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Surprising Expat Expenses-Pricing Paradise

There are surprising expat expenses whose prices are significantly higher abroad than “at home.” Identifying these items beforehand can help potential expats, particularly those who are living on a fixed income, to better prepare for these higher ticket items.

On the flip side, there are some things whose costs are much less than you might expect. Comparing these pluses and minuses can be a great way to plan a long-term budget for your life in paradise.

Surprising Expat Expenses-The Top 6 Items

The list below contains some of the most surprising expat expenses. While no means exhaustive, this group provides a good example of the kinds of things that expats should keep in mind as they make the transition to life in the tropics.


Transportation: Buying Or Shipping A Vehicle

One of the most expensive items that may surprise expats is the cost of purchasing a new vehicle in the Latin Tropics. It is not uncommon to find prices that are as much as 25% higher than you would pay for the same vehicle in the U.S.

An additional issue with vehicle purchasing is that financing probably will not be an option. This translates into having to pay cash which can certainly impact a budget if someone was expecting a monthly payment instead.

Even shipping a vehicle can be a pricey option. The cost of getting the vehicle to the port that it will ship from, the price of shipping, duty and import fees and taxes charged by your new country can easily total several thousand dollars.

Repairs To Vehicles

Getting a vehicle repaired in the tropics is another surprising expat expense. While the costs of labor are usually cheaper, getting the parts necessary to make the repairs can be significantly higher

The major reason for this is the fact that many parts have to be imported into the country since there are very few “after market” suppliers in the tropics. Ordering parts from a state-side distributor means paying to have them shipped and, depending on the price, possibly paying duty on them as well.

Transaction Fees

In the tropics, transaction fees can be a surprising expat expense when buying property. While there are few, if any, restrictions to foreigners actually owning property throughout the Latin Tropics, understanding the transaction fee structure can be confusing and, in some cases, add a cost that you may not have expected.

The fee structure varies from country to country and needs to be checked before signing any agreements. Even the tax on property can vary; in Panama, for example, the transfer tax is a flat 2%. However, the basis can be either the purchase price or the cadastral value, whichever is greater. This latter item is an administrative value used by local authorities for fiscal purposes, such as taxes.

Higher End Consumer Goods

One major expense for expats involves higher end consumer goods like appliances or electronics. Not only are “brand name” products harder to come by, the prices that one will pay for them could be several times higher than one would pay in the states.


Paying for electricity, internet (if available), cable, cellular service, water/sewer and related items are other surprising expat expenses. Once you move beyond basic service, costs can double or even triple. Additionally, if repairs should be needed, you can be charged for those as well.

Traveling Home Or In-Country

What makes this category a surprise is the volatility of airline fares and fuel. The recent spike in oil prices has pushed gasoline (and jet fuel) higher;  yet, as recent history demonstrates, these prices can also drop just as rapidly. Trying to plan and budget for any traveling could be a more expensive proposition than you had previously thought.

expat expenses

There Is An Upside

There are also some pleasant surprising expat expenses that are less expensive that the counterparts stateside.

Fresh Fruits And Vegetables

With a large number of farmer’s markets, roadside stands selling fruits and vegetables, and a good variety in brick-and-mortar stores, the prices for fresh produce are much less that you might imagine. In addition, the selection is always changing as various crops go in and out of season. For those looking for a healthier lifestyle, having access to fresh products at good prices is a welcome benefit.

Domestic, Landscaping, and Gardening Help

Finding a housekeeper, a gardener or someone to take care of the landscaping on the property is usually an inexpensive proposition. These workers are more affordable and more flexible than their U.S. equivalents.

Finding The Balance

Ultimately, each expat has to weigh the pluses and minuses of the decision to move abroad. Are the higher costs of some items offset by having the opportunity to live in a tropical paradise?  For most, however, even being caught off guard by surprising expat expenses would not alter the decision to enjoy life in the Latin Tropics.

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