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Expat Insider - The World Through Expat Eyes

More for the Money: Not Only in Vietnam

While Asian and Latin American destinations dominate the top 10, expats in economically weak countries continue to struggle with their finances.
  • #1 Vietnam is back at the top, followed by Kazakhstan (#2) and Bulgaria (#3).
  • Little change in the bottom 3: Greece (#64), Argentina (#63), and Italy (#62).
  • The biggest winners are all in Europe: Portugal, Estonia, and Finland.
  • Costa Rica, Malta, Cyprus, and South Africa have dropped considerably.


In the Expat Insider 2019 survey, 64 countries and territories have reached or exceeded the threshold of at least 75 respondents to rank in the Personal Finance Index. The index is based on two questions asking respondents to rate their financial situation and their disposable household income with regard to covering all living expenses. The answers on a rating scale of one to seven were averaged and form the basis of this index, with the financial situation carrying double the weight.

This article also references the Cost of Living Index, a ranking based on respondents’ satisfaction with the cost of living in their host country. The index is provided as additional information but does not factor into the overall country ranking to avoid overrepresenting financial aspects in the general results.

Consistent: Vietnam

Winner Vietnam has regained its first place from 2017 in the Personal Finance Index after having to give way to Colombia in 2018. While the Southeast Asian country has performed constantly well in this index — scoring a top 10 place every year — it reaches new heights in 2019: Vietnam places first for both underlying factors.

Vietnam is a very inexpensive country to live in.

Nearly all respondents (96%) agree that their disposable household income is enough or even more than enough to cover living expenses in Vietnam, and a third (33%) even say it is a lot more than what they need (vs. a global 77% and 11%, respectively). Considering how only Bulgaria beats Vietnam regarding an affordable cost of living, these results seem hardly surprising. In fact, just 2% of respondents in Vietnam say that they worried about costs prior to moving, compared to nearly a third of all respondents (32%). Or as one Australian respondent sums up: “It is a very inexpensive country to live in.”

Bouncing Back: Kazakhstan

Second-placed Kazakhstan lands among the top-ranking destinations, after placing 9th out of 68 destinations in 2018, and is in fact one of the biggest winners in the overall ranking. Close to three-quarters of respondents (74%) give their financial situation a favorable rating in 2019, ten percentage points more than the global average (64%) — 26% are even completely satisfied. This is good news for the comparatively large share of respondents who say that financial reasons were their main motivation for relocating to Kazakhstan (9% vs. 3% globally). Even more impressively, 91% agree that their disposable household income is enough or more than enough to cover daily expenses (vs. 77% globally). “I love the affordability of everything,” shares a US American respondent.

I love the affordability of everything in Kazakhstan.

Kazakhstan also does well in the separate Cost of Living Index, ranking 17th out of 64 destinations. This is a marked improvement compared to 2018: then, a quarter of respondents (25%) gave the cost of living in Kazakhstan a negative rating, a share that is down to 9% in 2019.

Affordable: Bulgaria

New to the survey in 2018, Bulgaria has been able to repeat its strong first performance regarding expats’ personal finance with a third place in the 2019 index. Not quite four in five respondents (79%) rate their financial situation favorably, and over a third (34%) couldn’t be any happier with this factor (vs. a global 64% and 19%, respectively). With a share of 12%, financial reasons are even the second-most cited motivation for moving to Bulgaria, four times the global average of 3%.  

Over nine in ten respondents (91%) are happy with the local cost of living, with a staggering 63% even giving it the best possible rating, compared to just 15% of all respondents. It seems hardly surprising then that an above-average 87% of expats in Bulgaria agree that their disposable household income is enough or even more than enough to cover daily costs (vs. 77% globally).

Further Trends in the Top 10

With the exception of Bulgaria in third place, Asian and Latin American countries dominate the top 10 of the Personal Finance Index: Mexico (4th) and Ecuador (5th) continue to delight expats even if they have each dropped one rank, while Panama (8th) has continued its upward trend since 2017 to finally make it into the top 10 in 2019. Colombia (10th), on the other hand, could not keep its 2018 top spot. Overall winner Taiwan (6th), Malaysia (7th), and India (9th) could all improve their results from 2018, though, with India gaining an impressive 17 ranks.

Consistency at the Bottom

There’s been less change at the other end of the list, with the bottom 3 countries remaining the same. Crisis-shaken Greece has been slow to recover and has placed last in the Personal Finance Index since the first Expat Insider survey in 2014, with 2019 being no exception: over a fifth of respondents (22%) even say that their disposable household income is not nearly enough to cover daily costs. Italy (62nd out of 64 in 2019) and Argentina (63rd) continue to be locations that perform badly both for their economy — the majority of expats in Italy (58%) and Argentina (85%) rates the respective local economy negatively — and for financial matters, though the two have swapped places in the bottom 3.

Out of the bottom 10 countries in the Personal Finance Index, seven already held such a position in 2018. South Africa (56th out of 64) and Norway (55th), on the other hand, have both reached a new low. South Africa is even one of the biggest losers in this index, following its 38th rank in 2018 — but more on that below.

Improving Finances in Europe  

Portugal does not only rank in the top 3 overall, but it is also the biggest winner in the Personal Finance Index: It has improved by 30 ranks, going from a 45th place out of 68 countries in 2018 to 15th out of 64 in 2019. Close to three in five respondents (57%) agree that their disposable household income is more than enough to cover everyday expenses — in 2018, less than half (47%) shared this opinion — and over four in five (83%) rate the cost of living favorably in 2019 (vs. 47% globally). Overall, 71% of expats are happy with their financial situation, compared to 62% in 2018.

The second-biggest winner, Estonia has risen an equally impressive 26 places to rank 25th out of 64 countries in the Personal Finance Index of 2019. Respondents are much more likely to rate their financial situation positively (73% vs. 63% in 2018) and to agree that their disposable household income is enough or even more than enough to cover daily costs (82% vs. 74% in 2018).

While expats in Finland still have to contend with high costs of living — the country ranks 48th in the respective index — they are much more satisfied with their personal finances. Following its 63rd place in 2018, the Nordic country manages to leave the bottom 10 of the Personal Finance Index behind to place 42nd in 2019. Expats are less likely to say that their disposable household is not enough to cover costs. In 2018, around a third (32%) expressed this opinion, while less than a quarter (24%) still say the same in 2019. However, nearly half (47%) admit the high costs were among their biggest worries before they even relocated to Finland.

Countries Losing Ground

The biggest loser, Costa Rica, has dropped more than 20 ranks in the Personal Finance Index, falling from 16th place out of 68 countries in 2018 to 37th out of 64 in 2019. Respondents are both less likely to regard their financial situation favorably (59% positive ratings vs. 78% in 2018) and to agree that their disposable household income is enough or more than enough to cover costs (75% vs. 83% in 2018). “I am not unhappy here, but finances are too tight,” shares one Canadian respondent. While this may be related to costs — 41% of respondents rate the cost of living negatively, compared to 29% in 2018 — Costa Rica is also one of the biggest losers overall in the survey.

I am not unhappy here in Costa Rica, but finances are too tight.

Mediterranean island states Malta and Cyprus have also plummeted in the results for this index, dropping 19 and 18 places, respectively. “I don’t like how high rents have gone! Mine has doubled,” reports one British respondent living in Malta. Over a quarter of respondents (26%) feel that their disposable household income is not enough to cover costs, and one in nine (11%) even considers it not nearly enough. Expats in Cyprus, too, are less satisfied with their financial situation than they were the year before (53% positive ratings in 2019 vs. 70% in 2018).

Like Cyprus, South Africa has lost 18 places in the 2019 Personal Finance Index, ranking 56th in 2019 and therefore featuring in the bottom 10. Despite fairly stable results in the Cost of Living Index — following a 24th place in 2018, South Africa ranks 26th in 2019 — over a third of respondents (34%) consider their available income to be insufficient to cover costs, an increase of eleven percentage points from 2018 (23%).

Further Reading