Cost of Living in Costa Rica – Part I – Groceries

Retire in Costa Rica – Cost of Living in Costa Rica – Part I, Groceries



Recent articles have made much of Costa Rica as the ‘New Florida’ for those U.S. citizens looking for a comfortable place in which to settle into retirement.  The American Association of Retired People (AARP) recommends the popular town of Atenas as one of its Top Ten spots for retirees in its September/October issue last year.  

Certainly the benefits speak for themselves: warm climate all year round, stable and peaceful politics, comparatively cheap real estate, stunning beaches, environmentally friendly outlook, fascinating fauna and flora and a low cost of living.  What about that low cost of living in Costa Rica?   This is the only point that appears to be in contention.   Is Costa Rica really a cheap place to live?  The short answer is yes.

If you consider that the average Costa Rican earns between $600 and $700 a month, then your retirement budget will give you an above average standard of living in the country.  This does not mean living like a king, but it should mean that if you spend your income wisely, you’ll certainly be living in a manner above and beyond that you could afford as a retiree in the States.

Cost of Living in Costa Rica - Local Fresh Eggs

These fresh-from-the-hen eggs were a bargain --
$4 for thirty -- straight from the farmer.
Photo Credit: Sara Ford

Accommodation:  To rent a two bedroom house or apartment in a reasonable area within San Jose or the Central Valley will cost you around $450 to $500 a month.  Expect to pay more for a fully-furnished rental or for luxuries such as access to a swimming pool.  If you have a good income, the sky is the limit!  Ask around to find amazing properties to rent or buy, or for the more ambitious among you, buy a plot and build your own dream retirement villa!  Estimates vary greatly, but a no-frills home can still be constructed for around $37 a square foot.

Transport:  Buses are dirt-cheap.  To travel around the Central Valley, carry a pocket of coins — most journeys are only a few hundred colones, or less than a dollar.  Taxis are fairly cheap, after an initial dollar to begin your journey; the meter will run to calculate your fare for the journey — haggle-free travel!  A car is a big expense, but vehicles hold their value in this market.   Buying a car is an investment, but it will allow you to really explore your new country.

Healthcare:  Legal residents can take advantage of Costa Rica’s Caja, the national health system which is available to all.  You will wait to be seen by a doctor and for appointments with specialists, but you will not be charged for any drugs prescribed or any other medical service provided, including hospital stays.  If you have the funds to avoid the long lines, then Costa Rica’s private medical care is second to none, with doctors frequently training outside the country and with hospitals such as CIMA and Clinica Biblica which are modern and well-equipped.  Private healthcare costs are dependent on a number of factors, but paying somewhere between $50 and $100 is a sensible estimate and a fraction of healthcare costs in the USA.  Comparing the cost of living in Costa Rica vs. the United States, many ex-pats will see why this country is so highly rated!

Groceries:  The Costa Rican Ministerio de Economía (Ministry of Economy) conducted a thorough study of supermarket pricing for Costa Rican food across the Central Valley in one set week of May 2011.

Their findings were based on the contents of a basic basket of food and other essentials that the average Costa Rican family would buy; such as rice, beans, toothpaste and milk.  The conclusion of their study found that buying items in a cost-cutting supermarket belonging to a large chain in a low-income area, in this case Palí, could reduce the shopping bill by as much as $46 compared to buying the same, or very similar items, in the more pleasant surroundings of a top-notch supermarket, like Auto Mercado, located in an upmarket suburb.  The Palí basket totalled $144.62 whereas the Auto Mercado bill came to $190.86.

Cost of Living in Costa Rica - Store Brands Save You Money

Store brands; such as these 'Sabemas' products from Wal-Mart-owned Pali, are very cheap.
Photo Credit: Sara Ford

Many ex-pats can only find special culinary treats; such as cranberry sauce and stuffing, French cheese or smoked salmon, in the more expensive stores which stock highly-priced imported goods.  This doesn’t mean that you should buy your entire week’s groceries there! Better to buy those reminders of home that you can’t live without and then drive to a budget store for all the basics!  This way, the cost of living in Costa Rica can be very reasonable, even with your ‘special’ treats.

Cost of Living in Costa Rica - Betty Crocker Mixes

U.S. brand products; such as these 'Betty Crocker' cake mixes, are available in high-quality stores.
Photo Credit: Sara Ford

For an indication on prices of the bare essentials, a selection of the items from the Ministry’s survey is listed below with the lowest price found and the store which stocked the goods at that price:

Numar Vegetable Margarine 1 lb $0.95 Perimercado
Equate Toothpaste 0.2 lbs $1.17 Palí
White Sliced Bread 1.6 lbs $1.75 Walmart
Levex Toilet Paper 1.68 lbs $2.50 La Canasta Ujarras
Spaghetti 0.5 lbs $0.40 Maxibodega
Canned Tuna 0.24 lbs $0.98 Palí
White Rice 4 lbs $2.20 Palí
White Sugar 4 lbs $2.02 Perimercado
Coffee 0.5 lbs $1.48 Almacen Mas y Mas
Milk 0.26 gal $2.60 Maxibodega
Plantain one $0.20 Palí
Carrots 2.2 lbs $0.60 Super Mora
Tomatoes 2.2 lbs $0.76 Palí
Potatoes 2.2lbs $2.08 Almacén Mas y Mas
Eggs 15 $2.35 La Canasta Ujarras
Chicken Breast 1.1 lbs $1.32 Mas x Menos
Economy Steak 2.2 lbs $5.15 Palí

The above items are the cheaper brands of the food items available on the market.  You might be tempted to upgrade your basic basket to include better quality foodstuffs and products, but then you should expect to pay higher prices.  Any products that aren’t run-of-the-mill will probably cost you more than you would pay in your own country; however, cooking and eating with local products can really save you big bucks in the long run.

Buying fruit and vegetables in your local farmers’ market can save you money and is a delightful shopping experience!  Wander along the stalls to compare the quality and pricing before buying and you’ll find a wealth of freshly grown and recently harvested products.  This is the best place to find the seasonal goods at great prices and you’ll see a whole range of weird and wonderful fruits and vegetables that you wouldn’t have seen before — be adventurous!  But do ask the stall holder how to prepare it before heading home with a basket full of mysterious items!  Many locals also buy their dairy products, such as homemade sour cream, cheese and eggs at the market.  Weekly farmers’ markets are held all over the Central Valley.   Ask around to find the day of the week and location of the one closest to you.

Cost of Living in Costa Rica - Fresh Vegetables

A range of wonderfully fresh fruit and vegetables
can be bought at your local farmer's market.
Photo Credit: Sara Ford

Cost of Living in Costa Rica - Fruit Trees

Fruit, like the delicious and decorative star fruit...
...literally grow on the trees!
Photo Credit: Sara Ford

The one thing to ask visitors from the States to bring is peanut butter — if you can find a good quality one, you’ll pay dearly for it!  You’ll soon make your own list, but it really is possible to find just about everything you’d want to eat from the US, even if you may pay a little more for it — Cheerios, cranberry juice, blueberry waffles….all stocked in your local quality supermarket, especially in you live in an ex-pat area.

You can eat well and incredibly healthfully in Costa Rica on a shoestring grocery budget by simply buying local products from low-cost stores and markets without your weekly shop becoming a mundane chore.   If there are those U.S. essentials that you really can’t live without, then don’t sweat it — just pop into a supermarket that stocks imported goods and splurge!  With the grocery shopping covered, now you just need to check out those other vital living expenses…


The ‘Cost of Living in Costa Rica‘ series continues with more articles!


Reporting by Sara Ford
• Freelance writer for Vamos Rent-A-Car


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5 Responses to “Cost of Living in Costa Rica – Part I – Groceries”

  1. Rudy says:

    I quite sympathize with your outlook when it comes to this. Thank you for writing such a nice article. Have you written similar posts like this one?

    • RicardoV says:

      Sara Ford writes the majority of Vamos’ articles. Living and working in Costa Rica helps her to write accurate content.

      Stay tuned for more! 🙂

  2. sara says:

    Thanks for the comment, Rudy! I hope you find other articles pleasing too!

  3. Ralph says:

    Hello, I enjoy reading through your article, so here’s a little comment to support you. 🙂