The Impossible Task of Tracking Expenses in SE Asia

We spent a week in Bangkok and are a week into our trip to Cambodia.  We’ve realized that is going to be really, really tough to track our expenses in this part of the world.

We like to put all of our spending on rewards credit cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred and Citi Prestige.  Not only do we get great benefits, but we can also track all of our spending in one place using one of the many account aggregators out there (like Mint).  The one we use is useful for performing analytics.  For example, we can see what our spending trends have been for particular categories.  This helps give us reinforcement if we are trying to reduce eating out, for example. One thing we do not do is track how we spend cash.  We just add a manual entry for the total amount we take out of the ATM, since it generally is a tiny fraction of our total spending.  


But here in SE Asia, almost no one takes credit cards. Our total spend for seven days in Bangkok was $867 (annualized this is equivalent to $45k), with $281 going to our AirBnb rental.  Almost all of the remaining $586 was untracked cash expenditures.  The one larger unexpected expense was shipping my defective HP laptop back to the US.  That cost $110, leaving a more reasonable expense of $476.  Nearly all of our non-housing expenses were in cash, except for a few meals at some more expensive restaurants that accepted credit cards.  Unless you note all expenses at the time you incur them, there is realistically no way to track cash expenses.

For us, the paradox of SE Asia is that even though things are less expensive, we actually spend a lot more than we think.  We are more willing to spend since things are so cheap, and those expenses just add up.  Good beer like Asahi and Angkor costs about a dollar and an hour-long massage costs about $10.  A main course costs about $5.  We were stuck in traffic in Bangkok for 90 minutes, but the taxi fare was still less than $10.  Put that together with our inability (or more fairly, unwillingness) to track cash expenses, and it’s easy to see how we are losing track of our burn rate here.

So far, I don’t feel like we’ve been recklessly spending money, but our expenses in Bangkok certainly came as a bit of a surprise.  We spent more in Bangkok than we did in Melbourne even though the AirBNB in the former was almost half as expensive as the latter!  We will probably have to moderate a little better going forward, or at least recalibrate our brains.  This week, I’ve already gotten two massages and played a pretty pricey round of golf in Siem Reap.  I’ve also been having a beer with dinner every night, which is probably not helping my waistline.

I’ll have a better sense of our expenses in Siem Reap over the past week after we check out of our hotel tomorrow.  Then we’ll know whether our spending meter is properly calibrated, or if we should cut back a bit more.


I just did the math and it turns out we spent $880 in Siem Reap over six days.  That includes $80 for the 3-day Angkor pass and $120 for a round of golf at a nearby championship golf course.  I guess if you exclude these, the spending is not that bad…

Also, I mistakenly suggested we spent less in Melbourne than in Bangkok.  That is not true, except when looking only at non-housing expenses.

14 thoughts on “The Impossible Task of Tracking Expenses in SE Asia

  1. An annualized spend of 45k is pretty reasonable considering your NW. It is only slightly higher than a 2% withdrawal rate. Under almost any scenario you are unlikely to run out of assets at that level of spend. Of course, your expenses may be higher travelling in other areas (e.g., Europe), but you could easily adjust spending to compensate for the higher costs.

  2. Welcoming to the developing world 🙂
    When I was in India, I used to first enter the expenses in my cell and then take out money from the wallet 🙂 I know it is inconvenient but that’s the only way to keep track of expenses!

  3. That’s the problem with cash – all of the simple tracking methods like credit cards, cloud accounting software or even just taking a photo of the receipt don’t really work, which is why I do my best to avoid using cash entirely. And when I used to use cash (long ago) I found that I burned through it like it was going out of fashion.

    Travelling in a foreign country doesn’t help either since you’ll be paying more for most things than you need to as you’ll outsource a lot of them. Instead of buying beer by the case like you might if you were at home, you buy beers one at a time and pay 3 x the price! The exchange rate also lulls you into a false sense of security, that was my experience in Thailand anyway.

  4. You are learning that you can easily spend at American levels no matter where you are in the world. In even the poorest countries in the world, people will be happy to charge tourists first-world prices to have luxuries or things that remind them of home. You and your wife seem to value luxury and comfort. In a hundred choices a day, from everything you eat to every time you take transportation, you choose something that’s more expensive than you could have chosen. For example, in your experience an entree is $5. I’ve been to Bangkok 3 times, and I would have said an entree was $1 – $1.50 (and sometimes only 50 cents), because I eat at cheaper places than you (and, by the way, I’ve never had food poisoning in Thailand).

    I’m not saying you need to spend less – you can afford the level you’re spending. But if you want to spend less, know that millions of travelers see the same countries you’re seeing on way less money. The backpacker circuit isn’t lying when you hear about people getting by on $10 or $20 per day in certain countries.

    When you don’t have to spend less, it’s easy to order more drinks or food than you normally would because it seems cheap, it’s easy to go to upscale restaurants because they are cheap by American standards, it’s easy to get lazy about transport and jump in a cab every time, etc, etc, etc. But, all those choices add up to a lot of money given how long you’re traveling.

    • You’re right that we could spend a lot more here than we spend back home. We have our spending habits ingrained by now. If you take our spending habits and pretend that is a filter X. When you run SF Bay Area goods and services through our spending filter X, you get our typical spending rate of $55k. We were just a little caught off guard by the output here in SE Asia. I guess the discrepancy is due to a disruption in our usual habits like eating at home instead of out all the time. So it was wrong to assume we could use that same filter out here or that it would provide predictable results. I tend to plan more on the macro level so I don’t dwell on the details.

      So it’s a matter of adapting or not. We’re still fairly new to extended travel so hope to figure it out soon. I’ve discussed some of these thoughts with my wife and both of us are trying to actively think about these ideas as we decide where and what to eat each day.

      Thanks for your thought provoking comments.

      • Actually,in response to your response above, my point was the OPPOSITE of “I guess the discrepancy is due to a disruption in our usual habits like eating at home instead of out all the time.” I think the discrepancy is due to you choosing luxury and comfort (that keep your reality at first world levels) dozens of times every day on your trip, along with spending way more than necessary in cheap countries because you can get luxury experiences for prices that seem modest by US standards. I (and lots of other backpackers) got through Thailand with spending a few dollars a day on food (more or less) NOT by eating at home (I didn’t have a home) but by eating cheaply and like locals. I ate street food at street stalls and “restaurants” that involved a few plastic stools on a curb. Or low-end backpacker-oriented restaurants. Or food from markets – food stalls, fruit vendors, etc. (And I never got sick.) If you eat every meal at high-end Thai restaurants and at places intended for 5-star hotel guests and wealthy Thais, you’re going to spend the same as you would living in the US.

  5. Hi, new reader to your blog. I’ve been looking at how early retirees invest their money, and saw that you follow a simple allocation of index stock/bonds. I’m very curious how you made a return of 10% in February 2016, a month in which S&P 500 was essentially flat.

    • Hi Joe,

      It’s a relic of how I first started tracking NW. The February number is actually taken as of March 15th. I started tracking on the 15th about 10 years ago due to credit card payment dates. Back then our NW was mostly based on counting paychecks so registered for prior month out of simplicity. Been wanting to update this to be for actual month end, but will create a gap so haven’t gotten around to it.

    • We were only in Bangkok. I really liked the energy and the food, but hated the traffic and sewage. We went to Phuket a few years ago, but didn’t really like it that much. Couldn’t make it to Chiangmai this time. Heard good things though.

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