The envelope, please – budgeting our new lifestyle in Costa Rica

One of the mental shifts we had to do when we moved to Costa Rica, was move from the “buy anything you want/do anything you want” mentality to being more frugal.  How did we do this?

Well, for starters, when Greg & I both quit our jobs at the same time, bam(!) – all income was immediately eliminated.  So, with our DINKS status (dual income no kids) being totally taken away (well, at least the DI part), we didn’t have much choice but to revamp our entire budget.  Hey, we were revamping our entire life anyway by moving from the States to Costa Rica, so it was as good a time as any to change up our budget and lifestyle.  Here’s what we did, and how we did it.

1.  LET GO of all brand names and all other unnecessary stuff (they don’t really mean anything, do they?).

Alas…  this was probably more for me than Greg.  Bye-bye True Religion and 7 For All Mankind jeans (lots of these)…  Bye-bye Coach purses (even more of these)…  Bye-bye unnecessary jewelry (oh Cartier watch, I do miss thee!)…  you get the point.  Garage sales, Craig’s List, Neighborhood New Groups were all involved.

The good news was, that once Greg & I decided we were doing this “thing” –  quitting our jobs in order to retire early to Costa Rica –  it really wasn’t that difficult to part with these material ”things”.  Seriously.  I know some of you may find it hard to believe – especially for me.  But after we made our life decision, it was easy to look ahead to the future, and once I committed to this decision – I was fully committed.  Greg – well he was committed a long time ago (certifiably, of course).  Also, some of these items happened to bring in some good money, which of course, we promptly added to our “Costa Rica Savings Account”.

2.  NEXT – let go of even bigger things.

This meant our house.  Our furniture.  Our cars…  This really wasn’t that difficult either.  We were dedicated to beginning our new life in Costa Rica, and we decided not to take any of these things with us – we were not interested in shipping anything to Costa Rica (for us, because we would have had less than a pallet, shipping costs and duty taxes made this option not worth it to us).  There were a couple pieces of furniture my Dad made for me (he was an amazing wood-worker, among many other things!) – and these are being stored (or used) at my Mom’s house.  She’s definitely using a cool set of Starbuck’s coffee mugs (ah, another brand name) Greg gave to me for Valentine’s Day one year, and the cool modern wine rack/butcher block table my Dad made me – this makes me happy that Mom is using these things.


My awesome little mini cooper S, pictured here with my super cool little niece, Edie


Amazing wine cart/butcher block table my Dad made me (fashioned after one he saw in Crate & Barrel!)

There was one bigger thing that was hard for me – my beloved Yamaha grand piano.  It’s not that it was just a piano.  Or a grand piano.  Or a Yamaha. The biggest deal to me – was – it seemed like it was made for me.  Me plus it together made some beautiful music.  It’s like it knew me.  I know this all sounds pretty cheesy, but that’s really how I felt – it had the most gorgeous deep tones, and I loved the weight and touch of the keys.  We had already decided we weren’t shipping anything, especially a huge grand piano (really, something would probably happen to it in transport anyway).  So – selling it was pretty hard, but we did find a sweet, young family – with three(!) beautiful daughters – all who played, and all who were EXCITED about it.  I couldn’t ask for a better place for my piano.  So – it was a heartbreaking day, for sure, when my baby was taken apart, packed up and moved out, but I took comfort in the future life it would have with those 3 beautiful girls…


My beloved grand

Once most of the furniture was sold, we sold our house, moved into a rental for a while, and then moved in with Greg’s folks for the last 2-3 weeks before our move.

!!INSERT EXCLAMATION MARK!! — At this point, let’s take a look at our budget.  WOW.  No mortgage, no home owners association fees, no car payments, no maid service, no pest control, and thanks to my Mom & Dad #2 – no rent or utilities for a few weeks.  We still both had our cell phones and local service at this point, and we were still going out to eat with friends a lot (you think we’d say ‘no’ to farewell dinners?), but our “money out” was severely diminished.

3.  Make the move.

After arriving in Costa Rica, we knew we would have to operate on cash only for some time – until we got a bank account opened, and who knew how long that would take (turned out to take 8 months and 5 trips to the bank).  I had not lived on “cash only” for a very long time – in Dallas, we used our debit cards, checks, or credit card, for almost everything.

So, once we arrived in Costa Rica, I got some envelopes out and went to town on our new “cash budget”.  Yep, I love doing budgets and spreadsheets and planning and organizing stuff…  Greg – not so much…  I mean – he loves that I do the budget and organize things, and he’s good at talking with me about the budgets I propose, and loves the idea of saving money and living thrifty…  but frankly, I was quite worried about him actually living day-to-day on our new “frugal budget”.

4.  Implement.

So, here we are – living on cash, still (well, colones, actually).  Even though we do have a bank account now, we like the cash/envelope/jen-budget way.  It’s super easy, I just took 8 envelopes, labeled them, and put a specific amount of cash in them at the beginning of each month.


The envelope system

Here’s what we have envelopes for:

Utilities – wifi, water, electricity
Bus – going into town 3x a week
Maid – every 2 weeks
Yoga – Jen, once a week
Cell phones – see below *
Food – groceries/farmer’s market
Extra – includes a meal out once a week

* Both Greg & I kept our iPhones when we moved here (both – 4S’s), and had our agreements in the States terminated and our phones unlocked once we moved to Costa Rica.  Once we got here, we got a sim card for our phones that included “pay as you go” minutes.  Now – we just get our phones refilled with minutes, about once a month for $2.  Yes – $2 lasts me a month, but I must note, that I do NOT talk on my phone that much, only for a short call here and there.  So my phone bill went from $100 with AT&T in the States to $2 here.  My internet service also works on my phone here most places I go (lots of places have free wifi in town).  And the internet doesn’t seem to take from my pay-as-you-go minutes, or if it does, does it very slowly and affordably.

Now a days, our Dallas lifestyle seems very far away, even though actually it was just a little over 8 months ago.  It’s crazy to think that we now spend a quarter (yes, a quarter!) of the money we spent on “things” in Dallas.  And we’re HAPPIER now.  Go figure.  Just goes to show, that we can be “richer” with less money.  How?  Because to me, happiness is worth much more.

So the other day Greg did our taxes for last year (fabulous husband that he is) and at the end of the day, proudly proclaimed we were getting money back!  Woooo hoooo!

I immediately started envisioning saving the money and paying our rent for a while, or saving it for the health care payments that are just around the corner for us, when Greg interrupted my thoughts:

“Hey Jen – maybe we can put it towards one of those old jeep-like Land Cruisers!  Or we could put it towards a trip – let’s go to the beach and stay at an all inclusive!”

Oh, honey….

Ciao!! — Jen

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37 Responses to The envelope, please – budgeting our new lifestyle in Costa Rica

  1. Hi Jen, Great post! I can empathize with your piano-parting-sadness — for me it was my horse. But I totally agree that life is better here without all the former “must-haves” that have simply melted out of consciousness … I did miss something about a week ago, but funny thing, I can’t recall what it was!

  2. Great post Jen! I am sure this will be helpful to others taking the plunge. I also sold my designer bags. You certainly don’t need those here! I need to try and do better at making a budget, and I like your envelope method. Being that this isn’t retirement for us, I have found it very difficult to truly downsize our budget, but I must say we have a much better quality of life here than we could afford in the states. And for us, taking little mini vacations to see and experience all this beautiful country has to offer is money well spent.

    • Thanks Liz! I know, I’d feel foolish with a coach purse here… And yes, the QUALITY of life here is so much better, for sure. And that’s what’s great about CR – it’s not a huge country, but there are soooo many different climates and places to visit, so fun!

  3. Great article Jen! When we decided to move her in our early 30’s we decided or I being the gringa that I would rather be poor in CR than well off in Michigan any day! It is a fun happy place to live and you don’t need those extra things! Although a trip to the beach is always fun!

    • I’m glad you agree Brooke! It’s not for everyone, for sure – but for us, it is working perfectly. And yes – LOVE a day or weekend trip to the beach (but glad we don’t live there). 🙂

  4. Loved your blog. Courage and vision are large requirements you both have displayd in transforming your lives. May the pura vida spirit and the tico culture enhance your daily life.

    • Thank you Paul! It has definitely been a challenge (at first), but now we are enjoying the adventure of it all, and being happy is the best payoff. Pura vida! See ya at yoga!

  5. Great post Jen!
    Thanks for sharing. Some people can’t realize the life is different there or don’t want to change.
    I know a couple who recently moved and complained about $4000 monthly budget they have is not enough.!!

    You came so far, should be very proud of your accomplishments.

    Many blessings!

    • Definitely Susanna… Lots of people move here and continue living the US lifestyle, which is easy to do if you want. For us – we so wanted a change, and simplifying our lives was truly the best decision we made. Thank you!

  6. Went thru similar experience last year downsizing from 3 acre mini-ranch. Both my wife and I had “hobbies” and a lot of junk accumulated over more than 13 years in the house. It nearly broke our marriage! We did have a backup plan – my wife decided to buy of foreclosure down in Florida with some of the IRA money and we furnished it with some of the stuff from our main house in Denver (which we also sold) and use it as a rental or home depending on how things went in CR. We found a lovely rental in Playa Hermosa for $850 near the beach. We did end up doing a shipment including our car which cost us about 7500 including all duties and licences. Having suffered the pain of downsizing once, I’m a little more careful about upsizing, but do find a trip to PriceMart is something I can’t do without.

    • Hello Steven! Awesome Playa Hermosa – are you in the Guanacaste Playa Hermosa? If so, we have visited there and loved it! And yes, I hitch a ride to Pricemart once in a while too with my friends (they have the best deal for pecans for my Turtle Candy’s!). 🙂

  7. Hi Jen,
    Great article!
    We too hope to make the plunge and move to Costa Rica in a few years. Did you ever consider keeping a residence in the states? We own a business in CR and will need a US address for business reasons.
    I would move tomorrow if I could!

    • Hi Kelly, thank you. Nope, we never considered keeping a residence in the states, we have family in 2 different states, so can always stay with them when we visit (or need an address). Good luck on moving in a few years, we have not regretted it!! 🙂

  8. Another wonderful read, Jen.
    We too have downsized considerably, although not to the same extent as you and Greg. It is incredibly liberating to have a more fulfilling life with less, to spend less time thinking about stuff and more time thinking about people, etc. However, I admit to occasionally needing a fix by going to Escazu either for a meal or window shopping at the Multi Plaza. Wanna go sometime?????

  9. Great post! the next step is to start a little business. It is pretty clear that you have the aptitude. Too much retirement too early gets weary. You did not say where you moved to, but I look forward to the opportunity to meet you one of these days. It’s a small world down here!

  10. Hey Jen!! We live in Canada and were wondering how to start the “move” to CR. We would like to move within 5-7 years,(hopefully sooner.) Any information would be appreciated! Thanks Sue

    • Hey Sue! My best advice is to start following people’s blogs (like mine, of course), on Facebook you can join the group “Expatriates in Costa Rica” – they are a wealth of information and lots of people to help with questions. Read books. Search the web. You have time to gather lots of information. Good luck!

    • We live in Guanacaste near the beach and there are a gazillion Canadians here to learn from. Just keep in mind that real estate people, relocation guides and tour operators are going to paint rosy pictures, you need facts. Visit several times, go to different parts of the country and remember what your mother said “date each other for a while and don’t rush into marriage”. Its not perfect here but we love it and wouldn’t go back.

  11. inspiring post! i was in Grecia in December to suss it out and set my “date” for 10.15.15. i spent the weekend getting rid of some excess stuff-i was surprised how hard it was! so hard to let go -your post reminds me of the wonderful tradeoff-less stuff, more life.

  12. Do you have blogs on how you made your decision on Costa Rico and on Grecia? We’re in our 60’s getting ready for Social Security… our income will drop 60% due to past family illness and have no real savings… I plan on keeping my small condo and selling his home… Too much sun would make me ill… he wants warm not cool weather??? Thanks Cosma in Oklahoma

  13. I forgot to ask you Jen, how much is your electricity bill and what appliances you are using?
    I would like to do my budget ahead as well. 😉

    Also, any news on your Cedula? How long is in the system?


    • Susanna – nope, no news on our cedula… there’s no telling – could take a few months to up to 2 years I’ve heard(!). Our electric bill is slightly higher than most, as I do a lot of baking – about $80/mo. We have an Atlas stove/oven (the timer or oven light don’t work, even though the unit was not used before we moved in, but the stove and oven both work great!).

  14. Another inspiring post, Jen. I am definitely more thoughtful of what I buy these days. The question I ask before making any purchase is “Can I use this in CR?” I love your “envelope” budget organizer. Ever thought of making “Chicamoneybag”??

    • Thank you so much Annie! That helped me our last year or so in Dallas, too – I was always saying “can I use this in CR”? If not – I got by without! Ah, you’re giving me too many ideas! lol chicamoneybag… 🙂

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