Cost of Living

A very popular question, both on-line and when I am talking to people, is "What does it cost to live in Nicaragua?" Unfortunately, there is a lot more to the answer than a dollar sign and some digits.

Think about how you would answer a question such as "What does it cost to live in Washington state or Georgia?" There is a big difference between having a room in some rural area and a house in Seattle or Atlanta.

There are some things, however, that help make the Nicaragua answer a bit easier. While Between zero and as much as you want to spend is a lot more meaningful in Nicaragua than Detroit, we can do a bit better than that answer. Let's get the easy items out of the way first.

Shelter

These two items tend to make up the majority of most people's expenses. The first thing you can remove from the shelter cost is heating and cooling expenses. While an air conditioner is nice in some areas including Managua, it is not a necessity and there really is nowhere in Nicaragua where heating is required.

On the low end, you can find room and board in someone's house for $100/month or less. You will eat a lot of rice and beans but you should be fine. If $100/month isn't in your budget, look for someone who wants to learn English and offer to trade some tutoring time for your room and board.

Moving up the financial ladder, house rentals can be as cheap as $30/month in poor neighborhoods up to $1000/month and more for larger houses in cities. Finding something comfortable and secure with at least two bedrooms in a large town or in the city is going to put you in the $150 to $500/month range where the more urban the area, the higher the cost.

Utility costs add to the basic house cost, of course. Water, sewer and trash pickup tend to be inexpensive. Electricity, while expensive per kilowatt hour, is not a big expense for most because average consumption is much lower than in other areas. For lights, a refrigerator and some entertainment—stereo, TV or computer—expect a bill of $5 to $10/month. Note that low-end users get a better rate than those consuming more electricity.

If you can't live without a telephone, a cellular is probably your best bet. Low-end plans start at $12/month. On arrival you won't qualify for a post-pay plan but you can get a pre-paid phone with just your current ID.

If you want broadband Internet, you will find multiple options including fixed wireless (Turbonett Fijo), 3G, DSL and TV cable. Prices start at about $10/month and go up depending on bandwidth and, in some cases, usage.

Food

Food is much like shelter with options starting at close to nothing and going up from there. On the low end, there are multiple growing seasons in Nicaragua for grain and vegetable crops. In addition, there is always some sort of fruit in season.

The typical Nicaraguan diet consists of a lot of beans, rice and corn. This diet is supplemented with other vegetables when available (generally meaning when there is money to buy them) and a combination of eggs, cheese and chicken. There is beef and pork available as well but for the low-end consumer these are less popular because of the need to butcher and store the complete animal.

If you are cooking yourself, figure a pound each of beans, rice and corn will cost about $1. That is a lot of food. Add other ingredients as you wish/can afford. A bunch of carrots will cost less than $.50, a head of cabbage about $.25 and so on. If you add meat, it will cost from $1 to $2/lb. As a meat alternative, texturized soy protein (TSP) is available at very inexpensive prices.

As is always the case, eating out will cost more than doing your own cooking. A low-end meal in a fritanga might cost $1. An "expensive" dinner in a nice restaurant can cost from $5 in a small city to $20 or more in Managua. With the exception of major cities, you should be able to pick a budget per meal of between $2.50 and $5 and stick to it.

Health Care

Once again, you have options from free on up. The government runs health clinics and hospitals. Visits are free, whether you are a Nicaraguan resident or not. They are not up to the standards of First World facilities but they are an option.

If you elect to go to a private doctor, office visits are in the $10 to $20 range. Expect about the same for dentists. For first-class hospital services, expect to pay about 1/5th what it would cost in the U.S.

In larger areas there are some "alternative medicine" offerings including accupuncture. Expect costs to be pretty much in line with any private doctor visit.

Transportation

The majority of the people in Nicaragua cannot afford to own and operate private cars. The consequence is that there is a lot of public transit available. This includes both local and long-haul buses and local taxis.

Using Estelí, a city of about 200,000 located on the Pan American highway about 140 km from Managua as an example, you have the following options:

  • The Urbano—Four local bus routes that cover most of the city. A trip, independent of distance, costs about $.15.
  • Taxis—Unlike in the U.S. they are "shared" meaning the taxi driver will pick up other passengers and rates are per passenger. During daylight hours, the cost is less than $.50 to anywhere in town.
  • Regular bus—Regular means they make stops virtually anywhere. Service is offered to cities all over the country. For example, a trip to Managua will take 3.5 to 4 hours and cost less than $2.
  • Express bus—Here you trade time for money as they make few stops. They also tend to be commercial buses instead of converted ex-school buses. For example, a trip to Managua is just a bit over 2 hours and costs around $3.

While there are car rental agencies, rental cars are not inexpensive. Unless you have some very specific plans, there is usually a cheaper option that is just as convenient. For example, you can usually find a private car owner of taxi driver that you can hire for the day for less than a rental car would cost. You get the advantage of a native who knows his way around.

Clothing and More

Where else can you spend your money? There is always a way to spend more money but seldom a requirement to do so. For example, while some people like to "dress up" it is seldom a requirement. From parties to funerals, what you have available is accepted.

If you have ever wondered where all your used clothing donations go these days, you only need to look around in Nicaragua. Many non-profits have found it more profitable to sell your donations to companies that re-sell them in the third world rather than running thrift stores in the U.S. Thus, you will see a lot of Nicaraguans wearing T-shirts with seemingly strange messages on them in English.

Here, where labor is very cheap, you tend to find things being repaired rather than discarded. That includes seamstresses that will replace a zipper for $.50, stores with repair parts for appliances and cars and, on the more industrial end, someone who knows how to weld and has the equipment just around the corner.

What About a Number?

If you are still looking for a number, here are some guidelines.

  • No-options minimalist lifestyle: $100/mo
  • Rental house, mostly home cooking, decent options: $500/mo
  • More of everything: $1000/mo
  • Whatever you want: $2000/mo

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Cost of living

Great notes. For anyone interested in more details, consider Phil and Ana's Living Like a Nica book, which goes into more depth on several of these topics. The only drawback is that it is a few years old now, so the actual dollar amounts may (or may not) have changed. The underlying concepts are as relevant as ever.

High-speed internet is readily available in the cities. I think the cost is generally $20-50/month depending on speed (but I could be wrong). Once you get out in the country, your choices are personal wireless tower, cellular modem, and satellite. Each has pros and cons, but generally I would look for them in that order, with satellite being the last resort.

One option I am considering is to have an office in town, with high-speed internet. Then I could live outside of town and just commute in by bus, bike, or motorcycle/scooter.

Speaking of which, walking and bicycling are excellent and popular modes of transportation. Motorcycles and scooters are also reasonable options, especially outside the cities. On rough roads, two-wheeled vehicles can travel faster and in some cases more safely than four-wheeled vehicles. And I have seen a family of 5 on a small motorcycle, although I wouldn't recommend it.

In addition to the shared taxis, you can hire a private taxi. Just negotiate the price when you get in, making sure you're clear that it's just for you, and the driver should not pick up any other passengers.

Packaged imported food is not cheap. If you favor local brands over international brands, and unprocessed food over processed, you will save a ton of money. I assume imported/importing English books and magazines is also pretty expensive.

What are electronics and appliance prices like? If I want that 37" LCD TV or a good fridge, are the prices similar to high-retail in the US?

If someone decided to own a car, how much does gasoline cost? Insurance? Annual license fees/taxes?

Good Summary

After two years here and doing a lot of calculations on "what if more of this or less of this" it is pretty realistic...except the lowest end figure is a bit low for all but live off the land living, so don't get entranced by that and think, "well $200" would be OK. I think a normal life person needs $400/mo to subsist if you need to rent. And don't forget, the first two-three months may be fine but six months down the road, that can start to get old (or maybe better). ZZT