Ask any Thailand-based expat, and they’ll tell you that Chiang Mai is a great place to live. It has culture, friendly people, great food, and it’s close to nature. For many location independent workers and digital nomads one of the biggest attractions 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 if you bump up your living budget to around $2000, life here can 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.
If you came to the city to bootstrap a new business, your goal may be to keep expenses as low as possible. 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 = 32 Thai baht. This will give us 32,000 baht to work with in our monthly budget.
Apartment or Condo Rental
Your largest single expense is going to be housing. For 10,000 baht (~$315) you can rent a comfortable studio apartment or condo 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 of usable speed—around 100/50 Mbps. 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 another 100 baht per month, which gives us a total of 2000 baht (~$63) for all the monthly bills.
The cheapest option for your mobile phone is to use a prepaid SIM card. Since 90% of the time you’ll probably be either at your home or somewhere with free WiFi, you can actually live without a data plan quite easily. Assuming you don’t make a ton of calls, you can get by with topping up your balance by about 200 baht per month. That is around $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 (~$94) 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 if you stick to mostly local food. 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 and water budget of 9,200 baht for a 30-day month, which doesn’t include alcohol or special meals.
For a little more detail, let’s look at some typical food and beverage costs in Chiang Mai:
- Thai vegan lunch of rice and 2 curry dishes = 35 baht(~$1)
- Pad Thai noodles from a food cart or basic restaurant = 40 baht (~$1.25)
- Stir-fried pork and basil + fried egg = 50 baht (~$1.57)
- Mixed salad from local salad bar restaurant = 100 baht (~$3.20)
- 1 serving of cut fresh mango or guava from a fruit cart = 20 baht (~$0.63)
- Bunch of bananas = 25 baht (~$0.78)
- Fresh whole coconut = 25 baht (~$0.78)
- Hot latte in a coffee shop = 55 baht (~$1.73)
- Iced coffee from market coffee stand = 40 baht (~$1.25)
- Thai style deserts from market = 20 baht (~$0.63)
Your entertainment spending will come out of whatever you have left over. Let’s add about 500 baht to your living costs for random necessities such as toilet paper, shampoo, toothpaste, and cleaning supplies to the categories above.
- Housing = 10,000 baht
- Bills = 2,000 baht
- Phone = 200 baht
- Transportation = 3,480 baht
- Food and water = 9,200 baht
- Random necessities = 500 baht
Adding all those together, our monthly total of necessary expenses comes to 25,380 baht.
For our hypothetical monthly budget of $1000 or 32,000 baht, this leaves us with 6,620 baht for entertainment and extras. That’s just 220 baht per day, but you won’t spend this evenly. Some days you’ll spend much more and other days you won’t touch your entertainment funds.
Entertainment costs in Chiang Mai
So here it’s good to look at what some typical entertainment costs might be:
- Sushi dinner for 2 = 1200 baht
- Margherita pizza = 180 baht
- Bottle of imported wine from supermarket = 700 baht
- 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
- 1 hour Thai massage = 250 baht
- Drop-in yoga class = 250 baht
As you can see, if you space your entertainment spending out well, the low cost of living in Chiang Mai allows you to live an enjoyable life on $1000 per month. But your won’t be saving anything if this is your entire income.
Visas and Travel
This budget also doesn’t take into account additional costs that a foreigner living in Thailand needs to consider such as visa fees and travel. 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.
Another thing that you really should consider if you plan on living in Chiang Mai year-round is how you’ll deal with Thailand’s burning season. If you value your health, it would be wise to allocate up some extra funds to either travel south for a few weeks or outfit your living quarters with an air purifier.
Living on $2000 per month in Chiang Mai
$2500 is the minimum you’d need to bill clients per month to qualify for a work permit and 1-year visa as a freelance expat in Thailand with Iglu. Assuming you invoiced a little bit higher than that per month, you could be looking at $2000 left over for living expenses.
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.
With extra money to spend you can also get a better phone package. For example, at 1,099 baht you can sign up for a postpaid plan that gives you unlimited 4G at up to 300 Mbps and 650 minutes of call time. The nice thing about doing this is you can set up a local WiFi hotspot through your phone’s 4G to get fast Internet for your laptop just about anywhere you go.
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 15,875 baht. Even with the cost of living in Chiang Mai so low, this doesn’t give us much to work with.
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. Including another 100 baht for the water bill that gives us 4,400 for your housing and bills.
Let’s assume your phone, food, and miscellaneous costs are unchanged from the $1000 budget. To save money on transportation you travel mostly on foot or by local mini-bus. At 30 baht for rides to centralized destinations, let’s say you average 5 trips per week or 600 baht for the month.
Let’s total up our monthly expenses so far:
- Housing = 4,000 baht
- Bills = 400 baht
- Phone = 200 baht
- Transportation = 600 baht
- Food and water = 9,200 baht
- Random necessities = 500 baht
Our monthly total of necessary expenses now comes to 14,900 baht.
That would leave you with a whopping 975 baht (~$30) 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.
Other parts of Thailand
The cost of living in Chiang Mai is quite low, but so are the living costs for Thailand as a whole. Bangkok and Phuket are two other popular areas to live, where Iglu also has opened offices. Housing and food costs can be higher in both areas because of greater demand and prices getting driven up by tourism.
Monthly budget for living in Bangkok or Phuket
To be on the safe side, I would plan to add an extra 30% to your monthly budget if you’re thinking of moving to Bangkok or Phuket. So you should expect to spend a minimum $1,300 per month, or approximately 41,600 baht.
If you want to live a bit more luxuriously, then a budget of $2,600 (83,200 baht) should be able to afford you more of life’s simple pleasures.
Living in either of these cities on $500 a month should not even be considered a realistic option.
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 much 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. This is one of the big problems of moving to Thailand to become an English teacher.
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.