Manila Philippines- Maids, Drivers, and Michelin Star Dining for $1500 per month

Nomadic FIRE Retire In Manila Guide
  • Quick Facts
  • Cost of Living: High
  • Cost of living: low

Manila- Quick Facts and Cost of Living Details

Country

Philippines

Population

1,780,148

English Score

The only non native speaking country to rank in the top 5 for both numbers of English speakers and English proficiency.

Social Life Score

High ranks for nightlife, but crowded streets and pollution limit other activities.

Tasty Food Score

Health Care Score

Quality Of Life

Cost of Living

60% Cheaper than the US

For those in love with concrete jungles and city living, few cities in the world contain the nightlife, food, and luxury living available when you retire in Manila.

As a dual US Citizen born in the Philippines, I have day dreamed for years of what life would be like retiring in Manila. While as a returning Filipino, my reasons to retire in Manila differ slightly from the typical Westerner who fantasizes of retiring on a sunny beach in the Philippines. The reality of the differences are small. Some appeals are universal: warm sunny islands, tropical beaches, low cost of living, and a luxury lifestyle unaffordable to most Americans and Europeans.

Nomadic FIRE Philippines Batangas

Retiring in Manila means being just a few short hours away from the beach.

Who doesn’t want to spend retirement in year-round warmth with the backdrop of lush green rain forests or white sand beaches? Not only is the cost of living in Manila ~60% LESS than the US, the Philippine government actively encourages and helps retirees and expats get legal Retirement Visas. This encouragement to retire in Manila is stark difference from the recent actions Thailand is taking on Westerners visitors (see links in the bottom of the article).

There are some pitfalls you need to understand if you choose the Philippines capital as your retirement homebase. This article provides an in-depth guide to what it’s like to retire in Manila. We’ll cover topics like what kind of lifestyle you can afford if you Retire Early? What accommodation and housing is like? How does the food taste? What kind of access to healthcare is available? How safe is it living in the chaotic capital?

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While I enjoyed living in Manila, I have to give a balanced view of the pluses and minuses of life here.

1) Trying to live a US lifestyle here will be much more expensive than you expect.

Manila is not super cheap. I can list off several reasons why people want to retire in Manila. There is a thriving multicultural food scene here, including some affordable Michelin star restaurants. The nightlife here is some of the best in SE Asia, and if shopping is your past-time, I honestly have never been in a city with more of a mall culture than Manila. Local life revolves around some of the world’s biggest shopping malls.

Manila is also the economic engine of our country. This city is where you find the country’s cultural hub, intelligent go-getters, and the movers of the business and start-up scene. As such, it is the most expensive place to live in the Philippines. I was shocked that the rents in desirable upper-class neighborhoods were more than I was renting my condo out for in a Medium Cost of Living City (MCOL) in the US. If you don’t already have enough passive income or a decent Safe Withdrawal Rate (SWR) coming in, you are better off in other parts of the Philippines to help increase your retirement savings by keeping your expenses low.

Manila is not an economy version of Honolulu, and I don’t want to suggest it is. But if you already have passive income, pension, social security, or a SWR of at least $1,500 or more, you can live a very comfortable lifestyle here. Comfortable is also only a small step away from a luxury lifestyle here. If you have a monthly budget of $3,000, this guide will show you a Manila retirement lifestyle reserved for only the super-duper wealthy in the US.

If you review the Cost of Living examples above, you can see even on a budget retirement in Manila, you have access to luxuries such as maids service, personal drivers, and massages unavailable to you in the US. Once you understand the challenges of living in here, Manila- in all its chaos- offers a compelling and affordable luxury lifestyle for Early Retirees and FIRE Nomads.

2) Manila's size creates major challenges in day-to-day living.

Nomadic FIRE Philippines Manila 5

Electric and Chaotic, Manila is a metropolis that never sleeps

Manila is a massive city, even by SE Asian standards. 13 million people call Manila Metro area home, which ranks the metro as 13th largest in Asia by population. But if you look at the city exclusively, Manila ranks #1 in population density. This density in the heart of the city is what drives many of my biggest complaints about living here: Chaos, pollution and probably some of the worst traffic you’ll experience in your life.

Let me speak frankly about the negatives of living in Manila. While traveling Europe and chatting with people about life in the Philippines, the most common question is usually a concern about safety. If a Westerner knows anything about the Philippines outside of the beaches, it's that the President has sanctioned some crazy policies around drug use and drug users. But if you ask any of the expats or even locals living here the most common gripe isn’t about safety, our biggest concerns are the atrocious traffic and that local food sucks.

3) Manila transportation infrastructure is awful.

Nomadic FIRE Manila Traffic

Traffic in Manila can be described as Carmageddon. Photo: Richard A. Reyes

Technically, Manila checks off the boxes for transportation options of capital city: light metro, rapid transit, bus, and taxi. The reality is decades of corruption, and lack of investment has left Manila inadequate to accommodate the public transportation needs of a growing capital. Because of the insufficient public transportation, cars and motorbikes flood the streets and highways. Metro Manila exists in a state of perpetual heavy traffic congestion. When I first moved to Manila, I asked a long-time expat when rush hour was, his straight response was 6 AM – 8 PM. The plus side of this terrible mess is that most expats and upper-class locals don’t drive themselves. It’s widespread practice for families to have 1 or 2 drivers on staff. For roughly $400 per month, you have a car and driver all day to handle the chaotic traffic, while you lounge in the air-conditioned comfort of the backseat. For those without a driver, the cost of Grab (the Uber of Asia) is roughly $5 for most anywhere you need to go in the city.

4) The food situation in Manila is strange and widely criticized. 

Nomadic FIRE Philippines Manila Food

Filipino food is the original "Fusion Cuisine". A mix of Spanish, Chinese, Pacific Islander, and Western

As someone who is an unabashed foodie, even as a Filipino, I have to criticize the food scene here. If you’re used to eating three heaping portions of tender meats and tasty vegetables for $5 in Chiang Mai, the cost of eating equally well in Manila will be a shock. If you eat like you are in the US (Western restaurants or shopping mostly for imported ingredients), you will spend more in Manila than in the US. Splurging for imported ribeye steaks or eating at Western chain restaurants will be surprisingly costly. Eating can be inexpensive here, but it involves some lifestyle changes. Local chicken and pork are the inexpensive meats here. Eating locally grown and widely used Japanese eggplants and Asian green beans will be cheaper than finding kale, broccoli, or spinach. The food section of this guide will show you some hole-in-wall gold mines, where you can have some delicious Michelin star eats, for less than $8.

5) Addressing the Concerns about Safety, the War on Drugs and Terrorism 

As mentioned above, there is no way to talk about living in the Philippines and avoid the discussion of President Duterte’s “War on Drugs.” This president and his policies are as polarizing to Filipinos as Trump is to people in the US. For those unaware or only slightly informed, since President Rodrigo Duterte came to office on June 30, 2016, there have been several reports of police killing alleged drug users and drug dealers, without proper due process. The President encouraging these “tough on drugs” policies have resulted in deaths of locals without a proper trial. The Philippine Senate wanted to investigate the deaths and the police carrying out the orders, but President Duterte told legislators not to interfere, warning that they could be arrested or killed for trying to hamper his efforts to “improve” the country.

In addition, the US State Department has recommended that US Citizens "exercise increased caution in the Philippines due to crime, terrorism, and civil unrest." They have also warned against travel to the southernmost island, Mindanao due to terrorist activity.

The truth is for 99% of the people reading this article, these issues will never affect you. Many Filipinos would argue that the “War on Drugs” is really the “War on the Poor.” Expats, travelers, and tourist hot spots rarely see any issues. I haven’t met many expats who have been affected. The reality is most of us will be in trendy expat housing, with walls around the complex and guards in the lobby. Still, you will need to exercise caution in certain neighborhoods, as petty theft and pickpockets are heavy in certain areas, but I would give the same advice for Paris and Rome. Unlike many countries in South America (I’m looking at you Brazil and Colombia), I have never feared for my physical safety even walking in the poor neighborhoods of the Philippines. As a benchmark, Gallup did a Law and Order study asking 148,000 residents in 142 countries a series of questions on whether they have been attacked or if they feel unsafe walking alone at night. The Philippines scored 82 out of 100. The US scored 84. For these reasons, safety or lack of safety in the Philippines is overblown and a non-issue, in my honest opinion. 

Crime and Safety Rankings

Country Highest = 100Safety Score
Philippines82
Singapore (Woohoo! Highest Score!)97
Norway, Iceland, Finland (Too Cold to Commit Crime)93
Canada (Too polite)90
United Kingdom (Too drunk)86
United States (Too many guns)84
Australia (Not enough guns)82
Thailand80
Bulgaria77
Colombia64
Brazil63
Gallup 2018 Law and Order Report: Residents Personal Experience and Feeling of Safety
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While those are significant issues, Manila has several bright spots. Yes it’s a little crazy, and can be overwhelming but it’s an enjoyable and exciting place.

1) You can live well for $1500 a month or live LUXURIOUSLY for about $3000

Nomadic FIRE Philippines Manila

Let me clear up the major misconception again, just in case. The Philippines is super cheap. Manila is less so. There are some beautiful places we will be profiling (Cebu, Subic, Baguio, Bohol, and more) that will allow an AMAZING lifestyle complete with drivers, personal cooks, and live-in maids for close to $1000 per month, but Manila is not one of these places. Overall, my lifestyle in Manila is about 50% less than an equivalent lifestyle in a MCOL city in the US (think Portland, Denver, Austin in the US). That is cheap, but not the same as the savings I see living in Sofia, Bucharest, Medellin, or Chang Mai.

You *can* live cheap in Manila. The minimum wage in Manila is ~$160 per month. But to meet the expectations of a US lifestyle, the cost of living is more like $1,500. The folks who tend to rave about how amazingly cheap life is in Manila are usually older retired white men, who have a Filipina girlfriend, partner, wife. The not so secret thing about Manila is if you are white, male, have a US or EU passport, and make over $1000 a month, your dating prospects and life, in general, will be 100-fold better in Manila than home.

Nomadic FIRE Philippines Filipina 2

Filipina women are considered some of the most beautiful in the world. 4 Miss Universe winners have come from the Philippines.

If the trade-off of lifestyle for a girlfriend is why Manila appeals to you, I am not one to judge. You do you. But that isn’t the focus on this specific article (Maybe a future article if there is enough interest. Let me know in the comments below). For anyone who prefers more Western convenience and polish, expect to spend closer to $1,500.

It was a shock when I moved to Manila how freaking expensive somethings were. I expected to come back to Manila with my US retirement savings and live like a king. Using current exchange rates (1 USD = ~50 PHP), the median salary in Manila is roughly $1160 per month. This salary represents an middle-class lifestyle for a local. As a benchmark, local Finance managers and mid-level Front End Developers get paid roughly this amount. A Medical Doctor would get about three times (~$3500) that amount. My conservative Safe Withdrawal Rate (SWR) suggested that I should be able to live extravagantly. However, the high costs of several things in Manila surprised me:

  1. Housing- After paying $250 to $500 for beautiful villas in other places in SE Asia, seeing 1-bedroom apartment prices in the $1000 range was an eye-opener.
  2. Crossfit Gym Membership: $140 per month, more than I spend on gyms in the US.
  3. Gas: nearly double the price of the US. Folks in Europe will think this is normal.
  4. Utilities: the Philippines has the highest power rates of any county in the world- Power needed to run our air conditioning in the year-round tropical heat.

However, as mentioned above, you can retire comfortably here spending less than $1,500 a month (the “Low End” of our budget). The jump to “High End” living gets more expensive at around $3,000 per month. But the jump gains you a more active social life and a more extravagant Western lifestyle complete with your own driver and car, weekly massages, and maid service.

The average retired US Social Security benefit is $1,404 per month. For some people, what you get from Social Security will be enough to cover your costs of living. If you assume a 4% SWR, a $450,000 retirement savings would be enough to cover a middle-class retirement in the Philippines, with a lifestyle that would cost 100% more in the US. As an added perk: Household labor is very affordable, so even on the Low End of our estimates, it’s possible to have a full-time driver and someone to help with the cooking and cleaning of your apartment.

Live in help like these can cost as low as $60 per month (you provide for room, meals, and health insurance).

These estimates assume living in the best neighborhoods in the city. Homes here are newer construction with posh US-style interiors. Amenities in these apartments include movie rooms, party lounge areas, gyms, pools, security guards, and easy access to restaurants, bars, and active social life. These estimates also include several hundred dollars a month on luxuries that are very nice to have, but not necessary. A maid, a driver, and weekly massages can be cut to make a retirement work with a smaller budget.

Getting a flat in the more upscale developments can get expensive. A 721 ft2 apartment can cost $800 per month. 

2) The Philippines makes it easy to visit and to stay.

As someone who lives the frustrating experience of border runs, visa extensions, and bribing immigration and border guards, the fact the Philippines welcomes expats and even has a government agency dedicated to attracting foreign retirees, is not trivial. Contrast Thailand cracking down on extended tourists and people making multiple border runs, with the Philippines giving expats incentives to move here. As a resident, your retiree visa does not expire, you can leave and return without reapplying for residency, and you are allowed the tax-free import of your household items when you move (custom free for up to $7000, including electronics and computers).

Aside from a straight forward Residency and Visa process with minimal requirements, the Philippines retirement program even offers financial benefits. Retirees over 60 years old get a 20% discount and a Value-Added-Tax exemption (VAT is another name for Sales Tax for those of us from the US). My mother cheerfully pulls out her “Senior Card,” every time we eat out at a restaurant. She gets the discount, even when I am paying, so Win-Win.

3) Manila has Escape Plans to Hit the Beaches

Nomadic FIRE Philippines Palawan 2

Batangas- About 2 hours outside of Manila, Batangas offers one of the longest coasts in Luzon. The long shoreline makes this province a top destination for Manila urbanites looking to escape the city and chill on the beach, enjoy some snorkeling and diving, or dabble in some adventure sports. The beaches here are not the powdery white sugar you dream of when you think of the Philippines. Some of the beaches have decent sand; others are more pebbles and rocks. All have their charm. If you are looking to have someone bring you beers, while to lounge under an umbrella, while getting a massage, there is a place for you. If you want to escape to somewhere secluded, there are aqua blue waters and beaches you can find here with no one but you and the coconuts.

La Union- about a $10 bus ride away from Manila, La Union is perfect for an extended weekend trip. As someone who has lived in California multiple times in their life, visiting La Union was a trip back in time. Evoking a SE Asian bohemian surf vibe, I thoroughly enjoyed the chill surfer atmosphere and laidback attitude. Whether I spent the day enjoying a cold San Miguel beer on the beach, enjoying the sounds of waves on a hammock, or lazily lounging at a bar at night grooving to live music, things in La Union had a welcome “un-rushed” calm.

Nomadic FIRE Philippines La Union 2

Enjoying the laid back surfer charm of La Union

Palawan- now we are talking paradise. About $25 and less than 1.5 hours of flight time gets you to Palawan. Consistently voted the “Best Island in The World” by several travel magazines, this island most recently was voted the 2nd best in 2019 by Travel and Leisure (GTFO! Sri Lanka?). While you can enjoy some world-class diving, including dozens of WW II wrecks or navigate a UNESCO World Heritage site on the longest underground river, the jewels of Palawan are the beautiful islands you can hop to turquoise lagoon by turquoise lagoon. 

Nomadic FIRE Philippines Coron

Palawan- Enjoy island hopping on “Best Island in The World”

4) The people are Amazing. 

Am I bias in saying that Filipinos are the most welcoming locals in all of SE Asia? Probably not, because as a Filipino, I get nowhere near the love and adoration white Westerners get. I’m not jealous. It’s just a fact of life here. For FIRE Nomads, Expats, and people looking for Early Retirement, locals here are usually 1 of the top 3 reasons to live here. Visitors dub Thailand the Land of Smiles, but the Philippines slogan is “It’s More Fun in the Philippines.” Locals here treat expats with next-level respect and friendliness. Customer service in shops, restaurants, and resorts are at levels exceeding US standards.

People retiring to foreign countries find it significantly smoother adjusting to the Philippines than other Early Retirement destinations. Part of the smooth adjustment is because we were a European colony for almost 400 years, then a US territory for another 50-ish years. But also because building a social circle of friends helps in adapting and settling into expat life when you retire and that is easier to do in the Philippines.

Nomadic FIRE Philippines Manila Friends

Heading to Zambales to camp and play with some new friends

Especially when comparing the Philippines to Thailand, Cambodia, or other SE Asian countries, our high level of English makes everything in life easier. Making friends is easier. Dating is easier. Hell, even ordering food is easier. As someone who has lived in several countries where they don’t use the same alphabet, I know the struggle to read a menu is real. It’s soooooo much simpler to communicate here than in places like Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam, or even EU countries like Bulgaria.

What We Have Learned So Far About Manila

  • Manila retirement would cost less than $1500 per month
  • Manila is an easy transition city for living overseas
  • Manila more expensive than you think
  • Manila is much safer than people say

Excited yet? Which is more interesting to you city living or access to beaches? Do you need more information to make a decision? What would make you book a flight right now? Give us your feedback in the comments below.


But wait, there’s more. Check out PART 2 of our guide to Retiring Early In Manila and get answers to questions like:

  • Where is the best place to live?
  • Do I need a car if I move to Manila?
  • I hear housing in Manila is expensive. Can I find something for $400 per month?
  • What about luxury apartments? What do I get if I spend more than $1000 per month?
  • […] early retirement life in Manila, Philippines, gives me easy access to delicious and affordable international dining. But to satisfy my appetite […]

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