When I left for Mexico years ago, all I had was a few thousand dollars, a desire to learn Spanish, and a vague dream to live and work in a country other than the United States. However, I had no specific strategy for implementation. I needed a plan.
My plan came in the form of a budget, a travel timeline of six months, and an end goal of steady income in Mexico. My idea was to start in Mexico City, and head south through the country until an eventual arrival in Xela, Guatemala, a place renowned for its glut of language schools. My itinerary was flexible, though it was the formation of a budget beforehand that allowed me to maximize my time in Mexico, and turn my vague dream into a definite reality.
First, consider pre-trip costs, such as the flight to your destination. Depending on where you are going, this can be anywhere from $100 to $1000 USD. Save accordingly.
Consider additional pre-trip costs: visas, travel insurance, immunizations, a decent bag. This can set you back another $200-400. For Mexico, a tourist visa is given upon arrival ($20) and is valid for six months. To renew, you just need to cross the border out of Mexico, either into the U.S. or a Central American country.
Setting Your Budget
Your budget is determined by the kind of traveling you will be doing. Will you be staying in hostels or nice hotels? Do you prefer private cars or public transport? Do you pay top dollar for western cuisine or do you thrive on local food? In Mexico, I lived well on $35 a day. I rented private accommodations, used public transport, ate local fare, and took frequent day trips.
Below are cost estimates based on different styles of travel for destinations such as Mexico, South America, and North Africa. To see cost approximations for other countries, check out the crowd-sourced figures from Numbeo.com or BudgetYourTrip.com.
- Budget (hostels, local food, day trips): $35/day
- Mid-range (private rooms, western meals, frequent activities): $50/day
- Luxury (nice hotels, lavish meals, private transport): $100/day
Regardless of lifestyle, building a travel budget is the same—begin with the number of days you would like to travel, then multiply that number by your daily cost estimate. For example, say you want to travel for six months, or you want a six-month financial cushion while you acclimate, travel, and network on your way to find steady work. Based on the estimates above, a six-month financial cushion for a “budget” lifestyle is $5400, “mid-range” is $9000, and “luxury” is $18,000. However, if needed, there are several ways you can reduce these numbers. That’s where I come in. Below I offer a budget plan and savings tips for Oaxaca, though this advice can be applied to almost anywhere with a similar cost of living.
Cutting Costs – Accomodation
Accommodation can add up, especially if you value privacy. Shared rooms go for $10-25 a night and private rooms can be twice that much. If you pay $25 a night, you will be spending over $750 a month on accommodation alone. A great way to reduce this cost is to rent a room in one location and stay for a while.
Staying in one location allows you to use your “home” as a jumping off point for day trips and comes with the added benefit of community involvement. You are able to immerse yourself in the local culture, meet your neighbors, and glean information
Whenever I visited a new town, I would stay in a hostel while I scoured community boards in coffee shops and other tourist havens—oftentimes, there are plenty of advertisements for rooms to rent. In Oaxaca, especially, there were three coffee shops with endless information: Café Brujala, Café Nuevo Mundo, and Lobo Azul Tostadores.
Using those community boards allowed me to find a room in Oaxaca for $150 a month, including utilities. This apartment was a twenty-minute walk from the city center, and while it was sparsely furnished, it was in a safe area, with a rooftop terrace, and all the amenities (i.e. bed, kitchen, bathroom, internet) I would need.
By living in my Oaxaca apartment for two months, I was able to keep my spending to a minimum with a daily budget of $35. My private accommodation was $5 a day and I did the majority of my eating at home, buying fresh fruit and vegetables from the nearby ferias and mercados. Local food is cost-friendly and is also an essential part of the authentic gastronomical experience. However, I wasn’t overly strict—once or twice a week, I would eat out with locals, expats, or other travelers I had met. Three meals a day, including superfluous drinks and treats, cost roughly $10-$15 a day.
Food and accommodation was half my daily budget, and the rest was free to spend how I pleased. The remaining $15-$20 a day went to Spanish lessons, special events, and trips (Hierve el Agua, Mitla, Monte Albán, Mazunte, San José del Pacífico, etc), or I saved what I didn’t spend. In this way, one could live and travel comfortably through Oaxaca and beyond for six months—without working—for $5400.
However, I lived in Mexico for six months starting with only $3000. How did I do it? Hostel Work and Volunteering.
Additional Ways to Save
Aside from reducing daily expenses, another way to save is to work in a hostel. Many hire travelers for reception, cleaning, or bartending in exchange for free accommodation and/or a stipend. Websites such as Hostel Jobs and Hostel Management lets you find work before you go. I secured a job in charming San Cristobal de Las Casas at the Iguana Hostel for two months, saved money on accommodation, earned $400, and had a fun and unique experience.
Those two months at the Iguana Hostel allowed me to find other opportunities in San Cristobal—volunteer work. For one month, I volunteered with La Casa del Pan, an organic restaurant located on one of the main tourist drags in San Cristobal. My compensation was free accommodation and two meals in exchange for six hours of light farm work, five days a week.
At the end of my time in San Cristobal, I rented scooters with some friends I had met while working in the hostel and we traveled through Chiapas. After a couple days, we ended up at the border of Guatemala, where we parted ways. I headed towards Xela and they returned to San Cristobal.
In Xela, Guatemala, I ended up at the Spanish Language School, El Portal where they set me up with a home-stay with a Guatemalan family. A week’s worth of four hours of one-on-one language instruction a day, plus accommodation and three meals a day was around $150. It was a great way to save money and learn Spanish. I stayed for one month, dramatically advanced my Spanish, and was able to frequently travel the area (Lago Atitlan, Salcajá, Fuentes Georginas, San Andres de Xecul, Los Vahos, etc) all for less than $1000.
Fulfilling the Dream
My financial plan played a huge role in my success in Mexico. By utilizing a daily travel budget, I was able to live comfortably for six months with limited funds while I explored Mexico and Guatemala. At the end of that period, I had made contacts from all over the country and found steady work in Mexico City– first as a private English teacher, then as a copywriter for a pineapple company, which in the end, launched my current career in freelance writing.
The rest, as they say, is budgeted history.