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Guatemala Budget Recap

Written by Jared on April 7, 2012

This article is part of our Budget and Money Report series.

Our per diem expenses cover food, lodging, gas and other supplies and travel costs for three people. We travel in a 1997 Toyota 4Runner, tent camp in paid facilities roughly 70% of our nights and eat less than 10% of our meals in restaurants. This budget does not reflect personal spending money, which is mostly used to buy souvenirs and booze. We don't track this money, but we do know we have not come close to spending our budgeted amount of $10 per person per day.

Hello faithful readers! It's time for the next installment of: How much money did those fools spend in which country?! This time we're in Guatemala, wrapping up a two month stay. Our time in Guatemala was extra special, we spent nearly seven weeks in the same place, living with a local family, taking Spanish classes in the mornings and volunteering in the afternoons.

You might think this would make it easier for me, in my infinite wisdom, to guestimate how much money our two months would cost. You'd be wrong...horribly, horribly wrong. We were over budget, by more than a little. Yeowch.

Budget Recap

Number of Days in Guatemala:  61
Average Exchange Rate (Quetzals per USD$): Q7.68
Budgeted Per Diem:  $88.63
Actual Per Diem:  $106.23
One-Time Expenses Budgeted:  $10.00
One-Time Expenses Spent:  $23.76
Total Spent:  $6,286.34
Total Budgeted:  $5,406.53
Guatemala Balance:  -879.81

As you can see, things went a bit off the rails. The three main culprits were our two weekend trips, one to Lago de Atitlan and one to Copan, Honduras, and the fact our language school ended up costing roughly $450 more than expected.

Our only one-time expenses were the border crossing fees for the car, which were a bit more than expected ($13.76 more to be exact), but that was a drop in the bucket compared to everything else.

Per Diem Breakdown

Language School:  $1,874.70 29.24%
Home Stay:  $1,602.66 25.00%
Eating Out:  $591.61 9.23%
Gas:  $493.25 7.69%
Groceries:  $436.36 6.81%
Lodging:  $370.84 5.78%
Vehicle Maintenance:  $356.02 5.55%
Supplies:  $259.80 4.05%
Transportation: $206.05 3.21%
Park Fees:  $140.92 2.20%
Coffee & Booze:  $110.88 1.73%
Entertainment:  $78.11 1.22%
Phone & Internet:  $78.05 1.22%
Laundry:  $50.83 0.79%
Tolls & Parking:  $25.39 0.40%
Vehicle Import:  $23.07 0.36%
Border Fees:  $13.35 0.21%

It's worth nothing that in our original budget our home stay and language school accounted for over 75% of our total budget. As you can see from these numbers it worked out to more like 55%. Meaning we failed to account for all of the extra expenses we would incur such as eating meals out, lodging and transportation. This is largely a result of our two weekend trips to Copan and Lago de Atitlan.

Vehicle maintenance was another big expense while we were in Guatemala. We had two blown rear axle seals, caused two months apart by driving the same stretch of road to Lanquin. The first fix was $250 and the second was just $75. Moral of the story: even in Guatemala, going to the dealership is expensive.

Home Stay & Language School

  Budget Actual Difference
Home Stay:  $1,960 $1,600 +$360
Language School:  $1,440 $1875 -$435

Our home stay cost $75 per person, per week. It included three meals a day, every day of the week except Sunday. These numbers show us being under budget by $360, but in reality I inflated the cost to account for the meals we'd have to cook on Sundays. Regardless, the home stay was certainly a steal of a deal. Not only because of the price, but because we got to live with a local family, improve our Spanish and learn more about Guatemalan culture.

We were told the language school would cost us $100 per week, per person. We only planned to attend 4 days/week, so I made the assumption we could get by with $80 per week, per person. I was wrong. It ended up costing the full amount, even though we skipped a day each week so we could work. That cost us nearly $450 and is a big reason we went so far over budget.

Food and Lodging

  Budget Actual Difference
Percent Time Camping:  50% 39% -11%
Average Camping Cost:  $15.00 $10.01 +$4.99
Average Hotel Cost:  $25.00 $27.34 -$2.34
Total Food Expenses:  N/A $1027.97 N/A

We spent a total of 13 days in Guatemala before and after our seven-week home stay. Also, during the seven weeks we spent living with our home stay family, we took two weekend trips, each lasting two nights. Of those 17 nights, 11 were spent in a hotel and 7 spent in a campground.

Food expenses are a bit of wash. There was no planned budget for most of this so it's impossible to make these numbers make sense. We ended up spending money on food during our home stay (when most meals were provided) and we spent two weeks traveling and eating out periodically.

We ate out 43 times, half of which were snacks during the morning break between our Spanish lessons. Of the 20 or so remaining meals, roughly half were meals in Antigua during our home stay, and the rest while we traveled to other destinations. It's safe to say that while we traveled by car we continued our pattern of cooking the majority of our meals ourselves in order to keep us on budget.


  Budget Actual Difference
Average MPG: 13 16.97 +3.97
Average Gas Price $USD/Gallon: $4.50 $4.92 +$0.42
Miles Driven: 1,500 1489 -11
Total Spent on Gas: $519.23 $494.06 -25.17

Our 4Runner's mileage continues to hold strong, even though we've encountered a few nasty roads. Road conditions in general are worse than Mexico, but they aren't terrible until you move off the pavement.

Gas prices were very high in Guatemala, a trend we expect to continue through the rest of Central America. My guess of the number of miles we would drive proved to be spot on, quite a feat considering we had no idea how much driving we'd be doing during our home stay in Antigua. We ended up taking a chicken bus to and from the city for our language school, and our weekend trip to Copan, Honduras was done by tourist van.

A Tale of Two Budgets

I've touched on how we manage our money in other articles, but I think it deserves a bit more explanation in this case. There are three of us, two of whom are married, and then there's me, Señor Third Wheel. This makes things complicated when it comes to making sure everyone pays their fair share. Way more complicated than it needs to be for solitary or couple travelers.

To make a long story short, we actually have three bank accounts. One is a group account that we all share. Plus two other accounts, one for Jessica and Kobus and one for me that cover personal expenses like souvenirs, romantic dinners on the town and bottles of vodka drank alone in my room. Periodically we transfer money into the group account from our personal accounts to cover group expenses, that's the stuff I cover in these articles.

When things go crazy, like they did in Guatemala, we start spending more money out of our personal accounts on things like tours, booze and entertainment to keep the group numbers under control. It doesn't matter to us, if the group money runs out we transfer more from our personal funds, it all comes from the same place. However, it does matter to you because the money we spent from our personal accounts is in no way represented in the numbers in this article. If you've read this far, you'll probably agree that we're insane enough to keep details to this level.

Moral of the story: We knew we were going to be over budget, so we spent more money from our personal accounts which we do not keep track of. Don't be shocked at the fact we only spent $110 on coffee and booze over 2 months, I assure you that in reality that number was much higher.

Lessons Learned

  • If you are going to have big reoccurring expenses (like our home stay and language school) and you care about having enough money for the time you wish to spend, do your homework and figure out exact prices ahead of time.
  • Gas prices in Central America are very high (relative to Mexico and the US). The prices had gone up a lot since I did the research before we left. We got good advice from travelers ahead of us via the internet and that allowed us to adjust accordingly.
  • If you are signed up for an all-inclusive meal plan, don't forget that you're still going to spend money on food. Drinks, snacks and the occasional meal out will add up.
  • If you're driving, considering having an emergency fund for car repairs. We have $1500 budgeted. The $350 we spent on car repairs in Guatemala came out of this fund - I recommend it, not because it matters in terms of the money (it call comes from the same place anyway) but because knowing you have this reserve will help you keep a calm head during potentially stressful times.
  • If you are traveling with your car and plan to stay in the same general area for a while, but still want to take a few short side trips, consider taking round-trip public transport instead of driving. With crazy gas prices and the other stresses involved with driving it might work out to be more fun, and cheaper.


#2 bernard 2012-04-07 16:24
Wow, what a great report. It's spot on about staying put and taking public transportation, planning and setting budget goals and having an emergency fund. Thank you all so much. I actually use these reports as a guide. Keep em coming. Hope to meet up with you guys out there soon. Cheers! Bernard
#1 James 2012-04-07 14:59
Good info Senor 3rd wheel! Car repairs raped our Guate budget as well.

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