The Insider’s Guide To Living In Panama On A Budget

More Bang For Your Buck—The ABC Costs Of Living In Panama 

Many who visit Panama come away praising the country for its thriving economy, in which everybody benefits and products are affordable and easily accessible. My parents, who love visiting the isthmus, sing the country’s constant praise every day when they’re here. However, living here is a different story, and even though things are easily accessible compared to other countries, there are many additional things to consider, such as your monthly budget in relation to salary. 

Your main expenses will be housing, food, and transportation, and, naturally, your spending habits will be dictated by the amount of money you earn. 

Panamanian Balboa Coin
The minimum monthly wage in Panama ranges between US$416 and US$574 (depending on the area of employment), which averages out to approximately US$2.31 per hour.

To that end, here are some techniques I’ve discovered to make your budget stretch a little further while living here. 

Dining In

A monthly grocery bill might range between US$400 and US$500 for a family of three, depending on where you make your purchases. Note, this does not include dining out. Supermarkets are diverse and prices vary. However, if your budget is tight and you don’t mind browsing around for the best prices, by all means, go for it. 

El Rey is my preferred go-to supermarket because it has everything that I need. However, if you are looking for specific foreign products, then Riba Smith is your best option. Much to my surprise, I’ve seen many products that are local to the Caribbean that not many people know about—much less know how to cook—in Riba Smith. 

A tiny shopping cart with sauces and jam
There are several large supermarket chains in Panama carrying all sorts of local and imported foods

Street markets such as the Río Abajo Market, the Mercado de Abastos in Ancón, and the Mercado de Mariscos (Seafood Market) on Cinta Costera will most definitely lighten your expenses, as products there are cheaper than in any supermarket.

Buying in bulk is a good option, especially if you have no interest in doing a weekly grocery run and prefer getting everything at one go. Meat, toiletries, and soap, for example, are best bought in bulk.

Then there are the tienditas, diminutive supermarkets largely owned by Chinese businesspeople. This option can be costly in the long run, though, as their products are typically priced higher than the same items would be in a larger supermarket. 

Eating Out 

With so many options to choose from in Panama City, eating out is a glorious experience. In this hot spot of diverse cuisine you can find Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, Italian, Spanish, French, Colombian, Cuban, Venezuelan, Arabic, and Caribbean foods, among many others. 

Depending on the type of restaurant, you can pay up to US$100 or more for a really scrumptious meal, which is fine if your budget allows. 

For a more economical option, try eating at a fonda, the popular lunchtime restaurants known for their low prices. Although the meals are basic and simple, they are packed with flavor. Meals include one meat option of chicken, beef, or pork, and servings of staples and vegetables, all for US$4.50 (and sometimes less). This may or may not include a beverage.

Getting Around

Transportation costs can set you back another US$100 per month for both public and private transportation services (buses, metro, taxis), depending on frequency of use and how far your destinations are. For example, a trip on the Metrobus costs 25 cents, as opposed to going by taxi, where the minimum fee is US$1.25 (if you’re lucky to avoid gringo pricing). On the Metro, the cost is 35 cents per trip.

A price system is in place for taxis, but many drivers resort to the old way of doing things, giving an estimate rather than checking the actual price of a trip. 

If you own and drive a vehicle, your monthly expenses will increase by another US$150 to US$200 for fuel. This, however, excludes car repairs, regular servicing of the vehicle, and car insurance. 

Second hand cars can be pricey because owners tend not to consider the depreciation of their vehicles but, rather, the year it was purchased. So, if a car was bought in 2013 and the owner wants to sell it three years later, be certain that price of that car will not be very cost-effective. Secondhand cars go for only a few thousand dollars less than a new car. If at all possible, I highly advise obtaining a brand-new vehicle, but, of course, this means paying full price.

A Place To Hang Your Hat

Your rental cost, of course, will vary by location. Within the city, an unfurnished two-bedroom apartment in a middle-class residential area may go for about US$900 to US$1,200 a month. Upscale properties can see prices as high as US$5,000 a month. But, by traveling just 40 minutes outside the city, prices can decrease considerably, to approximately US$500 to US$700 for a three-bedroom home (with a high possibility of it already being furnished). 

Panama City has a plethora of real estate agencies eager to assist in finding a place best-suited to your preferences. However, if you are more independent and prefer looking on your own, you can visit popular websites such as Encuentra24.com, Craigslist, or Olx.com.pa to view the latest listings. Treat this process as you would at home. Once you’ve found several options, get out to visit them and do your best to ask as many questions as you can.

All in all, to live comfortably here, a minimum monthly income of US$1,500 is required. Panama is one of the easiest places to settle down and raise a family, and once you’ve learned the ins and outs, the world is your oyster here. Living well in a tropical paradise is not unreachable, but well within your grasp. 

Shaunette Bailey
Panama Insider

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