I'm a digital nomad living in Chiang Mai Thailand, which means I make my living online, and travel to different countries as I work. Although I like to travel and explore, at times it's also nice to settle into a place for a month or two, mixing travel with stops to experience local cultures on a deeper level.
Whenever people hear about my lifestyle, inevitability the question of cost of living comes up. People often wonder: How much does it cost to live overseas? Today I give you an inside look at my typical expenses living in digital nomad hotspot, Chiang Mai, Thailand.
For your reference the current exchange rate is currently about 100 baht = $3.00 US.
Chiang Mai has a wide range of options when it comes to housing and apartments. Most people live in studios which also vary quite a bit in style and price.
My current rent is 7,000 baht for a studio apartment that includes weekly cleaning. This is a typical price for a place in Santitham (my neighborhood) where rents range from 3,000-15,000. It's basically a hotel room that I rented for the month. Included in the price is bedding, a small mini fridge, a desk, a table with 2 chairs, a television (60+ channels I've heard, but I never turn it on) and a two section armoire. It also has a deck, air conditioning, a pretty Western bathroom but does not have a kitchen or place to cook (typical for studios in Thailand). I spend 7,000 baht (approx $215 usd a month).
The more Western the apartment, the more it will cost. And here in Chiang Mai, more Western means: including a kitchen and/or having a shower area that's in a completely separate section of the bathroom. Here's what a more Thai-style bathrooms looks like. Notice that there's no seperation between the shower and toilet area.
Electricity generally costs about 600 baht per month (approx $20). My electricity tends to be lower than many others, because I don't really like to be too cold and therefore don't run the AC too often. But it's good to note that when it comes to electricity bills, this is often a place where apartment complexes make extra money. The government rate is 4.5 baht/ kWh but many buildings charge between 8-10 baht. So I've heard that some people who run their air-conditioning every day, have monthly bills of up to 3,000 baht (over $90 usd).
Water costs 200 baht per month (approx $6 usd).
Trash is included. As is WiFi. A pro-tip is to check where the router is compared to your apartment when you look at apartments. Also, especially if you work online and depend on strong wifi, be sure to test the speed and connection strength from inside your apartment before you rent it. Corner apartments, far from routers can be problematic.
Now that you know I don't have a kitchen, you realize I eat out for basically every meal. Prices range from 30-50 baht ($1-$1.50 usd) at local Thai vegetarian restaurants, and 60 - 150 baht (approx $2-$4.50 usd) at nicer places. Western food ranges from 100-500 baht ($3-$15 usd). And here's the thing, the cheap food can be just as good as some of the pricey places. I make my decisions based mainly on just what I'm in the mood for.
Two local popular dishes are khao soy (coconut noodle soup) and som tum (papaya salad). Both are generally available for between 30-60 baht ($1-$2 usd). Small deserts from the market and fresh cut fruit like pineapple and papaya are usually 20 baht (approx .60 cents usd). Groceries for home are limited without a kitchen. But, a large bunch of 15-20 bananas cost 15-30 baht (.5-$1 usd) from a vendor on the street. A five liter water jug is refilled at a local station every few days since tap is not safe to consume, which costs 1 baht a liter. In a typical month in Chiang Mai, I spend is 3,300 baht (approx $100 USD) a month.
Whenever I travel I love to have data on my phone. That's because although I love a good adventure, I don't love getting lost and not having a way to call for an Uber or get a ride across town (I learned this after being stuck and frustrated, and alone, on multiple instances without these options). So here in Chiang Mai, Thailand, I spend 450 baht (approx $15 usd) a month for 3GB of high-speed cell phone data. And I bought the SIM card for 50 baht (nearly $2 usd). And in addition to my local data, I will have a US phone number that I'm maintaining. And for that I use Ting wireless, which is only $7.33 a month, or 243 baht. So for phone stuff, I spend 700 baht (approx $21 usd) a month.
There's no shortage of ways to get around. There are cabs, tuk-tuks, local songthaews, Uber & Grab (the Thai version of Uber). The price of course depends upon which method I choose and how far I'm going. Ranking from cheapest to most expensive it's generally: songthaew, Grab, Uber, Cab, tuk-tuk. Songthaews start at 20 baht (.60 usd) per ride, but a Grab across town can go up to 150 baht (approx $4.50 usd). I try to walk most places, but in this tropical climate, where heat and rain can make walking inconvenient, I spend 400 baht (approx $12 usd) a month.
Visa run, or extension
As an American, if I show up in Thailand without a visa or any advance documentation or approval (which is what I pretty much always do), I'm allowed to stay in the country for 30 days. That's called a Visa-Exemption, and lots of countries are eligible for it, not just Americans. And if I want to stay in the country longer than those 30 days, I have 2 options: An Extension or a Visa-Run (the term visa run can apply to a few different methods but most generally speaking it means leaving one country to go to a neighboring one to be able to return to the original country and reset the clock - either by getting an actual visa at a consulate or by getting another exemption. The benefit of visas is that they're granted for periods of 60 days to up to a year or longer).
The extension costs 1,900 baht (approx $60 usd). Plus photos for the application are also required which run 200 baht (approx $6 usd). Visa run options range from a local van that takes you to the Myanmar border for 900 baht (approx $27 usd). This takes about eight to nine hours round trip depending on traffic and the immigration lines. The other option is to buy a flight to a neighboring country, typically Malaysia or Vietnam based on the local airport, cost 1300 - 5000 baht ($40-$150 usd). Like any flight, prices can get a bit up there if booking last minute and if needing to leave on specific days. I spend 3000 baht (approx $91 usd) a month on visa/travel stuff.
I spend most of my days in local coffee shops to get reliable WiFi, work around other DN's, and keep myself out of being stuck inside my apartment all day. Plus, I really love Thai tea! And working at coffee shops gives me the perfect excuse to get my daily dose (with coconut milk of course). But Chiang Mai also has a large number of co-working spaces but I pretty much never choose these because they tend to feel a bit stuffy for me and are expensive on top of that. Many co-working spaces in Chiang Mai cost 100-150 baht (approx. $3-$4.50 usd) per day or 3,500-5000 baht (approx. $100-$150 usd) per month. Instead of paying the co-working fees and being tied to a single work location, I prefer floating between my 3 favorite coffee shops each day. Other work expenses: I host a website, advertise my book and courses on various platforms, so in total, I spend 3100 baht (approx $90 usd) a month.
Bonus: some coffee shops have cat co-workers :)
Luckily there's a lot to do in Chiang Mai. And again, the price range is vast. There's zip-lining which is generally about 1,800-4,200 baht ($54-$125 usd), playing with and feeding elephants at a sanctuary (not a place that offers riding. Those elephants are abused) costs around 2,500 baht (about $75 usd), ATV riding about 2,000 baht (approx. $60 usd), and more. And the really cool thing about excursions in Chiang Mai is that most of these fees include round-trip transportation to the activities as well as lunch for the day. I've done all of the activities mentioned here, and I think the zip-lining, the elephants, and the ATV riding were my favorites. I like a good adrenaline rush, and I got one at various times in all of those. Plus spas in Thailand also great places to visit. A 1-hour massage ranges from 300-2,000 baht ($10-$60 usd). You can even get a 1-hour massage on the side of the road outside for 150 baht ($4.50 usd). I actually LOVE the massaged on the side of the road. They're surprisingly relaxing, and I sometimes enjoy those more than the more fancy ones.
And if your cash is tight there are also free things to do like: visiting wats (temples), waterfalls, the night market and local festivals and parades keep me busy in my free time. Did you see my post on the lantern festival? You can watch here. Movies are another fun option, and cost 150 baht ($4.50 usd) with matinees running only 80 baht ($2.50 usd). Plus Chiang Mai has lots of free events and meet-ups like board game night and free DN classes on topics ranging from website SEO to how to start an Amazon store. I did most of my expensive activities in Chiang Mai last year, so lately I spend a lot less on entertainment, since I'm so busy working. Nowadays I generally spend 300 baht ($9 usd) a month.
Personal goods and services
Toiletries. I believe in choosing quality when it goes to anything that goes in or on my body. And that's especially true of products I use. So I always choose natural, chemical free products for myself. And fortunately, in Thailand, I can do that without breaking the bank. A basic natural soap starts around 40 baht (approx $1.20 usd), shampoo (I'm still using up the stuff I bought back in the States) - but a natural shampoo or conditioner runs about 150 baht ($4.50 usd) per bottle, toilet paper roll is 10 baht (.30 usd), natural mosquito repellent is 100 baht ($3 usd) and feminine hygiene products 65 baht ($2 usd). In this category I usually spend 200 baht ($6 usd) a month.
I currently do not have insurance since a trip to the doctor or dentist is really affordable. Last year I broke a finger in Thailand and had 3 sets of x-rays, a cast and 3 or 4 hospital/doctor visits. The total cost was under $300 usd. So I'm fine with paying out-of-pocket in case of an issue.
I'm not a drinker (aside from thai teas and kombucha haha), so $0 for me, but for the curious a bottle of the local beer like Chang runs 35 baht ($1 usd) from the grocery store and 70 ($2 usd) at the local bar.
My headphones broke (twice). I found new ones for 20 baht (.60 usd) that have terrible audio but "work". Includes gifts, a pen, a whiteboard, etc. At the mall near me there is a 20 baht store, which is just like the dollar store but everything is only 60 cents !!!! (I need to make a video on that store. Stay tuned). I spend 350 baht ($11 usd) a month.
Baht. In U.S. dollars
Housing 7,000 $210.00
Utilities 800 $24.00
Food 3,300 $99.00
Phone 700 $21.00
Transportation 400 $12.00
Visa run 3,000 $90.00
Work 3,100 $93.00
Entertainment 300 $9.00
Personal 200 $6.00
Insurance 0 $0
Alcohol 0 $0
Misc 350 $10.50
Total 19,150 $574.50
That's how much I spend in a typical month. Much less than my life in Los Angeles. It's easy to see why I am surrounded by expatriate retirees and other digital nomads. $600 seems to be a pretty typical spend for a standard DN.
Before adding in some money for healthcare costs, at $7,200 a year a healthy retiree would need a nest egg of only $180,000 to sustain them here using the 4% rule. Forever. And this is not taking into account any Social Security income. Add in some money for healthcare (quick research suggests $2000/year in premiums with a reasonable deductible) and other misc. costs and you see how an early retiree would find this a great place to settle down with a nest egg of approximately $250K.