Thursday, March 31, 2016

Top 3 in 10 Ways to Live Thrifty for a Pura Life

I could bore you with a long list of ways to stretch  your money, but after thinking long and hard, I have learned how to live on a strict regiment by changing 3 things in my life. It began almost 3 years ago when we uprooted our family and moved to Costa Rica. We did not move to the beach, instead we began our journey in Atenas, then we moved to a small, quiet farming community on top of a mountain in the hills of Grecia. Now we have settled down in Cebadilla, another quiet town much closer to the city of San Jose, saving us more time and expenses in travel. We moved to Costa Rica to open a business and try to get more out of life, yearning for longer, blue zone living.

We knew when we started this adventure, we would have to learn new ways to save money, live like the locals and stretch the dollar as far as possible. The days of ordering endless unnecessary objects through Amazon for delivery to our doorstep were over. The days of filling our shopping cart to the overflow limit after slowly meandering up and down every isle in Walmart were over. The days of charging a bag of chips and a pack of gum on our Visa or MasterCard for a whining child were over. We knew that every cent would be needed during our journey in order to open a business, acquire residency in a foreign country and probably not receive a paycheck for 1-2 years. Wow, were we ever wrong? First, we accidentally got pregnant, oops! Then, the business took twice as long to launch than anticipated, being that "tranquilo" is the term used more commonly by the locals meaning calm down or don't worry. Oh, and "proxima semana" is their favorite, meaning next week. At first these concepts were frustrating, but now we understand their importance. And now we are knee deep in a country we love with a growing business in need of capital and a growing family to boot. How are we making it work?

I quickly made a few Tica friends - Ticos and Ticas are what the Costa Ricans call themselves. I was surprised to hear that most of them were living on less than $600 per month. How do they make this work? How can anyone live on that little? Then I watched the Netflix special called Living on $1 a Day and the way that we viewed world consumption dramatically changed forever. I caught the bus and went to the market with my local friend. She showed me how she buys $14 worth of meat to last her family of 5 one week. Latin America is not the only culture who use lard, masa and/or corn products with rice and beans to stretch calories and substantiate a meal. The truth is, most countries have their own version of tricks to add calories to a traditional dinner. The USA is one of the only countries that actually spends time counting calories and finding ways to trim calories and lose weight. Why? Because we were spoiled into thinking we could have anything we want at any time and prepared any way, for a price. Living in the states, we often spent hours planning our meals extravagantly and hours eating them in expensive restaurants. If we did not have the cash, no problem, charge it! I have clear memories of sitting around a large table in a posh restaurant with friends, drinking bottles of expensive wine and stuffing ourselves to the point of gluttony for hours. Then, over pride filled with stupidity, we would argue over who pays for what on what credit card, knowing that we were equally in debt, all the while arguing over who wants to foot the bill. 
Now what I am about to tell you is an old secret, before credit cards were invented. There is nothing new about this, your grandparents lived this way, and many people on Earth still live this way. About 2 years before we left our home in Texas, we purchased a book combo by Dave Ramsey called Total Money Makeover and after reading and making plans and trying our hardest to change our ways, we finally realized that the number one way to get out of debt and change our lives was to:

  1. ONLY LIVE ON THE CASH IN YOUR POCKET! This took us what seemed like forever to get in the habit of because it is so easy to pull out the card, whether it was debit or credit, the number was never as real as the CASH in our pockets. Dave Ramsey even suggested using a clear zip bag to stick those $$ bills in each week so you can always see exactly what you have. There is no wondering or guessing the balance. He also suggests a ledger for every penny spent to track progress, but with 2 small kids taking up most of my time and hands, I never followed the rules exactly with the ledger thing. The one rule that I followed to the T was living on a cash system. It made such a difference in our lives that we were able to save money, eliminate debt and move our family to Costa Rica. We never overspent, in fact, in the beginning of my money makeover, I found myself being the woman in line at the grocery store with crying children, putting items back as the cashier glared at me with dagger eyes, slowly minimizing my ticket to equal the cash that I had in my pocket. The kids did not like it and I was occasionally embarrassed, but after a while, we learned how to under-shop, and my kids grew more patient in the process. By the time I improved my math skills, adding all the .69 and .99 together, the total ticket became less than my allotted budget, allowing the kids to pick 1 treat without all the crying. My kids also understood the value of saving and only buying what we needed vs. buying anything on sale. This prompts me to my second best trick to saving money and eliminating debt.
  2. KEEP A LIST AND DO NOT SHOP WITHOUT THE LIST! The list is essential for working the cash system. And I promise, once you get in the habit of list keeping, you will cut your grocery shopping in half the time and half the money spent. I also found that by keeping a list, I avoided the center isles in the grocery stores because I purchased more fresh fruits and vegetables for cooking than processed foods. It is so easy to build an overflowing cart if you do not have a list because you will walk aimlessly up and down every isle buying things you do not need, but if you stick to the list, you only go to the isle that sells the items on your list. Never forget the list and if you do forget the list, do not go to the store. In Costa Rica, gas is very expensive and lugging a ton of groceries home on the bus is not fun either. We make the most of our grocery trips by only buying exactly what is on the list with exactly the cash in our pockets. If there is a little bit left over at the end of the week, we treat the kids to ice cream in the park. We cook more and at the end of the month if there is any money left over, we save some and spend some on a light dinner out, usually sharing plates. Which brings me to my final rule.
  3. COOK AT HOME, SPENDING QUALITY TIME WITH YOUR FAMILY AND TREAT YOURSELVES TO A RESTAURANT TRIP ONLY AS A REWARD! Eating out because you are too tired or do not have time is a lame excuse, we know because we were lame! By cooking all our meals at home, we teach our kids about family values, nutrition and safe kitchen habits. It is also important to practice and preach quality meal planning which also helps out with your list. We eat dinner together every night without fail. We also eat on smaller plates. This is a trick I discovered when we moved to Costa Rica because the average dinner plate, the actual diameter of the plate, is about 30% smaller than the dinner plates sold in the USA. Take McDonald's CR for example - there is no supersizing. Do you remember the small cups at McDonald's were 8 oz back in the day? In Costa Rica, this is still the small and the large is the small in the US. Crazy. We only know this because we took our kids as a treat once last year, can you say that? So if you are fighting weight management, try using a smaller plate and a smaller cup. Additionally, we cook together and/or do homework while cooking so the kitchen is a central hub in our house. Our kids eat plenty of fruits and vegetables because they usually help prepare them by pinching the green beans, skinning the dirty carrots or peeling the hard squash. They also know how to place all the rubbish in the compost bucket for transfer to the compost pile. These simple habits will teach your kids how to eat well, respect food whether it was purchased or grown, and ask questions about food. This is a great moment to teach kids about seeds and nuts. And even if you have never had a garden before in your life, there is a first time for everything. Start simply with beans or tomatoes in a pot or a reused tin can. I even have a tire garden, so re purpose any old thing that will hold dirt . If your kids get a little dirty planting some rubbish leftover tomato seeds in a pot or a few dry beans in an old tin can, they will nurture it, and when the time comes, you can harvest the bounty with them and return to the kitchen to cook together. I promise they will be more adventurous eaters and learn to love flavors from all kinds of fruits and vegetables, helping them grow into strong, healthy adults with values to remember and teach again for future generations. 
Now you might be saying, "What about emergencies? What about birthdays and Christmas?" There are plenty of things you can plan for, but for those emergencies, you have to slowly work up to an emergency fund. It is easier said than done, because it takes a while just to get used to the changes above. The rewards go beyond the sacrifices. First of all, birthdays and Christmas are usually not a surprise, normally we know who in our circle of family and friends have birthdays during that month. When you sit down to plan your budget, you allot for the birthdays, possibly sacrificing another item like clothing or a movie night, or altering your list with a couple of less expensive items to replace a more expensive item. And make a game out of birthday planning and ask each of your children to draw a picture of what they think would make a good birthday present. For instance, Max lost his soccer ball a couple of months ago. It will take us several months to save the money to replace his ball, but Sara knows he needs another soccer ball, so she drew a picture of a ball. Max wants a PlayStation, but he knows he will have to save his own money to buy a PlayStation, but he still drew a PlayStation. Sara won the game and they both learned a lesson in reality. This will help avoid overspending and giving extravagant gifts. When we were invited to our first baby shower in Costa Rica, we bought 4 little baby outfits for our friend, a Tica. She immediately called us after the party and asked if we could return 3 of the gifts because it was too much. She said, "In Costa Rica, we only give 1 gift." I actually felt bad because she explained that she could never afford to purchase such an extravagant gift for any of our children, and she actually returned all the items to us when our baby was born. This taught us an important lesson about Christmas too. Previously, our kids and family had gifts spilling out from under the tree. This is normal in the USA. Now that we live more simply, we only give 3 gifts to each child. 1 gift that they need, 1 gift that they want, and 1 handmade gift. Each gift is more special and more appreciated. When children are flooded with gifts, they tend to lose them, break them and generally have less appreciation for the value of a gift. 

Now that you have the tools, can you change your past life of accumulating debt and meaningless objects and wasting tons of groceries in the trash? Did you know that the USA alone throws away an astounding $165 billion worth of food each year? This is over 20 lbs of groceries annually per person, wasted. And according to US News, the average US American wastes somewhere between $1,500 - $3,000 per family of four each year. Wow! I can think of plenty of people in our neighborhood who could change their lives completely with that money, including our family! We could save more for the future of our children and give more to those in need. By only using the cash in your pockets, keeping lists and sticking to them, and cooking at home with your family, you too can live a PURA VIDA from anywhere. Do you know what PURA VIDA means? Create your own PURA LIFE by making big changes from small places. 


  1. Hi Niki

    My name is Joyce, I am a marketing executive at which is a leading expat information and services website.

    I saw on your blog that you are and expat. I wish to interview you to further share some of your tips. The questions are mainly about the housing, the daily life etc.
    It just takes 5 minutes (or more depending if you have lots to say :)
    Of course, if you accept we can add a link to your blog or some of your website. 
    If you are interested to participate at this project, please send me an email at

  2. Thanks Joyce, we will follow-up with your questions and can't wait to read your articles! Pura Vida :)


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