The pressures of every day life in highly developed countries often cause us to ask a simple question – why? Why am I living like this? Why don’t I have more time to enjoy my life? Why can’t I spend more time with my children, my hobbies, reading for pleasure or just sleeping? We see articles about the Happiness Index and see that our country is somewhere down the list. We may be ‘successful’ but a little nagging voice keeps asking why?
The answer, of course, is the treadmill of life – mortgages, school fees, utilities, transportation costs and even the high cost of staying entertained. But is there an alternative? Is it possible to just quit the high life, sell up and take it easy? After all, we live in a connected world. Is there really any need to live where we do? Let’s start by looking at 20 seriously cheap countries you could choose to live in. We’ll avoid those that are classed as dangerous, such as South Africa, Afghanistan and Syria. We’ve also avoided those with repressive regimes like Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Each country is ranked according to the Numbeo database which uses crowd-sourcing to rate cities and countries globally. As of this minute, the database comprises 3,590,235 prices in 6,445 cities entered by 393,607 contributors. We’ve used four key affordability metrics to compare nations.
- Local purchasing power index: This measures the relative purchasing power of a typical salary in that country. The lower the purchasing power, the fewer goods that can be bought. Conversely, higher purchasing power buys more.
- Rent index: This measures the typical cost of rental accomodation in the country.
- Groceries index: Based on a set of typical grocery prices in the country.
- Consumer price index: This measures the costs of local goods and services and includes expenses such as restaurants, a ‘basket’ of groceries, transportation costs and utilities such as gas, electricity and water.
The cost of living in New York City is used as the base for comparison purposes. Of course, New York – with a Numbeo score of 100, is far from the most expensive city to live in, but it’s certainly ‘up there’. Go here to discover the 10 most expensive cities to live in.
And so, to your options…
Europe has some of the most and least developed nations within it’s boundaries. At one end of the spectrum we can place Germany while at the other, we have the abjectly poor Moldovia. In between there are some gorgeous, safe, very inexpensive options:
Although part of the Soviet Union until 1991, Estonians have always displayed a fierce independence. Wedged between Russia and Latvia, just across the Baltic Sea from Finland, its 1.3 million people speak Estonian and Russian. History has been preserved with castles, churches and hilltop fortresses dotting the countryside and the ‘Old Town’ within the modern capital of Tallinn.
- Local purchasing power is 31.52% lower than New York
- Rent is 86.02% cheaper than New York
- Groceries are 63.26% cheaper than New York
- Local goods and services are 50.5% cheaper than New York
If you like a little isolation, Estonia has more than 1,500 islands to get away to. It also has some of Europe’s best old-growth forests and many picturesque lakes. Estonia, a member of the European Union and NATO (much to Russia’s chagrin), has a strong economy making it a country worthy of consideration.
If bitterly cold winters aren’t your thing, head a long way south to Slovenia. Almost land-locked, Slovenia does have a small frontage to the Adriatic. This Central European nation has been bypassed by most of the development to the west. History abounds as does natural beauty including Lake Bled, a glacial lake fed by hot springs.
- Local purchasing power is 21.77% lower than New York
- Rent is 85.94% cheaper than New York
- Groceries are 56.52% cheaper than New York
- Local goods and services are 46.76% cheaper than New York
Now a member of the European Union, Slovenia separated from Yugoslavia in 1991. Despite a major economic recession in 2012, the economy is strong and the country is modernizing rapidly. As of 2015 some 73 percent of the population of 2.1 million residents were connected. The official language is Slovenian but you can step over the border any day to enjoy a little Italian camaraderie and language. Ciao!
You’ll find this gem immediately adjoining Slovenia to the south. The long coastline along the western shore of the Adriatic includes more than a thousand islands. Like Slovenia, it is a country packed with history and natural beauty.
- Local purchasing power is 39.29% lower than New York
- Rent is 89.91% cheaper than New York
- Groceries are 60.09% cheaper than New York
- Local goods and services are 52% cheaper than New York
The low cost of living has made Croatia a popular destination for EU tourists. The capital is Zagreb, and most people speak Croatian.
Geographically, Cyprus sits much closer to the Middle-East than to Europe, with Beirut, Lebanon, the nearest major city. However, the European influence abounds. An island nation in the far eastern Mediterranean Sea, Cyprus is a member of the EU. The island is divided with Turkish Cypriots in the north and Greek Cypriots in the south.
- Local purchasing power is 4.08% lower than New York
- Rent is 87.72% cheaper
- Groceries are 55.94% cheaper
- Local goods and services are 45.93% cheaper
Millennia of history is obvious and the warm Mediterranean climate, inviting beaches and the fact that English is widely spoken, have attracted a relatively large expat population. The official languages are Turkish and Greek.
Another EU member, totally landlocked Hungary is considered by many to be one of the world’s most beautiful countries. Sitting in the heart of Europe, Hungary has been a crossroads of civilization. Both Roman and Turkish influences are everywhere especially in spa towns with their hot springs.
- Local purchasing power is 52.48% lower than New York
- Rent is 87.33% cheaper
- Groceries are 66.38% cheaper
- Local goods and services are 57.23% cheaper
The Danube flows through the centre of the capital, Budapest, as it heads out to the Black Sea. Hungary is renown for music and art.
Slovakia is the European Union’s poster child. Part of Czechoslovakia until 1993, it joined the EU in 2004 and has since built a robust economic base.
- Local purchasing power is 35.25% lower than New York
- Rent is 83.51% cheaper
- Groceries are 61.16% cheaper
- Local goods and services are 55.1% cheaper
Slovakia – formerly a part of Czechoslovakia, has maintained its fierce individuality and unique culture despite it’s absorption into the old USSR up until 1989. With around 5.5 million residents sharing a mostly mountainous 49,000 square kilometres, populations tend to cluster in towns and cities. Home ownership is an incredibly high 90% – evidence of both low prices and strong employment opportunities. The language is Slovak but as the country welcomes more than a half-million tourists a year, English is becoming more common. If you enjoy snow skiing and history, while still looking for work opportunities, Slovakia will appeal.
One of the world’s newest nations, Serbia came into existence in 2006. Prior to that it was part of Yugoslavia and then part of the Union of Serbia and Montenegro.
- Local purchasing power is 59.2% lower than New York
- Rent is 92.75% cheaper
- Groceries are 75.04% cheaper
- Local goods and services are 66.21% cheaper
Landlocked by Montenegro, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria and Romania, Serbia’s only waterway is the famed Danube. Having been part of the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires in past centuries, and the USSR more recently, architectural contrasts abound. The population of seven million people speak Serbian.
Apricots and long lived people! Georgia is another cultural crossroad. It was annexed by the Russians in 1800, declared independence in 1918 and was then forcibly bought back into the USSR in 1921. Georgia gained full independence in 1991 but this was followed by 15 years of political instability. However, major legislative reforms in 2005 and 2006 guarantee individual rights and freedoms including free speech with newspapers and TV programs often criticizing the government without fear of reprisal.
- Local purchasing power is 66.97% lower than New York
- Rent is 91.43% cheaper
- Groceries are 77.74% cheaper
- Local goods and services are 72.63% cheaper
The history, a long common border and an avowed interest in joining the EU has not exactly strengthened relations with Russia. Georgia has 4.3 million people, most of whom speak Russian, Georgian or both. However, if you’re looking for ‘the slow life’ at a very affordable price, sweet Georgia may be your answer!
Birthplace of Alexander the Great, modern Macedonia is another landlocked nation. With a mountainous terrain and numerous lakes, Macedonia boasts ancient towns full of Ottoman and European architecture. Skopje, both the capital and largest city in Macedonia, includes the sprawling Old Bazaar quarter and the National Gallery of Macedonia, housed in a 15th-century Turkish bath complex.
- Local purchasing power is 60.15% lower than New York
- Rent is 93.98% cheaper
- Groceries are 74.59% cheaper
- Local goods and services are 69.07% cheaper
Another country born of the breaking down of Yugoslavia, Macedonia avoided the ethnic violence that afflicted other Balkan countries during that period. Located immediately north of Greece, it has a population of 2.1 million speaking Macedonian and Albanian.
North African locations:
When most of us think of North Africa, we imagine riots, rebellions and repression. However, there are three countries that are certainly worthy of consideration (the third being Algeria). These three are both more economically and politically stable while also welcoming of visitors.
With its mix of Berber, Arabian and European cultural influences, the hippies may have had it right as they headed in their thousands to Marrakesh and beyond. Morocco has a lot to offer those with a modicum of financial well-being.
- Local purchasing power is 58.8% lower than New York
- Rent is 89.56% cheaper
- Groceries are 68.49% cheaper
- Local goods and services are 64.47% cheaper
Directly across the Strait of Gibraltar from Spain, you can choose between its Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts for swimming and sunbathing or take to the steep mountains in the country’s interior for a cooler option. Home to 33 million people, Arabic and Berber are the county’s official languages. However, both French and Spanish are widely spoken as is, to a lesser extent, English.
Fronting on to the Mediterranean and backing on to the Sahara, Tunisia is rich in both Roman and Islamic artifacts and architecture. This is the home of the fabled city of Carthage and some of the greatest battles of ancient times. Long Mediterranean beaches and islands like Djerba make Tunisia an attractive option.
- Local purchasing power is 59.81% lower than New York
- Rent is 93.9% cheaper
- Groceries are 72.42% cheaper
- Local goods and services are 71.26% cheaper
With Algeria to the east and Libya to the west, Tunisia’s population of almost 11 million is quite prosperous, with both agriculture and tourism playing important roles in the economy. Arabic and French are are the primary languages.
The Indian Sub-Continent:
Geographic, ethnic, religious and cultural diversity abound in this corner of the globe. From the mountains of Nepal to the waddies of Bangladesh to the subtleties of Nepalese cuisine to the hot Madrasa curries, there’s something for everyone… except space if you are determined to live in a major city.
Home to eight of the ten tallest mountains on the globe, Nepal also boasts gorgeous fertile plains and valleys and sub-alpine forests. It is bordered by China to the north (by what was formerly Tibet) and India to the east, south and west. Tourism is a major contributor to the economy. Even so, it ranks as one of the world’s poorest nations.
- Local purchasing power is 74.91% lower than New York
- Rent is 96.64% cheaper
- Groceries are 73.62% cheaper
- Local goods and services are 69.98% cheaper
Nepal’s written history goes back thousands of years, It is the birthplace of Buddha. Despite the poverty, Nepalese citizens are a happy lot. The exceptionally low cost of housing, food and clothing will ensure your savings go a long way in Nepal.
If you’re looking for a tropical island, skirted by beaches but with a cool, central highland, Sri Lanka is going to appeal. This island nation, sitting just across the Palk Strait from India (a mere 20 kilometres at the closest point) is home to eight UNESCO world heritage sites. The decades-long civil war has left tensions between the majority Sinhalese and Tamil minority but time has started to heal.
- Local purchasing power is 69.72% lower than New York
- Rent is 91.26% cheaper
- Groceries are 63.21% cheaper
- Local goods and services are 66.53% cheaper
Home to a diverse range of religions and ethnicity, Sri Lanka’s documented history goes back 3,000 years or more with evidence of habitation at least 125,000 years ago. Some 70% of the 22 million population are buddhist with Sinhalese and Tamil being the official languages. As you’d expect with a century and a half of British colonial rule, English speakers are everywhere.
If you like rainforests, warm water, seemingly endless beaches, spicy, full-flavoured foods and happy people, you’ll find a home in Sri Lanka. However, not all has been peaceful on this lovely isle.
Where to start? The cultural and language differences between east and west, north and south can be so great it’s hard to believe you are still in the same country. The good news for any expat resident is that English is spoken by a very significant percentage of the 1.2 billion population.
India is the cheapest country in the world to live in. Hands down. The official statistics prove it. But not if you choose to live in the major cities like Mumbai, New Delhi, Kolkata or Chennai where extreme income and wealth inequality are obvious on every street corner. It is in the quieter, less crowded corners of the country that the lifestyle will meet your expectations.
- Local purchasing power is 23.27% lower than New York
- Rent is 93.23% cheaper
- Groceries are 74.8% cheaper
- Local goods and services are 74.92% cheaper
In the 70 years since its independence, India’s economy has grown to become the globe’s fourth-largest. It produces enough food to be a net exporter and life expectancy has more than doubled since independence. It’s a vast nation of considerable beauty with a billion welcoming smiles. However, despite being the world’s largest democracy, it is plagued by corruption and misogyny. It still condones slavery in the form of indentured labour and it is estimated that close to 13 million young children are working in downright dangerous conditions. India has a lot to offer an expat but your heart will break most days of the week if your eyes are open.
Just like India, China is a land of geographic, cultural and climatic contrasts. And again, like India, the living is cheap as long as you keep away from cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen and Hangzou. In a nutshell, China is a true two speed economy with the non-industrialized areas left way behind in the income stakes.
- Local purchasing power is 32.16% lower than New York
- Rent is 81.33% cheaper
- Groceries are 52.26% cheaper
- Local goods and services are 55.24% cheaper
Despite a total population of 1.35 billion, areas outside of the major cities are relatively sparsely populated. China is a massive landmass, possibly second only to Russia if it’s ‘claimed’ territories like Tibet are included. So to avoid the shocking pollution of Beijing and the extraordinary real estate prices of Shanghai, move west young man, move west. There you’ll find bargains. Be warned though that only those of Chinese descent are able to buy property in China. For the rest of us, rentals are still incredibly cheap in many locations.
OK, so this is a contentious point. China would argue that we’re now including a province rather than a country. But since most of the world recognizes Taiwan as an independent nation, I will too. Previously known as Ilha Formosa, meaning “Beautiful Isle”, Taiwan is an island of stark contradictions. It offers spectacular natural mountain scenery, tropical rainforests and rural landscapes yet produces a significant proportion of the world’s computer technology! Taipei, Taiwan’s capital, is no bargain. But as soon as you leave the city, the lifestyle improves immeasurably as does the affordability.
- Local purchasing power is 18.57% higher than New York
- Rent is 85.2% cheaper
- Groceries are 27.11% cheaper
- Local goods and services are 38.62% cheaper
Independent since 1950, the Taiwanese people have a complex relationship with China. Vast sums of private Taiwanese capital have helped fuel China’s economic growth. In fact, more than 70,000 Taiwanese businesses operate inside China. Despite those ties, Taiwan has a very large army and air force ready to instantly defend its independence. If you like a little tension with your breakfast cereal, Taiwan may be the place for you! But be ready to learn Mandarin because English speakers are far and few between.
Another land of contrasts, geographically, ethnically and economically, the Philippines (yes, my American friends, that is the way the Filipino people prefer it spelled) is a land of promise and penury. The Marcos’ and their cronies ripped an estimated $80 billion dollars out of the country but that is probably only the tip of the iceberg. The country is still trying to recover but corruption and the abuse of power continue to throw up massive road blocks. Elected in 2016, the gun-toting, tough talking, new president, Rodrigo Duterte, is committed to ending corruption. Given that the Philippine parliament is probably the original ‘vipers’ nest’ only time will tell if he succeeds.
- Local purchasing power is 64% lower than New York
- Rent is 92.68% cheaper
- Groceries are 66.05% cheaper
- Local goods and services are 65.29% cheaper
With some 7,000 islands to choose from in the Philippines, there’s sure to be one to suit you. Mountainous and volcanic, the climate is typically warm and sunny, but typhoons seem to hit at least one region every year. The people are generally friendly, happy and hard working, welcoming of others and about one in every 10 of the 101 million residents speaks English!
There are some areas where Muslim insurgents pose a danger to expats but there is plenty of opportunity left for your dollars and you to find a home.
Malaysia is one of the few nations that actually puts out the welcome mat for expats through the “Malaysia – my second home” program. Ethnically diverse, only half the Malaysian population is Malay. The balance are predominantly Chinese and Indian with a further 7% being indigenous, mostly from Sarawak on the island of Borneo.
- Local purchasing power is 26.66% lower than New York
- Rent is 88.81% cheaper
- Groceries are 57.56% cheaper
- Local goods and services are 59.76% cheaper
Since gaining independence from the British 60 years ago, economic growth has consistently been above 5% per annum resulting in an impressive per capita GDP of $28,500, more than three times that of the Philippines ($8,223).
If you are looking for a long history of political stability in a retirement destination, Malaysia might be just the place. Roads are generally good to excellent and the beaches, especially on the east coast of the peninsula are superb. Alternatively, consider Malacca with it’s Portuguese influence and Nyonya cuisine.
Although officially a kingdom, Malaysia is, in practice, a full democracy based closely on the Westminster system. Religious freedom is guaranteed but be warned, there is a push toward Sharia (Islamic) law.
The official language of the 31.5 million inhabitants is Bahasa Malaysia, however, English is widely spoken and taught in schools.
The bottom line is that you can live beach-side in a warm, safe, secure environment for less than 1/5th of what you’re used to.
If you’re reading this and you are somewhere in the USA or Canada, Central America is going to offer a lifeline to ‘home’ due to it’s proximity. While there are many expats living in Panama, Costa Rica and even into South America, we settled on the two options that give the best ‘bang for buck’.
Formerly British Honduras, Belize has a superb location and very low cost of living, making it one of the cheapest countries to retire to. It’s bordered on the north by Mexico, on the south and west by Guatemala, and on the east by the sparkling Caribbean Sea. Given the many cultures and languages that reflect its rich history, the good news is that English is the official language :)
- Local purchasing power is 34.33% higher than New York
- Rent is 88.65% cheaper
- Groceries are 50.65% cheaper
- Local goods and services are 44.2% cheaper
Belize has beautiful beaches and reefs, exotic wildlife and Mayan ruins. The Belize Barrier Reef is the world’s second largest coral reef after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and offers spectacular diving. Some 60% of the land area is still virgin forest which, together with a rugged coastline, has unfortunately made Belize a drug smuggler’s haven with drugs entering here for movement through Mexico to the USA. (There had to be a downside!)
Does Mexico need an introduction? I suspect more Americans have visited Mexico than Canada or even Alaska. It’s warm, it’s different and it’s decidedly cheap.
- Local purchasing power is 39.92% lower than New York
- Rent is 91.63% cheaper
- Groceries are 71.94% cheaper
- Local goods and services are 70.19% cheaper
For the rest of us, Mexico is a vast country, considerably larger than the combined area of Spain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany! Choose between cities, countryside, jungle, beaches, mountains or small villages – with very close to two million square kilometres, you won’t run out of options.
The final alternative:
If the kids have flown and you’re ready for adventure, any and all of the above countries are worth consideration. But many of us still have family at home and all the challenges that raises when considering moving to a less developed nation. Think health care, child safety and education. So is there an alternative for you that will get you off the treadmill? Definitely, and it’s right there in your backyard.
Technology is advancing at such a rapid pace that many of us do not need to live in a major urban area. Within your own country there are beautiful, low key alternatives where housing costs are substantially lower and where farmers’ markets sell local, healthier produce at value prices. These are towns and smaller cities where you can live on a block of dirt big enough for a vege patch and a few chickens. Places where you know your neighbours and where real community events still happen.
The bottom line is that we not only need to ask that ‘why’ question, we need to be able to answer it. If we can’t, then it’s probably time to take stock of your assets and plan a better future. After all, this is the only life you’re going to get. If you need a little more motivation, this post, Of Death and Regrets, may just be the clincher.