Costa Rica, One Year Later
I promised to write a post that provides a financial breakdown detailing how much a sabbatical costs. This will be that post. Before I get into the minutiae of budgets and spreadsheets, however, let me offer a general perspective one year later.
We just returned from visiting Costa Rica for the first time since we left over a year ago. As I walked the path that I had hiked nearly every day during our time there, a flood of emotions overcame me of which the most prominent was gratitude. It might seem odd to feel grateful towards a place, but I do. Were there challenges and a few minor hardships? Absolutely. But I will always be thankful for what it gave us.
Despite the relatively brief time we spent there, it’s not just that the Herradura/Jaco/Hermosa area feels familiar. It feels like home in certain respects. The logical question one might ask is, “Why didn’t you stay?” We did this to learn a culture and a language. We did this to appreciate nature. We did this to recharge and bond as a family. We didn’t do this to escape the U.S. Even with all of its imperfections, I happen to like the U.S. Granted, it’s still a work in progress in a number of ways. But name a country that isn’t.
Among the questions we got asked during our time in Costa Rica, one of the most common was, “What are you going to do when you get back to the U.S.?” The plan all along was to have a life-altering experience and return from that experience better in every way. The key word in that prior sentence is return. As fondly as we view Costa Rica and everything it means to us, we always intended to step back into the rat race again.
Besides, it turns out I don’t necessarily enjoy sweating constantly while being lathered in a slurry of sunscreen and insect repellent. It’s one of those thoughts that wouldn’t have dawned on me had I just visited on vacation. Not only that, but just like countless other beautiful places, people are attracted to it for the lifestyle more so than for the economic opportunities. As a result, making ends meet can be challenging. To be sure, we have friends in Costa Rica who not only have survived, but have thrived. Nonetheless, I sincerely believe one of the wisest financial decisions I’ve ever made was not investing in a business there. I subscribed to the old adage expats commonly hear in Costa Rica, “if you want to leave with $1 million, come with $2 million.”
Upon our return to the U.S., my wife took a position as a Technical Leader of Renewable Energy at EPRI, a research and development company with offices in Charlotte, NC. After working for an awesome start-up called Jerk Central, I took a position as Vice President and General Counsel of Montauk Energy, a renewable energy company based in Pittsburgh, PA with a parent company in Cape Town, South Africa. I went from spending 24 hours a day with my family for over a year in Costa Rica, to now seeing them one weekend every two weeks due to work. So, if we fell right back into the trap of insanely long hours with no work-life balance, then what was the point of that whole sabbatical thing anyway?
Here’s the point. Not a single day has gone by since we’ve been back where we have not drawn on our time there. It has eternally changed us in ways too countless to enumerate. I am more content, appreciative, and happier than at any point in my life. This is partly from embracing more of a “pura vida” attitude. But it’s also partly because we feel like we’ve seen into the future.
Before Costa Rica, we had the vague notion that we would work and then one day retire. But, like most people, we hadn’t truly put full thought into what retirement would really look like. Getting to know people of varying ages who had wrapped up their careers and were now living in Costa Rica for good offered insight into what our future lives could be. It was a reminder that not only is everything temporary, but you are more than what you do for a living. My wife is back to seeing herself as an engineer. And I’m back to seeing myself as a lawyer. But in the recesses of our minds, we know those identities will be shed years from now and people might simply know us as that woman who does yoga all of the time and that dude who does gym class calisthenics on the beach.
If you’re content with this post thus far, or you’re the kind of person who has a panic attack when you accidentally open Excel instead of the program you intended to, you might consider stopping reading here. If, however, you’re the type who is dying to know how much something like this would cost, read on.
What follows is an extremely general budget for a family of 4 to live on the beach in Costa Rica. I could put a footnote by every one of these items to further clarify them. Let me just say this instead. Everyone’s habits are different. You could live in Costa Rica and spend a fraction of what we spent, or live there and spend much more. To a large extent, the cost to live in any locale is in part a function of one’s own choices. We tried to live fairly modestly, while still allowing ourselves luxuries like eating out, having a car, running the AC at night, and renting a great house with modern amenities. As one would imagine, all of that came at a price. Here’s how I would break it down.
|Water & Sewage||Incl.||Incl.|
|Home Phone, Cable, Internet||$40-$100||$480-$1,200|
|Mobile Phones (3)||$30-$70||$360-$840|
|Auto Maintenance & Repairs||$0-$300||$0-$3,600|
|International Medical Insurance (4 people)||$0-$250||$0-$3,000|
|Groceries (4 people)||$200-$800||$2,400-$9,600|
|Dining Out (4 people)||$50-$500||$600-$6,000|
|Airfare (4 people)||$350-$700||$4,200-$8,400|
|Language Lessons (2 people)||$0-$200||$0-$2,400|
|Clothing (4 people)||$20-$200||$240-$2,400|
|Health, Beauty, & Cleaning products||$20-$100||$240-$1,200|
|Home Office Equipment||$0-$20||$0-$240|
|Storage Unit – Home Country||$110-$150||$1,320-$1,800|
Not only do I understand that this is not financially feasible for everyone, I also get that we happened to be in an ideal position to do something like this given the flexibility of my wife’s job at the time and the fact that I had just sold businesses. But it’s absolutely doable even in other, more conventional circumstances. In fact, more and more businesses are embracing this concept.
What the experience gave us is valuable, but not easily quantifiable. On our most recent visit back, I was content as I responded to work emails and joined conference calls while on vacation. It didn’t bother me because I know the beaches, mountains, volcanoes, wildlife, vegetation, and laid-back lifestyle will always be there. Most importantly, I know that being a part of all of it is real and attainable. I know this because we’ve lived it.
The reason I named this site Find YOUR Costa Rica is because everyone needs to discover this place for themselves. For you, the cool air of Patagonia, Argentina or the slopes of Queenstown, New Zealand may be calling. For us, it was the Pacific side of Costa Rica. Don’t worry. The routine life you had pre-sabbatical will still be there. It’s just that you’ll have a different outlook when you go back to it. Not only that, but you’ll always have a place to visit that feels like home.
Even though it will sound a bit like an infomercial, I’ll sum up by saying this. If you could buy something that could help you bond as a family, create lifelong memories, and forever change your outlook on life, how much would you pay? You can look at obtaining an advanced degree as an expense, or you can view it as an investment. We see our family sabbatical in Costa Rica as an investment that has already paid huge dividends for us as human beings. We’ve been peppered with questions throughout this journey. But now it’s time for me to ask you, the reader, a question. What are you waiting for? Sometimes you just need to take the plunge.