Cost of living and cost of dying

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Greg B. Macabenta

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The Philippines is where my wife and I would love to retire in, but I decided to check out other so-called retirement havens for comparison. An interesting source of information is the “Cheapest Destinations Blog” by noted travel writer Tim Leffel. One particular blog entry — “The Cheapest Places to Live in the World – 2019” — caught my interest because of the following entry:

“Easy Living in the Philippines — The current president of the Philippines makes Trump look like a stable genius by comparison and Manila is one of the most traffic-choked cities in the world, but get past those factors and this can be a desirable place to live for less. There’s a deep bench of smiling workers who have a native speaker level command of the English language. So this is probably the cheapest country in the world that’s English speaking, ideal for those who don’t want to learn a new language. Beer is often a buck in a bar and you can order a round of cocktails for the table without breaking the bank.

“You’ve got plenty of beautiful islands to choose from. The expat crowd here is even more male-dominated than Thailand, however, with an uncomfortably large percentage of retirement-aged men who have female companions half their age or less. The overall mix gets a bit younger each year though, with more digital nomads finding this a good place to do staffing and lots of adventure travelers sticking around a while after they’ve explored different islands and found one that felt like paradise.”

As a Filipino-American, I couldn’t help a snicker over the blogger’s left-handed compliment for Trump and whatever he meant about Duterte. I did appreciate his overall assessment of our country, although I felt uneasy about the “large percentage of retirement-aged men who have female companions half their age or less.” The statement hit too close to home.

Lefflel also provided interesting insights on cheap destinations in Europe, Latin America, and Asia where retirees can live comfortably — in fact, in relative affluence — for half the cost of living in the major cities in the United States.


I found the information particularly reassuring because my wife and I, as well as our children and their families, currently reside in the San Francisco Bay Area which, along with New York, is considered one of the most expensive US cities to live in.

According to Leffel, “Nepal is probably the hands-down winner in terms of what you get for your money. In most categories, this would be the cheapest country to live in you could find. If two of you were set up with $1,200 a month there — the equivalent of one Social Security check — you’d be part of the wealthy elite. One person could live on half that and still be eating well.”

But, he added, “Oh, and the electricity and internet both go out on a daily basis.” In Manila, we are all familiar with brownouts — but, mercifully, not on “a daily basis.”

I’ve often pointed out that, on the social security pensions that my wife and I receive, we can afford a live-in maid and a driver in Manila, and probably even a regular visit of a nurse.

Leffel’s blog says the same about many other countries: “When I put in cost of living estimates here of $1,000 a month for one or $1,500 for two, as an example, assume that’s leading a reasonably comfortable life without making lots of sacrifices. Obviously if you’re willing to truly live like a local who is earning half that amount, you can get by for far less. You could find plenty of places in the world where your neighbors are literally earning a few dollars a day. It doesn’t take a lot to be upper middle class if you’re earning a few hundred dollars more a month than your average local. If you can live on their terms, you can get by on what they do. Most people who say, ‘I’m living in Mexico on $500 a month’ when they argue with me are doing just that.”

And speaking of Mexico, while Leffel does not consider it “the absolute cheapest country to live in,” it should be particularly attractive to Pinoys in America. Its proximity to the US makes a trip to Mexico about the price of flying domestic.

Wrote Leffel, who says he lived for some time in Mexico, “As a family of three we lived on $2,100 a month in Guanajuato when we were renting a four-bedroom apartment, before we bought a house. Now two of us will probably average $1,800 a month in expenses with paying all medical costs out of pocket, having a maid two times a week, having a handyman come to do improvements or repairs, and traveling a lot within the country. We aren’t very frugal at that level either because we don’t need to be. We can eat out constantly, go to cultural events, and enjoy life to the fullest… Because the Mexican currency has dropped so much against the dollar, it is cheaper here now than when I first visited in 2002. The peso generally trades between 18 and 20 to the dollar now. This makes our closest neighbor to the south a screaming bargain anytime you go to a restaurant, buy a beer, take a taxi, get a haircut, or hire a carpenter.”

Another source on the cost living in Mexico states: “In general, a typical retired couple can expect to live comfortably in Mexico on about $2,500 a month, all in. This includes a nice home, plenty of dinners out, entertainment, travel, and help around the house. Cost of living, however, does vary slightly depending on where you live.”

In this regard, Leffel cautioned: “Just understand that I’m talking about Mexico away from the tourist resorts. Los Cabos could cost you as much as your current home and it’s not such a bargain in Playa del Carmen or Puerto Vallarta. You need to go inland or to a beach without a lot of moneyed tourists around.”

At any rate, living in Mexico for a Fil-Am sounds almost like living in Manila. What’s more, Pinoys look physically like most Mexicans. As former colonies of Spain, we also share many of the same religious traditions. And Tagalog and even the Visayan vernaculars have many Spanish words that make it easy to learn the language.

Of course, the presence of relatives and old friends make the Philippines a more attractive retirement place for Pinoys like us.

Note, however, that the Philippines isn’t even in the list of the 20 cheapest countries in the world to live in. But even with the relatively low cost-of-living in the Philippines, the low wages and the constantly increasing prices of essentials, make them difficult for the average wage earner to afford.

In sum, the cost of living in the Philippines, while not the lowest in the world, is low enough for a middle income Filipino in America to afford — in relative affluence — although not necessarily so for the average Mang Karyas and Aling Opring.

But what about the cost of dying?

The numbers make retiring and spending one’s last days in the Philippines even more appealing for the aging Fil-Am. According to figures sourced from the National Funeral Directors Association, the average funeral in California costs from $8,000 to $10,000. That’s over P400,000 to half-a-million pesos based the average peso-dollar exchange rate.

In contrast, the average cost of a middle-class burial in the Philippines is between P50,000 and P100,000, depending on the choice of casket, funeral services, and other trimmings. It can even be more affordable for those who arrange sakla and pusoy sessions, along with the grieving.

Such a bargain prompted a mischievous advertising friend to offer an idea for a tourism ad: “It’s more fun in the Philippines. People are dying to retire here.”


Greg B. Macabenta is an advertising and communications man shuttling between San Francisco and Manila and providing unique insights on issues from both perspectives.