Living in Chile: Managing Your Money

Get insurance when you clear customs.

The cost is minimal, about $5 dollars and this will cover you for any medical attention you may need, just like having an HMO in the U.S. but in this case if you actually need medical attention you’ll get it.

Trust me I know, I had to have an emergency operation just a few months ago. I had to have my appendix removed, the insurance I got at the airport made things easier for me and kept the cost down.

It’s easy to find a place to live, with a little persistence, an apartment was secured with a rent of approximately $200 dollars monthly. It’s an older building but very clean and well maintained. The neighborhood is very upper middle class. If you’re looking for an apartment my advice is don’t go for the newer buildings. They build new housing developments here all the time and they’re always swanky, with a long waiting list to rent but the apartments are terribly small. Apartments in older buildings are much much larger and have more character. In fact my apartment is a two bedroom, one bathroom with a great view of snow capped mountains from my balcony.

In this country if you like your apartment you can actually buy it. In the U.S. apartments are strictly for renting and only condos can be purchased but this is not the case here. The average price of a new apartment is about $35,000us, depending on the area. The economy is very stable. The currency here is the Peso and it fluctuates daily but it averages about 680 to 1. So for every $1US dollar it is 680 Pesos.

So what are some average prices for things? Well a combo meal at Burger King averages about 2200 Pesos (about $3 dollars US). A soda from a vending machine is 300 Pesos, or less than 50 cents. On Fridays for the pizza combo at Pizza Hut, it comes to about 7500 Pesos (about $10 dollars), you get a large pizza and a one liter bottle of coke and bread sticks. Definitely a deal for a pizza lover. Off brand cigarettes if you happen to smoke will cost you about 200 Pesos. The most popular brand of cigarettes is not the American ones believe it or not.

If you don’t own a car, no problem the public transportation is absolutely the best. Buses run in all directions very frequently and all night. If you miss a bus to downtown, not to worry, your wait time for the next one will be about ten minutes max. They begin to run a bit slower after about 2am though. The fare: 330 Pesos, again, less than 50 cents. There is a subway system, and it is rivaled only by the English Tube. The trains are on time, speedy and very clean. You’ll find no graffiti on them. They’ll take you just about anywhere you want to go. I’ll tell you now, the buses and subways are always crowded. Expect close quarters on public transportation at all times.

I suggest going to the mall and getting a prepaid cell phone so you have some local number for contact purposes. My mall of choice for a cell phone is the Apumanque Mall. I got a cell phone there and it cost me a “whopping” $40 dollars. I had the phone operational and had a phone number in less than a half hour. The beauty of their cell phone system is that it’s based on the European system, meaning, you don’t have to pay for any received calls. In plain language, if someone calls you, it cost nothing to answer your phone, you pay only for outgoing calls. This is much better than the greed driven cell phone system of the U.S. where it costs you to make and receive a call. So basically I bought two phones, one to carry with me where I go and one that I leave at home which is strictly for home use. Sure I could go to the phone company and get a regular line but I am just a bit lazy. Besides, with the prepaid, my name is on nothing, thus keeping with my low key approach to things.My internet connection is a high speed DSL line, and it cost approximately $22 dollars U.S. a month. I can’t complain and installation was free along with the first three months.

Get a bank account. Unless you are paying cash for your place outright you will need a bank credit to get an apartment or a house, unless it is privately owned. Then it is a matter to be worked out with you and the owner. Your bank credit is based upon how much you have in the bank. If you open an account with say, $5000 dollars US, this will allow you the latitude to be able to get whatever you want because what you put in becomes your line of local credit. You don’t need $5000 in reality but that is a healthy amount to the bank and potential creditors.

The average cost of a house here is about $55,000 dollars US. For a few dollars a day you can also get a maid. There’s readily available land that can be purchased. It all depends on your tastes. If you wish to live in the mountains which are about 25 minutes from downtown Santiago, you can find a lot to build a house easily. The average price for an acre or lot is about $7000 give or take. The mountains are beautiful and the streams are the best for fishing.

Land by the ocean is a bit more, there are a few places I can recommend that are selling lots of land near the sea for about $6500. When buying land always ask about water and utility connections. If you want to have a small cottage or house built there are many options. In the mountains there’s a company that makes prefabricated real log homes that go for about $12,000US. They’re very nice and easy to warm in the winter. Regular prefabricated houses cost about $16,000US. Or if you happen to have some carpentry skills you can build a house for about $5000 here. I’ve begun the latter and I’m enjoying it immensely. Building materials here are cheap, it’s a builders’ paradise. In the U.S. a 2 X 4 at your local Home Depot will run you $3.29 per stud. Here the cost is a little over $1 dollar US.

Why is the wood so cheap here? The Chilean style of building does not use wood. Most houses are made out of mortar or cement. In fact, it’s an understood fact that poor people live in wood houses. You should’ve seen the look on my friends’ faces when I told them all houses in the US are built from wood. One of them remarked, “But I always thought the US was a rich country?” Personally, I prefer a wood house over a mortar and cement one, but this is just my preference.

The secret to “Bi-Continental Living” always lies in how much you’re paying for where you live. Why pay for a hotel when you can have a house or apartment? If you can own or rent a small place, this will save you thousands in the long run versus hotel costs and such. When you are not there, sublet and generate profits.

Tipping is also a necessary part of the culture. You must tip the parking lot attendant, the bag boy at the grocery store and for small services done. The standard amount is 100 Pesos for any small service. You can tip what you like but this is about the accepted average. In a restaurant though, your tip should be about 500 Pesos which is still less than a dollar but considered, by Chilean standards, a respectful amount.  If you are at home and have some food delivered then the appropriate amount is between 300-500 Pesos. It will not take you long to learn the correct amounts for the correct situations.

A quick word on food shopping; the biggest retailer is Jumbo. This is like the equivalent of Wal-Mart in the U.S. The next biggest chain is Unimarc. What I want to warn you about is the food items itself. No the food is not bad, but the packaging is small. In fact ALL the food packaging is small. You know that jumbo bag of Ruffles potato chips you’re used to getting and enjoying? It doesn’t exist in Chile. All food packaging is very small. Personally, I think this is a plot to keep you coming back to the supermarket to spend money, but again this is just my opinion. You have to get used to this. Many food items are seemingly for single use. For example, I bought a package of bacon, and later when I decided to make a BLT I found, when I was done cooking, there were only three slices left. Get used to everything being smaller, but on the bright side, food is very cheap.

Excerpted from “Life In Chile: Learning The Fine Details Of Survival” in Escape From America Magazine, Issue 46.

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