May 29 2017

In the Mailbag – Tracking Living Expenses, Grocery Expense Breakdown, and “Being Gringoed”

emaildelivery-200pxWe always get lots of responses and questions from readers, both newsletter subscribers and on Facebook.

Lately we’ve had a couple of readers ask about how we track our expenses.

Les M. writes:

Hi Gloria and Paul! We’ve never met but I’ve enjoyed your postings for quite awhile. I’ve been in Costa Rica since December 2015. Lately I’ve been trying to understand my spending, something that you guys have been doing for quite a while. In the States where I lived before Costa Rica I mostly used credit cards and Quicken to see where my money was going. In Costa Rica I quickly realized that credit cards are not always welcomed plus, since my cards are from the USA, I pay a 3% foreign transaction fee to VISA whenever I make a charge here in Costa Rica. This cash economy concept blew up my accounting methodology. I didn’t know what to do and I pretty much abandoned accounting and simply handed out the cash in what I considered to be a frugal manner…But to get to my question, how do you keep your records so you can do the beautiful accounting of your expenditures? Are you using Excel or a ledger or Quicken? When do you work in Costa Rican colonies and when do you covert to US Dollars? Do you spend many hours per week keeping and entering expenses? I’ve been trying to use the MINT phone app to track expenses but it is dollar based. Trying to split up a grocery receipt into categories and breaking out the items in dollars is agonizing. And maybe it just has to be agonizing. But maybe you have a system you have worked out that makes it easier. I would love to know how you are managing this. Thanks, Les M.

And Sheryl J. writes,

Over the past few years as I have read and enjoyed your newsletter articles, I keep wondering what kind of system you use to track your expenses. I haven’t spotted where you have written about it and perhaps it has also evolved over time. I would be very interested to hear about your tracking system / approach, and I’m sure that many of your other readers would too!
Thanks for all you share!

Hi Les and Sheryl. Thanks for getting in touch. I’ve been using an Excel spreadsheet from the beginning, though it has evolved over time. In case you (or any of our other readers) find it helpful, you can download my template at this linkYou can, of course, make any changes for your situation.

I have to admit, it was agonizing until I got used to doing it. But now, it only takes a few minutes every couple of days to enter in the amounts. I’ve been breaking out food from non-food in the grocery category, and this year I started breaking out car expenses a bit more. I think it actually makes it easier to track and analyze the data in the long run.

We hardly every used credit cards until this last year. But then we got a travel card from Bank of America and there are zero foreign transaction fees. The main reason we use it though is the cash back or travel credit we get. I try to enter the expenses I charge on the card within a few days of making the purchase, checking online banking for the exact amount of the purchase. It gets a bit complicated if a purchase amount falls into more than once category, so I break it down as accurately as possible.

With cash purchases, I use the exchange rate in effect at the time I converted dollars to colones. So, one month’s expenses may reflect a couple of different exchange rates. I do NOT use the exact exchange rate available at the time of each purchase. That would drive me crazy! Besides, I think it’s better to use the rate I received on the day we converted dollars to colones at the bank.

Is it a perfect system? No, but I’m not trying to be an accountant. We’re just trying to get an idea of where our money goes and to share what things cost with others.

Hope this helps.


In response to our 2016 Annual Cost of Living in Costa Rica Summary, another reader wrote:

Your information is so helpful! We are vegan so I wonder how much of your food budget is dairy, meat, and eggs.”

That’s a great question, though I don’t have an easy answer. I can tell you that we do eat meat, usually once a day. We also eat eggs and cheese pretty liberally. But at the same time, we eat a lot of veggies. A typical dinner for us might be, like tonight, a potato corn chowder with a bit of ham for flavoring, or a salad with grilled chicken. I also cook vegetarian meals and am trying to increase these. I also cook a lot from scratch, so most of what we buy is whole food, not processed. Hope this helps some.

And on a completely different topic, Amas has the following concern:

I have received your newsletter for over a year now. Costa Rica has been on my list of favorite countries to possibly retire in.

A friend of mine has been visiting there frequently in the past, and several months ago moved there with the intent to stay for a couple of years.
What she was telling me is of some concern to me, particularly as I have never seen it mentioned before in publications like International Living, which does evaluate CR as top retirement country for many reasons. Perhaps you have a mention in your newsletter, as I have not read them all?

What made my friend ‘flee’ Costa Rica after only living there (not as a tourist) for several months, is that there is a DOUBLE STANDARD. Apparently, ‘foreigners’ are charged twice as much (or almost twice) for renting, eating out, produce, etc. That she speaks Spanish fluently did not make any difference.

This is of great concern to me – it doesn’t matter if twice is still ‘cheaper than’ costs of living in the US of A.

Furthermore she noted that some restaurants are entirely for tourists or expats, as Costa Ricans simply cannot afford eating there (not necessarily located in tourist spots).

So, if there is anyone reading this who could enlighten me on this topic, it would be greatly appreciated.

I am not traveling this year, and as for now I have removed CR from my list of possible countries of interest for me.

We welcome any responses to Amas’ concern. Here is my answer to her:

Hello! I can understand how this would be disturbing to you. Does it happen? Yes, at times. Has it happened to us? We call it “being gringoed” and, to be honest, it’s happened maybe once or twice in the 8 years we’ve lived here. We don’t live in a tourist area and we don’t frequent expensive restaurants. We think we have always been treated fairly and if we sense that we haven’t, we go elsewhere. This applies to stores and even buying things at the feria (farmers’ market). We believe that the overwhelming majority of Ticos are honest and fair and our experience bears this out.
Hope this helps.

Have you been “gringoed?” Please share your experiences, both positive and negative, with our readers. We always try to show both the good and the bad about living in Costa Rica and would value your input.

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