True Cost of Living in Panama City: A Twenty-Something Perspective

By James Bloomfield jameselwynbloomfield@gmail.com

James Bloomfield is a Social Media Marketer working with hotels and resorts in Panama. He regularly blogs and takes pictures of everyday life in Panama. Check out his blog, Penniless from Panama, here.

Living in Panama is cheap. Well, actually, it’s kind of cheap–if you’re coming from the States, that is. But it’s not necessarily cheap by Central American standards. Some things can actually be quite expensive, don’t you know!

People certainly have strong opinions about how far your dollars stretch in Panama. You’ll hear a lot of conflicting stories about the cost of living in Panama, especially for a young person. Try not to be too dispirited or overwhelmed by guesstimations from older expats; Panama isn’t as cheap as, say, Honduras, but you can certainly save a buck or two if you’re money-wise. Granted, we twenty-somethings tend to have a different set of standards than older, more monied folk.

With that in mind, there are plenty of fun, cheap areas to live, all safe, approachable, and in close proximity to pretty much everything you’ll need.

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What does it cost for twenty-somethings to make Panama City their home?

What’s cheap?

Cabs

Cheap as chips, as we say in the UK. While some expats insist that you are being ripped off for a cab ride that costs more than $2 in the city, you will normally find yourself paying $2-3 per ride. Expect reggaeton and tipico music to be blasting away as a free soundtrack, and don’t be surprised if the cabbie decides not to pick you up because he’s “not going that way.” I have found that asking a local how much a cab should cost before I get in prevents me from over-paying for a fare.

Rent

If you come from LA, New York, or London, you will find yourself forking out a lot less for rent. A good apartment in a decent area can put you back the modest sum of $800 to $1000 per month for a two-bedroom place. Splitting this with a roommate is standard procedure, so find someone relaxed and with a reliable job. Finding an apartment in this price range often requires some Spanish skills to deal directly with the owner, and the places are rarely furnished. Don’t expect an HOA that keeps the building spotless, and don’t assume modern amenities will be included. A Bern condo this is not.

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Beer at a bar can be as cheap as $0.75.

Beer

You’ll be going out in Panama City. A lot. Finding a good, cheap bar which is cool enough to hang out in isn’t hard in a city with a booming expat community and growing local art community, along with an already-strong nightclub scene. Expect to pay anywhere from $0.75 cents to $4 for a can of national beer in the city. Cask or craft beer is a bit more expensive at roughly $5-7 a pint but can be way more fun to try than another Balboa or Panama. La Rana Dorada in Casco Viejo and El Cangrejo brews its own delicious beers on site, and the recent Micro Brew Festival revealed a strong interest in small-batch brewing.

Tropical fruit

Excellent value everywhere. Whether you prefer to chop your own produce or buy it prepared, the price is low. Pineapple, mango, rambutan, tomato de arbol–you’d be hard-pressed to spend all your hard-earned cash on nature’s candy. Try visiting the Mercado in Santa Ana for fresh, dirt-cheap (that is, brought in from the nearby countryside–remember to wash it!) fare.

Healthcare

Affordable. It just is. It’s good, too.

What’s OK?

Eating out

While there are a lot of very affordable places to eat in PTY, the city can veer sharply from providing a bargain plate of golden patacones and fresh fish, to overpriced and overly starched mush. Prices reflect this meandering level of quality, with a scattering of low priced, high quality eateries available. Expect to pay roughly $7-13 dollars for an average meal at a restaurant.

Clothes

Cheap in comparison to South America, Panama is a haven for Latin American shoppers tired of high prices at home. If you’re arriving from more competitive markets, don’t expect to be wowed by mall prices. Establishments such as Multiplaza Mall are expensive destinations for clothes and goods, although an occasional bargain can be discovered. Tight budget? You’ll have better luck at local shops and Albrook Mall, the Panama City bargain paradise in a leafy suburb. Saks is ideal for finding overstock clothing, as long as you have the patience for sifting through a warehouse of options.

What’s Expensive?

Electronics

The prices are roughly 10 percent higher than those in the United States.

Flights

Lack of competition and a byzantine price structure means that a 45-minute flight to Bocas del Toro often costs more than a flight to Colombia or Costa Rica. Although this will change in the future, those on a budget will probably be catching the bus.

Furniture

Sounds like a strange one to mention, but just wait until you get your first “cheap” unfurnished apartment. Furniture in Panama can be surprisingly costly for what you get, so, until you have a little leeway in your budget, try to rent furnished apartments.

Visas

There are costs directly and indirectly associated with getting a work or residency visa. Paying for the visa itself is one thing, then there are other considerations (like having $5000 in your personal Panamanian bank account). With labor laws in Panama dictating that only 10% of a company may come from abroad, you will not find many companies willing to ‘sponsor’ you. This isn’t to say that it’s impossible, and it is worth the effort if you decide to apply for residency, as long as you’re prepared to overcome some bureaucratic idiosyncrasies.

Living in Panama as a 20-something is fun, friendly, and relatively cheap. One simple thing to keep in mind: Panama isn’t a third-world country. If you’re expecting everything to cost $0.25 and a piece of string, you might be disappointed. Budget reasonably, do your research, and ask the Inside Panama Real Estate crew if you’re in doubt!

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