The advent of the Internet has opened the doors for a whole new generation of globe-trekkers, but just as it was true in the days of yesteryear, those with the most location-specific information have the best chances of making their money go further and truly seeing a destination for all it is worth, rather than only barely scratching the surface in terms of what is actually there to experience.
There are a number of issues which plague most first-time visitors to a city or country, not the least of which is the fact that you generally stick out like a sore thumb if you are wandering around with a guidebook, gawking at every street corner and snapping pictures like it’s the first time you’ve ever operated a camera. Which leads to the following: street vendors hollering at you in broken English to buy their wares, taxi drivers whistling at you from street-side, attempting to get you to take a ride in their taxi where they then charge you triple the rate they charge locals, restaurant hosts and hostesses assaulting you with menus and every person on the street looking at you as if you are a dollar sign. In short, everyone is trying to get you for a few dollars because to them, those few dollars are worth three to four times more than what they are to you. But there is a way to avoid all of this happening to you: transition from visitor to local.
The difference between visitor and local
Probably the most important aspect of transitioning from visitor to local is being able to live life on the ground at the same prices as the locals. If it is your first time to a destination this is extremely difficult to achieve, unless you happen to have access to in-depth information from residents on how to avoid sticking out like a sore thumb.
To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, take a look at taxi drivers. While the exact system they use varies depends on the country you are living in (meters, pre-paid or a set fee per ride), the simple fact of the matter is that — without fail — taxi drivers the world over are notorious for hitting tourists with fees that are two or three times what they charge locals. The reason they get away with it is simple: visitors who are new to the city don’t know any better. On top of that, tourists are usually spending dollars, pounds or euros, which are generally worth three to four times the local currency, so while it might seem like pocket change to the tourist, to the local individual it’s the equivalent of finding a gold mine.
The second example of this is the “tourist rate” versus the “local rate”. This applies to many countries around the world where the moment they think you are a foreigner the prices suddenly double or triple. Restaurants will give you the English version of the menu, which has prices that are double or triple the prices on the local menus, vendors will charge you double or triple what they charge locals and so on and so forth. In Bulgaria, for example, there is the Bulgarian rate for entry into museums, ski lift tickets and so forth, and then there is the tourist rate, which is a minimum of 20% higher.
Meanwhile, locals enjoy lower taxi and bus fares, they know the cheapest grocery stores and markets to shop at where you can buy a month’s worth of groceries for the same price you would spend on a week’s worth back home, they know the bazaars and markets to head to when they need clothing or little things for around the house, and they know the best restaurants where you can walk in and enjoy a gourmet dinner for a fraction of the price it would cost you back home. Every hole in the wall, every discounted vendor, market days, discount months, the cheapest ferries and taxi routes…all of these are things locals use every day because they know the lay of the land.
Understanding what it means to live like a local
Even if you are making dollars, pounds or euros, it is absolutely vital to your success at living like a local to unlearn what you have learned in terms of spending habits. You are no longer living in your home country. Which means those prices no longer apply to you. There is a reason I (and people like me) live like kings on what many consider to be a shoestring budget: we aren’t spending our dollars like we do back home. Instead, we are living like locals, spending local currency and utilizing local rates on things ranging from rent to utilities to transportation to groceries and beyond.
Here’s the stark reality: if you come to a destination and only visit the tourist hotspots, the tourist restaurants, the tourist markets and so on and so forth, you will easily spend as much money — if not more — than what you do back home on the cost of living. The only way you can be successful at making your money go three to four times further than it ever did back home is by truly living like a local, at local prices.
This does not mean you have to sacrifice your amenities and luxuries. You can still have your broadband Internet, air conditioning, healthcare, education system, high-def TV channels and beyond, but you have to be willing to look beyond the name brands that you recognize from back home. McDonald’s is going to cost you the same amount here as it does back home, as will a steak at a chain steakhouse. If you insist on shopping at the global chain stores, you can expect to pay the same prices you do in the West. The only way you can enjoy the massive savings that living in other countries can provide you is by learning how to live like a local. Namely, you ignore the global brands and you support your local/national community.
My cost of living in Greeley, Colorado prior to making the transition into a location independent digital nomad was easily three times what it is now. At the time I was living there last (2007) I was paying $425 a month for rent in an unfurnished apartment. My Internet and cable was $160 a month via Comcast. Cell phone: $100 a month. Health insurance: $120 a month. Truck payment: $400 a month. Truck insurance: $100 a month. Gas for truck: $700-$1000 a month, depending on transportation needs for the month (some jobs were further than others, and I was working in construction at the time). Groceries were between $300 and $400 a month. And that was before I even got into entertainment and going out. In short, I was spending $2500 a month on the low end for basic expenses, and $3000 a month if I included entertainment.
Fast forward to Bulgaria, 2008. As an example, my Internet and cable there were around $25 USD per month. I had faster and more reliable Internet than Comcast ever offered, and while I didn’t necessarily have access to all of the “American” channels, there was the equivalent of European, which is exactly the same, only for a different audience. My grocery bill literally halved. Didn’t need health insurance because it was around $4 a month for the national/social medical plan everyone is a part of. No longer needed a vehicle because I was using public transportation and working from home, which easily cut out $1200-1500 a month from my monthly bills. Groceries were around $200 a month if I splurged; $125 a month if I was eating healthy/watching my diet.
Fast forward to Cancun, now in 2013. My current costs run in between the 7,000 and 8,000 pesos a month mark, for total cost of living including entertainment. I went from paying $2,500 – $3,000 a month for basic, middle-of-the-road living in the United States…to having the exact same lifestyle, amenities and creature comforts I had back then…only now I’m only paying around $650 a month for total costs. In other words…I was suddenly seeing an extra 2k a month where before I had been barely breaking even on things.