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Reacting to my piece, “Cost of living and cost of dying,” which listed the Philippines as among the inexpensive countries to live in — even to die in — my friend Gelly Aganon gave me a gentle reality check. Gelly is a prominent Filipino-American community leader and was publisher-editor of a business magazine in Southern California. She lived for several years in Makati with her husband, Titong Aganon, but decided to relocate to Los Angeles after he passed away. She posted the following on social media:

“Greg, I lived in Manila for 12 years straight before Titong passed away! I’ve got to tell you that the standard of living was quite costly! My condo was paid for but I still had to fork over $300 a month for HOA dues. A live-in maid is about $200. We didn’t have a driver, but that would be another $300. Food was a BIG cost for us! About $500. Electricity another $300 without air con, about $500 with aircon. Water was about $20; cable $50; internet $30; cell $50.

“I found the cost of living high especially if you factored in CASH only medical expenses! Very expensive! Plus gasoline and real estate taxes were at least $3,000 a year if not more. I didn’t even factor in going out at all! Although the senior discounts at restaurants were a real treat!

“Your figures for dying?!?! The hospital ER costs so much. The hospital mortuary is separate charges. The funeral is separate from the embalming. Then the casket is between P100k-P300k. Several days for the wake and NOW, you have to have catered food 24/7 to feed people who come. Throw in cost of flowers and the cost of the place where the wake is held! Then the people that have to prepare the soil where you’ll be buried, the pay for the priests who say mass, the hearse, car for family… the burial plot!!! The photographer/ videographer! The tombstone is a separate expense.

“You’ll end up slightly lower than the cost here. Greg. I usually agree with you majority of the time! But, my experience was completely different! That was how it was living in Metro Manila!

“I love the Philippines despite the terrible traffic conditions! But it is getting quite expensive to live there. Perhaps, it would be much bearable if we could get REAL health insurance like we have here, it would mitigate the cost of living!”

Gelly is right, of course, if you choose to live what I refer to as “the Makati lifestyle,” meaning a relatively upper class standard of living. I guess I should clarify that living in the Philippines — even in Makati — according to middle-to-lower class standards (what demographers refer to as Class CD, I think) can still be pretty inexpensive.

My wife, Gigi, and I stayed in Parañaque for almost two months recently and, I must say, I enjoyed being a señorito during our entire stay, without using up our dollar baon (allowance) — you know, breakfast waiting for you in the morning with the maid serving you fresh-from-skillet fried eggs and hot coffee plus danggit, longanisa, and sinangag (dried fish, sausage, and fried rice). And I didn’t have to wash the dishes myself.

Now we’re back in the US and I’m back to washing dishes (a friend misheard me and asked if I was back in Washington, DC and I replied, “No, washing-ton dishes!”).

Anyway, we’re also back to fresh-from-the drier clothes, wrinkles and all. In Parañaque, my newly laundered clothes were always pressed — even my boxer shorts were pressed and neatly folded!

Of course, some things were rather expensive. The electricity bill for one month cost us the equivalent of $200 compared to less than $150 in San Francisco. But then, that was because the aircon was on 24/7 because of the heat (San Francisco has “natural” air conditioning).

But our weekly supermarket bills were about the half the cost in California and the nearby palengke (wet market) yielded fresh fruits and seafood at bargain prices. We would occasionally treat ourselves to halo-halo (a shaved ice dessert) at Chow King for the equivalent of a dollar each serving (compared to almost five dollars at Pinoy eating places in San Francisco). On the other hand, lunch at a posh restaurant at McKinley Hill in Taguig was at SF prices.

My cousin Addi Batica who is from Samar and Minnesota had his own take on living inexpensively, in reacting to my column, particularly when I mentioned Mexico as a low-cost retirement haven.

“Mexico looks attractive to me, what with the beer, culture, tasty food, plus I’m comfortable communicating in Spanish. However, they don’t have bahalina (tuba, wine from fermented coconut or nipa palm) over there, and I prefer doing tagay (toasting) with relatives and barkadas (friends).”

Addi, was a Samar activist who was imprisoned by the Marcos military before immigrating to the US. He worked as a community development worker in Latin America for many years, so he knows all about living with Hispanics, as well as the tuba culture among Waray-Warays.

Concerning the cost of dying, I fully sympathize with what Gelly had to go through with her husband’s demise. But the expenses she enumerated would be strange to the ears of the squatters across the creek from my house. Besides, I cannot imagine Gelly hosting a pasugal (gambling at the wake to raise funds) and collecting abuloy (donations) from neighbors to cover Titong’s going away expenses.

In sum, if you live a relatively simple life, living in the Philippines can be cheap. On the other hand, if you choose to splurge (what my advertising colleague Louie Morales describes as “for the spirit”), you won’t feel at ease in Manila without several thousand bucks in your wallet or a credit card.

There is a Filipino saying, “Mas malaki ang butones, mas malaki ang uhales.” (The bigger the button, the bigger the button hole).

In other words, the cost of living depends on the lifestyle you choose. The same may be said about the cost of dying.


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