Budgeting a Fulbright

Ok, maybe that’s a little dramatic. However, funds are definitely tight at the moment, and they will undoubtedly stay that way throughout the year. Even though my Fulbright is funded through stipends and Panama is notoriously known as the retirement haven for ex-pats looking to live on less money per month… I know me. I know rent will swallow up half of my grant money. I know I want to make the most of my experience; I know I want to travel and explore the country and others nearby. I also know I’m going to need to cash on reserve for once I’m back in the US of A. I think I know a lot of things. The truth is: I really don’t know. Hence why I need a budget.

In case anyone’s curious, here’s the current statistical look at the cost of living in Panama. According to a former South American Fulbright that I’ve been in contact with, Numbeo is one of the best sources for this kind of information – especially taxi prices.

That being said, as my journey progresses I will be making monthly reflections on how well I stuck to my budget, what things are cheaper/more expensive than I predicted, and perhaps I’ll even be making some edits along the way.

Proposed Budget

*note: grant awards are based on a number of factors, including the nature of the fulbright (research vs teaching), the duration of grant, and the cost of living in the host country.

Grant Award: $19,000 for 10 months

Goal: < $1,900/month
(so that I can actually save some cash)

  •  Rent  –  *ideally around $500/month

    issue: need furnished place that I can have for 10 months.

  • Utilities  –  $250/month
  • Food/supplies  –  $300/month
  • Phone/internet  –  $100/month
  • Funtimez  –  $150/month

Grand total: $1,300/month

We’ll see how easy it is to stick to that…. and what kind of surprise expenses come into play.


*Amendment 1: June 23, 2015

  • Rent & Utilities: $650/month

most utilities included in rent (wifi, water, cable (kind of… the previous owner hooked up the tv to more-or-less steal it from people nearby… seems kind of sketch, but I don’t ask questions) and I only pay the remaining balance of the electricity bill after $10. The first month it was $10 extra, the second it was $7 extra). The building also has a pool and a gym that I do take advantage of quite frequently.

  • Food: …..probably less than $300/month.

Except for June when we lost gas for 20+ days and I ended up eating out a lot at first. Then I realized it was eating away at my wallet and got back on the rice brigade once we acquired an elective stove. Will reference my receipts at a later date to report back accurate findings.

  • Phone: $15/month

pay as you go data plan – new as of this month. Before I bought a burner phone for $15 and added saldo (credit) as I needed it. Let me just say that $5 goes a long way. But (although it requires you have an unlocked phone) the $15 for data every 30 days is completely worth it. You really don’t use up 3G as quickly as you think you will.

  • Transportation: $10 – $72/month

Depending on how thrifty you can be and how good you are with your timing. Taking the bus is only $0.25 with free transfers (within 40 minutes). The Metro is $0.35 per way. Cabs can range from $1 – $3 usually within the city. Some weeks when I’m running a bit behind schedule I would take a cab to University ($3) and then take the bus back to the terminal ($0.25) and then the metro home ($0.35, no free transfer). If I did that every day of the week it would come out to $18/week; $72/month. If I got my act together and took the bus to and from work, it might add an extra hour or so onto my commute but would come out to $2.50 a week; $10/month. Tradeoffs. Little things can add up fast.

  • Funtimes: ~will vary by month~

in March and April I went out a lot, but May and June, not so much. To each his/her own. Just know that $4 cabs to casco viejo there and back can add up, and so can those $3 drinks. A whole hell of a lot cheaper than NYC, but that’s where it gets ya. You feel like you’ve hit the jackpot, go HAM, and then you’re out of money.


Obviously the cost of living will differ with the individual and his/her lifestyle, so here are some additional sources of opinion: Numbeo, Panama For Real, Live and Invest Over Seas, Expat’s Paradise, International Living, Panama for Beginniners.

The views and information presented in this blog are my own and do not represent the Fulbright Program or the US Department of State.


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