I was inspired to write this article by several comments I received on my Cost of Living breakdown where I detailed how my wife and I live in Panama for half of what it cost us to live in Tampa, Florida. They all generally are along the line of “hey, you save money mostly by making lifestyle changes, not because things are actually cheaper.” And the answer to that statement is both yes and no. On a per item to item basis, many things in Panama City are not much cheaper than my life was in Tampa. But the lifestyle that I have now in Panama not one I would have been able to live in Tampa. So you can’t separate the lifestyle you live in Panama from the overall cost of living comparisons, since they are intertwined.
I will say this: if you’re happy with the lifestyle you live right now in your home country, and are not looking to change it in any meaningful way, then do everyone a favor and stay where you are. You will never live the exact same lifestyle as you did at home when you live abroad, whether it’s Panama or anywhere else. And if you move here expecting it to be the same, chances are you will end up being very unhappy, and in turn will make everyone else very unhappy by loudly telling us about how much you don’t like Panama. So for all of our sakes, if you are not looking for a new adventure that includes a lifestyle change, pass on Panama.
Overall, the changes that I’ve made to my lifestyle while living in Panama have made me more content than the one I was living previously. While there have been a lot more than 7 changes, here are some major ones.
1. Living a Car-Free Lifestyle
I talk about this a lot on the blog, because it’s one of the biggest (and I think best) changes I’ve made to my life since moving to Panama. In the 15 months I’ve lived here, my wife and I have had no real need for a car, because there are so many cheap ways to get around Panama City, that having one is unnecessary for most people who move here. Eventually, we may decide to get one to travel more to the countryside and to take our photography gear to jobs as our photography business continues to grow, but I can’t really foresee a situation in the future where we will need more than one. In contrast, living a decent lifestyle in Tampa with less than two cars was almost impossible, given the lack of options for people to get around without one.
In Panama, if you don’t have a car, you can get around by Bus ($0.25), Metro ($0.35), Taxi ($2-$3 most places in the city), and Uber or UberX ($2.50-$10, depending on the service and distance/traffic). The bus system and metro system are fairly well run, and have convenient and direct routes. They blow the public transportation in Tampa out of the water. In Tampa, metro or rail doesn’t exist, and the only public transit is bus, which is very inconvenient. For the few months she didn’t have a car, my wife used to take the bus and from her job in Tampa, and it would take her almost 2 hours each way for a trip that took 10 minutes in the car. By comparison, my wife now uses the bus to and from work, and it’s a 15-20 minute trip home. SHe gets out of work at 4:00PM, and walks in the door before 4:30. Taxis and even Uber (sometimes) are so cheap that they are cheaper than many public transit systems in the US.
It also helps that most neighborhoods in Panama have a lot of basic necessities in walking distance. For us that’s a warehouse club, a drug store, our bank, two major supermarkets, and gym, and a handful of restaurants. Other areas have even more in walking distance. So for a lot of day to day getting around, you don’t need to worry about anything other than your feet.
This is one of the main ways my wife and I save money in Panama (about $1000 a month), and it could have never been done in Tampa. There are really only a handful of cities in America that are dense enough and have strong enough public transit systems that you can live without a car, and they’re usually also the most expensive cities to live in. So being able to live in a city that’s conducive to living without a car without taking on the added cost of living is one of the huge lifestyle benefits to living in Panama.
2. Dining Out Less and Embracing Home Cooking
In terms of cost of livings savings, this was the other main area that I highlight in my article. Since my wife and I moved to Panama, we’ve made a big effort to be smarter with how we spend our money on food. We were particularly bad with this in the US. Dining out for most meals, even if it was food we didn’t even really like, and racking up $40-$50 dinner bills for food that felt like we could have made it at home for a fraction of the price. I know we are not the only ones who lived like this. So when we moved here, it was on our mind to change this, and that was definitely part of the reason we’ve gotten better at it. But I also believe that Panama helps make this easier for us.
Since we’ve moved here, Panamanian cuisine has really given us a culinary flair. To me, the dishes are a lot more fun and easier to make than traditional american dishes. Whether it’s cooking sancocho, paella, seafood baked in pineapple, pulled chicken dishes, or any of the many other dishes we cook now, it’s given us a new enthusiasm for cooking. It helps that the basics you need to make most panamanian dishes are pretty cheap to buy here. While imported foods are expensive, locally grown meats, seafood, and produce are cheaper than in the United States, plus they have lots of items that are hard to find typically in the US. Many basic items are also price controlled, so overall, cooking can be more exciting and affordable than in the US.
That’s not to say we never dine out, and when we do, Panama provides us with plenty of opportunities to eat affordably. Sure, there are plenty of pricey restaurants in Panama (although I think that in comparison, pricey restaurants here are cheaper than pricey restaurants in the US), but there are also plenty of places to get a good meal for a few bucks, especially if you’re not focused on ambiance. There are lunch specials everywhere in Panama. Today I went to a little restaurant by me and got ropa vieja (a Panamanian shredded beef dish) with rice, beans, plantain, coleslaw, and a small drink for $3.95. We also like to go to the fish market and enjoy a pint of ceviche that we split as a meal ($6). I talk about some other ways to dine out on the cheap in this article.
3. Spending More Time Enjoying the Outdoors
Panama is a country with a lot of natural beauty, even in the densely developed Panama City. There’s Parque Omar, which is Panama’s Central Park sized park in the middle of the San Francisco neighborhood. There’s Parque Metropolitano, which is a jungle oasis in the middle of the city that allows for great hiking. And then there’s the Cinta Costera, which is miles of bike paths and parkland built alongside the water. There’s Panama Viejo, the ruins of the 500 year old original settlement of Panama. Not to mention the dozens of smaller parks that are located in neighborhoods across the city. And unlike the US, where most parks close at sundown, many parks here are open late at night, allowing you to enjoy them when the temperature is more moderate.
There’s really no excuse (unless your health prevents it) to move to Panama and not enjoy the opportunities to do things in the outdoors. It’s something that we’ve taken advantage of a lot more than when we lived in the US. One of our favorite things to do is go on an evening to the fish market (which is right on the cinta costera), then walk the Cinta Costera and buy some homemade plantain chips ($1) and raspao (shaved ice $0.75-$1). On a clear weekend night, the area really comes alive. You’ll find street vendors selling their wares, street performers trying to impress you for a dollar, and thousands of Panamanians walking, jogging, biking, or enjoying many of the basketball, soccer, and tennis courts along the route. The whole area has this really great vibe that I won’t be able to do justice describing in words.
Being able to enjoy the outdoors is a big reason (along with numbers 1 and 2) why I’ve lost 25 pounds since moving to Panama, without any major exercise.
4. Putting myself out there more socially
To those who know me now this may come as a surprise (or maybe not, since some of my social awkwardness is still there), but I used to be a very quiet, anti-social person. This started changing somewhat before I moved to Panama, but since I’ve got here, I’ve made much more of an effort to meet new people. Part of this is by necessity. Being an expat can be an isolating experience at first if you don’t have anyone to share it with. So my wife and I got involved with Internations, the American Society, and other organizations aimed at connecting expats.
Now, things that would’ve terrified me a year ago, like going to a stranger who’s standing in the corner by themselves and striking up conversation, are second nature. This is in part because the international community in Panama is overall very friendly and welcoming to each other (minus a few bad apples). There’s very little of the social stratification I would see in the US, where people would only talk to other people if they felt that they met some certain criteria. Here everyone talks to everyone, and it takes away a lot of the stress of social situations.
To be clear, I’ve also made many great Panamanian friends who are some of the kindest and most compassionate people I know. So I don’t only socialize with expats. But when someone first moves here, the expat community is naturally where they will gravitate.
5. Living a more laid back lifestyle
I’ve talked about this at length before, but life just moves at a slower pace in Panama. No one is in a hurry to do much of anything, and things get done on their own schedule. Now you can either let that drive you nuts, as it does for some expats, or “turn into the skid” and embrace it. I’ve chosen the latter, and it’s made life less stressful and more relaxing. This doesn’t mean that I don’t do important time sensitive things in the time they need to get done, but for things in everyday life, I just take it easy and not worry so much if everything doesn’t happen as quickly as I want it, or exactly the way that I want it to. I realized that previously I stressed myself out a lot unnecessarily over things that weren’t important, and letting that go has been a big weight off my shoulders.
6. Enjoying the movies more (and other cheap forms of entertainment)
Going to the movies is one thing you can do in Panama that is definitely cheaper than in the US. I wrote an in depth article about it here with a breakdown of costs of each theater, but you can go to a 2D movie for less than $5 at several theaters, and food and drink are usually less than half the price of the US (you can get a large popcorn for $3). They do have pricier VIP theaters that give you an upscale experience, but the regular movie theaters are perfectly fine and of the same quality of your average movie theater. My wife and I only used to see a couple of movies a year in Tampa, even though we lived in walking distance to a movie theater. Now we go to at least one a month. Most American movies make it to Panama. Sometimes they take a little while (although blockbusters come out day and date with the US), but they make it here.
Going to the movies not your thing? There’s always free or cheap events going on in Panama City to take advantage of. Earlier this year, we went to this great free rock concert in Parque Omar. There’s always something going on somewhere, and it usually doesn’t cost much. The hardest thing can be finding out about everything that is going on, so you need to keep your ear to the ground and get connected to people who are “in the know,” since most things spread here by word of mouth. PTY Life has a pretty good events calendar.
7. Spending more time giving back
When I moved to Panama, one of the things I wanted to do was to spend less time focused on me, and more time focused on helping the community. In the US, doing work for charity was always something that was in my mind and heart, but I always had a lot of trouble converting it to action. In Panama, I’ve gotten to spend a lot more time giving back, which I enjoy much more than spending time on myself. There are no shortage of great organizations in Panama that help the community, and I encourage every expat to get involved with at least one. That’s why I created the Expats Give Back facebook group, where expats can provide each other with information on community projects and volunteer opportunities so that those who are looking to help out can find information on doing so. Working on charity projects is also how I’ve made a lot of my Panamanian friends, so it can be a very good way to branch out from just regular expat circles.
BONUS: Writing a blog
Writing a blog was never something I intended to do when I moved to Panama. But once I got down here, I realize I had things I wanted to say, and advice that I felt I could give, so I started writing down my thoughts about life in Panama, not knowing if anyone would read it. Now 9 months later, this will be my 50th post and Panama for Beginners has crossed 100,000 lifetime pageviews. I’m incredibly blown away by all the support it has received, and thankful to each and every reader. And honestly, writing a blog is something that any expat living in Panama who feels like they have something they want to say can do. It really doesn’t take any special skills. I don’t have any and most of the other great bloggers who write about Panama don’t either. There’s no reason why any of you couldn’t do what we do and do it better. If anyone is interested in starting a blog about Panama and doesn’t know where to start, please feel free to reach out to me. I got a lot of assistance from established bloggers when I was first starting out, and I would be happy to pay that back by helping others who are starting out.
Author’s Note: This in unrelated to this post, but my wife is currently a semi-finalist in a photo contest. The finalists are determined by online voting, so if any readers are currently in Panama (they tell by your IP address), please take a second and vote for her photo. There will be 30 finalists, and from there judges will pick 10 winners who will each win $1000. If you could help her out, that would be great!