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So what’s the real cost of living in Ecuador?

“Is it as cheap to live in Ecuador as they say?”

The question was posed recently by an English friend. What he’s referring to are claims made in the news media and live-overseas web sites and blogs, often for the purpose of selling seminars, books and “inside information.”

The honest answer to the question, is “no” — but also “yes,” with qualifications.

Some of the claims are simply false. A recent website article reported that the average cost of a “luxury” apartment in Cuenca, all utilities paid, with high-speed internet and cable tv, is $500 a month. Of course, “luxury” is in the eye of the beholder although we can assume, in this case, that the threshold was pretty low.

Do you own or rent your condo?

At least the claim of a few years ago that you could “live like a king” in Ecuador for $1,000 a month, or even $800, have been put to bed, although we still occasionally hear that you can get by for that if you have to. For the record, International Living and Live and Invest Overseas now put the monthly cost of living for a couple at $1,700 and $1,600, respectively.

There are other claims that are mostly irrelevant. Labor costs are low so it’s possible to hire a live-in maid or full-time gardener for $400 or $500 a month but I’ve yet to meet a resident gringo with paid staff. And even if you were inclined to add staff, the labor laws make it difficult.

Real estate, whether you rent or buy, is still a bargain in Ecuador, mostly because prices have been frozen in place for the past four or five years. In Cuenca, you can a rent a decent small apartment for $300 to $400 a month, but it will come unfurnished and you’ll pay your own utilities, same as in the old country.

For buyers, the much-advertised penthouse condo for $85,000 is a thing of the very distant past but you can still find decent digs, with a view, in the $120,000 to $150,000 range.

And you rarely hear of all the things that are more expensive in Ecuador, like almost everything imported. To be fair, prices for most imports have dropped dramatically in the last two years, since tariffs and other import fees have been reduced or eliminated. The cost of imported booze and smart tvs, for example, have dropped by almost half since early 2016.

Yes, a doctor’s visit runs $30 to $40 — about the same as your co-pay in the U.S. — although those numbers are creeping upward. Ecuador’s offer of voluntary membership in the country’s Social Security health care system is a bargain but, like any government program, navigating it is cumbersome, details are maddening and it operates in Spanish, a foreign language for most expats.

Even if the old $800 budget strikes us as ludicrous, other budgets generously offered by your neighbors, bloggers and Facebook “pagers” are equally as useless. It is a peculiar conceit of many expats to believe that the way they live is the way others should live too. Within recent months, I have read several detailed budgets, proudly presented as if they were a guiding light for other expats or would-be expats. One figured you owned your own home, another that you rented. One assumed you owned a car and took Spanish lessons five days a week, another that you cooked every meal at home. Still another figured you paid monthly country club dues. In other words, the budgets were only useful for the folks compiling them.

Ultimately, cost-of-living budgets are as useless in Ecuador as they are in North America, Europe or anywhere else. In the U.S., for example, are we talking about living in a house trailer in Arkansas or a penthouse in Boca Raton? Eating out twice a week at Wendy’s or at a four-star steak house? Making payments on two Mercedes and an SUV or on one Toyota? Paying the winter heating bill for 3,000-sq. ft. house in Minneapolis or a 600-sq. ft. apartment in New Orleans?

Of course it’s true that almost everyone lives more cheaply in Ecuador than back home but the savings are as much the result of simpler lifestyles than of lower costs. We rarely compare Ecuadorian apples (such as they are) to those in Seattle or Peoria.

Yes, you can live cheaply — and well — in Ecuador. That’s not in dispute. Do your own math as well as your due diligence. And tell your friends the truth.