Becoming Cuenca

Cuenca Can Make It Possible

Jul 16, 2023

You have seen them:

“Steps to Take for Retirement”

“Strategies to Maximize Social Security”

“How Retirees Can Cope with Inflation”

“Six Ways to Make Extra Money in Retirement”

“Best Places to Retire”

Every day there seems to be another headline about retiring and what is needed to successfully reach the ages of 76 (Men) and 81 (Women). In almost every country in the world, women outlive men, and the United States is no exception.

And then, there is this recent headline:

According to the New York Fed, total U.S. household debt topped $17 trillion in the first quarter of 2023. A typical first quarter of the year sees credit card balances decline as people pay off what they insanely spent over the holidays. But, for the first time since the New York Fed started tracking this 20 years ago, that isn’t the case.

Data shows people aren’t cutting back. And they are probably using credit cards to finance their monthly budget due to the rising cost of what they need.

The report also found that delinquencies increased across all debt types. Delinquency is debt that is 90+ days past due. The Fed’s report showed that 4.57 percent of credit card debt became seriously delinquent, up from 3.04 percent in the same quarter a year ago.

This leads many of you who read this blog to this: Retired couples who receive Social Security benefits collect an average of $2,753 per month or $33,036 per year. That amount equates to $7.91 per hour! There’s no doubt this is not sufficient to maintain your lifestyle once you enter your golden years.

Western & Southern Financial Group and many other financial institutions say couples should aim to replace at least 70 to 90 percent of their pre-retirement income during retirement.

According to U.S. Census Bureau data, 50 percent of women and 47 percent of men between the ages of 55 and 66 have no retirement savings. Think about it… That is every other person with nothing in the “bank” for their retirement years.

That is why you see headlines like the one above from CNBC. A good number of American Baby Boomers will not stop working at 65 or even 70 years of age.

And that circles around to using credit cards to finance one’s monthly budget due to the rising cost of what they need.

But the door is open to another choice! I have said it before, and I will keep saying it: Look outside of the United States. Though this blog is about Cuenca, Ecuador, I encourage you to look elsewhere.

My original list included Portugal, Spain, France, Malaysia, Mexico, Panama, Colombia, and Ecuador. Only thorough research and numerous discussions with my wife, we narrowed it down to Medellín and Cuenca before Ecuador was the winner.

The reason I suggest looking outside of the U.S. are statistics like these:


– Consumer Prices Including Rent in New York, NY are 304.3 percent higher than in Cuenca.

– Consumer Prices Including Rent in San Francisco, CA are 288.5 percent higher than in Cuenca.

– Consumer Prices Including Rent in Seattle, WA are 242.6 percent higher than in Cuenca.

– Consumer Prices Including Rent in Boston, MA are 233.8 percent higher than in Cuenca.

– Consumer Prices Including Rent in Washington, DC are 215.7 percent higher than in Cuenca.

– Consumer Prices Including Rent in Los Angeles, CA are 212.6 percent higher than in Cuenca.


Granted, these are some of the most expensive cities in the U.S. to reside. It is why financial experts and media outlets tout living in more affordable American cities. Cities in colder regions are always mentioned as their weather is a major turn-off. The frigid temperatures are a big negative, especially for retirees.

That weather keeps prices down in those cities. Though most people are likely not interested in moving to those cities, here are some of the metropolitan areas that have been suggested to give you an idea of how much it costs to live there:


– Consumer Prices Including Rent in Oklahoma City, OK are 135.1 percent higher than in Cuenca.

– Consumer Prices Including Rent in Milwaukee, WI are 133.8 percent higher than in Cuenca.

– Consumer Prices Including Rent in Omaha, NE are 131.8 percent higher than in Cuenca.

– Consumer Prices Including Rent in Saint Louis, MO are 113.4 percent higher than in Cuenca.

– Consumer Prices Including Rent in Des Moines, IA are 89.4 percent higher than in Cuenca.

These figures come from Numbeo, the world’s largest cost of living database. Founded by Mladen Adamovic, a former software engineer at Google, Numbeo is also a crowd-sourced global database of quality-of-life data.

I thoroughly trust it and so does BBC News, Forbes, New York Times, The Economist, The Sydney Morning Herald, and The Washington Post.  You can have confidence in those numbers you just looked at.

Right now, I like to address this post to what expats in Cuenca call the “Economic Refugee.” It is a person fleeing poverty rather than political persecution or the results of a natural disaster.

The average cost of living in Cuenca is in the top-third of the least expensive cities in the world.  That is why the American cities cannot beat its affordability.

Numbeo says a couple needs about $2,300 to live comfortably in Cuenca. I moved from the Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina area. If Joanna and I had stayed there, we would need around $6,460 to maintain the same standard of life as we have here. This assumes you are renting in both cities.

Remember that average amount for Social Security for a couple? It is $2,753 per month.  That average American couple would have a surplus of $453 per month in Cuenca. In Raleigh-Durham, they would be in the hole $4,160 every month… which helps explain that credit card debt.

Another good source for data is Morning Consult. It “surveys thousands of people around the world every day, pairing that exclusive, forward-looking survey data with analytical applications.”

Their data shows Americans are trying to cut back. It shows that in April of this year, the average U.S. adult spent $255 on groceries, down from $267 in April 2023. That is impressive considering how expensive food has gotten in the U.S.

But that $12 per month is not going to make a difference, so let’s do some comparison-shopping between Raleigh-Durham and Cuenca. The North Carolina metro area’s cost of living index is 102.4. An index of 100 is the national average, meaning Raleigh-Durham is 2.4 percent higher than the U.S. median.

Regular eggs in North Carolina are now $4.33 per dozen. Numbeo claims it is $2.13 per dozen, but I am guessing that is at the grocery store. Joanna and I can get 30 eggs at Mercado 27 de Febrero for $3.75, meaning it is $1.50 for a dozen eggs.

Rice is a staple around the world. According to Numbeo, 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of rice in Raleigh-Durham is $4.33. Down here in Cuenca, a kilogram of rice is $1.26. That is 29 percent of what Tar Heels are shelling out for their rice.

Most people eat chicken, so let’s take a look at what Numbeo says. A kilogram of chicken fillets in Raleigh-Durham is $9.92, while it is only $5.84 in Cuenca. By the way, Cuencanos love rotisserie chicken, and those chickens on Ave. Don Bosco were ready to eat.

Most Americans love hamburgers. In Cuenca, that includes what my friend, Jose Ibañez, serves up at his restaurant, Calvo & Co. By the way, Jose says you can get your mouth around his giant gourmet hamburgers…

Numbeo shows that a one-kilogram beef round in Raleigh-Durham is $17.23. That same beef round will set you back $6.49 in Cuenca. It should be noted that the cuts of beef have different names down here and they are not aged like they are in the United States.

Growing up in Washington state, I became addicted to apples. They are refreshing, delicious, and good for you (It is considered a Superfood). Numbeo says a kilogram of apples is $4.88 in North Carolina. In Cuenca, residents are paying $1.75 for a kilogram of apples.

Did you know that more than 4,000 varieties of native potatoes grow in the Andean highlands of Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia? You read that correctly. We have more than Yukon Gold, Russet, and New Potatoes.

The potato was domesticated in the South American Andes about 8,000 years ago. It was brought to Europe in the mid-1500s, after the Spanish discovered it. Needless to say, potatoes are a staple of Ecuador.

Maybe that is why Numbeo says a kilogram of potatoes in Raleigh-Durham (most likely Russet) costs $2.62. Our potatoes, that are grown in the volcanic-rich soil, are $1.12 for a kilogram. Whenever Joanna and I go to the mercado to see our favorite lady, we always get a small bucket of potatoes from her.

Americans love coffee. Statistics show 79 percent of the U.S. drinks coffee. Every day, seven in 10 Americans drink coffee. Americans drink 146 billion cups of coffee every year. That comes out to nine pounds of coffee per every American. Amazingly, this only lands the U.S. at 25th on the list of worldwide annual coffee consumption.

When we lived in the U.S., Joanna and I used to get a lot of our whole bean coffee from Old City Coffee, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Going to their website, it is showing their Colombian coffee is fetching $21.95 per pound.

Meanwhile in Cuenca, I can get a kilogram of excellent coffee from Loja, Ecuador for just under $13. That means I am paying under six dollars for a pound of high-quality coffee. In other words, I can get over three pounds of coffee in Cuenca for that one pound in Philadelphia.

Rent is a huge part of one’s budget. It is difficult to get a handle on what the average price for a rental apartment is in Cuenca. That is because the real estate industry is not like what one is used to in the United States.

Normally, I trust Numbeo, but I think their real estate figures for Cuenca are somewhat low. They claim a one-bedroom apartment in historic El Centro is $404 per month. That may be for an unfurnished apartment, but most apartments in Cuenca are furnished.

I think $600 is closer to reality for a furnished apartment in El Centro. Meanwhile, an unfurnished place in downtown Raleigh is commanding $1,870 per month. It would certainly be a lot higher if the Raleigh apartment was move-in ready.

Most expats do not live in El Centro, so you can get more for the money by not living in the heart of Cuenca. The same thing holds true for living in the downtown areas of Raleigh-Durham.

Most of you reading this blog are not economic refugees, so purchasing a home in Cuenca is what you are looking at. A huge majority of expats live in apartments or departamentos (condos). That includes the popular Edificio Atlántida in the photo above.

Numbeo’s numbers for purchasing a departamento in Cuenca seem to be spot on. It says that you will pay about $122 per square foot for a departamento. This means a three-bedroom, 1,400 square foot departamento will command a price of about $171,000.

As you know, that depends on extras and amenities at the edificio (building). Because Edificio Atlántida (in the photo above) is popular and has more than other places, that same place I mentioned is $210,000 or $150 per square foot.

That is still not bad as downtown Raleigh is a whopping $744 per square foot and the surrounding areas are selling for $413 per square foot. So, that three-bedroom, 1,400 square foot condo in Raleigh would be $578,200.  You can get two departamentos at Edificio Atlántida at that price and still have money left over.

The bottom line is that living in Cuenca is a very affordable place for someone on a fixed income. Economic refugees can make it work here. And people with retirement savings certainly will have a comfortable and enjoyable life in Cuenca.


“Everything in the world began with a yes.” ~Clarice Lispector, Brazilian author and journalist

A lot more information on life in Cuenca can be found in my book, “Una Nueva Vida – A New Life.” Some say it is the most thorough book out there concerning moving to and living in this beautiful city.

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Salud, mi amigos.


Una Nueva Vida – A New Life

- by Stephen Vargha

There are over 80 professional-quality photos shot by me to give you a clear ‘picture’ about life in this historic mountain city.