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What’s It Like Living On $10,000 Per Year?

Have you ever stopped to think about what it would be like for your family to live on less than $10,000?  For a family of four that comes out to less than $7 per person per day. What would you have to sacrifice?  Our California family is finding out for ourselves.  We are currently living in a small Bolivian village for a year.  Here’s what it’s like living on $10,000.


Living On $10,000 Per Year

Bolivia is a whole country that is used to living on $10,000 – or less.  A good professional salary here is about $8,000 – $12,000 per year.  That’s considerably less than the U.S. federal minimum wage! And there are plenty of families that make much less. But, without much money to go around, it means the cost of living is much lower here too.


And Bolivia isn’t anything unusual, either.  There are over a hundred countries where the per capita income is well below $10,000.  An estimate from 2013 says worldwide median household income was just under $10,000.  So, that means that half of the world’s households are living on $10,000 or less!  Compare that to the U.S. median household income of about $60,000.  Did you know how insanely rich you are?


But what’s it really like? What do you have to give up? How much do you suffer living on $10,000?



In terms of housing, I don’t think there’s much sacrifice at all.  The housing here is just damn cheap.  With nobody making much money, you don’t see San Francisco prices.  You can rent a nice two bedroom house for less than $100 per month in our village – a bit higher in the city. In the city, $100,000 would get you a nice big house in a safe neighborhood.


Like anywhere else, there are good houses, and then there are GREAT houses.  And most people can’t afford the GREAT houses. Houses are smaller, on average.  And there are more people sharing rooms.


In the U.S. in the 1950s, a typical family house was less than 1,000 square feet.  Over the last several decades, as Americans started making more money, they bought bigger and bigger McMansions.  Americans plowed their money into bigger houses and racked up mortgage debt, when they could have been saving and investing for their freedom instead.  Now we think living in a 3,000 square foot house is somehow normal…. but I digress.


Here in Bolivia, people living on $10,000 still live in modest houses, like America in the 1950s.  It’s not suffering.



If you live on $10,000, you probably don’t own a car.  If you do, it’s practical and probably helps you make money in some way – a taxi, a truck for hauling, etc.  You’re not going to plow scarce resources into some overpriced mobile sofa with a built-in stereo just to go a few miles a day if you’re living on $10,000.


But the good news is that it’s easy to live without a car here.  In fact, few people have cars.  And that means there is a ton of demand for public transportation.  Taxis are everywhere, and they’re super cheap.  If you want to save even more, you can take a “collectivo” or a minibus filled with a dozen other friendly passengers for about $0.25.

The minivan brigade in La Paz: Cheap and convenient public transportation

It’s hard to have new car envy when there are no new cars driving around.  In America, you are what you drive.  Here? Nobody even thinks about it.  Sacrifice? Not at all.



If you’re living on $10,000, the main thing about food is that you buy fresh and local.   You don’t buy overpriced semi-prepared or packaged foods or microwave dinners.  You buy basic ingredients, and you cook from scratch.  Its funny that fresh and local is often considered upscale in America.  Not here.  Fresh, local, basic ingredients are how it has always been done for people on a budget.


Eating out? Forget about it.  Americans spend nearly half of their food budget eating out.  But when you go to a restaurant, the cost of the food is only about 1/3 of what you pay.  The rest is the cost of the service, overhead, and profits for the restaurant.  If you’re living on $10,000 you can’t afford to pay for all that – at least not very often. Eating out is a luxury.  Cooking at home with your family is the way to go.


You might view this as a sacrifice if you’re used to eating at the latest hot spot, or even if you just eat out a lot because you think you don’t have the time to cook.  It’s especially a sacrifice if all your friends continue to go out while you sit at home.  But, when everyone you know eats fresh and local at home, perhaps you won’t mind it.  In our town, there are only two restaurants, and they each serve the same thing. Eating at home is the only option.



Entertainment, it turns out, is something that doesn’t have to cost much money at all.  No, people here don’t have access to upscale movie theaters, mouse-infested theme parks, DJ mix masters, or celebrity chef restaurants.  Hell, there’s only a couple of restaurants in our town, and they don’t even have menus.  Without a doubt, entertainment options are limited here.


Limited, that is, if you want to spend any money.  But, the best entertainment doesn’t come from spending money at all.  It comes from having good times with good people.  And that is in vast abundance here.

Entertainment living on $10,000

Entertainment living on $10,000

Living on $10,000 means you don’t go out to expensive entertainment.  Instead, you just hang out with your friends with good food, good drinks, and good conversation.  You can have just as many laughs and moments of joy as people with more money. In my book, that’s not a sacrifice at all.

Splurging on $10,000 Per Year

We all have the urge to splurge.  And living on $10,000 doesn’t make that any different.  You just slurge differently.  You do it with less money. Probably the most common splurge people enjoy here in our village is hosting a big party with lots of friends.  And with lots of meat.


This is about $150 worth of meat.  That’s a lot of money for someone on such a tight budget:

$150 worth of suckling pig is a big splurge for someone living on $10,000

$150 worth of suckling pig is a big splurge for someone living on $10,000

As long as we’re doing food pictures, here’s another one.  Meat, meat, meat.

The grill at a friend’s birthday party

People still splurge living on $10,000.  The splurges just cost less money.



Living on $10,000 per year, you’re probably not going to have access to a great education, at least not in Bolivia.  This is one area where sacrifices do happen.  The public school system in this country is pretty shitty.  There are some great private schools in the cities, but you generally need more money to attend them.


Our kids are attending the local school in our village a couple of days per week.  Sometimes, I’m shocked to hear what they do academically each day.  But we keep our kids in the school for the social and language aspects, not for book learning.  We homeschool our kids a couple of days per week to keep them advancing academically.


Homeschooling is virtually free of charge.  We use various internet resources that are available to the entire world (assuming you have internet access).  You just have to know about them – and you have to speak English.  It’s proof to me that a great education doesn’t need to require much money.  This gives me hope that even the kids in our village will one day have access to a great education too.


Health and Healthcare

Health is absolutely not something you have to sacrifice living on $10,000 a year.   What I mean is that lots of people living on $10,000 have outstanding health. They live healthy lifestyles.  They eat healthy food, they get plenty of physical exercise, and even see the sun on a regular basis (unlike so many cubicle farmers in America). Obesity and diabetes are diseases of affluence.  A healthy lifestyle doesn’t cost much money.


But unfortunately healthcare does.  If you get sick and you’re living on $10,000, you probably won’t have access to the best healthcare in the world. In Bolivia, everyone has access to free clinics.  But they seriously suck donkey balls. If you want GOOD healthcare, you need some money.


Not nearly as much money as you might think, though.  My wife stayed two nights in a Bolivian hospital for under $1,000. On a U.S. salary, that should be no problem, but a $1,000 hospital stay on a $10,000 annual income sure does bite.

A Pharmacy in Tarija, Bolivia

Health does not have to be a sacrifice living on $10,000.  But healthcare does. People living on $10,000 can often afford basic healthcare such as generic medicines and first aid. But, more expensive surgeries and treatments are often out of reach. The key is to stay healthy.


Financial Dependence

It’s tough to save much money living on $10,000.  Even if you have a fabulous savings rate, it’s going to take multiple lifetimes to become very rich on that kind of income.  The average American has the opportunity to save $1M, but that kind of financial independence is not realistic here.


But that’s OK, because folks here have found a work-around for financial independence, too.  I call it “financial dependence”.


What is “financial dependence?”  It’s the family support system that’s so prominent in this part of the world.  Basically, people here have got each others’ back.  If your brother or cousin runs into hard times, you step in to support him.  And vice versa, if you have family, it means you always have a roof over your head and food on the table.


It goes both ways – you depend financially on your family when you need to, and you support your family financially when they need you.  It is an unquestionable bond.  It is financial dependence.


So, while Americans are focused on their independence, folks here don’t even think about that.  There is no such thing as independence when you have a large extended family to support.  It’s not a sacrifice, it’s a different way of doing things.

Everything is Relative

So you can see there are a few sacrifices to living on $10,000 in a place like Bolivia.  But when you’re surrounded by people making the same sacrifices as you, somehow they don’t seem much like sacrifices at all.  Everything is relative.


Living on $10,000 in America would be rough indeed for a family of four.  First, because everything is so much more expensive, your dollar doesn’t go very far in the United States.  Housing? Transportation? Food? I’m sure it is possible, but it would be much more difficult.


Living on $10,000 in America is also tougher because you are surrounded by people who spend so much more than that.  You’d need some serious will power to keep your expenses low when nobody else does.  At the end of the day, we are social creatures, and we are influenced by the people around us.


What’s It Like To Live On $10,000?

So, to answer that question, I would say the answer depends.  It depends mostly on where you live.  For half of the world, it is perfectly normal.  $10,000 is more than enough money to live a comfortable life in many places.


Life here in our Bolivian village is not full of suffering and sacrifices.  People live their lives.  They are occupied by the same types of daily thoughts about money, work, health, and relationships as people in America.  It’s mostly just normal life on a less extravagant scale.   It’s a different way of doing things.



Jojo Bobo


13 Responses
  • Accidental FIRE
    November 30, 2017

    Great post. Central and South America are my favorite travel destinations. The nature and scenery are obvious, but I also like them because everyone generally seems happier with much less, and I find that I need that reminder from time to time to refresh my mindset on life. You highlighted many of the reasons why this is the case in your post. Friends, family, community, simplicity. You just can’t go wrong focusing on those things.

    • JoJoBoBo
      November 30, 2017

      I’m having definitely one of the best years of my life. But, I miss things back home too – like good beer, fast internet, and a supermarket full of choices. I wish I could be in both places at once. Thanks for the comment! – JB

  • Dave
    November 30, 2017

    That was a fascinating read. It is old world living. I imagine many of those people are less stressed without having email on their phone or even having a phone. They seem much more in tune with each other. When conversation is your entertainment, you develop into a great story teller. I am greatful for my life, but their life also has advantages if you are into simple living. Great post.

    • JoJoBoBo
      November 30, 2017

      Totally. I feel like such an inadequate story teller when I hang out down here. I met this guy last week who spent years in the Amazon, with stories about bugs the size of a suitcase and land snakes that electrocute. True or not, it was entertaining as hell. -JB

  • Jason@WinningPersonalFinance
    November 30, 2017

    Wow. That’s a different perspective. It shows both how lucky we are here in the US and how little we really need to get by.

    • JoJoBoBo
      November 30, 2017

      Yup, I always say that people are super adaptable. As long as we have the basics (food, shelter, health, friends, family), we can be happy in virtually any conditions. Thanks for the comment. – JB

  • Leigha
    November 30, 2017

    I live on $12,000/year in San Francisco. I’m only able to do it because I live rent free with extended family, otherwise I’d be homeless. Since the financial decline in 2008, I’ve been unable to get regular, longterm work- despite a Masters in Public Administration.

    So fabulous for you living on this in a low cost of living location. But people are trying to live back home too. I know family’s of 3 and 4 trying to live on $22,000 or $24,000 in San Francisco. Don’t pat yourself on the back too much.

    • JoJoBoBo
      November 30, 2017

      Wow, you’re living on an extreme budget in one of the most expensive places in the world. Where I’m living $10k goes a really long way. Whether $10k is sufficient all depends on where you live. -JB

  • Dads dollars debts
    December 3, 2017

    Man we lived in Argentina for a year on a tight budget and loved it. We visited Bolivia and the rain forrest (there are pink fresh water dolphins in the Amazon! if you didn’t already know). Anyway, very doable and good to stretch your own limits and routines. Good for you guys! Hit me up when you are back in Cali. We are in Santa Rosa

    • JoJoBoBo
      December 10, 2017

      Hi 3D!
      Sorry I missed your comment until now (spam filtered). Where were you in Argentina? We just went to BA for a few days in November. Yes, I did know about he pink dolphins. We’re planning a trip to Rurrenabaque in April or so. Not sure if I’ll get in the water to swim with the dolphins though. Thanks for the comment!

  • I was so excited to read your post! Between 2005 and 2011 I spent time working in different Bolivian cities and towns for what started as my undergraduate senior design project and eventually turned into my PhD research project. This included taking my fair share of micros that are incredibly cheap, but require some study to learn the routes and ensure that your bus driver isn’t simply on his way home (which may happen to be outside of the city limits after the sun has set).

    These experiences helped shape my outlook on things like happiness, money, and environmental protections. Working in Bolivia gave me some insight into what the US probably looked like before the advent of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It also gave me a healthy appreciation of the fact that my basic needs are met on a daily basis with very little effort on my part.

    I also credit my time in Bolivia for more or less curing me of lifestyle inflation. And the timing was great because I lived in Bolivia when I was a “poor” college student (though as you mention that is a very relative term), so once I began earning larger paychecks I simply wasn’t tempted to over consume in the same ways that other people were.

    And that’s because I no longer connected spending money with my happiness. So I am forever grateful to my Bolivian friends for showing me a way to live a meaningful life that prioritizes things like relationships and community over material wealth. Though as a vegetarian I could have done with less meat (and the occasionally awkward social interactions that created), but it provide me with ample opportunities to enjoy cunapes and empanadas as part of my meals. 🙂

    • JoJoBoBo
      December 10, 2017

      Hi Heather,
      It’s great to meet you! I feel the same way as you on every point! I spent three years in Bolivia as a Peace Corps Volunteer back in 1996-1999 (that’s when I met my wife, who is Bolivian), and I came away feeling much like you did – that I didn’t need much to be happy or comfortable. I fought the lifestyle creep for years. But, after fifteen years of marriage and kids in suburban California, those feelings fade. The struggle is real to remember those lessons. And that’s coming from someone who went back to Bolivia to visit the in-laws every few years. My Peace Corps group just had a twenty-year reunion in Colorado this last May (just before my family left for our year in Bolivia). Most of those people had never been back to Bolivia in twenty years, and several of them commented that it almost felt like a distant dream. Was it real? Anyway, my point is just that with time, the lessons fade. It is tough to remember what you learned after decades in the U.S.
      Cheers, -JB

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