One of the biggest attractions for digital nomads is the low cost of living in Chiang Mai. But just how cheap is it to live in Chiang Mai really? Some bloggers have suggested that it’s possible to get by on a budget of $500 per month (all $ in this post are quoted in USD). While this is technically possible if you model your lifestyle after a starving local university student, it’s certainly not a target budget I would suggest for someone coming from a western country. A monthly budget of $1000, on the other hand, is much more realistic and $2000 could be quite enjoyable. It all depends on your lifestyle. So in this post I’ll sketch out what kind of lifestyle you can buy with each target budget in mind.
Living on $1000 per month in Chiang Mai
Let’s look at a budget of $1000 per month first. In my mind, this is a good minimum to shoot for if you’re looking to live cheaply in Chiang Mai while building your new online business. This is also roughly what many full-time English teachers in Thailand earn as their salary. For simplicity we’ll use an exchange rate of US$1 = 35 Thai baht. This will give us 35,000 baht to work with in our monthly budget.
Your largest single expense is going to be housing. For 10,000 baht (~$285) you can rent a comfortable studio apartment of around 45 square meters in the city areas. It will come with basic furnishings such as a bed, small sofa, work desk, and wardrobe. But it won’t have a full kitchen. Maybe you’ll just have a sink, small refrigerator, microwave, small table and a couple chairs. You’ll be eating out for most meals anyways, though, so this is perfectly adequate. Housing in this price range might include free access to a pool, exercise room, and free use of the building’s horribly slow WiFi. Also for about the same monthly rent you can get a 2-3 bedroom house in the suburbs.
Dedicated WiFi for your room will be about 700 baht for something usably fast (my current plan comes to exactly 641 baht for 25-down/8-up). Your electric bill can be very low in the cool season when not running the AC. But let’s say for a typical month in which you use air conditioning for a few hours per day it might be about 1200 baht. Your water bill might be around 100 baht per month, which gives us a total of 2000 baht (~$57) for monthly bills.
The cheapest option for your mobile phone is to use a prepaid SIM card. Since you’re somewhere with free WiFi 90% of the time, you can live without a data plan. Assuming you don’t make a ton of calls, you can easily get by with topping up your balance by 200 baht per month. That is less than $6 for your entire monthly phone expenses. For comparison, the average American spends over $100 a month on their cell phone bill.
For transportation, you can rent a scooter for 3000 baht (~$86) per month. Gasoline is fairly cheap in Thailand, and scooters are fuel efficient. With typical use driving around the city, you may need to fill the tank twice per week at 60 baht per fill-up. This gives you a total transportation expense of around 3480 baht.
The next thing to look at is food and drinks. Here is where your lifestyle really makes a difference. A case of bottled drinking water delivered to your apartment will be about 50 baht. Let’s say you go through one case per week, making 200 baht for the month. You can eat pretty well for 300 baht per day. This would allow you to have 3 meals at local Thai restaurants, some fresh fruit, a couple drinks at a local coffee shop, and a sweet. That would give you a basic food budget of 9,200 baht, which doesn’t include alcohol or special meals.
Your entertainment spending will come out of whatever you have left over. So far our monthly total comes to 24,880 baht. To this we’ll need to add about 500 baht for random necessities such as toilet paper, shampoo, toothpaste, and cleaning supplies. That brings the pre-entertainment total to 25,380 baht. The remaining 9,620 baht averages out to roughly 320 baht per day that you can use for extras, but you won’t spend this evenly. Some days you’ll spend much more and other days you won’t touch your entertainment funds. So here it’s good to just look at what some typical entertainment costs might be:
- Sushi dinner for 2 = 1200 baht
- Bottle of imported wine from supermarket = 700 baht (Wine Connection)
- Large local beer from 7-Eleven = 60 baht
- Large local beer at a bar = 120 baht
- Movie for 2 with popcorn and drinks = 500 baht (Maya or Central Festival)
- 2 hour Thai massage = 400 baht
- 90 minute yoga class = 200 baht (Mahasiddha or Yoga Mania)
As you can see, if you space your entertainment spending out well, you can live an enjoyable life in Chiang Mai on $1000 per month.
Living on $2000 per month in Chiang Mai
$2000 is the minimum you’d need to bring in per month to qualify for a work permit and 1-year visa as a freelance expat in Thailand with Iglu. If this was your budget for local spending, you could splurge on more little luxuries. You can eat western food more often and spend more going shopping for clothing and gadgets. On this budget you can afford to take weekend trips to Bangkok or other places in Thailand. Or if you stick around Chiang Mai, then you can choose to go on more dinner dates, watch more movies in the cinema, or go out drinking more often.
One other cost not often factored into living expenses is the amount spent on visas for staying in Thailand. With a 1-year visa, you simply have to pay a renewal fee of 1900 baht each year. If, however, you are trying to stay in Thailand on a series of tourist visas then you’ll have to consider the added cost of traveling outside the country every few months. There is also no guarantee that you will be granted a tourist visa each time you apply—especially if you’re trying to get back-to-back visas to effectively extend your stay.
Living on $500 per month in Chiang Mai
For the sake of completeness, let’s see what it would look like to live on $500 per month in Chiang Mai. In local currency this comes out to roughly 17,500 baht. You would obviously want to slash your housing costs, and the way to do this would be to rent out a tiny room typically used by local university students. For about 4000 baht per month you can probably get a 20 square meter fan-cooled room. With no air-conditioning and no refrigerator your electricity bill will probably run under 300 baht per month. And to save money you’ll either make do with the building’s slow WiFi or depend on coffee shops when you need to go online. That gives us 4,400 for your housing and bills.
Let’s assume your phone, food, and miscellaneous costs are unchanged. To save money on transportation you travel mostly on foot or by local mini-bus. At 20 baht for centralized destinations, let’s say you average 10 trips per week or 800 baht for the month. This would bring your pre-entertainment total to 15,100 baht. That would leave you with a whopping 2400 baht (~$68) to spend on extras for the entire month. You’re not going to be having much fun, and you’ll be hot, tired, sweaty, and craving pizza and beer the entire time.
As you can see, it’s physically possible to live in Chiang Mai on $500 a month—many locals do—but it’s extremely irresponsible to suggest anyone move here with this as a target budget.
Ideally, if you want to put the Chiang Mai living cost to the test, you should plan on spending at least $1000 per month. Keep in mind this is just the amount to cover your living expenses. I would set your income goal higher though. If your earnings get stuck at $1000 per month, you’ll never be able to afford to buy new gadgets or take trips back home. With an income of around $2000, on the other hand, you can use about half for your daily living expenses and set aside the other half to save up for large purchases and trips. Finally, for anyone coming over to Thailand for the first time—expect the unexpected and save up a bit of a cushion before trying to make the leap.