What is the true cost of living?

29th July 2003, Comments 0 comments

Think coffee costs a lot in Amsterdam? Try buying a cup in Hong Kong or New York. Patricia Gray compares the price of a cup of coffee - and national security - in cities across the globe.

New Zealand and Australian cities are cheapest yet have a high quality of living

Enjoying a hot cup of coffee inside your favourite Amsterdam café may be more relaxing at USD 1.39 a cup than spending over USD 5.51 for the same brew in Hong Kong. Then again, in New York you may be paying an extra two dollars, but does the bottomless cup make up for it all? When allowances are tight, yet being a "world citizen" is your life, do you know where your expat-city stands?

Hong Kong has taken Tokyo down to a seemingly affordable third as it peaked to this year’s most expensive city, according to the Mercer 2002 World-wide Cost of Living Survey. Moscow came in second place worldwide, as Europe’s most expensive city, followed by St. Petersburg and London. New York remains North America’s most costly, while Johannesburg lines the bottom of the pot as the world’s cheapest city. Yet cost of living is just one piece of the puzzle when considering a life away from home. Quality of life is also crucial to a comfortable experience abroad. The United Nation’s 12th annual Human Development Report ranks Norway as the most developed country in the world and Sierra Leone as the least developed.


Based largely on factors of life expectancy, education and personal incomes. Norway, Sweden, Canada, Belgium, Australia, the United States, Iceland, the

Netherlands, Japan and Finland make up the world’s top ten. The dollars and cents of it all Even though the gap between the richest and poorest cities in the world is narrowing considerably – by 15 percent last year alone – global differences in daily living expenses are vast.


While a taxi ride in Hong Kong and New York will run you just USD .90 per km, compared to a cushioned Mercedes ride in Amsterdam at USD 1.30, a standard two-room, unfurnished apartment in New York (USD 3,200) and Hong Kong (USD 4,872) are three and four times the amount in Amsterdam (USD 1,168). You can see five movies at the cinema in Johannesburg (USD 5.03) for the price of one movie in London (USD 25.53) and living amongst wine-lovers in Paris and

Amsterdam has its perks at around four dollars a bottle compared to 15 dollars in New York and Hong Kong. Running on gasoline around Hong Kong (USD 1.45), London (USD 1.22 a litre) and Amsterdam (USD 1.00) will run your pocketbook dry, while New York (USD 0.39) and Johannesburg (USD 0.36) do have something in after all—bargain-bin oil prices.

The Mercer survey covered 144 cities around the globe, calculating daily living expenses of more than 200 housing, food, clothing, household goods, plus transportation and entertainment. New York City came in at number seven, London ranked 10, Los Angles 19, Chicago 20, Geneva 28, Zurich 32, Oslo 40, Istanbul 44, Copenhagen 62, Paris 74, Sydney 95, Rome 99, Amsterdam 102, Berlin 104 and Brussels 112. With 20-years of expat experience, Carrie Shearer learned to cope with the high prices of both Hong Kong and Singapore (ranked number 24). “In Singapore there is a price to pay for everything being so beautiful. Like anything expensive, you find ways around it. After shopping in expensive stores from the start, you get to know where the cheaper stores and local markets are and away from the bigger more expensive stores,” she said. Due to increased globalisation and the presence of more international companies producing high-quality items locally, extra living expenses for expatriates are dropping considerably, according to Marie Laurence-Sepede, Senior researcher at Mercer, a consulting firm that provides information indices to employers for calculating expatriate earnings. Increased globalisation, mobility and the personal rewards of working as an expatriate are also driving down benefits and "hardship allowances" in the expatriate world, she said.

Comfortably developed Even with what former expatriate Brendan Crawford calls a "disparity between wages" with American incomes being higher overall, compared to Europeans, he learned for himself the ratio of money verses his own, quality of life survey. “In America you get two weeks vacation time a year – if you’re lucky. In the Netherlands 25 days a year is the average. With the vacation time, social benefits, job protection and employment laws in the Netherlands my life is more enjoyable, instead of the rat race and work-work-work mentality in the United States.”

The UN Human Development Report did, in fact consider personal factors in determining the quality of life in 173 countries around the world. Other factors include safety, crime, cleanliness, education, healthcare, essential services and equality of people. Yet with all things considered, the report did place the US (ranked 6) above the Netherlands (8). Other countries high on the list are Sweden (2), Canada (3), Belgium (4), Australia (5), Iceland (7), Japan (9) and Finland (10). Researcher for the United Nations Development Programme David Stewart did warn not to take the differences between the top countries too critically, as these rankings differ by only minuscule amounts. However, the least developed countries present an entirely different picture of life. In Norway (ranked 1) the average life expectancy is 78.5 years of age, while in Sierra Leone the average life span is just 38.9 years. In the least developed country, hunger is rife and one in five people survive on less than a dollar a day. In addition to Sierra Leone, the other least developed countries include Chad, Guinea Bissau, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, Mozambique, Burundi and Niger. Shearer remembered the importance of safety and security abroad when she was in Pakistan in 1999 during the military overthrow of the government. “It was very unsettling to see soldiers on the streets with machine guns, enforced curfews and a lack of information about what was happening,” he said.

The focus of the UN report is to change just that, insecurity, injustice and inequality around the world: “The Human Development Report is first and foremost about the idea that politics is as important to successful development as economics,” according to the survey overview. Yet even with the wave of new democracies that has moved around the globe, achieving true democracy has been tough. Open manipulations of elections and "legitimate" governments not accepting a legitimate opposition is one of the many problems.

According to the report, democracy, public freedoms and equality, plus the acceptance, equality and freedoms of developing governments by powerful nations of the world is essential in bringing the world and its people home safe and healthy. September 2002 Journalist and Chicago-native Patricia Gray has lived in the Netherlands since 1999. Subject: Expat cost of living

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