8 Exotic Places Where You Can Live on a Shoestring

Person sitting at a large window wall looking out
credit: JFXie

Have you ever dreamed of leaving the rat race and going off to explore the world? Most people assume such a move would be impossible unless they had saved up a lot of money, but the experts at Live and Invest Overseas (LIOS) take a different approach:

"Imagine your ideal lifestyle. Then look at the numbers in that context. Where will the budget you’ve got buy you the lifestyle you’re looking for?"

It's a radical thought -- that, by changing your surroundings, you could find an exciting, foreign place to live that's so cheap you barely need to work at all or worry about retirement savings. Enter the 2017 Annual Overseas Retirement Index, created by the folks at LIOS, which compares destinations across 13 categories in order to determine the best places to live on a shoestring. The categories are cost of living, infrastructure, health care, residency, real estate affordability and restrictions, taxes, entertainment, recreation, crime, English spoken, environment, expat community, and climate. The list shares some destinations with International Living's Annual Global Retirement Index, but it also has some gems of its own. This list is also more specific, naming cities rather than countries as being ideal to live in. This is helpful at narrowing down one's options. The monthly budget estimates come from an article in Forbes and include a two-bedroom apartment in a safe neighbourhood and living costs for a single person. On that note, where would you love to go?

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Kota Kinabalu, Malaysian Borneo -- US $850/month

credit: Jason Thien -- Waterfront at Kota Kinabalu

Malaysia pops up frequently on foreign retirement lists, which speaks to its stability, affordability, and beauty. The city of Kota Kinabalu, says LIOS founder Kathleen Peddicord, is laid-back, quiet, and welcoming.

"It is one of the most pleasant places to live in Asia [and] its biggest practical advantages are the low cost of living and the high standard (and low cost) of health care."
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Granada, Nicaragua -- US $1,225/month

credit: Carlos Adampol Galindo

Granada is probably not the first name that comes to mind when thinking about Nicaragua, but the city is one of the oldest in Latin America with gorgeous colonial architecture and a lively culture, all available at Nicaragua's great prices. The country has stabilized in recent decades and is described by Peddicord as being a lot like Costa Rica, just "less discovered, less developed and less expensive."

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Barcelona, Spain -- US $1,600/month

credit: Jorge Franganillo -- Barcelona at night

Barcelona may not be too friendly toward tourists these days, but by living there, you'd become a local of sorts -- and it's far more affordable that merely visiting. Barcelona is Spain's second largest city and it boasts wonderful entertainment, architecture, food, music, and coastal beaches. Plus, you have the rest of Europe a mere train ride away.

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Chiang Mai, Thailand -- US $1,000/month

credit: Stefan Fussan -- Chang Moi Kao Road in Chiang Mai

This city in northern Thailand has been attractive to expats since the 1800s, "luring them with its uber-low cost of living, great weather (especially compared with elsewhere in Thailand), rich history and distinct culture,” says Peddicord. It's a modern city with all the amenities and excellent health care, mixed with ancient city walls, old Buddhist temples, and the phenomenal street food for which Thailand is so famous.

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Santa Familia, Cayo, Belize -- US $1,200/month

credit: bobistraveling -- View of the Mopan River that travels through the Santa Familia region in Belize

If you're craving colorful Central American culture, but it makes you a bit nervous, then Belize could be the place for you. Its official language is English, making it easy to get around as a foreigner, and it is known to be a quiet, stable, safe place. Santa Familia is rural and tiny, with a population around 1,500 people, located near the Mopan River. Internet access can be spotty, but then that may be exactly what you're looking for -- a getaway from the rest of the world.

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Las Terrenas, Dominican Republic -- US $1,250/month

credit: Sarunas Burdulis -- Beach at Las Terrenas, Dominican Republic

I was curious to read that the Dominican Republic has the fastest growing economy in Latin America right now and, Peddicord says, "an administration that’s working hard to bring attention to the country. Plus, crime is falling." Las Terrenas is a town on the northern coast with a French influence. (It sound a bit like Nosara, Costa Rica, which is a French-influenced fishing village on the Guanacaste Peninsula that I love.) Lonely Planet describes Las Terrenas as a French colony:

"Fashionable European women in designer sunglasses ride their personal ATVs with a bag of baguettes in tow, battling on roads with way too many motos."

And who wouldn't love an affordable blend of France with the Caribbean? It sounds heavenly.

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El Poblado, Medellín, Colombia -- US $1,650/month

credit: Nigel Burgher -- A view of Medellín from upscale neighborhood El Poblado

Once shunned as the most dangerous city in the world, being home to Pablo Escobar's drug cartel throughout the 1990s, Medellín has transformed itself into a chic, cultural destination that's far safer than it used to be. Because of the negative associations with its history, the city has not seen the same growth in tourism and investment that Cartagena has, but that makes it affordable for expats to live. The climate is glorious, staying in the high-70s Fahrenheit (mid-20s Celsius) year-round with little humidity.

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Carvoeiro, Algarve, Portugal -- US $1,150/month

credit: David van der Mark -- An evening view of Carvoeiro

The region of Algarve pops up on every 'best place to live' list, which speaks to its universal appeal. (It also makes one wonder how long it will last as an affordable destination, since everyone seems to be flocking there these days.) Portugal is still off the beaten track when it comes to European travel, and yet its beaches are stunning and food is famously delicious. Carvoeiro is an old fishing village that has maintained much of its original, historic character. So... what are you waiting for?