An Expatriate’s Experiences In The Philippines, by M.B.

I saw your blog’s recent article about expatriating to Panama, and thought I would throw in my own 2 cents worth regarding relocation to the Philippines.

There were a bunch of things that made me reach my breaking point and expatriate.  In the beginning when I purchased my home here on the tropical island, It was economic.

At first it was the crazy increases in home prices in the US.  I had the idea when I left the US in 2004 that I would work a couple years, come back to the desert southwest, and build a self sufficient home. Having spent many years living the American debt, paycheck, endless bills cycle, I had the strong desire to break it and get away from the endless treadmill.  I changed my mind when I saw property on a popular real estate broker site go from $10,000 for a bare piece of land without utilities go to $30,000 in two years.  In addition I had seen firsthand the economic explosion in Dubai, China and other places around Asia. 

At the time I was dating my future wife who is a Filipina.  She was open to moving anywhere I as going.  I studied Australia, Belize, Macau, and several other countries before deciding on the Philippines.  The Philippines has restrictions on foreign land ownership which meant that I was only able to purchase land with my wife’s name on the title.  Nothing ensures marital harmony more than knowing that in the event of a split, property will not be divided like the US.  In addition there is no divorce law in the Philippines. Buyer beware when looking for a wife here. I married well with a wife who is a dentist and has a nursing degree. She is from a good family.

I worked my job in the Middle East for several years after that.  I had a mortgage at a 10% interest rate.  Long term mortgages are a Western concept, so we put a very large amount down and a very short loan.  Along the way I lost my Middle Eastern job and ended up back in the US for awhile until I got hired back to the Middle east.  It was a wake up call that nothing lasts forever when it comes to jobs or income.  The only thing I can be reasonably assured is that a paid for home is mine and cant be taken away nor can I lose it to some bank just because I lose a job for a year or 2. When it comes to being self sufficient the Philippines beats the US hands down.  I can afford to be poor here.

When I was in the US, I got a satellite radio subscription and started listening to Glenn Beck. Listening to him I was fully aware of the coming 2008 crash a long time before it happened.  I thought it would be worse that it was, so I planned for WROL.

It did not happen.  I was planned for full on collapse like the “Crunch” and not for what has transpired these last few years.

I got another job back in the Middle East, which I knew would not be forever.  So I planned accordingly.  Over two years, I kept thinking, researching, and planning, One thing that kept coming back to me was “Value and Values, Producing real things with real value”. I paid off the mortgage, got rid of the new pickup truck, and bought all the tools needed to open up shop and work for myself.

Seeing as the Philippines is not really a place where a foreigner can just jump into a high paying job unless they are sent there by a call center company, or specialized trade; after moving there I had to create my own work based on my home location and situation.

We purchased our home in the Metro Manila area.  I had a eye for a gated community.  Close enough to the city to be able to do business, and far enough away to have a buffer from the pollution, squatters, and the like.  Being on the edge of a city of 13 million is probably breaking one of the Rawles retreat guidelines.  Although we do have ample garden space and open land around the neighborhood that could be tilled and planted in short order.  The neighborhood has a squad of live in guards toting 12 gauge shotguns patrolling the area along with high concrete block walls around the perimeter.  Water is thru a community well water service that has three water towers around the neighborhood in excess of 5,000 gallons each, along with backup commercial grade generators to run the wells for several weeks.  The last part was added in after the loss of electric in a typhoon a few years ago. We are sheltered from the worst of the typhoons by the mountain range to the east.  As such it is mostly the heavy rain we get.  The neighborhood drainage system is large enough to drive a semi truck thru and even when we got a couple feet rain over two days, it was less than a foot deep.

Firearms here for locals are harder to get than Texas and easier to get than Chicago.  Foreigners are not allowed to buy firearms, although high powered air rifles, bows, slingshots and the like are allowed.  It does not mean that one can not use the wife’s guns to defend the home or go to the range. Foreigners can also rent various arms at the local indoor ranges.  The trend here has been for more firearms freedom.  Filipinos view shooting as a recreational sport akin to golf.  As such the politicians/chamber of commerce types go shooting vs the golf course.

As for food, we mostly use the local market with a backup garden plan.  I have a partially completed aquaponics system and there are a few other homes in the neighborhood with fully operational aquaponics systems.  My only excuse for not finishing my system is time and funds. 

The growing season here is year round.  Some things one my be used to like apples or peaches will not be grown here mainly due to it not being cold enough to set fruit.  Potatoes, Taro, Eggplant, onion, peppers, corn, cabbage and the usual garden items here grow year round.  The Philippines is very well set up climatically for super intensive farming practices.  Vertical gardening, and aquaponics are much easier to succeed with than in the north.  

The local supermarkets are well stocked with most of the same brands you are used to in the West.  Most of the differences are the packaging is more for the tropical climate.  Instant coffee comes in Mylar bags, Milk is in multi-layer retort cartons that do not need refrigeration, vegetable oil comes in plastic bags, and the like.  Meat from the US is available but mostly canned Spam and some of the lesser known US brands.  The prices for US spam is a bit more than the Chinese stuff (of questionable quality) and cheaper than the European DAK brand canned meats or the Argentinean canned meats. 

Fresh beef here is a rarity and expensive.  I joke with other Americans that the best beef here is at Burger King or Outback Steakhouse.  (yes we have that here) Locally pork is about US 2.50 per kilo and chicken the same.  Yard bird chickens have no social stigma here, and feed stores abound. 

As a foreigner one can not own their farm (without a Filipino family member on the title), however they can rent.  It is buyer beware.  People will rent out land they do not own, or try shenanigans like taking the rent, waiting until you built out something and then try to kick you out.  A lawyer or at least a paralegal is necessary to protect yourself. Foreigners can own condos however.

The biggest issue here has been earning a living.  John Robb‘s writings on diversifying ones income streams, and building a resilient home have been immensely useful.  You really have to create your own work here.

As such, I do a lot of networking here.  From the local inventor groups, engineer types, prepper groups, art groups, all introduce me into different networks that I do my business and earn a living.  Basically I make things here for a living.  I have a well equipped shop along with a now large list of people to call on to collaborate on projects that may require skills that I do not have.  I am kind of a project manager in that respect.  It is also about the whole ‘tribe’ concept.  

A tribe is certainly not something one builds in just a year or two.  However slowly I am getting to know people whom I know have my back if a SHTF “without rule of law” (WROL) situation happens, and at the same time if a slow decline happens here, I still have a income and resilience.  That was my lesson from 2008.  Prepare for both.

There are prepper groups here in the Philippines.  They are mostly people concerned about natural disaster, peak oil, invasion, and the gadget hobbyist types.  Libertarian/freedom minded views are not a extremist thing here. Filipinos follow the NRA goings-on quite intently, for example.

Regarding the Philippines it is a mixed choice for emigration.  If you do not have family here or a local support network, You can make up for it by having a large cash reserve.  If you really wanted to look at this place, come here for a year.  Do not make any financial commitments before then.  Get yourself a small Suzuki mini truck or van for $3,500, a cell phone with GPS and explore for awhile.  Rent a small cheap $300-400 dollar condo as your base. 

Should you move here, do not bring your car.  I repeat do NOT bring your car, no matter what you read online.  As a matter of fact bring your clothes, mementos, and nothing else.  You can easily replace what you need here at the same cost as the US without wasting money on shipping costs/customs fees.  

If you have a trade, and need specialized tools, ship the bare minimum only after you check local costs. 

The economy here is really booming now, and has a long way to go upwards.  The number of cranes on the skyline is as many or more than I saw in Dubai in 2005.  Downside is there are restrictions on land ownership and business ownership for foreigners.  Not saying it is impossible, the large population of Koreans, Chinese and Indians show that it is possible to achieve.  If one has ancestral ties to the Philippines i.e. white grandparent resided here before WW2, there are avenues to citizenship which make doing business easier.

One overlooked opportunity here is the free trade zones in the former US bases. Basically they are tax free, areas where foreigners can operate businesses with a very tiny regulatory burden.  One that makes Singapore’s very liberal restrictions look dramatically Soviet by comparison.  The downside is the quality of labor available in these areas is not so high.  In those areas the good workers go abroad, or to Manila.  So one is left with challenges when it comes to finding high quality skilled people one is used to like in the West like welders or metal fabricators for example.

The Philippine legal system is based on US law.  It is US law as of July 4, 1946, and built on from there.  As such most contracts, titles and other forms are pretty much the same as the US.  One could even use US boilerplate legal forms here for many things. 

The transportation system in the Philippines is a mess.  There are a few good superhighways here.  On Luzon, it still is a adventure to get anywhere fast.  A 100 mile drive can take an entire day.  The secondary roads themselves are in good repair, but they are narrow and clogged with motorcycles, farm tractors and the like outside the cities and clogged with Jeepneys and trikes in the cities.  There is very little what one would consider safe driving or courteous driving by western standards.  People here drive the wrong way down the road whenever it strikes their fancy along with just plain carelessness.  It is not a Foreigner vs Local thing, they do it to each other as much as to anyone else. 
there is very very little drivers education here.

The Philippine electric system is fairly reliable but that depends on the area.  In my experience I saw many blackouts in 2004 and in 2013, I can only relate to a couple short blackouts this year, mostly due to moving power poles in my area for road widening.  Electricity is very expensive though–early double the rates of the US.  One soon learns to go without air conditioning, unless they enjoy a large bill.  Solar systems are increasingly available locally.  $300 USD will get you a 250 watt panel.  Solar cells are cheaper and it is more economical to build panels for yourself.  We have part of our home set up to go off grid in time of calamity with the flipping of a couple switches and two strong rooms in case of typhoon.

The local Internet service used to be quite bad in 2004.  Prepaid dial up was cheaper and more reliable than DSL. Now reliable 1mbs-6mbs service is common.  In the more upscale areas of metro Manila 100mbs fiber optic Internet is around $350 USD per month.

Regarding churches here.  They abound.  the Catholic Church has a huge influence on the local scene.  I have been at the DMV and seen mass being held in the middle of the drivers license waiting room,; altar, communion and all.  The LDS church has a large presence here, although they do not really practice the food storage aspect here.  No LDS canneries or Deseret Industries here.  Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, Jehovah witnesses, Salvation Army, are all active. 

If you are a Lions Club member they are quite active here as well, along with other fraternal organizations. 

Sports locally have a lot of community involvement. Probably more so than the US.  Basketball is the national pastime along with boxing.  Football and Baseball not so much.  Music and Movies are mostly American.  Kenny Rogers is a musical idol here.  You can see mostly the same movies locally as the US at about 1/4 the cost.

Local costs for things are different than the US.  Some has to do with the exchange rate.  Automobiles are at least double the US cost.  A 1999 F150 or Silverado will set you back about $12,000 USD.  A new 175cc motorcycle will set you back a cool 800 dollars.  Gasoline is over $5USD per gallon once you do the conversion. 

As a American you are tax exempt up to around $90,000 USD if you earn the money overseas and are out of the country for at least 330 out of 365 days.  You are also exempt from Obamacare (for now)  If you have a big nest egg, there is FACTA to deal with.  This is beyond the scope of that aspect of the article and can be better explained at one of the many expat sites like Sovereign Man or International Man.  Consult your tax professional/lawyer.

Daily wages for a semi skilled welder or carpenter is $12, but a lawyer will run you much more than the US.  Dental fillings are around $15. Surgical removal of a ingrown toenail is maybe $2-400 dollars depending on the clinic.  In my profession, I can charge about $100 an hour, but engineering and CAD work is 15-20 dollars a hour. You will not find any certified mechanics outside of the dealership and finding a US standard mechanic with the right tools outside of the dealership is non-existent.

The Philippine government is not very strong on the national level.  The Mayors hold sway more than the provincial governors. The organizational structure here is similar to the US but not the same.  The smallest level is the homeowners association if you are in a subdivision.  The homeowners associations do not have the same powers that the American ones have with fines, and fees.  Next is the Barangy (pronounced ba-run-guy) captain.  He is like the local alderman or township guy.  Next up is the Mayor, and city council.  Above that is the Provincial governor, Congressman Senator and President.  The Philippines government has congress(US house of representatives like) Senate, and Supreme Court.  The Army holds control of some areas usually in the parts where the last remaining Communists are holed up and the Moslem rebel areas. 

There are communists here.  From what I have been told they are Maoist types but get most of their support from the US.  They are recruited thru the universities (kinda like the US in that one) They number a couple thousand and are mostly bandits.  The Filipinos have no taste for communism but they have been influenced by radical American community organizer types who travel here and rabble rouse. 

Crime here is mostly the petty variety.  Not much of the blatant holdup robberies here anymore like there were in the 1990s.  The merchants employ shotgun-toting guards everywhere.  McDonalds has a smiling uniformed guard with a shotgun to open the door for you.  Sneak thievery is common, but that depends on where you live and whom you associate with.  Personally, we have only had one sneak thief in the house back in 2005 who stole some $2 kitchen knives and abandoned them in a vacant house next door. He was caught.

Police bribery is relatively low compared to Mexico for example.  It is not Tijuana.  The few times I have been solicited a bribe for a non-existent traffic violation is one of the old guard Marcos era cops. Most of those old guys are being replaced by younger generations that are not so much into bribery.  Political corruption here is rampant.  After seeing the US events I think that the US now has more corruption, Filipinos just don’t pretend its non-existence.

Meth addiction is common and Marijuana use happens.  I don’t keep that sort of company, so I don’t really see it in my daily life. I just don’t do business with people who have obvious meth mouth teeth. The penalties for drugs are very very high.  Alcoholism is common among the lower classes.  Gin is the drink of choice.  Drinking and driving is not really something enforced here.  Illegal but not enforced unless you have a accident. 

Car insurance is mandatory although many do not carry it, and there are few penalties for not having it.  One should carry a high policy in case one runs over one of the ever present tipsy pedestrians walking the roads at night.  It will save you a lot of headache.

English is the most common language although it is a second language.  There are regional languages, but if you are from down south, you use English when coming to Manila or muddle your way thru Tagalog.  If you are from Luzon and go to Mindanao to do business, you use English.

Schooling for children you either send them to the private schools that teach almost entirely in English or here on Luzon the public schools that teach in Tagalog.  Children graduate when they are 16 years old.  It is not uncommon to see a 16 year old engineering student at the university.

The hardest part here is deciding where you will live.  As an American you would do well to stay out of the areas with large American populations.  Angeles and Olongapo city are full of miscreants who have pretty much destroyed any goodwill you would find elsewhere due to bad habits. There are very few Americans here under the age of 40.

In short, if you are looking for your tropical island escape hole, you have two things to consider with the Philippines.  On one hand the government is too weak to implement USA style repression, and it is susceptible to Chinese invasion. On the other, It has good economic prospects if you are the entrepreneur type and don’t like snow.

It is not easy being a expat and doubly more so if you do not have a high paying job or pension.  There is no social safety net.  No food stamps, no one to help you if you are in the hospital with bills.  It is high wire trapeze without the safety net. As such you must be a prepper to survive life’s inevitable setbacks.