5 International Cities to Boost Your Standard of Living for Less

By Lauren Fairbanks on 28 May 2010 7 comments
Photo: Wha'ppen

As a resident of one of the most chronically expensive cities in the world, moving to a cheaper, more quality-of-life beneficial city has sat steady at the back of my mind for many years now. As a freelance writer, I have the glorious ability to work from anywhere — that is, as long as there's a strong pot of coffee and a Wi-Fi signal nearby.

However, ever since I became gainfully unemployed in the 9-5 rat race and shifted my gears into full-time freelancing, I've become more and more interested in what other cities can offer me and other wannabe U.S. expats in terms of a better quality of life for less. Clearly there are quite a few places that can offer a freelancer a boosted standard of living, and it'd be safe to say that a lot of those countries reside in South America. All hail the peso!

But we'll be checking out some other places in Asia, Eastern Europe, and even good ol' Canada that you may have never considered before.

The other component to keep in mind before you go ditching that day job to pick fruit in New Zealand (which I hear can be pretty lucrative if your rent is comped) is that this is more for freelancers who are picking up jobs in the U.S. and using a cheap cost of living or a promising exchange rate to live the dream.

1. Buenos Aires, Argentina

Yes, Buenos Aires has been done to death — written about in every major publication in the past 10 years since the peso crisis of 2002. But as long as you can still buy a steak dinner for two with a glass of wine for US $15 and eat it on your French balcony, it will continue to remain a fantastic bargain for the American expat.

Exchange Rate: 3.9
Average Rent: $750
Monthly Food and Living Costs: $300
Transportation: Trains and buses are cheap, running around $.70 and $.80 per ride, while an average taxi ride is around $5.

2. Bangkok, Thailand

Bangkok has recently taken the spotlight on becoming a multi-national city and business and finance hub. The city houses around 6.3 million people, and encompasses a wealth of history and cultural attractions.

Exchange Rate: 32.33
Average Rent: $400
Monthly Food and Living Costs: $350
Transportation: Tuk-tuk (a small three wheeled carriage), motorcycle taxis, and buses abound, as well as taxis.

3. Montreal, Quebec

Montreal has a lower cost of living and a higher minimum wage ($9 an hour), so even if you're not a freelancer, living here could still be more cost effective than most, if not all, U.S. metropolitan cities.

Exchange Rate: 1.02
Average Rent: $530
Monthly Food and Living Costs: $350
Transportation: The train in Montreal is very reliable and costs $2.75 a ride (or $70 for a monthly pass), and there are also buses and bike sharing programs.

4. San Jose, Costa Rica

San Jose is not only a tropical oasis, but a thriving metropolitan city and cultural hub. Fun fact: According to Wikipedia, 25% of the country's land area is in protected national parks.

Another surprising fact is the cost of living is a bit higher than you'd expect with such a favorable exchange rate. That's because of the high inflation rates, which have been some of Latin America's highest in the past few years. (But it's still extremely cheap to live here.)

Exchange Rate: .0019
Average Rent: $600
Monthly Food and Living Costs: $300
Transportation: Buses here are cheap and are the main source of transportation here, along with taxis.

5. Prague, Czech Republic

Although the winters can be a bit harsh, the cost of living is still relatively cheap in Prague, since the Czech crown still has a good exchange rate for Americans. The housing costs aren't shockingly low and basic gas and electricity is similar to U.S. costs. However, prices for food, alcohol and transportation are considerably lower, making it still a good deal.

Exchange Rate: 20.02
Average Rent: $700
Monthly Food and Living Costs: $300
Transportation: Prague has a rail system, buses, tram system, and ferries. A monthly transport pass will run you around $30.

Story was accurate and up-to-date at time of publishing. Exchange rates are the average so far for 2010.

Editor's Note: This article was written before some of the more intense unrest being experienced in the country of Thailand. As with any decision to move to a new area, we encourage you to research the region thoroughly — including any social or political factors — before you take the plunge. Many people still live and work in the country based on the positives we mention in this article.

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5 International Cities to Boost Your Standard of Living for Less

Lauren Fairbanks is a Brooklyn-based writer covering lifestyle, small business and personal finance topics. She's also the founder and editor of LifeStyler, a NYC centric budget lifestyle website. Read more articles by Lauren:

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Guest's picture
Oscar R.

Calling San Jose, CR a "thriving metropolitan city and cultural hub" is a bit of a stretch. Actually it is only now, in the last 3 years or so, growing a becoming more of a modern capital, however it is still very much a "small town" kind of city that is quite expensive for what it offers. With this in mind, it is no wonder that it continues to be a preferred destination for retirees.

Guest's picture

I will rather live in Chiang Mai than Bangkok. Cheaper, cooler, less traffic congestions, no red shirts riots etc. Seaside towns like Krabi are great for those who love the sea. I wouldn't call Bangkok a multi-national city and business and finance hub. It's no where near Singapore, which is arguably Asia's no. 1 multi-national, business and finance hub.

Guest's picture

Having just moved from San Jose, I feel qualified to point out a few things. SJ is dirty, full of traffic, and getting more expensive. It has a large expat community, and certainly has access to lots of American style foods. However, it's not as cheap as they say, especially if your standard of living is American-style. We had a car, and the poor road quality and recent increase in traffic can really frustrate you. Personally, I'd live outside the city, learn my spanish, and realize that a Costa Rican's "yes" often means no. It's a beautiful country outside of SJ, but violent crime is rising. Plus, healthcare might not be as nice outside of the city. If you don't want an American style of living, try renting for a few months first. And read up on the laws... they are changing for non-citizens and becoming more stringent with regards to living in Costa Rica long term.

Guest's picture

As an American expatriate living in Donetsk, Ukraine, I'd say that the elephant in this particular room has to do with visa requirements in any intended overseas living site. It may be relatively easy, or it can be extremely difficult to get a resident visa--but it is definitely something that should be researched early in the process for any place you may be considering.

Assuming you can get a visa, one area I would look at is Crimea. Many areas on the Black Sea are very much like California in many ways--quite beautiful--and the cost of living is far less than Prague, for example. (Americans, Canadians, and various other countries' citizens can travel here for up to 90 days without a visa at all, by the way, so you can definitely check it out if you wish.

Another Eastern European country I would take a look at is Bulgaria. Very cheap to live in, and as a newly admitted country in the EU you may find travel and living there pretty simple. Others like the Baltic countires--Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, for similar reasons.

Guest's picture

I've lived in Thailand for most of the past six years. Bangkok is still a great city to live in, especially if you don't mind the steamy hot weather. You'll need to keep yourself updated on the political situation for certain but hopefully once the situation is fully resolved, the city will return to its previous heights.
The trick with BKK is to wake up early and enjoy the parks and cafes, get a little work in and then have a nice siesta during the middle of the day. The evenings can be balmy but the nightlife and dining options more than make up for it.

Philip Brewer's picture

Let me add my home town, Champaign-Urbana, Illinois.

Exchange rate: 1
Rent: $600
Monthly food and living costs: $400
Transport: bus is $1 per ride; an annual pass for unlimited rides is just $60.

You can live abroad for less, but you can do it at home, too:


Guest's picture

Speaking as someone living in Montreal, QC, there are several pros and one con to living in this particular corner of La Belle Province.

1) Language. Pros: there is a high percentage of English speakers on the island of Montreal. Between 30 to 40% of Montrealers speak English as their mother tongue, and most Montrealers can speak some English. Cons: the French are very snooty towards the English about their inability to speak French well. The minimum wage is up to 9.50 but regular salaried jobs for non-French speakers are limited: you can forget working in retail or in an upscale office. Your work will likely be telephone surveys. We do, however, have bilingual hobos.

2) Lifestyle. Mostly pros: you'll find that Canada is almost identical in terms of lifestyle to our American cousins. You'll still find a Starbucks on every corner downtown.

3) Culture. Mostly pros: lots of new exciting music, a summer season jam-packed with festivals such as the Montreal International Jazz Festival and the Just for Laughs Festival

4) Cost: all pros. The rent is indeed cheap, the transportation (if you decide to live on the island is also cheap.