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Living the Expat Life in Zanzibar - A Budget

Updated: Feb 11

An expat? Hemingway? Definitely neither!
An expat? Hemingway? Definitely neither!

Living in Zanzibar

We’re spending a year traveling and working, but we certainly don’t consider ourselves expats (maybe "digital nomads"). We have a home. Actually, we have three homes - with parents in Buffalo and Ukraine, and on our own in Virginia. So, it’s been an interesting experience meeting no-kidding, moving-overseas-for-good expats, people who’ve 100% embraced that lifestyle. And, nowhere was this path more apparent than Zanzibar, where we met all sorts of people living the expat life, people who've figured out how to live and make money while traveling overseas.

Absolutely fascinating, it’s worth spending a post outlining the financial aspects of this lifestyle - a true expat budget. While not sold on forsaking our lives in America, listening to someone describe this budget does help explain why doing the “overseas thing” for good can prove so compelling.

Interested in heading overseas? Check out our international travel checklist here!

Expat vs. Long-term Traveler - Just Mincing Words?

Enjoying a sail off the coast of Zanzibar
Enjoying a sail off the coast of Zanzibar

Back to our status… According to Merriam-Webster, an expat is simply one living in a foreign land. In this narrow definition, yes, we are [temporarily] expats. But, the phrase has a far larger connotation, a meaning beyond simply where one lives.

Maybe it’s just our own views on it, but the idea of the expat lifestyle has a far more negative connotation, a sense of renouncing your home. Sure, Hemingway et al in 1920s Paris romanticized the idea of heading overseas. But, at its core, the title expat comes from the verb expatriate, to banish or exile.

It’s hard to imagine - and a testament to US greatness - never returning home, either due to a forced or self-imposed banishment. Traveling for a year has been an incredible experience, one we hope to replicate in the future. We’ve met some awesome people, seen beautiful parts of the world, and definitely enjoyed the southern hemisphere summer while watching snow-filled weather reports from the States.

Despite all that, we’re just traveling for a long time. We’re not renouncing anything. This may seem like mincing words - and perhaps is just some convoluted rationalization for up and leaving for a year - but we are not expats.

This conviction has made meeting actual expats all the more intriguing.

Can I Retire to Zanzibar? Zanzibar Expats Personified

The appeal of sunset dinners - for pennies on the dollar!
The appeal of sunset dinners - for pennies on the dollar!

And, no one personified this lifestyle more so than an English guy we met at Highland Bungalows our first morning there. We’ll call him James.

I think we’ve all met this sort of person, the guy who - within about 30 seconds of meeting - has no qualms about sharing all of his life’s intimate details. Well, that was James. Fed up with COVID lockdowns in London, he quit his job as a real estate agent, took some cash from a solid cryptocurrency bet, and fled.

First, he stopped in the south of France, thinking he’d face fewer restrictions there. As France locked down, he continued on to the Greek isles, chasing a semblance of normalcy. Same story - lockdown followed shortly after arrival. Looking at the map - and hearing the Tanzanian president’s COVID skepticism (ironic, as he recently died from COVID-related complications) - James hopped on the first flight down to Zanzibar.

When we met, he’d already been living at Highland for a few months - a true Royal Tenenbaum. Throw in the highbrow - and mildly pretentious - London accent, and James was straight out of central casting for this role. Include the fact that he was now dating an Italian opera singer who’d opted for a similar expat lifestyle, and you’ve got the full package.

Chipp: “So, do you think you’ll ever head back to London?”

James: “Ha! And deal with the weather, daily grind, and London prices? Most certainly not!”

James had his plan, and - like it or not - it was hard not to respect the hard line he’d drawn.

Living in Zanzibar as an Expat - A Budget

With a few months under his belt, James had started tapping pretty well into the local Nungwi community. And, he had a plan to really make the jump from quasi- to full-on expat. A local he met had a little, one-bedroom cottage to rent. James decided to grab the opportunity, leaving the comforts of Highlands to rent his own home.

Take all of the following with a grain of salt, but we couldn’t help but marvel at the numbers he claimed for his upcoming expat budget. And, even if you inflate these claims with a BS premium, the rough monthly outline’s still incredible.

  • $214/mo - one-bedroom home, utilities included

  • $150/mo - 6pm to 6am night guard for the home

  • $100/mo - full-time cook

  • $100/mo - landscaping (absolutely necessary in this tropical climate)

  • $200/mo - food and beers

  • $764/mo - James’ total budget

This may not include everything someone would need. For instance, most people working remotely would need a VPN subscription, too. So, let’s make a conservative call and round this total up to $1,000/mo. In local salaries, that’s a ton of money. On the other hand, with income in USD, Pounds, or Euros you see quite clearly the appeal of this lifestyle. This is a guy in his mid-30s who could comfortably live the pole pole life, regardless of not being some tech gazillionaire.

Not a bad option.

Musings on the Future

An empty restaurant on the coast - an expat business opportunity!?
An empty restaurant on the coast - an expat business opportunity!?

Writing this now, it’s impossible not to see the appeal to this path. For all his oddities, James did it. He flipped his middle finger at the socially acceptable, corporate “cursus honorum” in London: have fun at university for a few years, hate your job for 40ish years, [maybe] retire, and finally start enjoying life - or die.

If nothing else, seeing James take carpe diem to the extreme puts things in perspective. To reiterate, no, we absolutely do not want to renounce life at home, be that our lives in Richmond or crashing with our folks. Having roots - and the friends and family that come with them - is just too important. Sure, plenty of expat communities overseas have tight-knit groups. But, there’s really no one like the family and friends who knew you as a young, dumb (modifier for Chipp more so than Jenna) kid.

But… that doesn’t mean we didn’t take some lessons from James’ headfirst dive into the expat life. Actually, hearing his story reinforced some of our initial justification for traveling for a year, namely, life’s too short to dread waking up every Monday through Friday.

Not a bad life - if only temporarily
Not a bad life - if only temporarily

Sure, we 100% believe everyone needs to spend some time really grinding. These periods arm you with critical skills and discipline, and, more importantly, beat into you why you should work so hard to not have to grind your entire life. So yeah, we’re not going full expat anytime soon. But, if nothing else, James’ story outlines A) the importance of prioritizing what really matters to you in life, and B) how minimizing your expenses can help you seize those priorities - even if you don’t plan on a $764/mo budget…

Okay, off the borderline preachy soapbox - thanks for bearing with us!


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Kevin Murphy
Kevin Murphy
Mar 21

Hi. Interesting information thank you. I have a question. In the example monthly costs, you included a cost for 6pm to 6am night guard for the home. is that because of safety concerns living there? I guess having a full-time cook and someone do you landscaping is a luxury? Thanks

Kevin Murphy
Kevin Murphy
Mar 21
Replying to

Sorry. Just realised this post was 2021.

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