For a good three-month stretch while living in Oaxaca, I was getting by on less than $10/day.
This was possible largely by cost-cutting, in the form of:
- Paying for a room by the month (and volunteering minimal hours at the hostel to receive an additional discount)
- Cooking rather than eating out most days, and when I did eat out, it was somewhere with an extremely good value and would often be my only meal that day.
- Not drinking (much) alcohol, and when doing so, being economical about it.
However, all good things come to an end. My hostel decided to implement new rules regarding COVID protocol after a guest was rushed to the hospital in the middle of the night. I still never found out definitively if COVID was the culprit, but regardless, use of masks in all public spaces would now be enforced for all guests (and staff), as well as either proof of vaccination or submitting to bi-monthly antigen testing.
Getting tested twice a month would really only set me back about an extra $26 every 30 days, which meant a private room there would still be cheaper than all the other alternatives I knew of. Or even better, chances were good I could pretty easily photoshop a certificate of another guest indicating negative results. It wasn’t primarily about the money (for once). It was more out of principle that it was time for me to move on.
I had already been getting restless as I grew more frustrated with little, first-world inconveniences at the hostel. Spotty wifi, the location of my room — which was situated between the kitchen and showers, creating a bit of late night/early morning noise disturbance — and inconsistent kitchen space and cooking utensil availability due to sporadic stove-function, lack of common courtesy and “too many cooks in the kitchen” only compounded my irritation. The new Covid guidelines were the icing on the cake in motivating me to vacate.
Though I was sad to see this ultimate value go, I sensed good things were on the horizon. It was unfortunate, as I had been paying forward the savings I’d been accruing because of the low cost of rent in the form of gifting (usually different foods I’d fermented), tipping service workers, and just supporting local artisans in general, since I could rationalize paying a bit higher price tag for their hand-produced goods because of my low cost-of-living. However, with my soon-to-be monthly rent increasing to the high end of my budget spectrum, I felt like I would be needing to find different mediums to pay it forward besides strictly financial means, like giving my time and energy. But this is a topic better suited for the follow-up, post-move post. Let’s get down to the nuts and bolts of how I made $10/day a reality.
Since lodging generally makes up the lion’s share of most individual’s monthly (or daily) budget, finding a good value for this expenditure is generally what I put the most emphasis on. The first time I visited Oaxaca, I made an astounding discovery in the form of a “hostel” that rented private rooms for 190 pesos/night (~$10), and included weekly maid service. The kitchen and bathrooms were shared.
This was hands down the best nightly rate for a private room I had seen since traveling in Mexico, and the other amenities of the hostel — like complimentary, round-the-clock coffee, several rooftop patios and a 360-degree view of Oaxaca city and all of the surrounding mountain ranges from the sky deck — made it a no-brainer. Factoring in the discount for a monthly reservation made the deal even sweeter. Paying by the month brought the cost down to 3,400 pesos for 30 days, which equates to a little more than $5.50/night.
From the time I left Oaxaca city after my first 10-day stint there came to a close when my travel partner was ready to move on, I was intent on returning, and having correspondence with the ownership about volunteer opportunities, as the (largely underutilized) space was ripe with potential.
Remote communication with the owner proved to be difficult. Even after returning, it did not become fruitful for the first month or so I was there, as she was only there sporadically, and unresponsive via the Whatsapp number I had been trying to contact her by since leaving town several months prior.
However, I took it upon myself to create my own volunteer opportunities, and begun guiding qigong meditation sessions two evenings per week, which I advertised on publicly-visible chalkboards on the hostels first and third floors, in both Spanish and English.
When I was finally able to have a face-to-face conversation about volunteering with the owner a month later, she conveyed that she had taken notice of my initiative, and would be offering me an additional discount on my monthly rate. I didn’t inquire into specifics, but this was music to my ears.
When I went to settle up the next day, I found out — though I later learned I had miscalculated — she had decided to knock 1,000 pesos ($50) off my rent each month. However, I later discovered that the 1,000 pesos I was credited for the month of July encompassed the two months previous, so the monthly discount was really only 400 pesos, or roughly $20.
But, as I’ve learned, little savings add up, and I was satisfied with the price break and felt fulfilled enough with volunteering two hours of my time each week to continued holding classes, even though it broke down to only about $2.50/hour. Suppose that’s why it’s called it volunteering.
Like I said, repetitive little savings here and there can turn into significant ones. And savings on food and drink, because of the frequency of consumption or purchase, can have a meaningful impact on the bank account.
Food and Drink
Since the hostel offered purified water for guests, and by resorting to only drinking the complimentary coffee offered instead of purchasing it at a cafe, by my estimation, I was able to save roughly another $40/month. $1/day for the coffee, and I probably drank at least about $2 worth of purified water per week.
However, the real considerable savings come when you take food into account. By opting to prepare my own meals myself, either by cooking or simply just eating cold food rather than eating out often, even at the most economical of places, I saved a considerable amount of dinero.
For example, four organic eggs, cooked in butter with some sauteed onion, my go-to breakfast, came out to less than $1. After largely cutting grains and starches from my diet, I would supplement the protein with some fermented vegetable/medley that I had made myself, like sauerkraut or asparagus, which literally cost pennies per serving (not factoring in labor).
Even before the change in diet, I had been having two slices of toasted sourdough bread for my carbs, usually one with a bit of cheese and the other with either avocado or butter. The “all-natural” loaf cost 48 pesos ($2.50) at the dairy shop, and would last me easily over a week, or seven meals. The half-an-avocado I would spread on the toast was probably the most expensive component of the meal, but still cost substantially less than in the ‘States, around 5 pesos (or $.25) for a small fruit. And the manchego cheese I had grown an affinity for was, from my recollection, between 130–150 pesos/kg, or around $3/pound. I always bought a 25 or 30 peso-wedge, which would be generally good for three to four pieces of toast. All-in-all, even when I was eating bread, the total cost of my breakfast was still around or under $2.
In Oaxaca, which had some of the cheapest cost of living that I’d found in Mexico, you would be hard-pressed to find a restaurant offering breakfast for much less than $3, and a lot of what it included would be filler. Juice or coffee, (white-flour) toast and fruit was commonly included in “los paquetes” (breakfast packages), and the eggs were usually a two count of the conventional-raised variety. Basically, lots of carbs and sugar, with a substantial amount of low-quality, grain-fed animal protein. Realistically, as I would be much more satiated after my home-cooked meals than after having eaten out, and would thus eat less later in the day, I was saving probably close to two dollars per day on breakfast alone.
Counterintuitively, going out for dinner — as opposed to breakfast — could be a bit more economical. And by “going out”, I mean mostly eating at food carts or hole-in-the-wall joints. I would generally have a torta (Mexican sandwich with meat, Oaxacan cheese and refried beans) or two barbacoa (steamed beef) tacos, the grand total of which, for either, would be $1. Mind you, I had my regular spots that were among the best values in town (quality and portion size for the price).
A lot of times I would supplement with some plain, whole milk homemade yogurt for dessert to get some extra protein and fat to balance out the carbs, which cost 40 pesos ($2) for about a liter-size bag. Usually I would also stir a serving of chlorella powder into a glass of water to get a bit more nutrients in the mix. The chlorella I had brought from the ‘States, and don’t remember exactly what the bottle cost, but even erring on the liberal side, dinner could be had — and thoroughly enjoyed — for under $2 or maybe $2.50. So the grand total of my daily food expenditure was, on the high end, $4.50.
I did also discover a “best-of-both-worlds” scenario workaround, that involved eating one meal a day (OMAD). There were an abundant number of buffets serving traditional Mexican food (though not specialized to any particular region, from what I could tell) throughout central Oaxaca, all of which cost 60 pesos ($3). My question was, how were these restaurants making money??? I can only conclude that most patrons were not eating nearly as much as I did ;)
I would eat the equivalent of a full day’s calorie intake at the buffet, or likely a higher amount of calories than when I prepared my own food, as all I ate those days was some eggs, a few servings of fermented veggies, yogurt and a sandwich or a few tacos. Additionally, the buffet allowed me to have a greater variety of foods that I was missing out on when I cooked for myself.
I would always have some cruciferous veggies; steamed leafy greens like broccoli or cauliflower, sauteed calabacitas (zuchini) or poblano peppers and onions, or a plate of romaine with radish and beet slices or just straight up kale. I would also have a few servings of refried or cooked black beans which I used in the breakfast tacos I would assemble at the table, using either scrambled or fried eggs in salsa and homemade tortillas, which were provided to patrons of all the buffets, and most restaurants for that matter. And I always made sure to have at least one bowl of pozole whenever it was available (typically on weekends).
Not Drinking Alcohol, Opting for Organic Tobacco
Really nothing else I have found will set you back in the pocketbook like alcohol will. Even in Mexico this rings true. Yes, beer and wine is generally cheaper there than in the States or Canada—in Oaxaca, craft beers in a bottle or on tap go for around $3–4, and premium domestic favorites, like Modelo or Victoria are about $.75–1 for a 12 or 16 oz can. However, binge drinking incurs costs, and most people I know, myself included, rarely ever stop after just one drink. This vice can easily eat up the majority of a daily budget.
I have since stopped drinking beer altogether for various reasons, at least for the time being. But when I was, I would buy 40s, because most retailers offer a deposit on the bottle if you return it. And if you buy two at the same time, you generally can get a bit of an additional price break. For example, two 40s of Corona cost just under $5 including the deposit, and you get $1 of that back when you return the bottles—just make sure you keep the original receipt.
However, the one downside of this approach is that it all but ensures you will be binge-drinking, as once you pop the top of a 40, the fun don’t stop, so to speak. Unless your idea of fun is drinking flat beer…
The bottle deposit/return technique also works for mezcal, which I developed an affinity for while in Oaxaca. Various mezcal vendors (or producers) are willing to refill a bottle for you if you bring one, and since you are cutting their overhead costs considerably, the savings are passed on to you, the end consumer. My go-to place in the 20 de Noviembre market would sell me a half liter of mezcal they had produced on their plantation for $2.50 a pop. And this would last me nearly a month, as I drink very infrequently these days.
However, one thing I do still consume on a daily basis is tobacco, though I’m getting closer to the point of being ready to quit. One interesting and counterintuitive thing I discovered about buying tobacco in Mexico, is that it is more economical to buy higher-quality, locally-sourced tobacco than it is to buy the cheaply massed-produced, chemical-filled equivalent.
Unless you were willing to stoop really low, and buy the 15 peso ($.75) packs imported from China (which, in the interest of full disclosure, I would from time to time… ain’t no shame in my game!!) you were looking at about $3 USD per pack for Marlboro, Lucky Strike, Camel, etc.
There were several brand of natural or organic tobacco produced in the state of Chiapas, which borders Oaxaca, that I would buy. In Oaxaca, they cost between $9 and $10 per 30-gram pouch. In Chiapas, you could find these same pouches for $3.50 to $5.
You then need to factor in the cost of filters and rolling papers. I smoked organic hemp papers (OCB, 50-pack) and used natural, unbleached filters (150 per bag), which together cost a grand total of 85 pesos, or a bit over $4, and the filters would last for multiple pouches.
I never really kept an exact tally, but I could pretty safely say I rolled at least 60 cigarettes from each pouch, and probably closer to 80. I rolled at least three cigarettes per day, and a satchel would last me nearly a month. I would finish off a whole 50-pack of papers between one pouch, so I knew one would allow for at least that much at the bar minimum.
Because of the additional effort required, and the better quality/slower burn of the tobacco, I think I would also smoke less frequently and take less drags than if I were smoking conventional cigarettes. I can say with the uttemost confidence that one pack would not last me a week, and with the cost of the cigarettes alone hovering at or above what it cost to buy organic ($9/three packs), it was a no-brainer for me to opt for a healthier, better-tasting product.
So there you have it. My synopsis of a multi-faceted cost-saving approach that allows you to still have your cake and eat it too by cutting some corners here and there.