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Buying Time: The #1 Way to Add Value to Your Expat Life

Part of the beauty of living the expat dream is the ability to prioritize.  To stop working your fingers to the bone to try and attain that “other” dream and focus on the things that really matter to you and your family.

Two of the main ways that living in Central America allows you to do that is by giving you back control of two of your most important resources.  Your time and your money.

With most household budget items–such as housing, utilities, and groceries–costing considerably less than in North America, families have the ability to work less, travel more, and save or splurge in ways they never imagined before.

photo by Robert Gourley

Robert Gourley

And in a culture that doesn’t overschedule and overprogram their days down to the millisecond, there’s plenty of free time left to focus on the things your family enjoys or simply take the time to just experience life together in your new setting.

What’s even more beautiful is when the two areas combine and that little bit of extra expendable income can be put to use to even further to free up your schedule for more of the things that really matter to your family.  

VivaTropical’s Park Wilson weighs in on one of the aspects of expat life that’s had the biggest impact on he, his wife, and their four children.

“Having the ability to hire domestic help has easily been one of the biggest benefits of living in the tropics, at least for my family.  We currently have a full-time housekeeper who works 6 days a week in our home.  She does all of our cooking and cleaning and even helps us out with the kids.  She’s an absolute godsend.”

What having domestic help looks like

For those, including Park and his family, who could never have imagined having domestic help back in the U.S., it might be a bit difficult to picture what that setup looks like.  Here’s an overview of what we’re talking about.

Domestic workers can be hired to do as much or as little as you desire.  You can hire a full-time maid who lives and eats with your family and handles pretty much all the household chores, such as laundry, cleaning, and more.  Or you can have someone who comes in and cleans once a week and or runs your errands.  There are a lot of options available.

There are also plenty of folks who work in other capacities besides just housework.  You can hire drivers, tutors, handymen, and a number of other types of workers.  

“In addition to our housekeeper, we also have a guy who does our gardening and someone who does our grocery shopping,” Park adds.  “Being able to hire out all of these tasks frees up our time and allows us to focus on areas where we can really add value and make a difference.  For instance, my wife homeschools our kids, and I’m able to work all day without ever having to worry about all those other things.”

And, while such luxuries are practically unheard of in North America (for non-millionaires, anyway), practically every middle class family in Central America has at least some form of domestic help.  

“We could never afford this in the U.S. but, with the low cost of living here, cost isn’t really a concern.”


What the responsible hiring of domestic help DOESN’T look like

Even though we’ve discussed a little bit about what having full- or part-time help in the tropics might look like, it’s also worth mentioning what it doesn’t involve.  Employing a domestic employee is a business transaction, and it’s your responsibility to be a respectable employer.

It’s not about being a lazy bum and having someone to bring you drinks with little umbrellas, do your bidding, and indulge your every whim.  Nor is it in any way a means of taking advantage of cheap labor costs and exploiting hard-working locals.  

While the laws vary from one country to the next, there are rules governing how domestic employees are to be treated, the number of hours they can work and when those fall, and what vacation time and other benefits they’re entitled to.  You had best become familiar with them and abide by them.

Mistreating or undervaluing your help will quickly earn you the reputation of someone no one wants to work for, and pretty soon you won’t be able to find a single person who’s willing to fill a position in your household.

Instead, hiring domestic help is merely a way of delegating a lot of the time-sucking, mundane tasks you already hate anyway, many of which might even be doubly hard in a developing country with unfamiliar customs and unreliable services and utilities, and being able to focus on the more important things.

Hiring domestic help is mutually beneficial

Responsibly hiring full- or part-time help is also a great way of contributing to the community by providing employment in a field where jobs can be scarce.  Domestic workers often make up a large percentage of the workforce in a given area.  And turnover can be high.

“You’re basically offering a job that’s as good as any other that is available out there, and by being a great boss and treating your employees with the same respect you want for yourself, you have an opportunity to improve their quality of life as well as your own,” Park explains.

In many cases, domestic workers can even become more like part of the family and not merely employees.  “Our previous housekeeper was with us for 5 years.  She’s still like another grandmother to our children and someone we value greatly as a friend.”

domestic help costa rica

Kristin & Jordan Hayman


How affordable is domestic help?

The cost of course varies from one area to the next and also depends on the specifics of your particular arrangements.  But here are a few examples of the incredibly inexpensive cost of domestic help in the tropics.

In Panama, where Park and his family live, the cost for a full-time maid runs between $250-$350 per month.  If you provide them with room and board, then those are additional expenses on top of their base salary.

Domestic help in Belize runs around the same, $350 per month.  A maid is a bit more expensive in Costa Rica, but still a great bargain at under $15 per day.

In affordable Nicaragua, the minimum wage for a full-time maid or groundskeeper is $.70 per hour, which comes out to be about $135 per month.  And that’s for a 48-hour, 6-day work week.

Domestic help can also be had for a considerable deal in Guatemala, where you can hire a full-time maid for about $150 per month.  Maid services in Ecuador range between $200 per month for part-time help (3-4 hours per day) and $250 for full-time (8-hour work days).

So, when you’re considering all the potential advantages your family could enjoy by living overseas as expats, don’t forget to add affordable domestic help to your “pro” column.  With such beneficial services available at such a reasonable cost, it’s one of the best ways to add value to your life overseas.

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