Monday, June 30, 2008

The Determining Factor

When we decided to retire early and move to an island, there were many questions which had to be resolved before making our decision. The most important question, could we afford it? Having never lived on an island, or in a 3rd world country, we decided that we had to question people who lived there; locals and foreigners alike.

One would think that open-ended questions such as how much is your budget for food, electricity, gas, health care, etc. would be questions easily answered. We also had questions about building our home, taxes, residency requirements, which lawyer to use, etc., all of which would help us make sound, rational decisions. However, we were to learn that such was not the case. From locals and foreigners alike we got zip, nada, nothing.

We discovered that locals don’t budget. They buy things according to how much money that have available that day. As to paying bills, well, if they have the money they may pay their bills. If they don’t have the funds, the merchant or business they owe money to must wait until they can come up with the money. The surprising fact is that they continue to get credit even when they haven’t paid in months. People here buy 1 rib of celery, 1 cigarette, 1 aspirin, 1 bouillon cube, or whatever is necessary at that moment to get them through the day. We also discovered that when one hears the phrase “Can I borrow….” it doesn’t mean to take temporary possession of something with the idea in mind to return it or to repay money that was requested. It means, “Give me what I am asking for and do not expect to get it back or repaid!” This phrase is used to supplement their income or living situation at any given time. So, no islander could tell us with any accuracy what our monthly requirements would be.

Foreigners usually have a steady income but since they all live on a different income scale, they could not advise us either. Even those individuals with the same approximate income level as we were not forthcoming. Now, it was not because they did not want to help us, it was simply that their needs were totally different from ours at any given time. While some can live on beans and rice and tortillas, others need or want specific foods to make them comfortable. Some want T.V. in their homes, others do not. Some require different appliances to make their lives more comfortable, i.e., dishwashers, dryers, air conditioning units, microwave ovens, phones, etc. While we could live without a dishwasher, dryer or air conditioner, we did contemplate having a telephone. However, telephones were hard to come by so getting one was out of the question as there was a long wait list for them. Transportation requirements also varied so determining what type of boat and motor we would use was something we had to figure for ourselves.

One thing we knew, after canvassing health insurance options, we decided to remain self-insured. So far it has worked. Medicines are cheaper in Honduras and those people over 60 can get up to 25% off the price of their prescriptions, along with discounts for airfare, food, hotels. Hospital and doctor costs are cheaper and screenings (MRI’s, CAT scans, etc.) and blood tests are also within a manageable range. We have been lucky because we have been relatively healthy. But we are now 11 years older than we arrived and a few health issues are presenting themselves. For the most part living here, we believe, has kept us healthier than our counter-parts in the U.S.

Building costs here are another thing all together. Lumber, cement, sand, gravel, nails, PVC, all building material must be acquired from sources on the Mainland. One must fly to La Ceiba or San Pedro Sula and spend days hunting down various materials. Once the items are found they must be paid for in advance and arrangements made for its shipment to the island with the hopes that the purchased product will arrive when promised, in the amount ordered and in the condition one saw it in when making the purchase. If something comes that is damaged or not what you ordered, you are stuck with it! No refunds are made and to get an exchange would mean shipping it back, flying to the coast and making sure that it is delivered to the merchant and then usually arguing with them about the fact that the product was shipped in bad condition or wasn’t what you ordered. No matter what you may believe, you never, never, never get your money back and, on occasion, they will not take the item back and/or exchange it.

Trying to determine what labor will cost to build your home – well, believe me when I tell you that you should take your original figure and double or triple it and then it may be close! Competent construction workers are almost impossible to find and those that are available, albeit few, are busy and booked up. The same goes for trying to determine the length of time that it will take to complete your project. Thank goodness my husband was in the construction business and knew how to build our house to our satisfaction. We found by observation that there is little if any advanced planning that goes into building a home; i.e., doors open inward when they should open outward, electrical outlets in inconvenient places, tile laid haphazardly, poor block work to which their solution is cover everything up with stucco!

It took us a lot of trial and error to figure out a household budget and as far as building the house, well, we just dug our heels in and went ahead and built it trying to stay within what we felt was a reasonable cost. The only thing we did not figure on was a three-day, Category 5 hurricane striking and disassembling our house which was 3/4ths roughed in!

We have managed to live on the same income for 11 years and only recently, because of the price of fuel skyrocketing, we have had to increase our income by an additional one-half. A large majority of the locals do not have a steady income and how they manage to handle the high cost of living is a real problem. There is no welfare here; the government does not bail them out nor furnish any programs to help.

Our needs are basic here; food, fuel, fun. Taxes are low, no insurance premiums, no new car every 3 years or so, no necessity for new clothing, no malls to spend our money in foolishly, and only about 4 restaurants to go to for a change in pace. Nevertheless, we are content and fulfilled. We have found outlets for our energy and, in general, keep ourselves occupied with hobbies, maintenance work, entertaining, or exploring the world around us. We do spend time “resting” and observing nature and, to tell the truth, sitting on the front porch watching the sea roll in is not all bad! Added plus – the view is free!


  1. Great article, Sharon. It shows the extreme difficulty in budgeting for construction as well as the difficulty we "long-timers" have in answering that very common question, "What does it cost to live there?"

  2. Your articles and La Gringa's about construction in Honduras are doing a good job of convincing me to never ever build a house here. :-)