After years of talking about and dreaming about living abroad, we finally loaded up the family and headed to Central America. We’ve almost been in Nicaragua for half a year now! And it has been quite an experience.
How’s Nicaragua!? We now get that question all the time, and we usually don’t have a really good answer. It is such an experience. So many awesome things mixed with some hard things, and it kind of just leaves us speechless about how to describe it all.
But I’m going to try to tackle our experience in this post and come up with a good, articulate answer, both for your sakes and for mine.
After years of dreaming about moving to Latin America, we were finally doing it! It was so surreal and exciting. We arrived after dark in Managua, which is about an hour away from where we were looking to live.
One the first night, we stayed in a hotel across the street from the airport. We packed our 4 kids into a one-bedroom hotel room with our 10+ pieces of luggage. At that pointed I started thinking “What the heck are we doing? Did I really just sell my house and move my four young kids to Nicaragua?”
But we just pushed those little doubts out of our minds and pressed forward. Almost 6 months later, we’re still here.
First things first. MONEY.
When people find out I am not here for work-related reasons, they often wonder how we are surviving. To most of the locals here, the idea of taking “a year off,” would be a totally foreign concept. Even after trying to explain to people that we’ve been saving for years for this and that I actually am working on building a business, I still have people telling me about good call center jobs or English teaching jobs they think I’d be great for.
One of the reasons we chose Nicaragua other than safety was the cost of living. In all my research, I read that it was the 2nd poorest place in Latin America (behind Haiti). That might be different now, but it doesn’t change the fact that it is cheap. We have been occasionally surprised, however, at how not-cheap some things are.
We pay less for our house now than we paid for our first family-housing 2-bedroom apartment in college over 11 years ago. We currently pay $500/month for a 4-bedroom house in a secure neighborhood. Had we settled for a less exclusive area, we could have been paying less than half of that. In other words, housing is CHEAP.
We have not purchased any land, but I am looking all the time out of curiosity because it is also CHEAP. Because much of Nicaragua is still undeveloped and undiscovered, you can still get land for a bargain. That’s not to say there haven’t been foreigners who’ve been scammed in real estate deals, because I’ve heard those horror stories too.
We weren’t planning on hiring a house keeper, but we made some friends down here who mentioned their maid was looking for extra hours. So now, Teresa comes 2 days a week from about 8am to 1:30pm. She does any left-over laundry, sweeps, mops, and cleans the bathrooms. And she makes lunch. We pay her double the going rate, and that’s still only about $2.00/hour. (Yes, 2 dollars an hour is double the typical pay for a maid.)
Our landlord wanted us to have a gardener come regularly to maintain the lawn & garden around the house. So we also have a gardener who comes once a week for a few hours. He charges less than $7.00 each week, and that’s usually for 5-6 hours of work. That may seem like a long time, but that’s how it goes when you cut grass with a machete.
I may or may not have bribed my son by buying him a machete (all the 9-year-olds have them down here)
If you are brave enough to confront the local markets, you can make it out with one impressively low grocery bill. You can find fresh fruit that’s twice the size, double the flavor, and half the cost of what you might see in the states. There are monstrous avocados you can find for a fraction of a dollar. Rice and beans abound because they are so cheap and plentiful (or is it the other way around?).
If you, however, need to have a particular brand of ketchup or pickles for your american-style barbecue, those items will run a bit higher. There are some near-american-grade grocery stores with air conditioning, but you do pay a premium.
Auto maintenance – A day after we bought our jeep, it wouldn’t start. We were already apprehensive about purchasing a car in a third-world country, so you can imagine how we felt after dropping $8,000 cash to an unknown Nicaraguan at a local gas station only to have the engine fail the following day. I kept telling myself it was probably something minor, and luckily, it was. It ended up being an issue with a wet sensor in the key (don’t let your babies chew on your keys).
The mechanics (three of them) came to our house and worked on the car for about 3 hours. It cost less than $40.
More recently, we had our leaking radiator repaired. That was also around $40.
I had the whole thing washed and detailed for less than $5.
Legal – Lawyers are involved in almost every significant transaction down here. To buy our car, I went with the seller to a lawyer’s office so he could help us execute the transaction. I was there for a good 2 hours, and he charged me $20.
Medical – After almost 3 months, I picked up a bug and ended up going into the doctor. He spent a full hour with me, and the consultation cost me $25.
Just recently, our toddler wasn’t feeling well, so I took in a stool sample to one of the many labs. It cost me 3 bucks to get the lab work, and the technician sent me the results 2 hours later through WhatsApp. That’s my kind of transaction!
With such cheap land and labor available, I believe that this place is ripe with investment opportunity. I am very tempted to find a home for some of our cash. But there is still some political uncertainty, and you have to really keep up your guard up for opportunism.
With the whole cancer situation last year, I chose to stay on COBRA. That’s not the cheap part. But we purchased a very affordable high-deductible health care plan covering the rest of the family. We got a Latin American policy through Pacific Prime, and paid about $2K for Amanda and the 4 kids, which will cover them for 1 year. It does include emergency helicoptor evacuation to a different country, in case you were wondering.
What’s not so cheap
Cars & gas
We bought a 2006 Jeep, which blue books for about $5,000 in the states. We got it for 60% more than that, which is down from what they were originally asking. Cars down here usually sell for at least 40% more than what they cost in the states. But the good part is that they hold their value much better, so we hope to sell it for almost the same price as we bought it for.
On top of having a car that gets worse gas mileage, gas is more expensive. It’s about $4/gallon, so that’s a little painful. At least they pump if for you though, right? I know very little about cars, so I’ll often ask the gasoline attendants questions. They’ll pop open the hood and do their best to tell me what they think. Their willingness to help is refreshing.
Relative to land and labor costs, utility bills are expensive. Our electric, water, and gas bills have been about what we were paying in the states.
We do not have an air conditioning unit. Where we live, the climate is fairly temperate, and an occasional fan suffices. But I have heard stories about sky-high electric bills due to running the air conditioning for too long (think in the thousands per month).
For many of the locals, utilities presents a huge financial burden, and many of them connect to power sources illegally or “borrow” it from neighbors. Look at all these hookups…
Phone & Internet
We are still using Republic wireless wi-fi only plans. So anytime we are in our Nicaraguan house connected to wifi, we can make and receive calls to the U.S., which has been nice.
We also purchased 2 little prepaid phones for the occasional local call we need to make. I haven’t quite figured out how the locals afford their phone plans because buying minutes seems awfully expensive. (Amanda’s note: they often delay buying new minutes after they run out, so often I will be the designated “caller” if I am with a group of Nicaraguans who need to get in contact with someone).
We’re paying about $40 bucks/month for internet, which I think is part of a promotion…but isn’t it always?
In the states, we were probably spending closer to $5K/month. We now are hovering around just under $3K. If you remove my COBRA premiums, which we would have done if I hadn’t gotten cancer, it would be more like $2,400/month. That’s for a family of 6, living in a “nice” neighborhood in Nicaragua, eating out at least once a week.
The biggest reduction in expenses is actually not related to the cheap cost of living. It’s related to the fact I am making much less money. About 20% of our monthly expenses in the states was tithing. That’s a lot less now. It’ll jump up there again during tax season and when I really start to push my CPA business over the next few months, but for now that’s the situation.
The next biggest driver is the reduction in housing costs. We paid about $1,250/month in Michigan, and we now pay $500. That’s a 60% reduction. Not too shabby.
Despite some new expenses we’ve incurred (a small storage unit in Michigan, 2 phone plans for both US and Nicaragua phones, a maid & gardener), our cost of living has been reduced by over 40%. And compared to some of the expats I’m aware of down here, we could probably be saving even more.
Before arriving, both Amanda and I had pictured ourselves living downtown, rubbing shoulders with the everyday working man in the community.
Reality turned out to be a bit different. After arriving and staying 2 weeks in different AirBnBs, we ended up opting for one of the nicer, guarded neighborhoods. And when I say “nicer’, I mean nicer relative to where most of the locals live. Our house is like a typical US house with electricity, tile floors, screens, nice painted walls, and consistent water.
For the most part, every North American we have met in this area is either a retiree or a missionary, so it is usually assumed that we are missionaries. When people find out we’re not, they usually respond with something we interpret as “well then what the heck are you doing down here?”
We are pretty well assimilated into our local church congregation, and our kids, despite not knowing the language, have made good friends. Amanda helps with the primary kids, and we were also asked to teach an adult Sunday School class.
I may have ignorantly and unfairly assumed that Nicaraguan culture would have more similarities to Mexican culture than it does. I lived in Mexico. I worked for a Mexican corporation. I love their food, their culture, and the people (banda music I pass on though). I knew Mexican.
But the culture here is different. It’s Nicaraguan. At the beginning they seemed more wary about this crazy United States family coming to live in their community, maybe because it’s not as common as in Mexico. But once they figured out we weren’t escaping the law in the states, and we were planning to stay for awhile, they opened up. Sort of reminds me of when I dated Amanda…
Customer service is a whole different ball game. It takes a while to get used to. But whenever either of us becomes inclined to complain about some little thing, Amanda and I tell each other “Remember, you are a guest in this country.”
Though for me it won’t ever dethrone Mexican food as my favorite, the food down here has grown on me. You do have to be careful with your veggies though because they are more likely to make you sick. And at times it seems like its harder to come by clean fresh greens. I didn’t realize how eating bags of spinach was really a US thing. Since I am surely deficient, I came back down with a greens supplement, which has actually helped me feel much, much better.
Soon after arrival, we put our kids in a local private school that serves some of the typical Nicaraguan neighborhoods. They attended for 3 months, but after our trip back to the states, we told them we weren’t going to return. Amanda should write an entire post about the kids school experience. It’s been one of the biggest pieces of the puzzle to figure out down here.
It was hard for them to go to a new school in a brand new culture speaking a foreign language, but I think it was very eye opening for them in a (hopefully) good way. It’s probably the last time they’ll have stray dogs wandering through the classroom.
I’m trying to figure out what I want to do when we eventually go home. Do I want to go full-time with my financial cpa/consulting business? Or do I want to go back and work for the man as a controller or finance director?
We’re also trying to figure out where we want to live. The field is wide open. We loved southwest Michigan, and the Midwest is still a possibility. But all our family lives out West. I am open to suggestions, so chime in!
Definition & Purpose
Spending a few weeks back in the states during the summer was a very interesting contrast. We thought we had done pretty well during our first 3 months in Nicaragua, but we started to realize that we had a lot of mixed feelings, much of it due to culture shock, but probably also due to having time away from the rat race to examine our lives.
Moving to Nicaragua was just such a life change in so many ways, I started really thinking about my purpose and what defined me. Being so far removed from our “normal” life, the usual things that used to define me were no longer there, which left me wondering…
It was a good time for some self introspection. I realized I didn’t want to be defined by my wealth, my career, my gender, race, medical issues, etc. I am a husband. I’m a father. I am a son of God. I’m the main provider for my family. I feel much more at peace with deriving my value from those things.
My goal is to become so at peace with those defining factors that when we return to normal life I won’t be as inclined to let my worth be defined by external factors, especially money.
But if you think I’m going to stop chasing money…you’d be wrong.
Lately I have been much more active on social media with my cpa business. I haven’t fully admitted to myself that I’m going to build that up in favor of returning to a full-time job, but that’s where things are headed if I keep going in the same direction.
And this little thing just turned one-and-a half.
Now on to part 2 of our adventure!