How Much Does It Cost To Live On A Tropical Island?

Ok, all you island dreamers…the ones imagining yourself escaping on a permanent basis and enjoying an island life of endless summer filled with beach parties, exotic sunsets and ever-flowing umbrella drinks…you’ll want to pay close attention to what I’m about to disclose.

But before we begin, I do want to make something crystal clear. This is not a missive intended to make you give up your dreams of donning the Island Girl (or guy) crown. Rather, it’s offered to provide some clarity on one topic that doesn’t get much coverage when one is thinking about throwing off one’s bowlines and disappearing into a tropical sunset.

You might want to mix up an adult beverage before you read on. It’s fine. I’ll wait.

Ok, now that you’re settled in (hopefully with something strong in your hand), let’s talk about what it really costs to live on an island. No, not the mental or emotional costs (saving that for a future post). Today I’m going to talk about the actual costs – in dollars – of living the dream. And while I can only share my experience on the tiny Dutch island of Bonaire, in talking to island girlfriends scattered on rocks around the globe, it seems fairly similar across every island.

So if you’re dreaming of (or already planning to) make the move, there’s one absolute truth you must understand before you jet off into endless summer with your suitcase full of bikinis and dreams…

Living on an island is expensive. Really effin’ expensive.

There, I said it. An admission some are hesitant to make. After all, admitting such a dreadful reality sort of undermines the image of the dream life we work hard to cultivate for friends, family and even complete strangers. We want you to believe our lives are one carefree beach blanket bingo game, where the only thing we ever have to worry about is whether we have enough rum and reef-safe sunscreen.

best friends on beach
Yes, we are living the dream. Mostly.

Alas, like so many things in life, what you see is not always what you get. Sort of like social media…wait, exactly like social media. Instagram, anyone?

Unfortunately, you usually don’t discover the harsh reality of how much life costs on a rock until after you actually move there. You get lured in by what you want to see…in my case, it was the seemingly cheap housing costs, especially as I was coming from a place with an exorbitantly high cost of living (oh Seattle…so much to love about you, just not your home prices).

Alas…the reality I quickly discovered after a few months of living here was that anything I might be saving on monthly rent was more than offset by a few other expenses I simply had no clue about. Like…

Electricity

Yes all those balmy, 85F days are truly wonderful, aren’t they? Well, they are until they’re not. One thing every Island Girl needs – unless she’s a fan of sleeping in a puddle of sweat each night or attempting to work while simultaneously swatting mosquitos and wiping boob sweat away during the day – is air conditioning. Glorious, chilled air, the kind you take for granted back in the civilized world. After all, back in the good old US of A, if it’s even remotely warm, every conceivable living area is climate controlled for your shopping/dining/living pleasure, right? (Usually to insanely chilly temps that shock returning Island Girls.)

Not so much in the tropics. You see, while there may be air conditioning installed in your apartment or home, running it a lot results in an electricity bill that exceeds the Gross Domestic Product of many small countries. While back on the mainland, you might have freaked if you received a utility bill (water and electricity…together!) that reached close to $200 for a month, when you’re on an island you will rejoice if you can get even one of your utilities – water OR electricity – below that amount on any of your bills. Ever.

You’ll wanna think twice before doing that.

Unfortunately, most newbie Island Girls find this one out the hard way. I recall one new arrival who I discovered unpacking in her kitchen in the middle of the day in the exceptional comfort of full air conditioning. I had to admit, it was quite nice to be invited into such an oasis of cool from the torrential heat just outside. But while enjoying the brief respite, I simultaneously glanced around her very spacious home and thought to myself “she definitely hasn’t received her first WEB bill yet.” Fast forward a few years down the road and the next time I visited her house (we’re not close friends, obviously), I noticed all the windows and doors thrown wide open – not an air-conditioned molecule of air in sight. Saw that one coming.

Oh, and don’t fall for that “we have such cooling tradewinds you won’t even need air conditioning” bullshit. It’s a lie perpetuated by (a) landlords who don’t have air conditioning installed in the bedrooms and (b) unscrupulous real estate agents madly trying to offload a non-air conditioned property onto an unsuspecting buyer. Between the incessant dogs barking all night, the dust that settles on every conceivable surface and the humidity that isn’t eradicated at any wind speed – working or sleeping without airco is the stuff nightmares are made of. No joke.

­čś▓┬áMonthly electricity costs (avg.): $250 (excluding pool…more on that later). More if I run my office airco a lot. Boob sweat or productivity – what a trade-off.

Water

You’d think that being surrounded by water would make it pretty damn cheap to get some delivered to your home. You’d be wrong. Very, very wrong. The price to desalinate seawater and provide potable/drinking water to households in the islands is quite expensive. And since the water company isn’t in the business of absorbing those costs themselves, they pass them along to you. Which is probably why, after a few months of island living, you start to value fresh water more than nearly anything else on the island. Well, except rum…which coincidentally is cheaper.

Back in the States, a small drip in the kitchen faucet or a running toilet was never cause for concern, much less alarm. However, here in the islands, any sign of unnecessary water usage has you moving faster than a thirsty Island Girl at a two-for-one happy hour. Not even kidding.

A few weeks back, I came home one afternoon to discover that our pool guy had inadvertently left the drain valve open after he cleaned our oversized pool. About a quarter of the pool water was gone. Which is to say – a lot of effin’ water. If you think I was livid when I noticed that, imagine how pissed off I was when I subsequently noticed that he had also turned on the hose to refill the pool before he departed. So for several hours, water was going in and immediately going out at a faster rate. I literally had chest pains knowing how much the water bill would be. And while the pool company is obviously going to sort out the costs for the extra water required to re-fill the pool (whether they yet realize that or not), I still feel sick about all the wasted water.

OH. GOD. NO!!!!!!!

It also painfully reminded me of the time when one of our toilets ran unnoticed for many days. If you’re asking yourself how anyone with a water obsession like mine could possibly not notice a toilet running non-stop, you’d have to understand the layout of my rather sprawling (and equally shabby) house. The guy that built it apparently believed that every resident needed their own bathroom…so we have four, including one off the pool area which is where the problem toilet was hiding. Probably why nobody noticed the constant running water.

I did eventually hear it and nonchalantly walked in, shook the handle and solved the problem. I thought nothing of it – until I got that month’s $400 water bill. Not even kidding. I’m not sure what happened in the immediate moments after I opened the bill, as I sort of blacked out from initial shock. I still feel mildly sick remembering that particular event.

What I’ve realized with these two water-related incidents is that I spend a lot of my time here on the island obsessing and feeling sick over the price of water. Something I never, ever did back in the States.

­čś▓┬áMonthly water costs (avg.): $75 (excluding pool). Well, unless we have a water-tastrophe, in which case it skyrockets to the $300-$400 range. At which point, rum consumption increases.

Swimming Pools

Ok…I know that not everyone believes a pool is a necessity in the tropics. And that’s true. Technically you can live without one. You can also live without rum. But why would you?

During those long, sweltering days of Caribbean summer, there’s nothing better than a refreshing dip in the privacy of your own backyard. Preferably while enjoying a cold rum cocktail. Plus, let’s get real…it is fun to host pool parties with your friends. To be totally honest, I am swimming pool-addicted and always have been (even back in the Midwest). So it was a no-brainer that, when living in the Caribbean, I really, really, really wanted a house with a pool.

Of course, little did I know that swimming pools are actually aquatic money pits. The truth is that this particular luxury doesn’t come cheap in the tropics. Because pools need two things to stay the sparkling oasis of refreshment that they are – water and electricity. Oh, and you’ll also need a pool guy (preferably one who doesn’t make rookie mistakes like mine does) who comes ’round once each week to keep your pool from turning into a swampy green cesspool.

exotic-swimming-pool
A cleverly disguised aquatic money pit. (Not mine, unfortunately.)

And before anyone starts thinking that the hot pool guy scenario might make the extra expense worth it…let me assure you that is purely the stuff of Hollywood movies. At least on this island. Maybe pool guys are hotter and randier in, say, Grand Cayman or a similarly posh tropical locale? You know, the spots where I imagine there to be more bored “ladies who lunch” spending their days lazily lounging poolside and looking for, uh, distractions. (For the record, my pool guy is not bad looking…but we’re not having any Mrs. Robinson moments down here. I’m too damn busy wiping away boob sweat while hunched over my keyboard.)

The bottom line is that having a pool is fantastic, but it isn’t for the budget-conscious. Of course, nobody tells you this before you commit to a home that has one. So, you’re welcome for the courtesy heads’ up here…what you do with this information is totally up to you. I say go for the pool anyway…you can use the money you would have otherwise spent on “shit you don’t need from Amazon” to cover the extra costs.

Pool guy: $175 (other “services” extra).
Water: $50.
Electricity: $100.
­čś▓┬áMonthly pool costs (avg.): $325

Air Travel

Rock fever will strike and you will want to escape your island. So, too, will last-minute girls’ trips you don’t want to miss. Whatever the reason, you’ll want to flee your rock now and again. For most Island Girls, that involves flying. (Bless those of you who have inter-island ferries. I am more than mildly jealous.) Now, I know the more populous your rock, the lower airfare might be. After all, I recall some pretty good fares between the US and Aruba back in the day. Unfortunately, I do not live on Aruba.

I chose a tiny neighboring blip in the sea with very limited air service. While we do have Delta, United and American who visit our island regularly, it ain’t cheap to get on the big birds. Not to mention that once weekly service isn’t exactly conducive to getting away for long weekends. Saturday to Saturday service is great for tourists coming here…not so much for islanders hoping to get away for a short break.

airplane-palm-tree
Let’s fly away…I just have to sell a kidney first.

The answer, of course, is island hopping to someplace slightly larger with, presumably, better daily flight schedules. But then you have to factor in the cost of the 10-minute flight each way. And when those little puddle jumps cost a minimum of $150 round-trip, well…the price to get anywhere escalates quickly. In fact, I just booked a round-trip flight to Miami – via neighboring Curacao – for a much-needed girls’ long weekend (can’t wait to see my ladies!), and my tickets together were a shocking $800. Not exactly spare change, and definitely something to give you pause before you commit to a particular island.

Same for island hopping. When roundtrip tickets to other Caribbean rocks you really want to explore are consistently in the $400-500 range, you tend to stay home.

­čś▓┬áRound-trip airfare costs to escape my rock (avg.): $800 – $1,000. Probably why I don’t travel as often as I’d like.

Groceries

I won’t spend much time on this one, because frankly, it’s been beaten to death. Here’s the Cliffs Notes version: Everything that you can consume here arrived by ship or plane from somewhere else. And it wasn’t delivered for free. Which makes even the most mundane trip to the grocery store a potentially chest-pain inducing experience. Especially if you have a grocery list of *exotic* ingredients…you know, like bell peppers or grapefruit. Unfortunately, we are not blessed with abundant roadside fruit/veggie stands here, so most everything comes from the store.

expensive-grocery-bill
Pretty much me after every grocery shopping trip.

The bottom line is that your grocery bills will skyrocket in the tropics. And while growing your own veggies sounds like the perfect solution, all I can say is that between the lack of rainwater and the abundance of hungry iguanas and parrots (thus requiring a green house), it seems like a lot of expense. And risk. And time.

­čś▓┬áMonthly grocery costs for two adults (avg.): $600 – $800. More if you happen to like wine, as we do.

Now, with all this being said, I can understand you might be in sticker shock. After all, island life is supposed to be simpler, right? And by simpler, one assumes cheaper, too. Of course it can be (there are ways to live more spartanly…but my point is that certain basics are far more expensive than you could ever imagine before you get here). I’m not sharing this data with you to dissuade you from making the move to Island Girl status. To the contrary, if you’ve got a dream, by all means, follow it. Would be a bit hypocritical for me to suggest otherwise, wouldn’t it?

Just understand that your whole life won’t be one big, carefree umbrella drink with your toes in the sand. It will also be expensive and challenging and, occasionally, shocking. It helps to have a good income (or a vast savings account…which will assuredly become less-vast with each passing month) to make things more palatable.

And if you have neither? Then, my friend, you’re going to need a very good sense of humor. At least that’s how I’m getting by.

Perfect for pinning.

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