Ever since I read the 4‑Hour Work Week, the allure of living in an exotic local while still running my business and raising a family was too much to resist. Here is how we did it.
The test was whether our entire family, two parents and two kids (4 and 13) could live on tropical beaches and exotic islands for the same or less than the cost of living in the United States. Money turned out to be the easy part; the real challenge was making it happen.
Five years ago, it wasn’t much more than a passing thought—a “what if?” I was working full time as a police detective, a job that doesn’t allow extended travel time. No beaches included.
Then I opened a consulting firm and left law enforcement, but quickly discovered having my own business was just as confining as a job. Reality set in. I would have to turn my consulting firm into something resembling a muse:
- Redesign my practice to deliverer services via books and online communication.
- Convert my expertise into products so I could share my knowledge with a larger audience. (The whole “make money while you sleep” bit.)
Eventually I weaned my clients from in-person meetings. Most enjoyed the efficiency, but there were a few who didn’t and I referred them elsewhere. I wanted to set things up so that I could be 100% mobile. Now it was time to test-drive the concept.
Living versus Vacationing
The most important lesson my family learned was shifting our mindset from vacationing to living. My family had traveled a fair amount, but it had been short vacations at relatively expensive resorts.
When traveling for 3–5 days, it makes sense to go all out, because the fixed costs like airline tickets are usually the most expensive part. To splurge on a nicer resort, fancy meals, or a town car from the airport doesn’t add much expense to your trip, but can add a lot to the experience. But, when you extend those small luxuries over a month or longer, the costs will wipe out most families.
We reasoned that the flight expense, even when paid with airline miles, would be the same whether we stayed three or thirty days, so we might as well get the most out of it by staying longer.
Here’s how we did it.
The first step was creating the freedom to leave. The second was setting up the finances to make it happen. There are two choices when dealing with your expenses:
- Reduce or eliminate your bills, or
- Save enough to cover your expenses while you’re gone.
We called all our utilities and put them on vacation hold. This alone freed up almost $1,000 during the month we were gone. We were even able to put our auto insurance on hold.
There are many ways to save money while traveling, ranging from airline miles to sleeping in a hostel. I do not enjoy low-budget travel. My aim is to get the maximum value out of every dollar spent. Every traveler and family is different, so it’s more important that you cater to your interests instead of trying to save every last dollar. When saving every penny becomes your number one priority, you’re better off staying home.
Our goal was to spend time on exotic beaches, and if we could do it for the same price as living at home, we would be able stay longer. We believed it would be possible to live affordably in exotic tourist destinations if we lived as did the locals. Here are the major points that allowed us to save a lot of money without cutting into our lifestyle.
Location is everything when it comes to experience and cost. It’s certainly cool to open your door, step onto the sand, and walk twenty yards to the water, but that comes at a price.
It’s possible to enjoy the beach and not pay the price of living on it. The best beaches tend to be located in front of the most expensive resorts. By design, it appears you have to be a hotel guest to enjoy the beach. However, all of the beaches in Mexico are federally owned and anyone is allowed on the beach—hotel guest or not.
Turns out you can walk through a resort and access their beaches without being a guest. Occasionally they will stop you, particularly at the all-inclusive resorts, but you can still use a public access point and walk down the sand to get to your favorite beach. Often the resorts are happy if you buy drinks from their bar, even if you are not a guest.
With this in mind, there are three options for lodging.
- Stay beachfront
- Stay near the beach, but without the beach view
- Stay downtown where locals live and commute to the beach.
We did a mix of all three and it worked perfectly.
When we arrived in Mexico, we stayed a couple nights at a resort we had previously vacationed. I recommend this for two reasons. Leaving home for an extended period is likely uncomfortable for most families, especially with kids. When stepping out of your comfort zone, it helps to start in a comfortable place to acclimate.
We stayed at four different places during our trip. When we first arrived in Cancun, it was the resort. We returned there for a few days before we flew home. We received a promotion that allowed us to stay one night and the second was free. The first two nights were about $240 total with the promotion.
Next, we moved away from the resort area to the downtown and found a large room with a kitchen, which cost us $245 for a week. This was my family’s first time staying away from the tourist areas in Mexico. This took some adjusting, but by the third day, all of us were wandering around like locals.
Then we traveled to Isla de Mujeres and rented a small house for $330 for the week. We stayed in a residential neighborhood where the locals live, but was a five-minute walk to the beach. It was a unique experience, very different from a resort, and the one that years later we talk about most.
Our next stop was Playa Del Carmen, where we found an awesome vacation condominium rental on the beach, but without the beach view. It had several vacancies, so we were able to negotiate aggressively to get 10 days for only $450.
At the end of our trip, we returned to the resort in Cancun for four days. We reluctantly did a two-hour time-share presentation that yielded us two free nights and then paid for the other two. Four nights totaled $480.
Total lodging for 30 days was $1,745—less than our mortgage payment in California. During this excursion, we were double paying for housing, but it showed us what was possible if we moved permanently. This cost also included cleaning and linen services that we would have had to pay to our housekeeper anyway.
Some of the places we stayed were not as nice as our home in California, and others were far more luxurious. If we had rented one place for the entire month, it would have been cheaper, but we wanted to travel so the extra cost was worth it.
We came up with an unofficial rule of eating out once a day and cooking in our kitchenette for the other meals. My wife and I love eating out. When traveling, experimenting in restaurants is one of the most enjoyable parts. However, when you mix kids into the equation, dining becomes more of a responsibility than pleasure.
Not only was it easier to eat in, but it was a lot of fun. It was work cooking and preparing food, but it added to the experience. Once a week we went to the supermarket and stocked the refrigerator. This was an experience for the kids, because they got to experience the Mexican culture in a way they never could have in the resorts.
It was an adventure to find food we all enjoyed and could cook in the kitchenette. You’d be surprised how much you take for granted by having your own kitchen stocked with spices, cutlery, and condiments.
The total cost of food was no more than we normally spend at home.
Spending time learning the public transportation system can save you a ton of money. Every place has a unique system, so it pays to get to know the nuances if you will be spending any length of time there.
Always speak to local people who use public transportation. They know the ins and outs and do not pay the same rates tourists pay. For example, in Cancun we took the public bus everywhere for around fifty cents one-way. The same ride in a taxi cost US$10–$15. Every taxi driver quoted a different price for going to the same place. If you take that same route round trip once or twice a day, over the course of 30 days, you can save US$960–$1,560 by taking the bus.
You can’t always assume the bus will be cheapest. On Isla de Mujeres, the taxis were union regulated and cost $3 per trip. It made sense to use taxis, but you still had to be careful. If you spoke Spanish, they rarely tried to inflate the fee, but, like in most countries, you’re better off agreeing to the fee before getting in the cab.
When moving from vacationing to living, an important shift in thinking is necessary to keep your sanity. When escaping reality for a week or less, the point of the vacation is typically to spend time with your family, time that doesn’t exist when you’re at home with school, work, and soccer practice.
During short trips, it’s preferable to spend every waking minute together, but when you take mini-retirements that dynamic changes. If you leave for a month or longer and bring that same vacation mindset, you and your family will likely to drive each other insane.
Family is important, but it’s equally important that everyone is able to do their individual things without guilt. It’s better to build these into your plans instead of waiting until you’re at each others’ throats.
My escapes were the time I spent working, private Spanish lessons and exercise. I blocked out a little time each day to work and take scheduled Skype calls with clients. Every other day I got on a bus and ventured downtown to meet with my language tutor. On the alternate days, I did my workout, running on the beach or swimming in the ocean.
My wife had a similar exercise routine and occasionally needed an escape for a little retail therapy without the kids. Our 13-year-old daughter was content with an hour or two alone with a book or the television, and our 4‑year-old son needed time with other kids at a playground.
It doesn’t matter what it is, but it’s important to have a little personal time that you would normally have at home. If you don’t plan this in advance, it’s easy to feel guilty about it later.
This post is not meant to be a blueprint for you to follow, because your family’s interests are likely different, but instead it’s a case study of one way it has been done. After you start a family and get distracted by life, it seems these kinds of excursions are only for the 20-year-old vagabond bouncing from hostel to hostel with a backpack.
Before our trip, we constantly wondered if it were really possible to live on the beach and work remotely. This trip was a success in a couple of ways.
First, we proved that it could be done. Secondly, it fulfilled our burning desire to move, but, who knows, maybe we will do it again next summer when the kids are out of school, or make it more permanent in the future.
If you’ve had a similar itch, I hope this case study gets you thinking about the possibilities. Let me know when your family goes for it.
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