Expat And Retirement Living In Paris and Panama

Paris Versus Panama City, Three Years On

A few months after we moved from Paris to Panama City, I reflected on the relative costs of living in these two places, noting that, in fact, our cost of living in Panama City was not proving to be noticeably lower than it had been in the City of Light.

In July, we’ll have been living in Panama for three years. Now fully settled into our new lives in the tropics, how is our cost of living faring? Lief and I reconsidered our budget comparison, Panama City versus Paris, last night.

It’s costing us about half as much to rent our house in Panama City as it would to rent a suitable apartment for our family of four in Paris. That’s a big difference, of course, and an expense item where Panama City comes out the big winner. However, cost of housing should be considered separately from your overall cost of living (because it’s so variable and so hard to compare apples to apples).

Housing aside, our cost comparisons between Panama City and Paris get more interesting.

In Panama we have a full-time maid, a part-time gardener, and two full-time assistants, one for the business and one for our personal stuff and travel. In Paris, I had to negotiate with Lief to get him to go along with the idea of once-a-week, two-hours-at-a-time help around the house, and we paid half as much for that weekly help as we’re paying for my full-time helper (five days a week, cooking, cleaning, and ironing) here in Panama (and we’re paying beyond the very high end of the current going rate).

In Paris, we never entertained the idea of a full-time personal assistant. You don’t employ people lightly in France. As even French friends joke, employees in that country are lifetime liabilities. That may be a small exaggeration, but the point is that, once hired, a French employee is not easily parted company with. Plus, the cost of even a part-time assistant in Paris would have been beyond our budget.

The kind of day-to-day support, with household chores, with weed-pulling, and with travel planning, that we’re enjoying here in Panama has been liberating. If and when we move to a place where we can no longer afford it, we’ll feel the loss.

In Panama City, we dine out at four- and five-star restaurants on average twice a week. In Paris, it was maybe twice a month. Panama’s capital boasts dozens of international-standard restaurants that, while not super cheap, are a bargain compared with the cost of fine dining in Paris.

We dropped off 35 items at the dry cleaner’s yesterday. As Lief remarked, in Paris, where the average per-item cost of dry cleaning is about 4 euro, that would have been a significant cost item for this month’s budget. Here in Panama City, the cleaners we go to charges an average of 90 cents per item.

Jack has weekly piano lessons and four-times-a-week Hapkido lessons here in Panama City for a total cost that is less than the cost of his weekly guitar lesson in Paris. And our Spanish tutor in Panama costs one-third as much as the French tutor I worked with in France.

Lief’s haircut in Paris cost 40 euro. In Panama City, he has his hair coiffed for US$5. So he gets his hair cut twice as often.

On the other hand, in Paris, we didn’t own (need or want) a car. Here in Panama we’ve invested in a Prado. You need a car to get around this city. As small as it is, it’s not a city for walking. And, if you intend to travel in the country beyond the capital, you need a four-wheel-drive SUV.

Our utility costs are a little higher in Panama, thanks to the cost of air conditioning those 320 square meters we live in.

What does all this mean for you? Mostly it’s an effort to show you the kind of thinking you should be doing as you prepare for your own move to wherever you’re thinking of moving. Even if you’re planning to launch your new life in Panama City, your budget probably won’t look anything like ours.

We’re at a phase of our lives, thanks to our children and our business, where we need full-time help around the house. We have two children, each of whom needs a bedroom, plus we wanted room for guests. We like to eat out. We have a school-aged son who wants to learn to play the piano and to practice the martial arts. Etc.

Your life might look almost nothing like ours, meaning your costs of living could be dramatically less…or maybe they’d be more. I don’t know.

You could move to Panama City as a retired single or couple and get by on, say, US$1,200 a month. But that’s not the point.

Here’s the point that Lief and I recognized last night as a result of our three-year-on comparative musings:

Moving to a place like Panama City, from the States or, as in our case, from another developed-world spot like Paris, the big budget benefit isn’t necessarily a dramatic reduction in your overall cost of living. Living in Panama City could cost you less, maybe a lot less, than wherever you’re living today, depending where you’re living today and how you decide you want to live in Panama City.

All tallied, and cost of housing aside, we’re spending about the same to live here in Panama City as we did to live in Paris. But that budget is buying us a considerably improved standard of living.

And that’s the real point: Your budget, whatever you decide it to be, can buy you a dramatically elevated standard of living in this part of the world. Your new life can be more comfortable and better appointed. You truly can live better than you ever have until this point.

Kathleen Peddicord

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