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What is Thailand’s REAL Cost of Living?

What is Thailand’s REAL Cost of Living?

Since we already covered the general topic of setting a realistic expectations of for the cost of living in Thailand in the post How Much Do You Need To Live in Thailand? I wanted to offer a way to figure out what Thailand’s real cost of living is.

You’ll often hear people claim that one can live in Thailand on $500 or $1,000 USD a month, but the real question is what can YOU live on, based on YOUR standards.


The only way to answer that is to create a budget that reflects the lifestyle that you want to live in Thailand.

The 50/30/20 Model

Generally, I’m prefer using the 50/30/20 model. This means that you spend 50% of your budget on things that you need, 30% on your wants, and 20% on savings and servicing debts. Using this model, you can come up with Thailand’s real cost of living for yourself.

The Needs – 50% of Your Income

Your needs are things like housing, food, core utilities (i.e. water and electric), insurance, transportation, minimum loan payments, etc.

Housing

One of the things that many people enjoy in Thailand is that you can find housing ranging from a few thousand baht a month to luxury apartments costing hundreds of thousands of baht per month.

The only way to figure out what’s right for you is to check out the actual costs of accommodations in Thailand.

That’s actually pretty easy. You can use sites like FazWaz to see actual apartments for rent. They even include a map function so you can see approximately where the property is.

If you’re still a little stuck on what you can afford for housing, try using 30% of your after-tax income. For instance, if you have income of $2,000 USD a month, start by looking at accommodations in the $600 USD (20,000 baht) per month range.

Food

Food is another area where it’s difficult to estimate costs that apply to everyone because each person has their own tastes and the difference in prices can be quite large.

For instance, you could eat 50 baht meals from a street vendor three meals a day, every day.

Or, you could eat out of get food delivery every meal, every day with an average cost of 300 baht per meal.

The point being is that my budget for food and your budget for food may be very different.

So, how do you estimate a food budget for Thailand?

You can start off by determining how many meals you’re going to eat per day.

Then you need to come up a mix of street food, fast food, pub food, and finer dining.

For example, I rarely eat more than twice a day. On most days, I’ll usually have one Thai meal from a restaurant that delivers and a foreigner style meal in a restaurant or via food delivery.

Using the example above, one Thai meal a day costs me around 80 baht and my foreign meal costs about 350 baht per day, for a total of 430 baht per day.

If I multiply that by 30.43 (average number of days in a month in a calendar year) I get 13,085 baht per month for food.

But, I do eat out in a nicer restaurant once a week or so and from time to time I like to enjoy some fresh fruit or a boba tea, so I would have to factor in those costs as well.

I know some people are going to point out that they can get an omelette for 30 baht in their Issan village or on the outskirts of Bangkok, so my 80 baht number is way too high. I understand that. But I live in an a higher cost of living area and those are my costs. That’s the point of this exercise, to determine Thailand’s real cost of living for YOU.

Thailand's real cost of living can vary
Thailand’s real cost of living can vary greatly depending on where you want to live.

Be Realistic

If you live in the main Sukhumvit area of Bangkok or near a tourist area, your food costs are going to be higher. Don’t pretend that you can get 30 baht meals just to make your budget work.

Likewise, don’t fudge the numbers by thinking that you’ll go from McDonald’s and pizza every day back home to suddenly eating 30 baht street food three meals a day.

To help you get in the ballpark of what each meal costs, here are some ranges:

Thai street food: 30 baht – 100 baht per meal

Western fast food (KFC, McDonald’s, etc): 150 – 250 baht for a set (entree, side, drink)

Thai restaurant: 100 – 250 baht per meal.

Lower-end western food: 100 – 250 baht per meal.

Higher end dining: The sky’s the limit. 250+.

Core Utilities

Core utilities are limited to water and electric because they fall under the “Needs” category. You can live without internet but you won’t survive very long without electric or water.

Water is fairly cheap, I range about 100 – 200 baht per month and I use a lot of water.

Electric is more difficult to estimate because it depends on many factors. Do you use air-conditioning? How much (all day, only at night, etc)? Do you use fans. How large an area do you have to cool?

According to Statistica, the average household cost of electricity in Thailand in 2020 was about 750 baht.

Just to be conservative, I would estimate 750 baht to be the very, very low end.

Here’s a thread on ASEAN Now’s forums that has people reporting numbers all over the place. Just on the first page of the discussion, people report that their average bills are between 500 – 9,000 baht.

Also, keep in mind, that ASEAN Now thread is from 2007. Prices per electric unit are far higher today.

Another thing to keep in mind is what your kWh rate is. Some landlords simply let you pay the bill directly from the electric company. Other landlords come up with their own price and they take a markup on the kWh rate.

Based on my own experiences, a two bedroom condo, running air-con constantly, I’ve yet to see an electric bill under 4,000 baht.

Insurance

Insurance is another area that both gets a lot of debate and the prices can be wildly different based on each person.

Many people like to argue that the cost of healthcare in Thailand are so low that they don’t really need insurance.

But, you never know when you’re going to get hit by a truck or some random ailment (cancer, heart attack, etc) is going to impact you.

The anti-insurance people say they are “self-insured” because they plan to pay out of pocket, but many of them could not afford a major medical expense.

Ultimately, if you want a decent healthcare policy in Thailand, it’s going to run between 30,000 – 100,000 baht per year, based on a variety of factors like whether you get outpatient only, your deductible, any previous conditions, your age, your BMI, etc.

If you’re on the older end of the spectrum, your costs are going to be higher. If you’re young, and in good health, it’s going to be on the lower end of the spectrum.

Your best option for getting an idea of what your health insurance costs are going to be is to reach out to a company directly or go through a broker (which costs you nothing extra).

Brokers like Mister Prakan and AA Insure are insurance brokers that I’ve heard many people discuss (mostly positively) but I’m not endorsing any particular broker or insurance company.

A very important tip that we’ll discuss later is that your budget should include insurance as a monthly expense even if you pay it annually.

Dental

Dental costs, at least in this budget, are for basic services like teeth cleaning and don’t cover orthodontics, cosmetic procedures, root canals, broken or chipped teeth, etc.

That means, we’re probably needing to budget about 800 – 1,000 baht per cleaning.

Glasses and Optometry

If you wear glasses now, you already have a pretty good idea of the costs. On average, glasses and lenses cost about 20% less than in most western countries (though eye exams are much cheaper).

If you don’t wear glasses currently, eventually you will. That’s just a part of aging.

Transportation

Whether your live in Bangkok and get around town mostly via the BTS, motorcycle taxis, and regular taxis, or you live on the islands and rent or own a motorbike to get around, you’re going to need to budget for transportation.

Fortunately, transportation in Thailand is relatively inexpensive.

For something like the BTS and MRT, if you budget 40 – 60 baht (each way) per trip that will get you in the ballpark.

Motorcycle taxis in Bangkok, anywhere from 15 baht for a short ride (usually to the nearest BTS/MRT station) and going up from there for longer rides is a good average.

Taxis start the meter at 35 baht and you pay for time/distance beyond that.

Things get a little tricky as you get away from Bangkok. For instance, finding a metered taxi in Phuket is near impossible and they charge exorbitant rates compared to Bangkok.

For instance, a ride from Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok to Sukhumvit Soi 11 is 30km and, even in traffic, you probably would never pay over 350 baht (excluding tolls and airport transfer fee).

On the island of Phuket, a 39km ride from Phuket International Airport to Bangla Road in Patong can cost 700 – 1,000 baht depending on how well you can negotiate.

If you’re living on the islands, you might just want to rent a motorbike. That will run you 3,500 baht per month for a lower-end scooter to 4,500 for a 125cc scooter (plus to cost of fuel, obviously).

Those are representative costs to get you in the ballpark. You just need to figure out how often you need to travel (do you commute to work daily or just go out on the weekends?) and how far.

Minimum Loan Payments

Hopefully this will be zero or close to zero for most people, but many people do come to Thailand and still owe credit card debt or are still paying off a mortgage on a home back in their own country.

Visa Costs

For people on long-term visas (usually non-immigrant visas like business, marriage, or retirement), that’s going to be a minimum of 1,900 baht per year.

It can run much higher if one chooses to use an agent to do the work for them.

Also, people doing other kinds of visas and doing visa runs, will need to factor in those costs as well.

Miscellaneous

This covers a wide range of things but fall off of many budgets. It would include things like:

  • Household Items
    • Toilet paper
    • Cleaning supplies
    • Toiletries
      • Shampoo
      • Toothpaste / Toothbrush
      • Soap
      • Deodorant
  • Bottled Water – Do not drink tap water in Thailand!
  • Laundry (either cost to have someone do it for you or for using a self-serve)
  • Aches, pains, and colds/flu – Not covered under health insurance is all of the stuff that you can buy at a pharmacy for minor health issues like bandages, decongestants, etc.
  • Prescription medicines – If not covered by your insurance.
  • Haircuts
  • Mobile phone data plan – It really is a necessity these days. Many Thai government services require you to have a local number.

Rather than price everything out, let’s just paint these costs with a wide brush and say that:

  • Household Items = Minimum of 500 baht per month
  • Bottled Water = Minimum 500 baht per month
  • Laundry = 30 – 50 baht per load
  • Aches, Pains, and Colds/Flu = Minimum budget of 100 baht per month
  • Prescription Meds = You’ll have to get those prices from a local pharmacy here in Thailand
  • Haircuts = Minimum of 100 baht per haircut
  • Mobile Phone Data Plan = Minimum of 300 baht per month for a decent plan.

The Wants – 30% of Your Income

The Wants are things that are, technically, optional. The Needs take care of basic survival and the The Wants are more about quality of life. Yet, they’re still important in figuring out Thailand’s real cost of living for you.

Under wants, are things like entertainment, physical fitness, massages/spas, subscriptions, internet, etc.

Entertainment

I would include the following under the title of entertainment costs.

  • Movies
  • Books
  • Streaming movies (Netflix, HBO, etc)
  • Streaming music (Spotify, Pandora, etc)
  • Bars
  • Concerts
  • Games
  • Internet

Usually the best way to budget for entertainment is to first handle the easy stuff like streaming movies/music subscriptions. The costs here are relatively comparable to the costs back home so this should be an easy one to estimate.

Then, you would want to look at how often you go out and see movies in a theatre now. Is it once a week? Do you go see every new Marvel movie in a theatre? Movies are going to run you between 200 – 700 baht a ticket.

How about books? How many books do you read/listen-to per month?

Are you a gamer? How many new games do you buy a month/year?

I put internet under entertainment but it’s almost a utility nowadays. A decent home package for your home is going to run 300 – 700 baht a month.

Bars and concerts are more difficult to estimate because the amount you’ll spend on a night out is going to be more variable. One night out might cost you 1,000 baht and you might go wild on another night and drop 3,000 baht.

Subscription Services/App Purchases

We already mentioned movie and music streaming but, unfortunately, the world seems like it keeps moving towards subscriptions for everything.

Do you have monthly or annual subscriptions for any of these things in your budget?

  • VPN
  • Cloud Storage
  • Backup Services (backing up your computer)
  • Anti-Virus
  • Games
  • Software
    • Microsoft Office
    • Password Managers (LastPass, 1Password, etc)

You’re probably paying for these services right now so they should be easy to estimate what your monthly costs are.

Physical Fitness

You need to take care of yourself in Thailand and you should factor in how much it’s going to cost you to join a gym or keep your body relaxed.

A good gym in Thailand is probably going to average you anywhere from 1,500 baht – 3,000 baht a month.

If you prefer to take Muay Thai, BJJ, or other classes, expect to pay anywhere from 4,500 – 10,000 baht per month.

I would also put massages under the physical fitness category because they can be very beneficial to your fitness and wellbeing. Those will range from 250 – 350 baht per hour.

Of course, Thailand has lots of free options as well. Maybe you enjoy a morning run through Lumpini Park or down a nice beach.

Physical fitness doesn’t need to cost money, but if you prefer to lift weights or kick people in the head to work out a sweat, put it into your budget.

Hobbies

Again, like a lot of things, hobbies can be cheap or expensive. Are you a photographer? Do you like spotting birds? Do you collect stuff?

I couldn’t possibly give you an estimate on every possible hobby there is but you need to put your hobbies in your budget.

Travel

Personally, I can think of nothing more sad than someone moving halfway across the world to a place as beautiful as Thailand and they never see any of it.

Fortunately, flights are cheap here and it’s still rare to see domestic flights that cost more than 3,000 baht roundtrip so part of your budget should include getting around the country.

Other Stuff

This is everything that doesn’t fit into any of the previous areas. Do you want a maid? A nanny? Do you have children you need to send to private schools?

This is what I consider the luxury part of the budget. It’s above the normal wants and needs but can really drive Thailand’s real cost of living for you.

Savings and Servicing Debts – 20% of Your Income

The one part of the 50/30/20 model that I might take exception to is this portion.

If you’re retired and have a savings and are receiving a pension or living off the income from your investments, you probably don’t need to save much, and certainly not 20% of your income.

However, if you’re living here on a business visa and working in Thailand, well, you probably should be saving 10% – 20% of your income.

So, if you’re retired, living off your investments, maybe 5% – 10% of your income should go to a rainy day fund for emergencies.

Budget Killers

Unexpected Expenses

I made a reference to this earlier in the post but one of the biggest mistakes that I see people make in budgeting is to assume cash flow and expenses are the same thing. They’re not.

If you’re moving to Thailand for any length of time, you will probably need to replace your computer, your phone, your clothes, your shoes, your electronics, etc.

Nothing lasts forever. Pretending that you’re living on a particular budget and constantly having “surprise” expenses like needing a new computer after five years, is unrealistic.

Everything has a useful life and will eventually need replaced. Treating the replacement as an unexpected event is not how budgets should work.

If your health insurance is $1,200 USD a year paid in one lump sum payment annually, your expenses aren’t $0 for 11 months and $1,200 on the 12th month.

That’s your cash flow. Your expenses are $100 a month.

Because, in theory, you should be setting aside $100 every month.

For a computer, if you go online, sites like this one, estimate the useful life of a desktop PC to be 5 – 7 years.

Let’s assume a new computer will cost you $2,000 USD. And let’s split the difference and say that you expect your computer to last 6 years.

$2,000 / 72 months = $27.78 USD per month needs to be set aside in your budget.

The same needs to be worked out for:

  • Mobile phones
  • Hard drives (external)
  • Clothing
  • Shoes
  • Headphones
  • Smart watches
  • Fitness trackers

Basically, anything that you don’t pay for monthly, needs to be converted into a monthly expense.

That’s why when people say that they live in Thailand on $500 a month budget or some other ridiculously low figure, I know that they aren’t including any amortized costs and it’s only a matter of time before a major expense hits and they’re either scrambling for cash or moving back home.

Pretending that replacing these items is a surprise expense only distorts Thailand’s real cost of living.

Currency Risk and Inflation

In my time in Thailand, I’ve seen the Baht/USD exchange rate fluctuate from a high of about 42 baht to the dollar to around 28 baht to the dollar. That’s a 33% difference in purchasing power.

Can you budget take a 33% fluctuation?

Obviously those are two extremes but they’re part of Thailand’s real cost of living.

The problem is that it’s an uncertainty which makes it difficult to plan for outside of having some cushion in your budget and also the ability to downgrade your lifestyle either temporarily or permanently to absorb the variance.

That’s why the extreme low budgets don’t make sense. If you’re living on $500 a month, how much more can you cut?

It’s better to create a budget that has padding and why it’s not a horrible idea for people to save even when living on a fixed income. Maybe that savings cash can help you ride out a few months of bad exchange rates until things balance out.

On the other hand, inflation doesn’t tend to stabilize the same way exchange rates do. Prices go up, but they seldom go down. Once a pack of sticky rice goes from 5 baht to 10 baht, it’s unlikely to ever return to 5 baht.

Those who are on a pension should understand that even if their pension is pegged to inflation, it’s pegged to inflation in their country, not Thailand.

Again, there’s really not much you can do other than add some padding to your numbers so you can absorb the difference.

Fuzzy Math Won’t Get You to Thailand’s Real Cost of Living For You

I don’t know why but many people love to brag about how little it costs them to live in Thailand as if it were a competition.

And part of how they come up with these low numbers is by playing little accounting tricks like not amortizing long-term expenses, skipping health insurance, pretending that a teeth cleaning is an unexpected expense (or neglecting their dental care entirely), etc.

It can certainly seem tempting to look at your finances and think, “Well, someone on the internet said I could live on $XXX a month in Thailand and I have that much,” but you have no idea what kind of delusional accounting got them to that number.

There’s also a tendency of people to leave out important details. For instance, two people spending the same amount might be in two very different financial situations. If one person is making $2,000 a month but spending $500, they’re in a very different situation than someone making $1,000 a month and spending $500.

Most budgets you see people post online are snapshots of their cashflow.

The only way to really know what Thailand’s real cost of living is going to be fore you, is to create your own budget from scratch.

It might seem like a tedious task, but the penalty for being wrong can be devastating.

Don’t take someone else’s numbers and make them work for you.

Conclusion

If you’re serious about moving to Thailand, take a day or two to figure out what Thailand’s real cost of living for you will be.

I always tell people to imagine the lifestyle they want living in Thailand and then price out the cost of that lifestyle.

If you’re a stay at home person, that’s going to cost one price. If you like meeting new people and eating out often, that’s going to be another price.

There’s no one cost of living in Thailand.

There are expats buying $1 million dollar villas and other expats renting a 6,000 baht a month condo.

The only cost of living that matters, is the cost of living that offers you the lifestyle you want to live.