Fundación Mujer began in San Jose, Costa Rica thirty years ago when microfinance was newly expanding. Muhammad Yunus began giving out micro-loans in Bangladesh in 1977; after only a short decade this method of empowering the poor had taken hold. It’s a simple concept: if the poor get reliable access to credit, with little collateral and reasonable interest rates, they can build self-sufficient businesses.This idea won Yunus the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006.
Fundación Mujer has positively impacted its community since its start. The leadership and staff are passionate about helping their clients succeed as entrepreneurs. Running a business can be incredibly tough. Micro entrepreneurs who use Fundación Mujer’s services get a credit line along with specialized follow up to address needs as they arise.
When I contemplated moving to Costa Rica I guessed I would spend between $1,000 – $1,500 a month, hopefully closer to the lower amount. Right now, two months into my trip it feels like I could spend between $500 – $3,000 a month. The type of Costa Rica I decide to experience will be the main factor. This is a decision we make everywhere, but right now it feels more drastic. Here in Costa Rica I can try to live like a Tico, as Costa Ricans call themselves, or as a vacationer looking for a luxury retreat.
Usually people decide their lifestyle given their income and habits. Changes come with raises or changes in family structure, which tend to come in stages. By dropping myself in a different country it’s harder to gauge if I’m being frivolous. In Costa Rica I eat out a lot more often and the costs are lower than back home. This can push me to think I’m doing well, when in fact I’m spending excessively given normal Tico customs.
An area where I’ve struggled a lot is with housing. I pay $15/day for a room with breakfast and dinner. That’s about ₡260,000 colones a month. I’ve seen rooms for ₡80,000 – ₡160,000 per month. This led me to consider whether it made sense to move out of my current arrangement. I decided against it because I’d loose contact with my host and landlord. She’s been a great guide to Costa Rican culture. Plus it’s nice to be included in family activities and her parents are so sweet. Did I mention her adorable pets? Yes, I’m paying more than the norm in Costa Rica, yet by my US standards the cost of this arrangement is less than half of what I’d pay in the Los Angeles area.
Now that I’ve been in Costa Rica for a while I have enough info to build myself guidelines. I will spend more than an average Tico who earns $6,000 – $10,000 per year, while still spending considerably less than I did living in LA. I will travel with Tico standards of staying at simple hotels, taking public transportation at under a $1, and eating at sodas for under $5/meal. But unlike Ticos, I will travel every weekend because I’m in an incredibly beautiful country living in it’s congested (and unscenic) megalopolis of a capital.
I base my budget on Elizabeth Warren’s Balanced Money Formula where 50% is for “Needs”/fixed expenses, 20% goes to savings and/or debt management, and 30% goes to “Wants”/variable expenses. Usually the spending recommendations are based on one’s income. I am currently not earning a living so for now this equation will be used to evaluate my outgoing cash flow. By tracking expenses I can clearly project that I have enough for the remainder of my trip without needing to dip into the loan I gave my mom.
Below is a snapshot of my expenses to date in Costa Rica along with my monthly projections.
Here is my monthly balance and the Month over Month changes.
It can be very easy and convenient to hide behind not having enough money instead of actively working to find a way forward. Mo had wanted to study abroad in college ten years ago, but understandably finishing school debt free was a bigger priority. Once out of school she was not able to live in pricey California and save for a move abroad. Things changed four years ago when an extended vacation and coming to terms with the financial outlook of her chosen profession made her reconsider moving abroad. Then in 2016 she left the states and has now lived abroad for two years.
August and September were incredibly hectic as I prepared to leave Long Beach for a two week vacation in Japan and a six month internship in Costa Rica. I was inspired to write the post below in the middle of my Japan visit because I felt so incredibly lucky to be in an island in Osaka, Japan.
Originally written October 3, 2017
At the end of August I was dreading resigning from my well paying job. The position I took on at the beginning of July was going very well; part of me felt sad to walk away from it. “What do you do?” is usually the question right after, “What’s your name?” Walking away from a job can definitely be a bit of a loss of identity. That in itself can stop many people from leaving an unsatisfying job. But to be frank for me the fear was losing the money. Leaving my job actually moved me closer to my true work identity of holistic financial planning.
I left my employer ten days shy of four years of continuous employment. Many of the managers I had worked with expressed sadness to see me go. I was surprised and moved when our CEO went out of his way to find out why I was leaving. Everyone was dumbfounded with my new direction. I was able to share the details on the nonprofit I will be volunteering for, but I had little to tell them when I was pressed on the details of what I’ll be doing once I arrive at Fundación Mujer.
My primary purpose will be to learn from the foundation and work on my remaining Certified Financial Planning courses. The worst case scenario is that I get to Costa Rica and the nonprofit’s mission does not align with anything I need to do as a financial planner. Best case scenario I get to learn about business plans, learn how to teach consumer empowerment, and spruce up my resume with a very ballsy enterprise. And of course, there are countless other outcomes.
Our next installment on the Hero’s Journey shows us how resilient we can all be. A close friend of mine has moved 16 times in her short 30 year life across three countries. As I prepare for my own journey abroad I feel dread at the upcoming changes and hope that I will be able to stick to my own values of frugality as Ai-Chan did. I also really admire her willingness to share with others and her kindness even when things were not going as well as she wished. This Hero’s journey will be a reverse one. I’ll start by bragging about her frugal super powers, the time her super powers couldn’t save her, and how all this moving may have affected her.
Ai-Chan and I met our first year of college as roommates. We hit it off really quickly and proceeded to continue to room together during our four years of undergrad in college. We often split groceries and did laundry together to keep costs low. We bonded over moving around a lot as kids and tubs of ice cream. Saving comes easy to Ai-Chan and she’s never been in consumer debt. In her own words she only has debt for the essentials: her car and student loans. Her student loans are on the ten year repayment plan so she’s due to be done with them very soon. It helps that her main hobby is free once you pay for basic utilities: Ai-Chan is a huge gamer and thinks nothing of spending an entire weekend at home.
Two weeks ago I finished the Certified Financial Planner introductory course to personal taxes and learned about a very attractive benefit of home ownership: Internal Revenue Code Section 121. Sec 121 allows the gain on the sale of a residential home to be excluded from income. The exclusion is up to $250,000 for a single person or up to $500,000 for a married couple filing jointly.
That’s a lot of money that can be excluded from taxes. However, there are some caveats if the residence was used as a rental since 2008. Yes, I know these concepts might bore some, but I was deeply intrigued. As a California native I’ve seen the housing market do amazing things. One day I may get to give someone the good news that they get $250k/$500k of income tax free. Or I may even get to benefit from it myself. The specific requirements to qualify for Sec 121 are below.
Best advice I ever got was an old friend of mine, a black friend, who said you have to go the way your blood beats. If you don’t live the only life you have, you won’t live some other life, you won’t live any life at all. That’s the only advice you can give anybody. And it’s not advice, it’s an observation.
It’s Actually Happening! Update on my Microfinance Volunteer Adventure
James Baldwin’s observation applies perfectly to the next chapter in my life. As I alluded to in my previous post on Microfinance ($2/day) and on the one announcing my career change (aligning your spending) I am making major changes in my life. Part of my inspiration for this definitely comes from Mo, a good friend who moved to Turkey to become an English teacher and who now lives in Japan. She has documented her travels over at Travels of Mo. The other part of my inspiration is listening to my inner curiosity more closely.
How I Found Costa Rica and Agreed to It
I’m planning on quitting my job and potentially being unemployed for a 12 month sabbatical. I lined up a microfinance institution (MFI) volunteer opportunity in Costa Rica through NGOAbroad and am scheduled to start in October, five months from now. When I first found this opportunity it felt too good to be true. Costa Rica is expat heaven, a tourist destination, and has a great medical system. For a moment I wondered whether I would actually have anything to contribute because the country is doing much better than others in South America. Continue reading “12 Month Sabbatical – Update on my Microfinance Adventure”
Joseph Campbell is a scholar who studied ancient myths and developed the idea of the monomyth – The Hero’s Journey. The three part act of the monomyth is a way to understand how we all can change or improve what’s not working. This arc has been used in many settings, from Harry Potter to Star Wars. It was further publicized by Hollywood screenwriter Christopher Vogler; below is his well-known adaptation. Interestingly, the Hero’s Journey is also a recurrent theme in 12 step recovery shares: What it was like, What Happened, and What It’s Like Now.
Every one of us has many iterations of this journey in our own life. Sometimes it has to do with a transformation on how we handle addiction (12 Steps), a difficult outside circumstance (Star Wars), or big money changes. In this series of blog posts I will be detailing out the experience of people who now have a flourishing relationship with money. I will treat the main three acts as follows:
Recognition of a problem
Confrontation of said problem
Resolution of problem and triumphant return of hero
I would love to hear your stories for this! If you are interested in sharing your financial hero’s journey please leave a comment below.
To find out about my own Financial Hero’s Journey check out the following posts:
According to Portfolios of the Poor written by a leading group of researchers, 40% of the world’s 7 billion people live on less than $2 a day. What makes matters worse is the irregularity of their income. If they knew they were going to earn $2 every day it would be possible to build a budget around it. But they don’t know. During harvest season they may have plenty to eat and even be able to save. At other times they may have to live on one meal a day and borrow to make ends meet. How can someone deal with those massive changes in income? To make things even more dire are expensive emergencies, such as an illness, a burial, or a whole host of other things. Continue reading “How Do You Live on $2 a Day? – How the World’s Poor Manage their Finances”