Of course, like every expat that lives in Thailand, we get asked all the time about how much money it takes to live well in this country. And, like everyone else, I usually reply with vague answers. It’s a difficult subject to come up with specifics, because everyone is different.
There are lots of websites that tout Thailand as a super cheap place to live, talking about rents for $75 a month and dinner for a buck or two. After reading these sites, everyone gets excited and is ready to go, with dreams of living in Thailand for $500 a month. It can be done, but it isn’t easy. You could live in the USA for $500 a month, too, if you wanted to rent an apartment in downtown Detroit, or live in a truck camper in some prairie in Eastern Montana. For most people, that’s not practical nor desirable.
I think (this is my opinion) that those websites that promote super cheap living in Thailand do a disservice to their readers. Yes, it costs less than the US, but unless you are willing to substantially lower your standards, it won’t be as super cheap as they promote.
If an American has an income coming in of around $500 a month, I would strongly suggest that they do not come to Thailand. To be low income in a strange country makes for difficult living. But of course the minute I write this, there are plenty of “alternative living” types of people that can prove me wrong.
It is my opinion that to live comfortably in Chiang Mai, an expat should have an income of around $1200 or more per month. That would do it. You can get a decent modern condo apartment in a good area that is a decent size for about a fourth of that, and have the rest for going out to mid-level restaurants, a movie once in a while, and a little trip to other parts of Thailand once a month. Maybe you like to go to the mall and pick up a new pair of shoes a couple of times a year. And you would have enough for a little golf once in a while. If you have more income than $1200 a month, so much the better, but if you have less than that, you need to be one of those “alternative life-style” types that enjoy street food every evening and be careful with your money all the time. For sure you will live better in Chiang Mai on $1200 a month than you can in a decent city in the US. (Plus, of course, the weather is better here, with really nice people all around you and a lot less crime.)
If you want to live in the Big City of Bangkok, you need more money than in Chiang Mai. My opinion is that you should have at least $1500 a month coming in for good Bangkok living. And there are a lot more distractions in Bangkok and some of the beach cities south of there that can get a bit expensive (like the nightlife).
Airfare back to the US is around $1200, so it is always a good idea that you have at least that amount stashed away in case you need to come back home for some reason.
If you are married, you need more than the minimums I suggest here, but not double the amount. And if you have kids, things can get quite expensive. The best schools in Thailand for expat kids are private International Schools, and tuition is comparable to the US for a private school. For people with kids in International Schools, the cost of educating the kids is higher than the housing cost.
A lot of us expats are dependent on social security or a pension from the US. If the economists I read are correct, the US dollar is in for some inflation over the next few years. Every time the US dollar goes down, your living cost in Thailand go up (assuming the Thai Baht does not change too much). Lately, this is really affecting those getting pensions in Euros, and I am afraid it won’t be too long before American expats will feel it (already over the last 3 or 4 years, a dollar went from being worth 40 Baht down to around 30 Baht now). (New Note 03 Sept 12: the dollar now has be hovering around 31.5 Baht to a buck for the last 4-5 months, so that is a small bit of improvement for us).
If you are an expat getting social security or a pension, and then are able to earn an extra $500 or so a month doing stuff on the internet, or by selling Thai products on Amazon or Ebay, or by writing the great American novel, you can probably do pretty well. I personally am fortunate that I get social security and have a couple of small businesses in Chiang Mai that generate a little more for me each month if I need it. That’s an ideal situation, and a lot of expats do well teaching English part time or doing commission sales from their home phone.
If you are a very young person (to me that’s somebody under 35 years old), you are probably more flexible than people older than you. In that case, you can sacrifice a lot of things that cost money and not mind it a bit. But for us older guys & ladies, it is more difficult to do without the comforts we have had for most of our lives.
So that’s my opinion on the matter, and I would like to hear what others have to say. And it is my opinion that you should pull up stakes from your home country to go to the other side of the world unless you feel comfortable about supporting yourself and understand that there is no nanny state here to back you up.