Bali welcomed me with an earthquake an hour after I arrived; before I even had time to anger the volcano gods with my deviant lifestyle practices. There were a few more little quakes over the next month, then a big one that killed several hundred people on the neighboring island.
This is sad, but it would be even sadder if it stopped folks from visiting. Indonesia is still great, and it still needs your dollars. Having completed my fourth trip in as many years, I figure I’ve got enough spending data to do a decent breakdown on the delightfully low cost of living (and high quality of life) the island of Bali has to offer.
The idea is to give a sense of how much it costs to ‘live’ here, rather than visit as a tourist, so this breakdown doesn’t include sidetrips to the Gili Islands and Jakarta, which were for pleasure and business respectively. Bali is one of the main hubs for digital nomads and entrepreneurs in this part of the world, and where I’ve spent most of my time anyway.
The main tourist area, Kuta, is all nightclubs and dirty beaches and terrifying packs of loud, intoxicated Australian harpies. If you travel a little further up the coast, you’ll find the relative calm of Canggu; a hipster paradise with a relaxed family vibe, super friendly locals, and intimidatingly attractive surfer/fashionista types.
As with my Chiang Mai on the Cheap post, I’ve tracked every last rupiah during my time here, and crunched the numbers on my spending. What follows is a full cost-of-living breakdown including all the nitty-gritty stuff (like insurance and bank fees) which most reports seem to gloss over or ignore.
Bali on the Cheap: The Breakdown
Not too shabby! At the end of the article, we’ll look at a couple of strategies for how you could bring this number down even further, if you wanted to. First I’m going to lay out each category, and explain what I did to keep my spending low. This is not meant to be a prescriptive guide; just an illustration of what’s possible. All prices are in US dollars.
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Accommodation—Food—Transport—Alcohol—Internet—Coworking—Insurance—Recreation—Bank and Currency Fees—Visas
My usual strategy is to decide on the general area I want to live, then wander down the street and poke my head in to inquire at the various guesthouses. You can get a nice room for about 4 or 5 million a month ($270-$340), and there’s usually room to negotiate with longer stays. There are tons of places off Jalan Batu Belig or Jalan Pantai Berawa in this price range, which are a 15-20 minute walk/5-10 minute ride to the beach. As a general rule, the further inland you go, the cheaper the accommodation.
Another option is to share a house, using expat Facebook groups to find available rooms. I prefer to stay at the guesthouses, which are owned by Balinese families who are invariably lovely, and will usually sort you out with airport transfers, bike hire, and sometimes basic food and drink.
The numbers in my breakdown reflect the fact that I was staying with a friend some of the time. If you’re one half of a couple or willing to take a room in a dorm, you can bring your monthly accommodation costs down to ~2 million rupiah ($135).
The best value food is at the local warungs, which have dozens of pre-prepared dishes, buffet style. They give you a docket for each dish, or just eyeball the price, which usually ends up around 20,000 to 30,000 rupiah (a couple of bucks).
Western-style warungs offer à la carte dining, which is still ridiculously cheap. Most mornings I had an omelette with toast, potatoes, salad, juice, and coffee (30,000rp/$2), and often picked up a wood-fired pizza for dinner (50,000rp/$3.50). Meals are usually around the 50,000rp mark, but obviously you can pay much more at swankier places.
For fresh produce, the local open-air markets are the way to go. I bought spinach for the equivalent of 15c a bundle, and mangoes for less than $2 a kilo. Groceries are kind of expensive, and there aren’t many proper supermarkets, so I personally didn’t bother cooking more than a handful of times.
Most people staying here rent a moped, which costs about 1 million ($70) per month. Traffic is horrendous and chaotic, so I strategically chose my home base so I could walk most of the time instead. When I wanted to get somewhere further afield or make a trip, I hired a bike as and when it was needed.
Uber was banned at one point, and then taken over by the local equivalent, Grab. It’s cheap as chips, but it doesn’t work anywhere near as smoothly as it does in Malaysia or Thailand – drivers will try to haggle, or make you pay a fixed price, and often won’t pick you up in places like Canggu, because the local taxi cartel, uh, strongly discourage the drivers.
Gojeks (motorbike taxis) are a locally acceptable alternative, and Bluebird cabs will usually turn the meter on if you insist (watch out for the fake ones though). Always carry the right change to pay the fare, because taxi drivers mysteriously never seem to have any.
It’s a pain in the ass trying to leave the airport without getting ripped a new one, but you can go upstairs to Arrivals and try to quickly jump in a Bluebird dropping someone off. On my last visit I just bit the bullet and got a driver from my guesthouse to run me back and forth.
I am not really a nightlife guy, but I rate Pretty Poison—a skate bowl amongst the rice paddies—and my love for free stuff meant Deus ex Machina certainly left its mark on me. There’s not that much difference between drinking in bars and buying from the supermarket, where a beer will cost you about $1-$2 anyway.
While in previous years your choices were ‘Bintang’ or ‘Bintang’, there now seems to be a broader range available, and even a few craft beers. Wine remains tragically overpriced. There’s also an actual duty free shop that just opened at the airport (the old one is fake and charges taxes), so you can buy some cheap spirits on your way in.
Watch out for arrak, which is the local homebrew. Bad batches kill or maim people quite often, which is probably not that surprising for something made in a bamboo still and sold in plastic bags. If you come across cocktails prices that seem too cheap to be true, they are. Have a close look at the bottles behind the bar, and you’ll see the labels are peeling off and they’ve been refilled several times.
Cigarettes are cheap; especially kretek, the sickly sweet clove smokes favored by locals, which I accidentally bought instead of menthols a couple of times. Personally, I wouldn’t mess around with anything harder, unless you fancy a long stay in Hotel K.
I have nothing to offer here because I’ve only stayed in serviced guesthouses with cleaning, electricity, and water all included (the line item on the cost breakdown is for bottled water; you can’t drink the tap water and one of my guesthouses didn’t have a cooler).
I didn’t bother getting a SIM card because it’s a minor pain in the ass having to register with your passport, there’s WiFi everywhere, and I quite like being unplugged, hence nothing on the cost breakdown. You can get a SIM with several gigabytes of data for less than $10. It’s easiest to do at the airport, but will cost about three times more than doing it at a shop in town.
Dojo is the best coworking space, but I deliberately didn’t go there because a) it’s more social and I was trying to get shit done and b) it’s pretty expensive, at 2,950,000rp ($200) a month for full access.
I signed up to Matra instead, which is basically a coffee shop/cafe on the top floor of a co-living space. It’s a million rupiah a month (~$70) if you’re not living onsite, although you can just use it as a regular coffee shop, which is what I should have done, since I ended up buying something almost every time anyway.
There are at least two other coworking spaces which I haven’t checked out, but are meant to be good. Obviously if you’re some kind of superhuman disciplined freak, you could always just work at home for free.
It never fails to blow my mind how many people don’t have insurance. I don’t care about minor things like missing flights or theft, which I can cover myself, but if I get wiped out in an accident, I don’t want to be stuck with the bill for the ICU and medical evacuation.
I use Atlas, which offers basic cover for a dollar a day, if you crank up the co-pay and ditch any non-essential add-ons. There is a company called World Nomads which is the default recommendation, possibly because they pay juicy affiliate commissions to all the bloggers recommending them. I was going to sign up with them originally, until I found out that you won’t be covered if you have a motorbike crash without the relevant licence in your home country. Always check carefully for these sort of exclusions.
Sport and recreation
Massages are even cheaper than in Thailand, starting from a ridiculous 80,000rp an hour ($5.50). There are lots of posh spas where you can get more expensive primping and preening done, which is not my cup of tea, although I did try out contrast therapy with ice baths/sauna for the first time, which was exactly as fun as it sounds.
All the beaches have kiosks where you can rent surfboards, for 50,000rp an hour. The learners are out in force at all hours of the day; being only mildly less clumsy than them, I rented foam boards so I could run them over if need be.
For exercise, I was spoiled for choice on this most recent visit. The guesthouse had some bars for calisthenics, the coworking space had a little gym where we hung some rings, and then my friend showed me this amazing set-up on the beach, called ‘Barstarzz Bali’. I think this might be the coolest gym I’ve ever trained at. All the equipment is hand-made out of lumps of concrete and pipes, the views are to die for, and all for a very tasty admission price of 20,000 rupiah, or one coconut (not that anyone was actually enforcing it).
Bank and Currency Exchange Fees
There’s no way to avoid getting shafted, but I limited the damage by using my credit card at a few stores that accepted it, and paid for some of my accommodation with PayPal. It’s a cash economy, so make sure you withdraw the maximum amount from ATMs with the highest limits (300,000 rupees), or take cash with you and exchange it with a money changer.
Visas and Other Paperwork
I’ve never visited for longer than one month at a time, which is why there’s nothing in this category (except a couple of traffic
bribes ‘fines’). If you want to stay longer, you have to pay US$35 for a proper visa on arrival. That gives you the same 30 days you normally get for free, with the difference being it can be extended for another 30 days. The extension costs around $50 with the help of an agent, or half that if you handle the paperwork yourself and don’t mind making three separate trips to immigration.
The other option is to get a social visa from an embassy outside the country, which can be extended for a total of six months. You’ll need to get a letter of sponsorship from a local, or buy one from a friendly visa agent. It’s about $50 for the application, then something like $190 if you get all the extensions.
In short: Less than 30 days is free, more than 30 days averages out to about $40 a month.
Hardly worth mentioning. There are laundry shops everywhere, which are open around the clock and have a one-day turnaround time. You generally pay by the kilogram not by the item, which works out to a dollar or two for a full load.
Living on Less Than $800 a Month
All up, the monthly cost of living is less than US$800. Can we improve on this further? Looking at this handy pie chart, I can see a few ways to trim the fat:
- Boozing. If you don’t drink or smoke, you’ll get down closer to the $700 mark.
- Coworking. If you work from home, or you’re not working at all, you can lop off another million rupiahs, which would also get you close to $700.
- Accommodation. If you’re half of a couple, or willing to live in a dorm, you could basically cut this category in half, which gets you to $650.
With that being said, most people will probably stump up visa costs of ~$40, want to rent a bike, and buy mobile data, so I think US$800 is still a pretty good benchmark for Bali on a budget.
How cheap is too cheap? I’ll repeat the same disclaimer from the Chiang Mai post:
This city is already so cheap that by pushing the budget lifestyle to an extreme, you’d quickly run up against the law of diminishing returns. Go ahead by all means, but be mindful of crossing the line between frugality and being cheap. People get confused by this, even though it’s a clear distinction: Deny yourself all you want, and I’ll applaud your steely self-discipline. Save money at the expense of others, and you’re a low-down cheapskate. One guy living here bragged about taking his own rice to restaurants. Don’t be that guy.
Bali vs Chiang Mai
As I write this post, I’m back in Chiang Mai, which feels kind of like my second home now. On the whole, Bali is more expensive, has worse traffic and infrastructure, peskier visas, and the whole ‘smoldering active volcano’ situation. On the other hand, it also has friendlier locals, better food (to my tastes), and most importantly, beaches.
It’s so hard to choose between them… so I won’t. In fact, the timing works out well for switching between the two—you could head to Bali to escape the burning season in March, and then go back to Thailand in October to avoid the monsoon season in Indonesia.
Before I leave Asia, I’d like to try living in Vietnam, and maybe go back to Mumbai for a spell. After that, I’m eyeing up the Americas—Nicaragua, Medellín, and, for my biggest frugal living challenge yet… San Francisco. It would be fun to repeat this exercise if I stay long enough to build up some solid data, so I’ll be sure to let you know how I get on.