Why We Can't Recommend Living on $500 per month in Chiang Mai

Every once in a while we’ll have a reader sling a dollar value at us and ask if it’s possible to live on a certain budget in Chiang Mai. “Can I survive on $400 USD per month?” or “Will I be comfortable on $750 per month?” But the most popular is, “Is $500 per month in Chiang Mai good enough?” When we first moved here, we tried living off $500 per person per month but oh-so-quickly realized it wasn’t going to happen. Here are a few good reasons why we don’t recommend anyone trying to do the same!

Living Off $500 Per Month in Chiang Mai Can Be Done…

We get it. Everyone’s lifestyle is different. What is modest to one person may be bare bones to another. Someone’s necessities may be another’s luxuries. And hypothetically speaking, it is possible to live off $500 per month in Chiang Mai if you implement a frugal lifestyle.

Such a tight budget does work for people who:Live in a small and humble accommodation or one that is far  away from conveniences occupy THEMSELVES with online endeavors or inexpensive hobbies at home DO Not regularly indulge in consumables such as cigarettes, alcohol, and coffee ARE Content with eating Thai street food or inexpensive  packaged  food Forgo amenities at home, such as wifi and air conditioning; find free access elsewhere Participate in free (or nearly free) activities in town DO Not shop at the mall or Western stores; shop for goods and  groceries at Thai markets

And let us be the first to say that’s it’s pretty awesome if you can manage the self-discipline and focus to do this.

…But It’s Just Not Doable For Most Future Expats

While it sounds reasonably manageable on paper, it’s hard to carry out this spartan lifestyle. Why? Because you never know what life will throw at you.

Unforeseen and major “one-time” expenses will rear their ugly heads. And they can quickly add up, which will either throw your budget out the window, or worse, put you in a financial predicament where you will be forced to make some extreme sacrifices.

The Sacrifices You’ll Make

On $500 per month in Chiang Mai, most people will be able to afford fairly basic accommodation and utilities, food, clothing and toiletries, and transportation. Just not much else.

To put it into perspective, $500 per month is just over $16 a day. And that has to cover rent, too!

Not Seeing Family Back Home

What would you do if you had friends and family across the globe you would like to see? What if you had a sudden change in plans or obligations to attend to that required you to return to your home country?

Round trip airfare from Thailand to the US has cost us around $1300 per person. Friends of ours have traveled to the UK and back for $1000 per person. And after spending two to three month’s budget on airfare alone, what money will you have left to spend during your actual visit home?

No Emergency Fund

What if you have medical issues, an unexpected hiccup in an employment opportunity, or had troubles with the law abroad? Can you afford to cover these expenses?

What if you lost your phone or laptop charger, had your wallet stolen, or got into a fender bender and had to fix your vehicle? Can you afford these pricey replacements or will you have to settle without them?

In some cases travel and expat insurance will cover certain mishaps. But let’s be honest – chances are that you didn’t invest in insurance because you can’t afford to on such a tight budget.

Refrain from Splurging or Treating Yourself

Everyone overindulges or treats themselves at various levels of frequency and intensity. How about going out for a night of entertainment? Or taking an afternoon to shop for a few pieces of clothing to add to (or replace) your wardrobe?

Oh wait. You’ll have to settle for another evening in front of the TV or cheap cookie-cutter clothing sold at touristy Thai markets.

Forget Indulging in Comfort Food

There will come a point, even for people who love Thai food, where you can’t eat another 30 baht ($1 US) street stall plate of chicken fried rice or red curry stir-fry. Culture shock happens and it’ll hit you like a ton of bricks.

The next thing you know, you’ll be dropping four or five times as much money on an American diner grilled cheese sandwich, or ten times as much money on an Irish pub tender roast with mounds of creamy mashed potatoes and gravy.

And what about adult beverages? Sometimes the local light beer and rough whiskey rum just doesn’t cut it. Two pints of an IPA, two glasses of (good) wine, or two bourbons on the rocks will basically wipe out your daily budget.

There Won’t Be Much Traveling

To have Southeast Asia at your fingertips but unable to explore because of your lack of finances is a sin!

Sure, you might be able to afford an overnight trip to a nearby town. Chiang Mai is near to places like Chiang Rai, Chiang Dao, Payao, and Pai. But you’ll use the cheapest (and by default, least comfortable) form of transportation to get there and back and possibly stay in the dingiest bungalow or guesthouse. Again you’ll have to stick to the least expensive Thai food and there won’t be much left for getting around town and sightseeing.

This Blogger Couple Can’t Live on $500 Per Month (Per Person)

There’s something exhilarating saying, “Yeah, I live off $500 per month in Chiang Mai, Thailand.” What a perfect, clean-cut number. And it grabs people’s attention, too!

When we first moved, we tried aiming for this budget. That is, $1,000 per month between the two of us.

But we quickly found out that we weren’t happy. And especially the first month or two as we were settling in, we had a few unexpected expenses come up that definitely blew our budget out of the water.

For the record, our absolute cheapest month ever in Thailand was January 2014. At 19,555 baht ($607) for everyday expenses plus 15,000 baht in rent ($466), that equals out to $536.50 per month per person, and it was just too tight.

It's challenging to live on $500 per month in Chiang Mai (per person)

We realized that going out for a good burger, hanging out with friends over a few drinks, buying a new pair of running shoes or a replacement memory card for our camera made our life more livable. And that’s what life should be about, right? So we tossed that tight budget out the window and settled for something more comfortable.

Shortly after moving to Chiang Mai, we bumped our monthly budget up to $600 per person. Nowadays, it’s worked its way up to $750 per person.

It’s Possible, Just Improbable

Can you live on $500 per month in Chiang Mai? Yes. If you absolutely had to or if you only did it for a few months, you could.

But will you be happy – truly, let’s-not-kid-myself happy if you did this for a long period of time? Ehhhh…probably not. So for people who want to become long-term expats, we wouldn’t recommend living in Chiang Mai on $500 per month and definitely not on anything less than $500.

We’d recommend increasing your monthly budget by another $100 or $200 if you can afford to, just to be more comfortable. Even that little bit goes a surprisingly long way. And make sure to have some savings in the bank, just in case!


Although it sounds catchy, most Westerners aren't happy living on $500, but so many bloggers write about it! Learn what it's *really* like. | Tieland to Thailand

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