Retiree Who Moved From US to Costa Rica Claims It’s ‘Horribly Incorrect’ to Assume Life in Central America is Less Expensive

By: Lauren Fokas | Last updated: Jul 08, 2024

The vast majority of Americans would agree that life in the US has become far too expensive. However, while some may dream of moving abroad and enjoying a lower cost of living, one man has reported that other countries aren’t always cheaper.

A retiree from New Mexico, Gary Keenan, moved to Costa Rica not only to enjoy the beautiful beaches and culture but also to ensure his savings lasted him the rest of his life. But he found out the hard way that Costa Rica is actually more expensive than New Mexico.

Making the Move to Costa Rica

When Gary Keenan attended a company retreat in Playa Zancudo, Costa Rica, he fell absolutely in love with the gorgeous beachside town, the delicious food, and the relaxed lifestyle.

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So, just a few years later, when he finally sold his company and retired, he decided he would pack up everything and move down there to enjoy the sweet life.

Transitioning from Albuquerque to Costa Rica

Living in Albuquerque, New Mexico, for the majority of his life, Keenan knew he would experience some culture shock when he moved to Costa Rica.

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However, he certainly didn’t expect to pay more for his living costs, like rent, groceries, and transportation, in Costa Rica than he was paying in the United States. But that’s exactly what he found.

Finding His Footing in San Jose, Costa Rica

Although Keenan originally moved to Costa Rica for its breathtaking beaches, he decided that the best course of action was to settle in the capital city of San Jose.

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A faceless person holds their house keys in front of several boxes

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He knew little about San Jose, so when he arrived, he stayed in a hotel and looked for an apartment. Keenan hired a local to help him explore the nearby suburbs, but most of the apartments he looked at cost between $1,000 and $1,5000 per month.

Getting Around Costa Rica

After signing a lease for a $1,000-a-month apartment, Keenan then needed to buy a car to get around the city. He was expecting to pay far less than what he would have in the US, but he ended up paying double.

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In early 2023, Keenan bought a car that the Kelley Blue Book listed as worth between $16,000 and $18,000. But he had to pay $34,000 in Costa Rica. He knew he could have shipped a car from the US instead, but Keenan was concerned the transportation costs would add up, and he’d end up paying about the same anyway.

The Cost of Groceries in Costa Rica Was Shocking

In addition to his moderately expensive rent and his exceptionally costly car, Keenan noticed that he was paying far more for his weekly groceries than he ever did in New Mexico.

A photograph of groceries on a kitchen table

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Keenan noted that the cheapest cut of meat at his San Jose grocery store cost about $5.50 per pound, and all packaged and imported food was far more expensive than back home.

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The Extra Costs of Living in San Jose, Costa Rica

Alongside the general necessities, Keenan also found himself paying for things he wouldn’t have had to worry about in the United States.

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He reported that his neighborhood in San Jose could be quite dangerous, and therefore, he needed to invest in a security system: “If one is going to live down here, they must have close to round-the-clock security. There is a lot of opportunity for crime, and an unguarded house is a prime target eventually.”

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Learning a Second Language Is Extremely Challenging

Additionally, Keenan found that everything in Costa Rica, from finding an apartment to buying a car and even making friends, was exceptionally challenging as he spoke minimal Spanish.

A teacher at a chalkboard showing the conjugation of the verb “Hablar” in Spanish

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Keenan spent even more money on Spanish lessons as very few people in San Jose spoke English. However, after a year and a half of private tutoring, he said he still couldn’t communicate easily with the locals.

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Costa Rica Wasn’t Always as Expensive as It Is Now

Keenan told Business Insider that he found Costa Rica much more affordable when he first visited it than when he returned to live there permanently.

A photograph of a hand holding a rising red arrow above stacks of gold coins, signifying inflation

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This is absolutely true; global inflation during the COVID-19 pandemic hit Costa Rica just as it did the US. And as the dollar has fallen by roughly 25% against the Costa Rican colon over the past few years, everything costs more there than it did just five years ago.

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Costa Rica: The United States of Central America

While global inflation and the value of the US dollar certainly affect the cost of living in Costa Rica, there is another reason why this country has become so much more expensive over the past decade.

A photograph of a beautiful waterfall in the forest of Costa Rica

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Because of its gorgeous landscape and close proximity to the US, hundreds of thousands of Americans have moved to Costa Rica over the past ten years, most of whom are retirees like Keenan looking for an “easy going” lifestyle. But this influx of migrants has significantly increased the cost of living, and now, some people even call Costa Rica the US of Central America.

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Costa Rica Is the Most Expensive Country in Central America

It’s important to note that Costa Rica is the most expensive country in Central America by far. The other nations between North and South America, including Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Panama, are far more affordable.

A map of Central America and part of the Caribbean

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That being said, those countries don’t have the same infrastructure as Costa Rica, and therefore, many American retirees don’t feel as comfortable moving there.

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Moving Abroad Isn’t as Easy as It Looks

Keenan’s story is not unique; there are thousands of Americans who thought moving abroad would solve all their problems, financial and otherwise. However, moving abroad is not nearly as easy or as cheap as one might think.

A photograph of a beautiful beachside bay in Costa Rica

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When moving abroad, it’s crucial to do your research. You need to first find out how much it really costs to live there, whether or not the locals speak English, how easy it will be to rent an apartment and buy a car, and how safe the area actually is. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself in a tricky (and expensive) situation, just like Keenan.

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