J.D. Moyer

beat maker, sci-fi writer, self-experimenter

Working Abroad Experiment Wrap-Up Part II — Financial Results

Spend money thataway!

We’ve been back from our Costa Rica “workation” for three weeks as of today.  It has taken that long for me to feel like life in Oakland (blessedly temperate with very few biting bugs, but much farther from the beach) is “normal.”

Hindsight continues to clarify the experience.  As beautiful as it was, and as friendly as everyone we met in the Puerto Viejo area was, I didn’t fall in love with Costa Rica.  It’s not really a matter of why or why not — it just didn’t click the way some other places I’ve visited have for me (Parma, in Italy, for example — or the north shore of Oahu).

You can’t predict what parts of the world you’ll fall in love with.  Hopefully your home is one of them.  To find the others … beyond randomly going places, I’m not sure how to go about it.  I don’t think a guide book can tell you.  Maybe the best way to improve your odds is to follow a lead … some picture or story or traditional food or factual detail or potential project that sparks your interest and that resonates emotionally.  If I gain more insight into that process, I’ll be sure to share it.

Still, I immensely enjoyed parts of the workation, and even the hard parts weren’t that bad.  I have zero regrets about the experiment, and we plan on going on similar adventures in different places (with a few tweaks to the game plan).

How Much Did It Cost?

One of the objectives of the experiment was to go on a longer trip without breaking the bank.  Until I sat down with a spreadsheet, I didn’t know how much damage our bank accounts had actually taken.  During the trip I was focused on making sure we had a enough cash for day-to-day needs; I wasn’t paying attention to the big financial picture at all.

Spent some money here (well-spent).

Gross expenses for the three of us (myself, Kia, and our toddler daughter) were $7033 for the entire six weeks.  The top four expense categories, from most to least expensive, were 1) flights, 2) rental houses, 3) eating out, and 4) groceries.  Those four categories came to about $6000, and the remaining grand was taken up by hotel, taxi, bicycles, bus tickets, laundry, ecotourism, gifts, childcare, clothing, exit fees, bank fees, and other expenses.

Of course, if we had stayed in Oakland, we’d have spent money in many of those categories over the same six week period.  Looking at average monthly expenditures in January through April of 2010, I calculated that we saved money in the following areas, comparing workation costs to “life in Oakland” costs.

  • Childcare: $2163 saved (we’re looking forward to public school)
  • Groceries: $1605 saved (see below)
  • Eating out: $495 saved (even though we ate out way more)
  • Gasoline and bridge tolls: $258 saved (we biked everywhere)
  • PG&E bill: $40 saved (our renter used less gas and electricity than we would have)

In addition to saving money in these categories, we had an additional $1100 in rental income from renting our place out.  That amount is below market in our area, but since we were renting to someone we knew and trusted (and found easily — no searching or interviewing required), it was a win-win situation.

During our workation I had income from music royalties, Loöq Records, and my database development freelance work.  Working conditions weren’t always ideal (lack of childcare and proper desk space), and I didn’t feel like working as often, so billable hours were down.  I calculated about $1700 in “lost” billable consulting fees for myself — work that probably would have gotten completed, delivered, and billed if I’d been at home.  That’s over the full six weeks.  Kia worked less as well, though I’m not sure what her numbers are (or if she wants to share them with the entire world).

Taking everything into consideration (gross expenses, money saved, additional income, changes in regular income), I calculated that the six week workation cost me $2357, or about $400 a week.  Slightly better tactics (renting one house instead of two, eating out less, and arranging better working conditions for ourselves) probably could have gotten that number down to about $300/week.

Depending on a number of factors, spending $2357 for six weeks in a different part of the world (during which you still need to complete and deliver a fair amount of work) might sound like a lot, or not very much.  To me it seems like a fairly good deal, though it wasn’t as inexpensive as I had hoped.

I think I’ve spent about that much (or a bit more) on many two-week vacations.  It’s an interesting comparison — two-week vacation vs. six-week workation.  The longer your trip, the more certain costs are amortized over longer chunks of time.  Flights you pay for just once (unless you hop around during your trip), and monthly rental costs are often almost the same as weekly rental costs (especially during low season).

The longer workation offered the experience of actually living somewhere else, and of completely breaking with (as opposed to just getting a break from) my daily routine.  I’m glad we did it, and I think, going forward, it will probably be our preferred choice over the whirlwind vacation.

Bank Fees and Credit Cards

It cost us $3-5 in ATM fees, plus about 3% of the actual withdrawal every time we withdrew cash.  I’m not sure which fees were Banco de Costa Rica and which ones where Chase, but they both got their share.  What a drag.  I wish there was a way around this (besides bringing massive amounts of cash into the country — no thanks).  Is there a way to use foreign ATM’s and avoid the fees?  If you know of one, please let me know.

Want a new dress? Cash preferred.

One bright spot was our CapitalOne Venture card — a new credit card we got just for this trip.  No foreign transaction fees at all, no annual fee (with our version — there’s also one with a fee and more rewards points), plus rewards points that can be used for travel or other stuff.  I wish we could have used the credit card in more places, but lots of places in Costa Rica only take cash, and many places (including hotels) that do take credit cards add a steep transaction fee.

A different credit card, one that I only used at only two restaurants at Costa Rica, ended up with some fraudulent charges on it, and had to be closed.  Chase took care of the problem with minimum hassle, but I’m glad I used a credit card instead of a debit card at those places (even though I’m not sure that the problem occurred at either restaurant).

On Groceries and Bicycles

Farmer’s market in Puerto Viejo

You may have noticed that we saved a lot of money on groceries — about $1600 over six weeks, or $267/week.  There are a number of reasons for these savings:

  1. We were eating out more.
  2. Food was less expensive.
  3. We were eating conventionally grown food instead of organic food.
  4. We were eating primarily local foods, and almost no imported foods (imported foods are an order-of-magnitude more expensive in Costa Rica).
  5. We generally drank beer instead of wine.
  6. Everything we bought, we had to carry home on our bicycles.

The last point is the most interesting.  We bought (and therefore ate) less food, simply because it was difficult to lug it around.  It made us think twice about our regular style of shopping at home — making gigantic trips to the grocery store and filling up the whole trunk of the car.  We also lost less food to spoilage (despite a flaky refrigerator).  It was more of a European village style of shopping: figure out what you want to eat that day, then walk or bike to the market and buy it.  Less efficient, but also fresher and less expensive.  We’re trying to emulate the same model now that we’re home, and so far the results are good — less money spent on food with no drop in quality (and nobody is going hungry).

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9 Comments

  1. Thanks for the breakdown! It was really helpful and interesting. Of course, before I can take a workation I need to get my work situation ironed out! 🙂

  2. Raj

    Good analysis! I would be too afraid to look into that detail.

  3. AmyG

    Impressive! We noted all of our expenses for the first month of our trip, but it petered out after that. I wish we had been as disciplined as you, although I think we’d be scared to see the results!

  4. John

    ATM. If possible I would have opened a checking account in CR and have Wells Fargo transfer the funds I wanted (once a month) for a flat fee of $15. The monthly checking account fee in CR would probably be around $10. Did you explore traveler’s checks? Some banks play games with the exchange rate. Anyway, you proved that a workation is very feasible. The world is yours! Well done.

  5. Jan Fure

    For no cost withdrawals, get a Charles Schwab checking account, no 3% extortion, and ATM fees are refunded, sometimes automatically, other times you have to show the receipt indicating ATM fee.

  6. Great tip — thanks Jan.

    FYI to anyone considering financial mgt. options in Costa Rica — we looked into opening a local account but the paperwork and documentation required was prohibitive (reference letters from local people/business and so forth).

  7. Im very impressed by your site. This post is just what I needed. I am suffering terribly with my asmtha at the moment. It seems to be completely based on my location. I am living abroad in Cali Colombia, I love it here more than I can explain, but I literally live with an inhaler. I went to New York recently for almost two months and had almost zero symptoms. When I arrived back in Cali, within about 12 hours my symptoms returned. I actually practice a semi strict paleo diet, but am going to start taking the supplements you suggested. Do you think an alergy test would be wise? Perhaps there is some type of flower or pollen here that is causing this…Something tells me that is what it is. Anyhow, thanks for taking the time to write this out…Looking forward to some of your future posts

  8. natebunger

    sorry I just realized I left a comment on the wrong post..This was meant to go under your asmtha cure post..

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