Belize is not for everybody. That is the short answer. Better answer: If you think you can fit in anywhere, Belize is probably O.K. You probably landed here researching if you can live on U.S. $500. a month. Yes you can. Some people in the poorer areas of Belize, for example the Toledo and Corozal Districts get by on less than half that. But would you really like to live below the poverty line in a third world country? $1,000. a month is more realistic.
“We’ve seen so many gringos give up and go home, and so many others still here who are burned out and bitter, that you sometimes feel there is really something insidious underlying the friendly surface appearances,” says an ex-Coloradan who runs a jungle lodge in western Belize.
For those willing to put up with the challenges – such as lack of high-tech medical care, a high crime rate in some areas, the high cost of food and imported items, more political corruption than you are accustomed to at home and the occasional hurricane – this country can be a wonderful place to live or retire.
With a big SUV in the driveway and imported American gasoline at over US$7.50 a gallon in 2023, the air conditioner turned to frigid and three fingers of single malt scotch in the glass, living in Belize can cost more than back home. But if you live as a local – eating the same locally produced foods Belizeans do, using public transport and living in a Belizean-style home with ceiling fans and cooling breezes – you can get by on a few hundred dollars per month.
Cost of Living
Fiction writer and retired beach bum Ray Auxillou says he and his wife, who live in Santa Elena in Cayo District, get by on less than US$600. a month, though they own their own home and so don’t have to pay rent. Ray however lives in a back of town low income housing area with dirt or mud roads depending on the season. A middle-aged expat in Corozal says she rents a nice small house for US$250. a month. A couple in Caye Caulker, who own their own home, say their monthly budget is around US$1,000.
Combining some elements of both North American and Belizean lifestyles, you can live well for less than you would pay back home. Health care, the cost of renting, buying or building a home in Belize, personal and auto insurance, property taxes, household labor and most products produced in Belize are less expensive than what you’re used to paying.
For many, living in this tropical getaway is cheaper than in the United States. “I need neither heating nor air-conditioning with their attendant bills, nor insulation in my house, nor much of a house, nor much in the way of shoes. One casual wardrobe serves all purposes except travel back to the USA,” one expat says.
If you know where to look, prices for a view of the sea or rural real estate will remind you of costs in the United States in the 1980s. In small towns, you can rent a pleasant house near the sea for US$300. to $800. a month, possibly less. Land in larger tracts can sell for US$200. an acre or less. Outside of high-cost tourist areas, you can build for US$30. – $60. per square foot or buy an attractive, modern home for US$75,000. – $200,000. Property taxes are low, rarely over $100. – $200. annually even for a luxury home.
Despite the relatively high cost of food and electricity, and the pricey island real estate, the overall cost of living on Ambergris Caye (and on Caye Caulker) is lower than in the U.S., say many residents. In part, that’s because you don’t need all the things you do in the U.S. – no heating oil, no cars or auto insurance or parking fees, and no fancy wardrobe. Seafood and some Belize-produced food are comparatively inexpensive. Medical care, cable television, property taxes and basic internet service are among the items which are cheaper than back home. One big grumble from expats for many years was that VOIP was blocked. In 2013 this was unblocked by the government, so cheap international phone calls using SKYPE and WhatsApp are now possible.
Import taxes on motor vehicles in Belize are exorbitant reason why most Belizeans drive broken-down cars imported from the US and why the public transport systems operates on 25 year old or more retired school buses. There is a steady market for accident and salvage motor vehicles in Belize. The table below shows the various import duties and taxes for motor vehicles imported into Belize. The highest tax 75% is reserved for the vehicles workers and families need the most – cars and minivans.
Keeping Your Sanity In Belize
People choose Belize as a place to live, year-round or part-time, for a variety of reasons, most associated with the laid back lifestyle, warm subtropical climate and access to the outdoors and the Caribbean. Island life, however, presents its own special set of pleasures and problems. On Ambergris Caye, residents say island fever strikes from time to time. Most residents go into Belize City regularly to conduct business, shop for items not available on the island or to get dental care. Many expats take vacations in the U.S., or long weekends in the Cayo district or elsewhere in the countryside. Many locals and expats flee to neighboring Mexico or Guatemala on weekends or on holidays to enjoy a better and cheaper life if only for few days. Not a few become captured by Mexico and actually move to Chetumal, Quintana Roo which is the big Mexican state that includes Cancun.
If you aren’t busy selling real estate or running a hotel, offer some volunteer opportunities. Some expats help out at the local library, or do church work .
For those who can’t find enough to occupy themselves, substance abuse is always a risk, more so in Belize’s freewheeling atmosphere. “Booze is ubiquitous here, and bar-hanging quite the social custom. And, on Ambergris Caye, as much as in most U.S. cities, you can now add other chemicals. If you’re vulnerable, unimaginative, not a self-starter, passive-dependent, maybe Peoria would be a better bet,” says one American who lived on the island for many years.
For top-flight medical care, expats catch the comfy ADO bus to Merida, Yucatan, or fly to Miami or Houston, or at least pop over to Belize City.
Most residents say they feel safe here. Burglary and petty thefts are relatively common, and most expats will have a home break-in sooner or later, but violent crime is relatively rare.
A tax affecting expatriate residents is the national 12.5% Goods and Services (GST) tax on nearly everything, with exclusions for some food and medical items. Import taxes are a primary source of government revenue. They vary but can range up to 80% of the value of imported goods. Official residents in Belize under the Retired Persons Incentive Act do not have to pay import duties on a car, boat, plane and up to US$15,000. in household goods imported into the country.
For those working for pay, the country has a progressive personal income tax with a top personal rate of 25%. There is no estate or capital gains tax. On real estate purchases, buyers currently must pay a 5% transfer fee, rolled back in mid-2006 from 15% formerly paid by non-citizens. The 12.5% GST applies to purchases of new condos, new homes and lots in a subdivision, but it does not apply to purchases of an existing house or a small piece of land.
Article contributed by Belize Travel Writer Lan Sluder