Why the heck would a Missionary need so much money to live in a poor country?

A picture is worth 1000 words and this one pretty much sums up the cost of living in El Salvador.  Exact same Hot Dog from Costco/Pricemart.  In US $1.50 with a 20oz soda and in El Salvador $2.49 and if you want the drink it will cost you $1.29 more.


I remember several years back speaking with a close pastor friend about a couple that was preparing to go the mission field. His church had just heard back from the sending agency the amount of money they would need to raise for their budget. He was aghast at the amount, remarking that it was almost equal to his salary.

I remember being struck by the two things this revealed. The first was that we American Christians expect missionaries to have a much lower standard of living than we would subject our pastors to. The second was that the majority of Americans do not realize how cheap things are in the US compared to the rest of the world. Most do not realize how much it would take to maintain their same standard of living, even in very poor countries.

Our work in El Salvador is primarily providing on- ground missionary care to long term missionaries.   We see firsthand the strain unrealistic budgets have on the missionary families, and their ministries. Because we are bi-vocational missionaries (We go back to the US several months a year to run a seasonal business.) we are in a unique position to speak about this issue. Most missionaries will not bring these things up, because they don’t want their supporters to feel like they are ungrateful. Since we don’t need to raise support for our living expenses it is easier for me to be more frank about this issue.

While I want to mostly focus on why it is so expensive to live on the mission field, I do want to take a brief look at the first thing I mentioned.

Why do we assume that missionary’s families should live at a much lower standard of living than we would ourselves be willing to live at?

Missionaries leave behind their support network of family and friends often moving into a dangerous environment where daily life is so much more difficult. A place where a car that breaks down is more than an inconvenience, and living in a nicer neighborhood is not about prestige but being able to sleep with less fear at night. Where power and water outages make being able to buy fast food a life saver, and where shopping at a decent store is more about not getting sick from parasites than convenience. In a foreign land missionary kids feel lost and alone struggling to communicate and spending most their time locked in their homes because of safety concerns. They miss dearly the freedoms they had in their former life. There is no walking to meet friends at a local park and very few free opportunities for recreation as most has to be done in areas with security and high walls. For a missionary couple, having the financial flexibility to allow their kids to participate in an extracurricular activity is critical to the family’s survival.   The above are just a few of the challenges missionaries face; there are many others (cannot flush toilet paper, no hot water, days spent in long lines trying to pay bills or get government documents, the list could go on and on.). So why when we send them out to face so many challenges do we also expect them to live at a level we would deem unacceptable in the US?

It seems ironic that the corporate world sees the necessity of paying people who move overseas to work a larger salary, while the church does the opposite. Corporations do not offer higher salaries overseas because they just want to be nice. They do it because they realize the extra hardships and costs their employees will face, and they want to make sure they have the resources to be successful. Does it really make sense to do the opposite for our missionary families?

A look at missionary marriages and finances https://elsalvadormissionaryfellowship.wordpress.com/2016/02/26/you-see-that-happy-missionary-family-smiling-out-of-the-postcard-on-your-fridge-their-marriage-is-probably-hanging-by-a-thread/


The myth of a cheap life overseas

“I heard that the average person in xyz country makes $300 a month so if we give you $1500 a month your family you should be able to live like kings.”


People have heard how low the salaries in xyz country are, or read articles about how it is so much cheaper to retire overseas, or know you can get an hour long massage for $5. Therefor,  you must be able to live on next to nothing. There are a number of reasons why a poor country that seems cheap when you visit can be so expensive to live. Since we serve in El Salvador I am going to use examples from here, but the same principles hold true regardless of the country your missionary is serving in.

The first thing you have to wrap your mind around is that the situation in the US is an anomaly. In the US things (food, clothes, electronics, building material, ECT) are cheap and labor is expensive. In most of the world it is the exact opposite, things are expensive and labor is cheap. That means in most poor countries luxuries like a massage that you indulge in on vacation are cheap, but day to day things you need are often more expensive.


Below I have outlines what I feel is the minimum budget for a missionary family of 4 in El Salvador to operate in a healthy way. As a reference point this budget would allow them to live at the same level as a family of 4 living in San Diego making $65,000 a year.

Costs for things like cars and furnishings are taking the average over a 5 year period. It also assumes that at this income level they will not owe any state or federal income taxes, but only social security and Medicare.

The budget comparison is a family of 4 in Escondido California (low cost suburb of San Diego) with a combined gross income of $65,004. It also assumes employer provided health insurance and matching 401k. Those who live in San Diego area know that $65,004 a year is far from living a life of luxury. You will notice that besides rent, for comparable items most things are more expensive in El Salvador.  I explain why these things are more expensive in more detail towards the end.

Monthly expenses-

Monthly amounts for items like furnishings and car are averaged over several years

                                                             San Salvador                              Escondido

Rent (1100 square foot apt)                   $800                                             $1300

Furnishings                                            $200                                             $100

Water                                                      $75                                                $37

Electric                                                   $200                                              $100

Internet                                                  $50                                                $30

2 cell phones                                          $160                                              $80

Total House and Utility                         $1485                                            $1647

Groceries                                                $770                                              $700

Eating Out                                              $100                                              $75

Household Items(Soap, shampoo, etc) $110                                               $100

Car expense (5 year old base model compact SUV) below are costs for 2 vehicles

Depreciation                                           $366                                             $250

Insurance                                                $150                                             $150

Gas                                                           $275                                            $250

Repairs and Maintenance                       $350                                            $250

Tuition and school fees 2 kids                $900                                           $50

Entertainment                                         $100                                            $100

Misc.                                                         $250                                           $250

Retirement contributions                        $400                                          $200

Emergency Savings                                  $200                                          $200

Total                                                          $5586                                        $4754

10% tithe                                                   $559                                          $432

Total Net monthly income needed          $6145                                         $4754

Medicare and Social Security owed         $940 (15.3%)                             $363 (7.65%)

Heath Ins not paid for by employer        $1000                                         $300

Total Monthly                                           $8085                                         $5417

Yearly                                                        $97,050                                      $65,004

Airfare and travel expense to US             $4000                                         $0

Visa and Lawyer Fees                               $500                                           $500

10% fee for sending Org overhead          $10155                                         $0

Total Needed                                            $111,705                                       $65,004

So a missionary in San Salvador needs to raise $111,705 to have a similar standard of living as a family of 4 living in San Diego making $65,000 a year. This does not even cover any funds to be used for ministry. Remember a big portion of this is for things most employers pay for and people don’t consider part of their salary (the employer’s share of SSI and Medicare, health insurance, matching 401k, airline tickets, and admin fees) and $10,000 is for school tuition that they would not have to pay in the US.

If you look at our sample budget there is not really any fat to cut. Unfortunately most missionaries we work with live on budgets much lower than the one I have outlined. Sometimes this is because they have struggled to raise funds, but often it is due to the living allowance allotted by their sending church. This means that all the stresses of living in a foreign land are compounded by finances. Unfortunately this often has dire impacts on marriages and families causing many to leave the mission field. Even from a purely financial perspective it is more expensive when we do not support our missionaries properly. When a missionary leaves the field after only a couple years because of financial stresses it means tens of thousands of dollars of wasted investment.

We would invite you to have an honest conversation with the missionaries you partner with. Are they operating on an adequate budget like the one we detailed? One that allows them to focus on the ministry task at hand? Or are they in a situation where more effort goes into keeping their head above water than pushing forward in the ministry.


Below is a further explanation of all the line items



Just as in the US, in El Salvador rents are all over the board. Most missionaries in El Salvador live in the capital city of San Salvador because that is where their ministries are based. Wanting to live in the nice part of town has an entirely different motivation when your host country has the highest murder rate in the world, and gangs control most of the city. A 3 bedroom cinder block apartment with security in a safe area of town can be found for about $800 a month. This would be a simple but clean 1100 square foot block construction with old window unit AC units in some of the bedrooms. We know missionaries paying from $400-$2000+ but around $800 would be the norm. A similar apartment in Escondido (inland San Diego) would probably rent for about $1300 a month. We are talking something livable, but nothing to get excited about.

This is a great blog dealing with living in the murder capital of the world https://robeckfamilyblog.wordpress.com/2016/03/09/do-not-fear/


Because of import taxes and less competition new furniture and appliances are about 30% more than they are in the US. Used furniture is at least double what you would pay in the US if you can even find something used.    Also due to the harsh environment and erratic power, appliances last about 1/3 as long as they would in the US. We are on our 3rd brand new washing machine in 8 years


While rent is cheaper in El Salvador utilities are more expensive.   The US has very cheap electricity because it has access to cheap coal and natural gas. Water is cheaper because US has more efficient infrastructure and cell phones are cheaper because it is a bigger market with more competition



Non drinkable piped water averages about $12 per 1000 gallons in San Salvador. In San Diego it is less than half at $5 per 1000 gallons and it is even drinkable. Most missionaries pay $50-$100 a month for piped water in San Salvador. This does not include the bottled water missionaries must buy not just for drinking, but also washing produce, cooking, and even brushing teeth.


Even though San Diego has some of the highest electricity rates in the US they are still about half the cost of El Salvador. The US has plenty of cheap coal and natural gas giving it some of the lowest electricity costs in the world.  At our house in El Salvador we pay about .30 per KWH. This is 3 to 4 times the average rate in the US. I remember being shocked when we got our first electric bill. Our house in El Salvador is only about 900 square feet and our electric bill was over $500 for one month. In San Diego we had a 2600 square foot house and our bill was usually around $200. Most missionaries spend between $100-$400 a month on electricity.


If you live in an area with fixed line internet it is a little higher than prices in the US. We have to rely on cellular internet which is $90 a month for enough data for emails and normal web use but no videos.

Cell Phones

Cell phone plans with about 300 minutes of call time and 3 gigs of data is about $80 per phone. No unlimited calling here. It is about 2x what you would pay in San Diego for a similar plan. It is a necessity for the family to have a minimum of 2 cell phones for safety.



We spend about 10% more on groceries here than we would in San Diego. If we tried to eat the same here as we did in San Diego it would be significantly higher than that. We just don’t really buy things like cereal or chips that often, because they are crazy expensive. They also don’t really ever have sales on things. In the US you can often find nice steaks on sale for $5.00 a pound where here those same steaks would be about $12.00 per pound. I love steak, but we wait until we go back to California to buy it. There is also not really any advantage to buying in bulk. If the package contains 10 times as much it is usually 10 times the price.

Eating Out

Fast food is more expensive here than in the US if you are trying to get a cheap meal. You can get a Whopper for about the same price as in the US, but there are almost no $1 budget menu options. Also if you want a drink you have to buy it. There are no free cups of water and if you buy a soda. no free refills. Mid-range restaurants are about the same as the US. High end restaurants are cheaper than the US.

If you are really on a budget in the US you can go in and feed a family of 4 for $10 off the dollar menu. You do not have that option here. Pricesmart which is the Costco of El Salvador is a prime example. At Costco you get a hot dog and soda for $1.50. At Pricesmart the exact same hot dog (they actually use Costco’s hot dogs) is $2.49 and it is another $1.29 for a soda. So a hot dog and soda at Costco is literally 2.5x as much in El Salvador. Things like saline solution, feminine products, laundry detergent are about 30% more expensive than in the US.


Vehicle expense

Because of high import and sales taxes and less competition in the car market, new and non-salvaged used vehicles are about 30% more expensive than in the US. This is further complicated by the fact that if you do ministry outside of the capital you need an SUV or truck due to the road conditions. Gas is about 10% more expensive. Having a decent car is much more critical in El Salvador than in the US. Breaking down in the US is a hassle, but breaking down in El Salvador can put you in serious danger. Also the driving here is very aggressive and you are much more likely to be involved in a high speed head-on accident. For the first time in my life I care if my car has airbags. Average cost in El Salvador for a 3 year old non-salvaged Honda CRV is $22,000; the same vehicle in US can be bought for$16,500.   Some families make due with one vehicle, but this is very difficult especially with kids. Usually means the wife is stuck at home quite a bit and can be very isolating.


School for the kids

This is an area that a lot of people do not think about because school is free in the US. Some missionaries home school, but often times this winds up being just as expensive as private school. Other missionary families feel it is best for their kids to have some semblance of a normal life by attending school. In El Salvador private schools range from $300-$900 a month per student. For a mid-level school it would average about $450 per month per student or $900 for a family with 2 kids. Most of the time public schools are not even an option as the education is at such a low level.



It is crucial for families and marriages that missionaries budget for fun time together. Some things like going to the movies are cheaper in El Salvador, but this is offset by the fact that there are very few free options. Even going to the beach usually means paying a fee for access.



This covers clothes, gifts, birthday parties, haircuts, kids karate classes ECT


Retirement Contributions

Retirement is an area that most people neglect to even think about. For some reason people think missionaries will not need any retirement. The fact is they should be saving even more than people back home.

Home equity is usually the biggest asset of people when they retire and most missionaries don’t own a home because it is hard to get a mortgage overseas. Missionaries should be saving significantly more than average to compensate for the fact that they will be paying a mortgage or rent during their retirement years. They also do not have any matching 401K plan so it is all on their shoulders. The last thing you want is to put people in the position where they cannot leave the mission field in their later years because they have nothing saved to live on. I would guess that at least 80% of those we work with are not putting anything into retirement accounts. Unless their sending churches plan on supporting them in their old age they need to make sure their missionaries have budgeted enough to contribute to an IRA or other retirement plan.


Emergency Savings

It is always wise to set money aside for emergencies. It is more critical on the mission field than anywhere, as most missionaries jump from one emergency to the next



Missionaries should be able to participate in the joy of giving. Not only are they members of local churches that need to be supported, but they also are continually presented with dire needs that they are compelled to help with. We expect that our pastors give back a portion of their salary and we need to make sure our missionaries have this opportunity also.


Medicare and Social Security Taxes

Many people do not realize that they only pay half of the Social Security and Medicare taxes and that their employer pays the other half. Because missionaries do not have an employer they are responsible for both the employer and employees share. This is a 15.3% tax and there are no deductions at all. If your salary is $50,000 your Social Security and Medicare taxes due are $7650. There is no way to lower them. This catches many missionaries by surprise.


Health Insurance

Most people get health insurance from their job. Even those who have a large amount taken out of their paycheck every month still have the majority of the costs picked up by their employer. It costs most companies anywhere from $12,000-$30,000 a year to provide health insurance. Of course missionaries do not have a company picking up most of the tab for their policy. Usually it is cheaper to get insurance outside the US even if they have to pay the Obamacare fine, but most missionaries also have higher medical expenses from tropical diseases and injuries.


Airfare and travel expense.

Most missionaries return to the US every few years to see family, report to supporting churches, and to fund raise. In addition to airfare they need to pay for housing and travel expenses. This is in addition to their expenses in the country they are serving in. They usually keep paying rent and other expenses so that they can return to the same home.


Visa and Lawyer fees

This is for ongoing visa issues. First year expense would likely be much higher


10% fee charged by sending Org to cover overhead

Most sending agencies have a 10% service charge for handling all the logistical and regulatory issues of taking in donations. This usually also covers the fees involved when people make donations by credit card.


This is a follow up blog to explain why it costs 4 times as much to send a missionary family of 4 than it does to send a young single missionary.  We had a lot of feedback from young single missionaries who  had a hard time understanding why a family of 4 would need so much more than they were living on.  This answers that plus a number of other great questions raised by commenters.



Visit us http://www.missionaryfellowship.com


Added Sunday January 31 in response to earlier comments


To clarify we do not take any personal support, we are not advocating for ourselves but for the missionaries we work with. 

According to the world bank out of El Salvador’s population of 6,000,000 people- 100,000 are wealthy and 1,000,000 are middle class.  The salary we are advocating for missionaries, would make them part of the one million strong middle class .  It hardly, as some have commented, puts them in a rich bubble.  I have never heard anyone claim that a middle class American would have trouble ministering to somebody on welfare, so I am not sure why people think that in El Salvador it would raise barriers.  We work with dozens of missionaries in El Salvador at all support levels and have seen zero correlation between low support and impactful ministry.  We do however, see a high correlation between low support and burnout. 

Since I keep seeing outraged comments talking about $111,000 salary I am adding this section to try and simplify things for those having a hard time understanding.  Most people only look at their take home pay, not the value of everything that their employer pays for.  The salary I describe above is not $110,000 a year it is $58,140 ($6708 which is given back as a tithe) so $4286 per month net.  Plus tuition for kids at cheapest accredited school, health insurance, and minimal retirement.

Would it be easier if I told you that even with all the travel costs and ministry overhead, it costs the church the same amount to send a missionary family of 4 overseas as it costs California to pay the salary and benefits for a teacher to work 9 months?

I hope this will help put this in perspective by comparing it to the average total compensation of a Californian Public School Teacher.

For 1 year

                                                 Missionary              Average Californian Public School teacher

Salary                                              $58,140                                                  $71,396

Retirement contributions              $16,080 (SSI+400 p/m)                         $22,132

Health Ins (w/ 2 kids)                    $12,000                                                   $17,000

Kids tuition accredited school        Paid                                                           Paid

Work related expenses                    Paid                                                            Paid                   


I am advocating that we pay our missionary couples who serve in the most challenging of conditions, 22% less than we pay 1 Californian teacher, to work for 9 months.   I also assume of course to pay their work related expenses and for a comparable education for their children.