Without a doubt, Costa Rica is more expensive than some of the other so-called retirement/relocation havens in the region. Unfortunately, many equate the cost of living with quality of life. This is not the case in Costa Rica, since by living here, you really get what you pay for. In the end it’s all about lifestyle.
With that in mind, here are some tips for expats on how you can live more affordably in Costa Rica:
1. Rent or purchase property in cheaper areas. The bottom line is that where you decide to live has a direct impact on what you will spend here. Do your research to find a reasonable compromise between cost, safety and nearby attractions.
2. Look for free or low-cost activities and entertainment in the weekend section of the local Spanish newspapers and the online editions of English publications (like The Tico Times!).
3. Save money by shopping for groceries at weekend farmers markets (ferias), where you can find rock-bottom prices on vegetables and fruit. Every city and town has some type of feria. Cities like San José, Heredia, Alajuela, Atenas and San Ramón have central markets where you can find good prices on necessities under one roof.
You can also look for bargains on weekdays at regular supermarkets like Mas x Menos and Walmart. In general, the Pali grocery chain (which is owned by Walmart) has the best prices, but not always.
Pricesmart often has good deals on imported bulk items. The Auto Mercado chain has many imported products that you won’t find elsewhere in Costa Rica, but prices can be high to exorbitant.
The bottom line is to shop around for the best prices, and to recognize that you can save money by sticking to local goods.
4. Use public transportation. Buses are very affordable in Costa Rica, and there are buses going to almost every nook and cranny in the country. If you live in the Central Valley, try using public buses when going to and from the airport or downtown San José.
Taxis and ride-sharing services like Uber are usually cheaper than in the U.S., but they are still expensive when compared to public transportation.
5. Do not buy an automobile unless it’s absolutely necessary. Due to import tariffs, cars are expensive in Costa Rica. When you add marchamo, gasoline and repairs to the equation, you’ll end up spending a lot.
6. Buy generic drugs. Drugstores are a dime a dozen, and at times there are price wars between competing businesses. FarmValue and La Bomba seem to have the lowest prices, but that can vary depending on what medications you need.
7. Don’t rely on malls or upscale shopping centers. While they house many international stores, prices often exceed what you’d pay in the U.S. Instead, look for items in downtown stores where most Costa Ricans shop.
8. Look for sales, or promociones, as we say here. You’ll find the biggest deals around holidays and at the end of the fiscal year.
9. Use Wi-Fi and WhatsApp. Most stores and public places like parks have free Wi-Fi, and the majority of Costa Ricans use WhatsApp. You can even make international calls for free through the platform.
10. Bring clothes, cosmetics and vitamins from the U.S. or elsewhere. Most items in those categories are more expensive in Costa Rica.
11. While tempting, avoid casinos and sports betting. Remember that the house almost always ends up winning.
12. Use a prepaid (prepago) cell phone plan. You can pay-as-you-go for just a few dollars a month.
13. If you marry a Costa Rican, establish reasonable expectations about supporting his or her family. Many Tico families support each other financially well into adulthood, so this is a conversation worth having before the wedding.
14. Costa Ricans are generally friendly, but don’t let your generosity make you a target. Don’t have manos sueltas, as Ticos say.
15. Avoid investing in high-interest schemes that seem too good to be true. Over the years, many expats have lost their savings by investing in companies offering high interest payments. The general rule of thumb is to test before you invest.
16. Don’t trust people just because they speak English.
17. Avoid expensive and trendy restaurants and eat at sodas. Most have lunch menu consisting of a plato del día that includes meat, fish or chicken with rice, beans, a small salad and a drink.
18. Be careful when choosing lawyers, doctors, dentists or other professionals. Always ask for recommendations.
19. Share a house or apartment, or housesit to cut down on living expenses.
20. Stream programs on your computer instead of paying for cable TV. This can eliminate a considerable monthly expense.
Christopher Howard has been conducting monthly relocation/retirement tours to Costa Rica for over 30 years. See http://www.liveincostarica.com for more. He is also the author of the one-of-a-kind and bestselling “Guide to Costa Rican Spanish” that may be purchased through Amazon.
This article first appeared in 2019