I’ve been asked at least half a dozen times regarding the cost of living in the Philippines and wanted to wait until I could really take time to give a full response. Things have finally calmed down here after a big of local and online drama so, let’s take a look at this. The first thing we have to look at is the definition of ‘living’, whether it be here or anywhere else. (all prices shown are in USD)
And so it is with the Philippines. What island are we talking about? City life or Province life? Renting or Owning? High, mid or lower-income level lifestyle? Each of these is a factor to consider. So what I’ll do here is try to give a ‘ball-park’ figure along with some general costs for the basics which need to be adjusted depending on how you live.
GROCERIES / DINING OUT:
Ranges from $160-$225/month
The range depends on a few factors. How much you dine-out versus cook your own food. also whether you dine-out at expensive places or low-end locales. And finally, how many people you are buying food for, are they big eaters?, etc. The range I give is for two people with a fairly moderate lifestyle..
As a good for-instance to begin with, let’s look at one of the basics.. Food. With groceries, here you have a couple of options; Supermarkets, ‘Merkados’ (the marketplace) and dining-out. At the supermarkets, as a general rule I would say don’t expect to automatically save money on your grocery bill. Groceries here cost about the same, even taking the exchange rate into consideration, with exception to a small list of items. For instance, most large grocery stores here such as Alturas rarely carry milk. You’ll find powdered milk and soy milk, but rarely if ever will you find real cow-milk. Not many dairies here on the islands.
You can still get milk at the larger membership grocery stores, although it will generally be more expensive than what you’re accustomed to. Along those lines, same for cheese or any other real dairy product. Artificial cheese, yah, that you can find but real cheese and your best bet is the membership places like S&R Membership Stores. But don’t expect to find an S&R on the smaller islands, most of those are in the bigger cities. Meanwhile, canned, corned-beef is very popular here and it’s actually part of my favorite breakfast with rice and eggs.
Same story for good beef. You can get some beef at the merkado depending on the area you’re in. But for the most part expect to find mostly chicken, pork and seafood for meats. The good thing is that fish and shrimp are generally cheaper at the merkados, as well as vegetables. So whether or not you are willing to shop the outdoor marketplaces, which can be less organized and not air-conditioned like the supermarket will affect whether you save on groceries or not. Other items that I was surprised to find cost more here are items such as chocolate, peanut butter, potatoes and donuts. In the US you can buy a full 10 pound sack of potatoes for less than $2. Here I’ve paid as much as $2 for just four medium sized potatoes. Again, Idaho is a long ways from here so, if it’s being shipped in from a distance expect it will cost more.
And that’s the general rule when it comes to groceries; If it’s imported, it costs more. One of my favorite crackers back home are RITZ crackers. Here, an exact duplicate (perhaps even the same manufacturer under a different name?) makes them but here they are called FITA crackers. It is not ‘like’ a Ritz cracker.. it IS a Ritz cracker, just in a different box. And much cheaper so, I’m happy. So the lesson to be learned here is that if you want to save some money on groceries, be open to the local brands rather than buying the ‘imported’ brands you are accustomed to out of habit.
With dining out, depending on where you go it can be cheaper to just eat-out than cook sometimes. Fast-food here isn’t any better for you than anywhere else, so I don’t recommend that. Here you will find familiar favorites such as KFC, Pizza Hut, Dunkin’ Donuts, McDonald’s, Shakey’s to name just a few. Jollibee is the McDonald’s counterpart empire here when it comes to fast-food burgers. Between the two, I always choose Jollibee over McDonald’s only because I simply can’t stand McD’s on any continent. But that’s just me. Other people seem to prefer Ronald over the Jollibee, and that keeps the lines somewhat shorter at Jollibee’s for me. Of the major fast-food franchises I’d say that the best bang-for-your-buck are to be found either at KFC or Chow King. Each has lunches you can grab for under $3 to hold you over til you get a ‘real’ meal later. Chow King has this snack called a ‘Chow Pao’, patterned somewhat after a Siopao. Now, a real siopao is much better, in my opinion . I love the real siopao. It’s a steam-baked, soft bread with meat inside. Chow King makes their version kinda like a McMuffin with some meat and sauce inside. It’s not ‘fantastic’ but it’s a decent snack to hold you over while cruising the mall. You can get one with a drink for about 75 cents.
As for restaurants, if you go to Ayala Mall or any mall comparative to it you will find some nice dining places where you can blow about $10 a plate for dinner, or more if you’re so inclined. TGIF in the Philippines for instance has some good food, but you’re not going to pay less there, chances are you’ll pay more than you would at a TGIF back in the US. So don’t assume that everything is cheaper here in the Philippines. Again, if the products/ingredients have to be imported.. it’s going to be more expensive, not cheaper.
Now, if you’re a bit more adventurous like me and willing to eat at the marketplaces or vendors along the street as you wander about, you can get lunch or dinner for insanely low prices. Unless you are in a tourist area, at a typical BBQ stand you can get several large pieces of chicken, half a dozen skewers of pork, some hanging rice and a drink for about $3.50. I’ve had 6 Lumpia, a bowl of chicken/rice porridge, a hard-boiled egg and drink for $1.50 at the marketplace. There are also other places, such as the Lantaw Floating Restaurant which serves Filipino foods. Nipa-hut ambiance with a great view of the ocean and yet at some very reasonable prices, about $5.50 a plate. I went there in January and again last month, I love that place. It’s located on Mactan in the Cordova area. Another great place to eat is Manang Fe’s, just down the street from the Grand Mall, also on Mactan. Fantastic bbq there. So, between some smart shopping at the grocery store, a bit of shopping at the merkado, a little dining out once in a while and some street-bbq.. I’d say groceries are about the same with no major savings ‘overall’ on a monthly basis.
HOUSING: Owning versus Renting, City versus Province
Rental Ranges from: $170-$450/month (up to $850/month for upscale, multi-story home.)
RENTING: As you’ll notice, the range is kinda wide. But that’s because when it comes to housing we could be talking about anything from a studio/flat to a multi-story home. My former studio, which I stayed at my first 9 months as I arrived on Mactan was only $125 a month. In my case I was living as a single-guy. The studio was newly constructed and only a few blocks from a nearby mall. It had a main room which I used as an office, a narrow kitchen, a decent sized bedroom and a fairly large bathroom. I was very happy there, it met all my needs and was in a secure enough area. My monthly utility bills for electricity and water totaled about $45 a month. I used an electric range so, no propane bill. Bottled water usually runs no more than $5 a month. Now, for about $250 a month you can get a larger, nicer studio but you’re still looking at a 1-bedroom depending on what city/island you’re looking in.
But let’s say you want a nicer, more upscale condo with at least 2 bedrooms and nice amenities than you’re basic studio/flat. If you Click Here you can see what the local market is going for Condo or large apartment in the Cebu area. (Prices are in Pesos which you can convert -here-, or simple divide by 41 to get a ball-park figure.) The range goes anywhere from $600 to $1,100 a month. This is to rent, not buy. Many come with on-site swimming pool, laundry facilities, security and wireless so you’re getting a bit more luxury and extras for the money.
Now, I’ll throw this out there but try to take it with a grain of salt. There are places you can rent in the city for about $65 a month and ‘survive’. These places are called ‘boarding houses’. But it’s not a big house where you rent a room and they make breakfast for you in the morning, so get that idea out of your head. Think more in terms of an 8′ x 16′ room with a door. We’re not talking about much more than a room with four walls and a closet. Big enough for a twin bed, one-person and no bathroom. (the bathroom/shower is shared, down the hall) If things got weird and you were low on cash you can find such places listed on Cebu-Craigslist: Rooms. This also might be an alternative if you didn’t plan on being ‘home’ much and doing lots of local island hopping but needed a place to basically just sleep a few nights a week. Sort of like a back-packing hostel if you will. Some of them are run cleanly and securely while others the management just really doesn’t care. They are sometimes in the not-so-desirable parts of town so they aren’t the kind of place you’d want to keep many valuables. Mostly they are used by locals, often Filipinas, who just need an inexpensive place to stay while working in the city. Some boarding houses accommodate two people with a bunk-bed.
BUYING: There’s a minor, on-going debate in the expat-forums as to whether its better to Rent or Own in the Philippines. Honestly, I think it’s a fruitless debate because both have their pros and cons, depending on the priorities of each individual.
The benefits of buying are that, when purchased through a Filipina wife (foreigners can purchase housing, as in condos, but not the land) is that if/when the time comes that the foreigner husband passes away, the Filipina wife will at the very least have a home to live in that is paid for. Owning a home in the Philippines is far more affordable than in the US. Plenty of expats pay off their home either up front or in less than 3 years. Or they have it custom-built or via a pre-fab design and pay it off by their first year. Knowing that you can leave your future widow with some sense of security is a good and admirable thing. So I’m all for that.
The argument against owning is that it comes with the usual; taxes and upkeep. Some people just don’t want to be tied down to one location. They want to travel around a bit before putting down some permanent roots. That’s understandable. Sometimes things can get out of hand with the locals in the neighborhood or barangay politics to where that area is no longer a pleasant place to live. Instead of just finishing out a lease, the house would have to be put up for sale, escrow and that whole song and dance.
The benefits of renting are, as mentioned, mobility. As in my case, when I visited Bohol I was so impressed I just knew I had to move here. I happened to be on the last two months of my existing lease for my studio on Mactan so I simply consumed my deposit the last two months and moved my stuff to Bohol. Here you will usually be asked for 2 months deposit. However never, ever expect to get your deposit back. That money was spent by the landlord a long time ago. So here the usual practice is to simply consume the last two months of the rental rent-free using the credit of the deposit. That’s just how it’s done here the majority of the time, with exception to perhaps large condo associations.
The downside to renting is that if you are married and you pass away, the rent now becomes the burden of your widow since the place is not owned. And unless you are leaving her with continuing benefits of some kind to give her income it could leave her and your children with nothing and no place to live. But if you are a single-man and have an interest to explore around the Philippines, renting is definitely the way to go.
Homes here will be either single-detached or attached homes. Some of these ‘homes’ are more like what we might call a large, double-story condo as far as the design goes for attached homes. Often they are referred to as a ‘townhouse‘. An attached home will range anywhere from $50k to $75k in the Cebu/Mactan area. Meanwhile a single-detached home with the same 3 or 4 bedroom, 2 bath would go for around $120k to $220k. You can browse some of the current homes available in the Cebu area -Here-.
Now, these are for pre-built homes with nice designs ready to go, new and turnkey. What many expats do is purchase the land via their Filipina wife and have a home built to spec for anywhere from $35k to $70k (or higher if they wish), saving money by simply paying for labor, fees and materials themselves without the costs of a developer bumping up the price. This involves a bit more patience and at times, anxiety, but it’s cheaper than going with a pre-built home. You can see a home currently being built by one of our readers here.. Roxas Ron’s New Home in the PH.
Now, keep in mind that these homes are in the City. Out in the province the price drops substantially for both rentals and buying. In the province you can find large homes for rent for as little as $350 a month. Smaller homes for rent for a low as $175. And then there are some homes which most expats would really be out of their comfort zone, but two in my area go for about $80 a month, but need lots of work. One of them is a 2-story with 4 bedrooms. So in the province.. there are some deals. If you’re looking in a small town on a small island with no ‘big cities’ other than the main part of town, you can get a much better deal on renting an apartment, under $100 a month. But the trade-off is that you will not be conveniently located near any big malls or hospitals. If you want to catch a movie at the theater you may have to either cross the island or even take a ferry to the next island. One island that may catch your interest if you prefer a more rural, province-like atmosphere away from the city is the isle of Guimaras.
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Phones/Internet: What we’ve looked at so far have been Food and Shelter, the basics. Around this is built all the other expenses you’ll optionally choose depending on your lifestyle choices. One line-item almost all of you will want is Internet. I went more into detail on internet choices in this article, (and also in this article) but as far as cost you can expect to pay about $19 a month for a wi-fi 4G broadband adapter (usb dongle). That comes with a daily cap of 850Mb. If you happen to go over the cap accidentally you are cut off until midnight that night and then your access is restored automatically.
Another must-have, for most, is a cell phone. I’ve found that the best deal if you plan to actually use Voice to call people (as opposed to texting) is the Globe Unlimited plan for about $14 a month. The plan is the same for standard or smart-phones and includes unlimited texting within Globe network and some credit towards other networks as you build up points. Now, if you don’t plan on doing voice-calls, which is very common here, and plan to only text other people, then the Unlimited Text plan from Sun network is a better deal at around $9.50 a month. Most Filipinas are on Sun since it’s cheaper, just so you know. I’ve tried using Sun’s voice plan and.. it really, really.. really sucks. So, for voice calls.. Globe, texting.. Sun.
When it comes to buying a phone here.. you won’t have to look far. Any mall has a phone store practically every 50 feet. You can get anything from a $19 basic phone to a $200 smart-phone. Here, you buy your own phone, insert a SIM card (cost: fifty cents, often free with the phone) and then you buy Load to pay for either your minutes or unlimited plan. When the load is exhausted, you just buy more. You can either buy it on a plastic card, enter the code and the load is installed or you can buy it from just about any business as they transfer it from their phone directly to yours electronically. Even a remote sari-sari store often provides load in either format. One thing about the load-cards.. the instructions are in super-tiny font so, having your reading glasses. Also, enter the number code slowly or you’ll likely have to re-enter it all over again.
Transportation: One great thing about living in the Philippines is that in most cities you can absolutely get by without a vehicle of your own. No monthly payment. No insurance. No maintenance. No need for a car. Depending on how far you are going there are several modes of travel to take advantage of. One is by way of Tricycle. These are motorcycles with a sidecar. There are even bicycle versions available for just getting a few blocks from one neighborhood to the other. A motor-Tricycle, if you ride with other passengers aboard, costs 8 pesos per ‘ride’. A ‘ride’ is generally 2 miles distance, give or take. And 8 pesos is only about 17 cents so, for getting around town it’s a great deal.
And then there are the ever-famous Jeepneys. The key to using the jeepneys is that if you don’t know the area, take the jeepney that is going to a major landmark you are familiar with. Usually this will be the nearest mall or shopping center. If by chance you take the wrong one and end up in unfamiliar territory (as happened to me), just cross the street and take a jeepney going back to where you left from. Jeepneys also cost about 8 pesos per ride but usually go for distances of about 5 miles, so use those instead of tricycles for longer distances. A jeepney ride here on Bohol takes me to the beach at Alona from Tagbilaran, a distance of about 20 miles for just 25 pesos, about 55 cents. It’s something of an experience, an adventure to me, travelling around this way.. personally I find it kinda fun.
Now, if you have a bunch of groceries with you taking a taxi is a better option. When using taxis here it is good to establish, “With the meter.” to avoid any special pricing that invariably costs more than the metered rate. Ballpark, the taxis seem to be about 40 pesos per mile, so about a dollar a mile. I could get from the center of Mactan to Ayala mall in Cebu for about 180 pesos, roughly $3.75. Another way of getting around are the V-Hire vans. The same trip from Mactan to Ayala in a V-hire only cost me 35 pesos, roughly 80 cents.
There are also buses available. For about 120 pesos (about $2.50) I could get from central Cebu to the northern end of the island up in Bogo, perhaps 35 miles away. And for between islands the ferry from Mactan to Cebu is only 15 pesos, that’s like 35 cents.
So.. all in all getting around without a vehicle is not a problem, lots of choices. For me, I found that I was spending maybe $30 a month on transportation. Your amount will vary depending on how much you move around and which mode of transport you like best.
So.. getting back to answering the question, “What does it cost to live in the Philippines?”, I hope you’ll be able to look at the range of main expenses and be able to figure about how much you will need for the particular lifestyle you prefer. Other items such as nightclubs, island-hopping, scuba diving, tourist attractions and such can be added on top of the basics of food, housing, transportation and communications. If you’d like to share some of the costs to your particular island feel free to share in the Comments section (below). Since most of my exposure has been in the Cebu, Mactan & Bohol regions I’ve focused on those. So any added info you can share on from other islands is much appreciated.
Henry ‘Reekay’ V.