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Beyond the Cost of Living in Costa Rica

We hear this question a lot: What is the true cost of living in Costa Rica? In a separate article, Tim Woodruff gives you an honest, helpful look at the numbers. Here I want to look beyond them, because the price of a bowl of soup or a gallon of gasoline is the same for everyone, but some things cost a lot or a little depending on who you are. Here is my preliminary list:

“Loss of Control”

Are you a person who enjoys going with the flow, rolling with the punch and adapting quickly to any evolving situation so easily that people think you were born “tranquilo”? Do you see adapting to sudden changes as a really cool part of the adventure most of the time? Do you enjoy having people drive up just as you are starting supper, and sharing it with them?

Or are you a person who loves to be in control of your schedule? Who expects things to go according to plan? Who assumes that when someone says they will do something at a certain time, they will do it at that time? Who fidgets like a kid waiting to get in the bathroom, and taps her watch when someone arrives late?

If the former, you might actually get some emotional “income” here as you transition from life in the fast lane to life in the parking lot. If you are the latter, initially you will pay a higher emotional “cost” for moving to and living in Costa Rica. Costa Rica is largely a “go with the flow and roll with the punch” country. There are all kinds of exceptions, but keep in mind that they are exceptions.

People who can only really enjoy life when in control of it might find that they are emotionally drained after a while because… newsflash… no one has put them in charge of the country. It can be a rude awakening.

“Is it Fair?”

Are you someone who believes that “fair is fair,” and that when something isn’t “fair” it is somehow morally wrong?  Or are you someone who feels that “mostly fair” is good enough, and that regardless of what other people do or don’t do, you are happy do your part?

If you are the former, you will pay a higher emotional “cost” here. If the latter, you will pay less emotionally. Of course if you are the former you may pay a lower monetary cost than if you are the latter.

Costa Rica is a small country, so it is more like a giant “community” and people place a high value on just getting along with each other. Perhaps that’s why it is continually ranked as one of the “happiest” countries in the world, but this comes with a price tag if you didn’t grow up that way. There may be times when you feel taken advantage of, or “pushed” to contribute more than someone else because you have more money.

For example: Let’s say everyone is trying to figure out a better way to handle garbage pickup in your community. You discover that the Ticos are paying less per month than you are for the same service. Now what do you do? Put your foot down and start burying your garbage in your own back yard? Call all your expat neighbors and go on strike? Pay your own bill and be glad that your garbage is being picked up?

“Benefit of the Doubt”

Are you someone who generally tries to give people the benefit of the doubt and allows them opportunities to demonstrate their better angels in the future even if they have let you down recently?

Or are you someone who is naturally suspicious and keeps a very long mental record of anyone who has failed you in some way?

If you are the former, emotionally you will immediately be more at ease. If you are the latter, you will have a higher emotional cost as you interact with those around you. Financially it could very well be the opposite: those who are less suspicious and less likely to carry a grudge may pay a higher price in hard cash than those who keep a close eye and a long list. Is it worth it? You decide.

“The Natural World”

Are you someone who feels threatened by the natural world in all of its forms, whether by things that fly, crawl, hop, creep, slither, swim, or climb? Or are you someone who finds the natural world fascinating and photogenic even when it is small and itchy?

If you are the former, you may feel constantly embattled and you will pay a higher emotional cost. If you are the latter, you will find endless new variety in your life, some immediately appreciated and some not so much, but all photogenic.

Costa Rica’s natural world is incomparable. There is incredible beauty and diversity in its plant and animal life. Of course included in all of that there are things that poke, bite, sting and make webs across your doorways. The more you learn about the creatures and critters, the more tolerable they become, Getting to “know them” can be great fun, but it may cost you for a while. Note: no one likes the army ants.

“Capitalism/Socialism”

Are you a person who can embrace aspects of both capitalism and socialism, sensing that neither is perfect? Or are you a person for whom one or the other is the only “right” way, and any mention of the advantages of the “other” way drives you crazy?

Costa Rica is largely a capitalistic country, but its size, history and outlook give capitalism a rather socialistic edge in many ways. If you are black and white about either system, you will face a higher cost as you are confronted with fuzzy boundaries. If you are willing and able to try and understand the particular mix of systems here, you will feel more comfortable from the beginning.

One huge stressor is that you will not find the level of competition here that you have in larger countries. There are 300 million consumers in the U.S.A. with relatively higher incomes and an enormous number of differences in race, religion, educational background, geography, climate, country of origin, political leanings…. That allows for vigorous competition and niche markets. If you don’t like one service provider or store, you can easily jump to another. Companies and stores that want your business have to fight for it with stellar service.

In Costa Rica, on the other hand, there are less than 5 million consumers and they are much less varied. You can’t have as much competition and niche marketing when the pool of buyers is 1/60th the size. Therefore there are more monopolies that have far less incentive to make you feel like the most special person in the world when you buy from them or sign up with them. That harsh reality is a “cost” to people who simply cannot run with it. For those who can accept it, there is still the prospect of higher monetary costs in some areas and longer waits, but less emotional cost.

“Personal Growth”

Are you a person who embraces opportunities to grow and learn? Who enjoys conversing with people you don’t agree with? Who wants to understand differences? Who sees another language as a fun puzzle instead of a frustrating obstacle? Or are you a person who is quite sure that you are already where you need to be in life and have nothing to learn from those who are different from you or disagree with you?

If you are the former, you might actually get some “emotional income” here because there are an infinite number of such opportunities. If you are the latter, you will face an emotional cost unless you are able to insulate yourself by joining a sub community where your world is just like you want it.

There is increasing evidence that learning another language, debating someone you disagree with, and making friends with people who are different from you will physically change your brain, abstractly change your mind, promote good health for more years, and more. The advantages are certainly there, but how they impact you is up to you.

This is just a start. There are certainly more factors to take into account. I have known hundreds of “expats” in several countries, and my take is that over the long term the most significant cost of living in Costa Rica or anywhere else are more related to who you are than to what you buy. The prices you pay for healthcare, transportation and food are all relevant and significant, but they are not generally what keeps Paradise from becoming a roll of the dice.

The good news is that even if you face higher personal “costs” in your move to Costa Rica, you can turn those into an investment in your future by opening yourself to new adventures, growth and development. In his book “At Home in Costa Rica,” author Marvin Rice recounts his slow progression from a strong Type A personality to someone who could comfortably get the “runaround” and wait in long lines only to be told he was in the wrong lines. His book makes it clear that he saw that as a good thing, something to welcome and embrace. It was worth the price he paid initially.

The other good news is that no matter what kind of person you are, there will be differences that both delight and confound you. How do I know? Because the Ticos themselves are sometimes delighted with themselves, and sometimes confounded. If people who have lived here all their lives and know no other way of life still get both excited and frustrated, it’s a certainty that you will too.   So here’s how I look at it: the most costly experiences make the best stories. Someday, looking back, most of it is really funny, and that’s where you cash in no matter who you are.