINSO laundry detergent – $6.40; 1 can Refried Beans – $1.13; Kraft Sandwich Spread 215g – $1.28; Natilla 300 ml (light sour cream) – $.52; 40 Panadol tablets (acetaminophen) $1.09; 2 liters milk Dos Pinos – $.99; Case of Cerveza Imperial (national beer, not including bottle deposit) – $15.14;

Cost of living in Costa Rica – Eating out and Lodging

Eating out can vary wildly obviously, depending on where you go and what you eat and drink, but here are a few very rough, random price guidelines which may or may not provide a useful comparison: Lunch for 3 at Lukas en El Pueblo – $31 (includes tip & taxes); Week night at hotel Costa Rica Morazon – $30 + tax; Cerveza at your local “cantina” – $1.10 (includes tip & taxes); Single room at Best Western San Jose – $53 + tax; Cerveza at Hotel del Rey in San Jose – $2.00; Villa Caletas near Jaco – $68 double per night + tax (in 2 for 1 low season special); Special Menu at La Solera in San Pedro – $12.25; Hotel Capitan Suizo in Tamarindo – $62 double per night; Blue Plate Special Downtown – $2.50 (“casado” at a Tico diner, includes juice drink); Super Deluxe Cheeseburger at Gringo hangout in Jaco – $6.

So, taking everything into account, it’s no wonder that the country has become so popular, not only amongst expats on business or just people looking for a different lifestyle, but also among retirees looking for a high quality of life at a low cost. Let’s take a look at the cost of living in Costa Rica from a retirement perspective.

In terms of the general Costa Rica cost of living expenses, the points mentioned above are valid whether you are retiring or simply want to live in Costa Rica for work or lifestyle, however, for official retirement, there are three types of official Costa Rica residency options available to retirees, each with its own financial requirements. The Pensionado Program is designed specifically for retirees and requires a regular monthly income of at least $1,000 from a pension or retirement fund. You must automatically transfer the qualifying funds into the Costa Rican financial system each month and exchange it into local currency, which you are then free to withdraw and spend.

If you don’t have enough fixed retirement income, you can opt for the Rentista Program which requires you to provide either a bank guarantee showing income of $2,500 per month for two years or to show a current cash balance of at least $60,000. You must transfer either the full sum of $60,000 or $2,500 per month into a Costa Rican bank and exchange it into local currency. A third option, the Inversionista Program, requires an immediate investment of at least $200,000 in an approved Costa Rican business or property. Program application fees amount to $250. Other costs include document translation, authentication and notarization fees, as well as any fees associated with obtaining required official documents from your home country. Costa Rican consulates charge $40 per document for authentication services alone; document fees can accumulate well into the hundreds of dollars for each family member listed on your application.

One last thing; you must renew your program status every two years. The renewal fee is $100 plus associated document fees. You must submit updated proof of your income at the time of renewal. If you maintain your status in any of these programs for three consecutive years, you may choose to apply for permanent resident status.

Travel to Costa Rica is much cheaper and faster than travel to other popular retirement destinations in South America or Asia with average airfares around $400 or less, so if you plan to return to the U.S. for regular visits, a move to Costa Rica is a lot easier and cheaper than a move to a far-flung country, such as Thailand or the Philippines.