Paris v. Panama City…Counting The Costs

When we were preparing to depart Paris for Panama City last summer, I wrote to say that, according to Lief’s figurings, it appeared that our family was going to spend more to live in the Panamanian capital than we had been spending to live in the French one.

“How can that be?” I challenged Lief at the time. “Paris cheaper than Panama City? I can’t believe it.”

Here’s the truth about this cost of living question: You can spend as much or as little as you want to spend to live almost anywhere in the world.

A few places are absolutely expensive and won’t work right now if budget is a chief concern–like Dublin, for example, and Monte Carlo.

And, in some places, you’d have to work hard to live a big-budget lifestyle–in small-town Ecuador, say.

But in most of the world, your lifestyle can expand to fit your allowable monthly spend.

We’re six months into our new life in Panama. Now that we’rze settled, what’s the story? Has Lief’s prediction come true?

Our apartment rent in Panama City is much greater than we expected it would be. We needed three bedrooms, three bathrooms, and a sizable office. I wanted a new building with a new kitchen and American-standard bathrooms.

For this, we’re paying US$3,000 a month. Not cheap by any standard. And, in fact, you could rent a comfortable (though much smaller) place in a nice neighborhood in Paris for the same amount (say 2,000 euro monthly).

In Paris, we spent 250 euro a week on groceries. Here in Panama City, we’re spending about US$250 a week on groceries (in other words, nearly 40% less).

You could spend, I don’t know, half as much to eat in Panama…maybe less than that. We admit it: We shop indulgently. We frequent the big U.S.-style grocery story (Riba Smith). We buy Entenmann’s pound cake and Aunt Jemima syrup for our pancakes. We even splurge on Tropicana orange juice, at US$6 a jug.

On the other hand, we have found bargains–like Moet’s exported champagne (exported from Argentina…not France…so technically not “champagne” but still very quaffable), which is sold throughout the city for but US$9 a bottle. Lief likes Sangria…and buys a local brand for about US$3 a bottle.

Local meats are good and also a bargain–as little as US$3 a pound for steak, for example.

Other great buys in this town include men’s haircuts (Lief had his hair cut yesterday for US$3), movie tickets (US$3 to see a first-run movie in English), and film processing (US$4 per roll…compared with 30 euro and more a roll in Paris!).

You can buy a cell phone for US$5…and it comes with US$5 worth of phone credit.

Here in Panama, I’m enjoying full-time, six-day-a-week help around the house. We’re paying top dollar: US$300 a month. In Paris, when I splurged on maid service, it cost me 50 euro an hour.

In neither place have we invested in a car. In Paris, we walked almost everywhere. When our legs gave out, we could hop on the metro and go from one end of the city to the other for 1.70 euro.

Here in Panama, eventually we’ll need a car. Meantime, we’ve found a taxi driver who’s available on call for no extra charge.

Taxi rates, meantime, are one of the most hotly discussed topics of conversation in this town. How much should a taxi ride cost you?

Last year, taxi travel was standardized according to a zone system. Know the zones and what your ride should cost you before you hop in a cab.

It should cost you US$1.35 (plus 40 cents for each additional passenger) to travel from one zone to another. As Lief likes to say, though, “the real cost of a taxi ride is whatever the driver can get away with.”

Again, know the zones before you set off for the ride.

In Paris, we spent on average 200 euro a month for electricity and gas (used for heat in the winter). Here in Panama we’re spending $200 a month for electricity (used for air conditioning year-round).

In Panama, our business Internet and phone package is US$185 a month. This is for unlimited wireless–that is, any number of users at one time.

Internet and telephone are one of the greatest bargains living in France (which boasts the world’s top infrastructure in many regards). It cost us but 46 euro per month for wireless Internet and telephone, including free land line calls anywhere in Europe and to the United States. Living there and buying a standard-option package from Orange, we had virtually no long-distance bill.

We’ve kept the same health insurance here in Panama as we had in France. It’s a BUPA international policy that costs 122 euro a month for coverage for Lief, Jackson, and me.

OK…what’s the bottom line?

Paris Budget:

  • Rent: 2,000 euro a month
  • Groceries: 1,000 euro a month
  • Transportation (metro): 20 euro a month
  • Gas and electricity: 200 euro a month
  • Internet and phone: 46 euro a month
  • Health insurance: 120 euro a month

TOTAL: 3,266 euro a month, plus health insurance

Panama City Budget:

  • Rent: US$3,000 a month
  • Groceries: US$1,000 a month
  • Transportation: US$80 a month
  • Electricity: US$200 a month
  • Internet and phone: US$185 a month
  • Full-time maid: US$300 a month
  • Health insurance: 120 euro a month

TOTAL: US$4,765 a month, plus health insurance

In other words, at the current rate of exchange, indeed, our cost of living in Paris was a bit lower than our current cost of living in Panama City.

Does that mean it costs US$5,000 a month to live in Panama City?

Only if you want to live just the way we’re living.

In other words, the answer is no. You could live here comfortably on half as much or less.

And in the beautiful interior of this country, where we’re headed this weekend, you could live on maybe a quarter as much.

Kathleen Peddicord



“Note Panama midway through the list,” writes a friend from Paris: Top 10 Destinations in 2009

The trouble with living someplace with a lot of tourist appeal is that you forget to allow yourself time to be a tourist now and then.

We’re no exception. We count on visitors to motivate us beyond Panama City. This weekend, with guests in town, for example, we’re traveling out to Veraguas province for two days. We’ll check in on infrastructure progress at Lief’s Los Islotes development; otherwise, our agenda is all about the beach…which, in this still-undiscovered part of this country, is primo.

Take a look.


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