Friday, April 30, 2010

Living Here: Economy

When I began last year thinking about ideas for this blog I started a list, and near the top of that list I scribbled, Economy. This is the title of the first chapter of the American philosopher Henry David Thoreau's Walden, or Life in the Woods. It was in Economy that he wrote what have become probably his most famous words, "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." The note was a reminder to myself that several of the chapters of this work, which I read for the first time in high school and have re-read several times as an adult, would make good models for entries in this blog. Thoreau wrote about why and how he lived alone in the woods for two years; a lot of this blog is about the why and how of living in Mèrida, Yucatan.

I was reminded of this topic again when I started reading, maybe two months ago, a blog called Hammock Musings from Mèrida, by a guy here who goes by the name of Hammockman Paul. He quotes Thoreau, and I enjoy his blog because it is thoughtful and in many ways Paul and I have similar interests and goals. So with apologies to HDT and to Paul, who has written about the economics of living here, inspired by Thoreau's detailed accounting of the economics of living by Walden Pond I am going to do the same thing.

I decided to do this because lots of friends up north seem to think that I must have become rich or have some kind of whopping retirement to be living here the way I do and at my age. And, a few are curious about the practicalities of living here. These are the ones who talk about coming down here to "check it out," with the idea of living here seasonally or permanently some day. The fact is that I live on less money than just about anyone I know up north. It's all a matter of setting priorities, simplifying and dedicating your resources to the most important and meaningful things, and not worrying about the rest. And, this can be a very economical place to live. So, for those who are curious, here is what my monthly expenses look like (converted to US dollars).

First, I paid cash for my house and all improvements, so I do not have monthly rent or house payments to worry about. Although prices have risen, it is still possible here to buy a good house for about what you might pay for a nicer new car. House maintenance, things like paint, roof maintenance, electricians, plumbers and small parts and repairs (I do as much as possible myself): $100. Bank trust for the house and miscelleneous: $50. Property tax: $8. Garbage removal, curbside pickup three times per week: $2.50 per month. Electricity (I do not have AC, but run lots of ceiling fans, pool and well pumps, computer and a large refrigerator): $45. Natural gas (stove and water heater): $15. City water: $5. Telephone, which includes the local connection with 200 calls, unlimited long distance calling within Mexico, WIFI connection and rental of all associated hardware, and a low rate on international calls: $55. Cell phone (I have a plan that is pay-as-you-go, no calls, no charges): $25. House cleaner (sweeping, mopping, dusting of whole house, kitchen and bathrooms twice per week) and cleaning products: $80. Pool chemicals (I do the labor myself): $15. I stopped watching television years ago and don't have one, so I have no monthly cable bills. Home total: $400.50.

I paid cash for my used car so I have no car payments. I live in an area where you can walk to just about everything and don't drive much except for the occasional "big shop" at Costco or one of the malls, and for things like visiting plant nursuries, the beach and out-of-town trips, so monthly gas costs around $50, occasionally more if I take a long trip. Insurance: $50. Routine maintenance like tires, oil changes and small repairs: $50. Auto total: $150.

Soap, shampoo, toothpaste, clothing, shoes, and all personal and grooming items: $50. It is possible to buy good quality clothing here very economically. I get good polo shirts that last several years for about $7 each, but quality, longer-lasting jeans and shoes are a better deal in the States, so I buy there when visiting. I don't have a job to costume for, so jeans, polo shirts and running shoes or sandals are my uniform. I don't need much else. Health insurance and doctors are another great deal in Mexico. I have good private-carrier health insurance with a $250 deductible for about $100 per month. The facilities here in Mèrida are top notch, with many specialists trained in the US, and normally a doctor visit costs $45 (if one is really on a budget, it is also possible to go to a Farmacia Similar and see a general practitioner for $2). I find service to be more personalized here than up north. Personal total: $150.

Food and Fun
I don't spend a lot of money on things like alcohol, fancy restaurants or nightclubs because these things just don't interest me much. Value for the money they rate way down on the scale. However I eat out once or twice per day, and I also like to drink a coffee or iced mocha in an air-conditioned cafe in hot weather, or an open sidewalk cafe when possible. A couple of beers out with friends is an occasional pleasure. Small restaurants are one of the best deals in Mexico, with great, home-cooked food available for $2 - $3 per person. It's often cheaper for me to eat out than shop and cook at home. Cafes and eating out $250. Food, beverages, bottled purified water, movies, other going out and miscellaneous purchases $100.

I often shop at the local markets, where yesterday a friend found these mangoes for five pesos per kilogram, or about eighteen cents per pound. Coffee is another bargain here. Mexican coffee is among the best in the world, and I am picky about my coffee. I buy rich, fresh whole bean roasted coffee, prima lavado from the mountains of Veracruz for about $5.50 per pound. There are numerous regular cultural events that are free or low-cost. First-run movies at the theater three blocks down the street cost about $2. Food and Fun total: $350.

Total for all of the above: $ 1050.50. My monthly household budget is about $1050. Art, books, recorded music, gifts, furnishings, the occasional other luxury, computers, other technology (which is minimal) and travel are not included in that amount.

This one is not included in the above budget because it is variable and I do not consider it part of the cost of living here. It is my largest annual cost along with food. I travel to Alaska two or three times per year to see family and friends. I also travel quite a bit within Mexico; it's quite economical because high-quality long-distance buses and reasonably-priced hotels are the norm. I rarely pay more than about $35 per night for hotels and often pay less. A week-long trip I took last fall to Oaxaca, including round-trip airfare from Mèrida, three restaurant meals per day, concert tickets, taxis, buses and six nights in hotels set me back about $600.

In Economy, Thoreau wrote: "Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind." I continue to work at simplifying my life because I have found that by not having to work excessively to acquire and maintain unnecessary luxuries, and by simplifying my comforts, I have been able to afford an abundance of the priceless, the greatest luxury of all: time.


  1. Marc, I, too, ran into Thoreau in High School and have been guided by him every since. Living in Merida, I often feel as if I were living at Walden Pond amongst alot of Henry David's. Thanks for sharing your insights. I am anxious to meet you formally whenever I get back home. (I already feel I know you.)

  2. Thanks, Paul. I was thinking about proposing that we have a cup of coffee or lunch together when I noticed you mentioned being up north. Let me know when you're back at "the pond."

  3. Marc -
    Thanks so much for the detailed information on "Economy". Researching Merida I discovered your blog and have enjoyed reading back through your well written postings these last few weeks. Enjoy your photos also. Please keep up the good work.

  4. To end your "Economy" blog you wrote, "I have been able to afford an abundance of the priceless, the greatest luxury of all: time."

    Gorgeous and wise sentiment.

    I loved reading about the secret flower patch too.


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