finance, Spain

How To Live in Spain On A Budget

Are you planning on living in Spain as a language assistant or digital nomad? You won’t find it too hard to make ends meet here. If you’re an extravagant spender, you might need to cut back a little but you can still be fashionable on a budget with Stradivarius, Mango, Primark and Zara.

Rewinding a bit, I came to Spain for the first time in 2005, doe-eyed and naive. I landed in Santander on a study abroad program with my school, UNC Wilmington, and a cohort of other NC universities. I was immediately enticed by all the amazing clothes and accessories, and we had arrived smack dab in the middle of REBAJAS. Sales. Everything was on sale! Pointy shoes were in style so I bought myself a beautiful pair of red pointy heels at Zara and a long wool coat and quite a few other things without thinking about money at all.

I had some of the program paid for with student loans and some by my family. Unfortunately, I hadn’t considered the costs of things like shopping and going out, both of which I ended up doing WAY too much. That daily café con leche y bocata de tortilla during coffee break, daily (!) napolitanas, multiple times per week going out with friends, and even bus fare from my house by the beach to downtown.

Carnaval in Santoña: just one of our many-times-a-week outings!

On top of that were those few trips I took that weren’t included in the original study abroad cost. When I look back now (as a money-aware budget-obsessed person), I wonder what on earth I was thinking spending Semana Santa in Barcelona, Sevilla, Granada, Nice and Monaco! Another weekend I jetted off to Ireland. I just sort of tagged along on trips my friends were taking. To be fair, Ryanair flights were very, very cheap in those days.

Just hanging out in Monaco, NBD. (Those jean skirts tho)

So I was leaking money left and right, overdrafting my checking account regularly, depending on my parents to top me up when I ran out. (Not a good strategy, I realize.) Overdoing it in every way made me constantly broke, and at least 10 pounds heavier. Was it incredibly fun? Sí. Did it lead to amazing memories that I’ll never forget? Sí, claro. But there’s clearly a better way to do things.

Thankfully I didn’t heed my internal voice to come back to Spain until I’d matured a bit and spent several years in the working world learning how to manage my finances. In fact, within just 2 years of my study abroad money pit, I learned how to actually budget. I also spent those 2 years in AmeriCorps, where I had to make a tiny paycheck stretch to the max in the Bay Area.

You may, like me, decide to come here as an Auxiliar de Conversación or a part-time English teacher. Or you may be a digital nomad wanting to soak up the Spanish sun. So how can you live within your means in Spain? If you’re paid the 700 to 1000 euro auxiliar stipend, will it be enough? I can say that I was able to live quite comfortably on my stipend by taking on private tutoring lessons – there was more demand than supply in every city I lived in, so this was never hard to do! On top of that, being an auxiliar is a part time gig, so there’s plenty of time for tutoring. I charged 15 to 20 euros per class, which padded my income a bit and allowed me to travel more and do some shopping.

Let’s break down what your expenses might look like!

Housing

The good thing is that apartments in Spain are significantly cheaper than in the US. In the major cities, obviously they cost more, but you can live in a good area for a good price. Obviously it’ll be cheaper if you choose to live with roommates. I’ve never spent more than 350 euros a month for a room in a shared apartment. Even in Madrid, I paid 350 in a really good neighborhood, albeit in the tiniest bedroom I’ve ever had. Tradeoffs!

Living alone would cost at least 450 euros a month in most major cities (more in Madrid or Barcelona), and that’s for a small place like a studio. I was able to live for 600 euros a month in a really, really nice and newly remodeled one-bedroom in the nicest area of downtown Santander. At that point I had a “real” job! I also lived alone for a few months in a small village for 275 euros. Obviously the tradeoff was not having much to do. 😉

Keep in mind that when searching for a place on sites like Idealista, the landlords don’t always include the “comunidad” which is an extra fee paid by everyone in the building. It’s usually 20 euros a month or so.

Easily my favorite living room

Bills

Great, you’ve got a place to live and it’s affordable! Your bills will be internet, electricity, gas, and water, and depending on the building, trash. Again, compared to where you’re coming from, you may notice the bills are less. In my shared apartment right now I pay 10.33 for internet, so it’s around 34 euros a month in total. In the winter the bills obviously run higher, but usually no more than 40 or 50 euros a month in total. Maybe around 100 if you live alone.

Cell phone bills in Spain are ridiculously affordable thanks to an influx of low-cost providers like República Móvil, Simyo, and many others. Last month I paid just 5 euros for 3 GB and 150 minutes of calls because República Móvil gave all their customers a special 20GB bonus for free for around a month and a half. In general I pay 15 euros a month for 14GB and unlimited calls. Here you don’t have to be tethered to any company to use the phone you want. If you’re an iPhone user who’s tied to a specific US company, yeah, you’ll want to research that a bit. Many people jailbreak their phones but I switched from iPhone to Android before moving and saved myself a bunch of stress. I’m on my 5th phone now, I think, and buying a phone is also affordable. I’ve never spent more than 250 euros on any phone and I try to buy them secondhand at CeX when possible. I also use Google Voice, porting my phone number for a one-time $20 fee, and have been making calls and texts to the US for free for the last 7 years.

Food

The grocery stores and markets in Spain are also reasonable. You can get really fresh and good quality food just about anywhere for a good price. I’ve never worried about my grocery budget here and I rarely go over 150 euros a month (shopping for myself). That includes household goods like toilet paper. You can eat really well at restaurants, the hole-in-the-wall but delicious ones costing 10 to 15 euros for a 3-course meal, and other nicer ones costing 15 to 20. You can splurge on things like sushi or Thai which are more expensive here, but even the fancy Indian restaurant I frequented in Madrid was around 15 euros for a 3-course lunch. Having breakfast in a café is insanely cheap, you’ll rarely pay more than 3 euros for a coffee/tea and a breakfast item like toast, a croissant, or tortilla de patata.

Going Out

So we’re in the middle of a pandemic and this is not really an issue. But a night out is not going to set you back too much. Cubatas cost 5 to 10 euros at most normal places, a glass of wine or beer is 2 euros or less, and a bottle of beer might cost 3 euros later in the evening. Tapas are free in cities like León and plenty of others in the south and in some parts of Galicia. You can socialize for a very reasonable cost.

Hobbies and Personal Care

Want to join a sports team, a gym, or take up painting or yoga? In every city and town you’ll find something, whether it’s the Escuela Municipal de Música, an art studio, the municipal gym, or any number of other organizations. All of these activities are reasonably priced. During different years in various cities, I paid 35-40 euros a month on gym memberships, 50 to 60 euros a month for private art or music classes, 25 euros a month to be part of a Brazilian drumming group (batucada), and less than 150 euros for a whole term to take French classes at the city’s language school. In Ferrol, espacio vivo charged just 65 euros a month for me to take belly dance AND two days of yoga per week. Many centers are partially subsidized by the government so they can keep classes affordable.

Getting your hair cut or getting a massage may cost between 25 and 50 euros. Medicines are also very cheap, your basic painkiller costing around 1 or 2 euros and even antibiotics are cheap. Cough syrup is on the higher end, costing nearly 10 euros.

Transport and Travel

Public transportation is the best way to get around in Spain. Eventually you may feel you need a car if you’re planning to stay a while or live in a rural area, but the cities have efficient and cheap buses and trains, and some have subways. A monthly pass in Madrid covering all the forms of transit costs 55 euros. In most cities, a one-way single ticket costs less than 2 euros, and if you get a card that you can top up, sometimes you’ll pay less than 1 euro.

I’d love to write about travel, but as that’s a bit of a distant memory right now, I’ll hold off until it’s more clear what prices will look like in the future. I feel fortunate to have been able to fly on Ryanair and Vueling to a multitude of places the last few years: Paris, Italy, Canary Islands, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. Thanks to public transportation and BlaBlaCar I’ve been able to visit various parts of Andalucía as well as Aragón, Asturias and Cantabria. I’ve got a much more realistic picture of 1) how much travel actually costs, and 2) how calm and slow a traveler I am, and that has led me to be much more thoughtful about the places I visit.

In Summary

These are the basics, and everyone’s situation is different! But I’ve been able to make ends meet on a 700 euro a month auxiliar stipend, supplemented with that extra tutoring income, and on a full-time salary. I’m also a pretty frugal person so even if I get a little carried away with the end-of-season sales, I always reset my expectations and spend less in the following months.

Here’s an actual sample monthly budget for Spain that I made in 2014:

Rent € 300
Bills (Electric etc) € 40
Transportation € 50
Groceries € 150
Out – food/drinks € 70
Phone € 15
Personal Care € 20
Shopping € 100
Gifts, Misc € 0
Gym € 35
Travel Savings € 75

Total: €855 – and that’s including a big shopping month. I guess it was during the rebajas? But if you subtract those 75 euro travel savings and 100 euro shopping, the stipend would have covered my basic needs with no problem.

My budget looks a little different these days thanks to my subscription to You Need A Budget (also where I currently work – yay!). Same idea, better control of what I actually spend!