Julia Zhou

Hello!

My name is Julia, and I'm a digital marketer, avid traveler, lifelong shutterbug, and m-dash lover.  I've worked in marketing and analytics for all sorts of companies, from the Fortune 100 to startups of 10 people. 

I've recently moved to Singapore, where the national sport is eating.  Previously I was a New Yorker, and I've also lived, worked, or traveled extensively in Shanghai, London, México, Canada, and East Africa.  I speak fluent English and Mandarin, passable Spanish, and survival Swahili.  My degree is in Economics and Political Science from UPenn. 

Feel free to reach out by email.  I'd love to hear from you! 

 

 

The Economist Is Wrong: Singapore Is Actually Less Expensive Than New York

So the Economist just came out with a report naming Singapore as the most expensive city in the world.  Here's a link to their handy-dandy cost of living comparison tool

Singapore ranks as the most expensive city in the world, followed by Paris, Oslo and Zurich. New York comes in #26 on the list.  To be specific, the Economist survey says that Singapore is 130% as expensive as New York. 

Image Source: WSJ

Image Source: WSJ

As someone who's lived in New York for 20 years and who just moved to Singapore 3 months ago, I happen to disagree with this survey.  Here's a breakdown of my personal household budget for the two cities:

HOUSING

This is not the building I live in (I wish!), but isn't it awesome?  Singapore has some seriously ambitious architecture.  Image Source: The Interlace

This is not the building I live in (I wish!), but isn't it awesome?  Singapore has some seriously ambitious architecture.  Image Source: The Interlace

The apartment I lived in in New York and the one I currently have in Singapore are almost exactly the same size — in New York my husband and I lived in a 957 square foot apartment, and in Singapore we have a 936 sqft one.  

The apartments are also roughly comparable in terms of neighborhood and amenities.  Both apartments are a bit outside the city center, but very close to public transportation and about a 15 minute train ride from downtown.  Both buildings are relatively new, and have a gym, a pool, and security. 

So how much do these apartments cost?  Our apartment in New York (which we own) is now rented out for $3150 USD, and in Singapore we pay the equivalent of $4100 USD in rent.  So at first glance, it seems like housing in Singapore is 30% more expensive. 

But wait!  In Singapore we get to pay our rent with pre-tax dollars.  U.S. citizens who live abroad get to take advantage of something called the Foreign Housing Exclusion, which means that all of our housing expenses and utilities get to be deducted from our income for tax purposes. When you take federal, state, and city taxes into account, this is basically the equivalent of a 40% discount on our Singapore rent.  

Obviously, this only applies to U.S. citizens, so I can understand why the Economist survey says housing in Singapore is more expensive.  But for us (and all the other U.S. expats) I'd say housing in Singapore is cheaper than in New York. 

 

UTILITIES

This one doesn't even come close.  In New York our family cell phone plan with Verizon for two smartphones cost us roughly $150 USD a month, and then we paid Verizon another $100 USD each month for FIOS internet at home.  In Singapore, we use Singtel for both mobile and home internet, and the total monthly bill for both is only about $100 SGD, or $80 USD. 

What about electricity and gas?  In the New York our utilities bill came to about $100 USD a month, and in Singapore so far we've been averaging around $60 USD.  

Granted, we use our air conditioning very sparingly in Singapore, preferring to keep the windows open instead (yay for reducing energy use!).  And we've been told that the past few months have been unusually cool for Singapore (at 85 degrees), and that it'll get much hotter when the summer comes.  So maybe our electric bill here will spike in a few months. 

But so far, utilities have been much cheaper in Singapore. 

 

TRANSPORTATION

Traffic in Singapore.  Image Source: Bloomberg

Traffic in Singapore.  Image Source: Bloomberg

The WSJ article covering the Economist survey specifically mentioned the cost of car ownership in Singapore as one of the main reasons why it's so expensive to live here.  And yes, cars in Singapore are insanely expensive — you have to pay a tax of 120% or more on the car itself, and you then have to pay an additional $60,000 USD for a "certificate of entitlement" to drive the darn thing.  

The upshot of this is that a plain vanilla Honda Civic or Ford Taurus that would cost roughly $30,000 in the U.S. is more like $120,000 here in Singapore.  A friend here told me she calculated that she could take a taxi every single day for the rest of her life, and it would still be cheaper than buying a car. 

But here's the thing — just like New York, you can get around Singapore perfectly well without a car.  There's a great public transportation system that is fast, efficient, and clean (although unlike the New York subways, it doesn't run 24/7).  

I lived in New York for 20 years and my family never owned a car.  I have exactly one friend in New York who owns a car, and she uses it to commute to her job in New Jersey.  Most of the people in Singapore don't own a car (the car ownership rate here is 12%).  Some do, but unless you're Anton Casey and you feel you can't survive without your Porsche, it's definitely not a necessity. 

So how much does it cost to get around using public transport?  

In New York it's $2.50 USD to take the subway or bus, no matter if you're just going one stop or riding all the way from the Bronx to JFK.  

In Singapore the cost varies by distance, but for example, going from my apartment to City Hall is 5 stops on the MRT and costs $0.93 SGD (about 74 cents in USD).  Riding all the way from Changi airport to Joo Koon, which would take you across the entire width of Singapore, costs $1.96 SGD ($1.57 USD). 

Once again, Singapore is cheaper. 

 

FOOD

Two of our friends came to visit us in Singapore recently and we took them to Newton Food Centre.  This feast for four people cost around $100 SGD ($80 USD).  Image Source: Michelle Sloane

Two of our friends came to visit us in Singapore recently and we took them to Newton Food Centre.  This feast for four people cost around $100 SGD ($80 USD).  Image Source: Michelle Sloane

Ah, food.  My favourite subject, and I think the hardest one to compare directly across cities or countries. 

I believe the methodology of the Economist Survey is to compare a fixed basket of goods across cities.  They don't disclose what exactly is in this basket of goods, but if the food component is based on a Western diet, then yes, it would definitely be a lot more expensive in Singapore. 

There are two supermarkets within walking distance of my apartment in Singapore: NTUC Fairprice and Cold Storage.  NUTC has a lot of Asian foods — I get rice cakes, bok choy and soy milk there.  Cold Storage, on the other hand, is like the bastard lovechild of New York's Morton Williams and London's Tesco.  I can buy brie cheese or tater tots or British brands of frozen fish and chips there. 

In general, Cold Storage is much more expensive than NTUC, and specifically, Western brands are really expensive.  For example, a pint of Haagen Dazs ice cream costs $15 SGD ($12 USD)! Insanity. 

But I don't eat the same foods here that I do in New York.  I don't know if other expats try to replicate the exact same diet no matter where they are in the world, but isn't part of the fun of living abroad trying new foods? 

In New York, a typical lunch would be a falafel sandwich, or two slices of pizza, or a pastrami sandwich from the nearby Korean deli.  In Singapore, I eat none of those things.  Instead I have fishball noodle soup, or you tiao with beancurd, or a bowl of ramen.  Equally delicious, but different (I really miss New York pizza though!). 

What's the average cost for this kind of lunch?  $5 to $8 USD in New York, and $5 to $8 SGD in Singapore.  Of course, in either city you spend a lot more going out to fancy restaurants.  We do that occasionally, but for the most part we prefer "cheap and cheerful". 

So far we've been spending more or less the same on food in Singapore that we did in New York.  So I'm going to call this one a wash. 

 

SHOPPING

Image Source: Getty Images

Image Source: Getty Images

Shopping is way more expensive in Singapore.  The Economist survey is spot-on there.  The exact same item from the exact same brand will cost you 50% to 100% more if you buy it in Singapore vs. New York. 

However, this doesn't really affect us that much as a) shopping makes up a pretty small percentage of our household budget and b) we plan to do all our shopping on trips back to the U.S. anyways.  And it's not only expats that do that — many Singaporeans I've gotten to know have told me that they shop on trips abroad or buy things from Amazon U.S. or Amazon Germany and then ship it to Singapore.  

 

CONCLUSION

So which city is cheaper?

Chart based on my personal experiences, your mileage may vary. 

Chart based on my personal experiences, your mileage may vary. 

In my experience, living in Singapore is definitely not 130% as expensive as living in New York. In fact, it's less expensive.  But many things are similar.  Housing is expensive, as it is in all major cities around the world.  There's a lot of amazing food available, and if you know where to go you can get it for really cheap.  And no one owns a car. 

 

Why Kenya's Street Vendors Are Its Greatest Wealth

Martin (my driver) and I went to a local butchery / restaurant to have nyamachoma for lunch.  Nyamachoma is to Kenyans as dimsum and hotpot is to the Chinese, or as BBQ is to Texans: it's their local dish of pride, what groups of friends gather around on the weekends and what they like to serve to guests.  Jojen, the restaurant we went to, is apparently where the president of Kenya gets his nyamachoma. 

Nyamachoma consists of 1 or more kilos of roast beef, marinated in a sauce as mysterious to me as it is delicious. The beef is brought out wrapped up in wax paper on a thick wooden cutting board, and the server slices it up with his long knife at the table.

You eat it with your hands quickly while it's hot, along with a dish of maize, and some tomatoes, onions, and hot peppers for flavor.  To be really authentic, you wash it down with a bottle (or two) of Tuskers beer, warm. 

So for $8 USD, two of us had an excellent lunch.  The really remarkable part of the experience, though, was the itinerant salesmen. In the 30 minutes or so that it took for Martin and I to eat our nomachoma, I could've bought myself an entire new outfit, from head to toe, just from the salesmen that came in the door.  

First, a man with a dozen pairs of pants draped over his right shoulder and another dozen clutched in his left hand poked his head in the door, hopefully looking about to see if any of the lunching customers was in sudden need of pants. Three minutes later another man came by with leather loafers which were surprisingly shiny, given that he'd been toting them up and down the dusty Nairobi streets.  He were followed by more men hawking suits, polo shirts, socks, watches, sunglasses, screwdrivers and other sundry tools, soccer balls, and bananas.  

Mine was the only non-Kenyan, non-black face in the entire establishment, so this was not the type of street hawking meant for tourists that you see in Cancun or Times Square.  Nor were they selling typical "touristy" stuff like jewelry and souvenirs.  No, this was real business. 

Kenya has 40% unemployment (and a terrifying 60% unemployment among people aged 15 to 30).  But these unemployed and underemployed people are not rioting, as they do in Egypt and France.  Nor are they waiting around for international donors to give them aid, as I've been told the Tanzanians tend to do. 

Instead, they leave their two-acre or five-acre family plots in the countryside to come to Nairobi. They set up little roadside stands to sell fruit, flowers, shoes, anything they can.  All over Nairobi you see the salesmen: people sitting by the side of the road with their wares, or walking along looking for customers.  

Or the look for service jobs: during the day, you can see girls standing by bus stops hoping to be picked up for housecleaning work.  A "housegirl" who does the cleaning, washing, and some of the cooking makes between $30 to $50 a month, plus free room and board.  

Meanwhile, the young men become part of the intricate transportation network that keeps Nairobi moving: the motorbike, matatu, and taxi drivers. A taxi driver who rents his car from a taxi company earns between $200 to $300 a month, but if he owns his car, he could make up to 5 times that much. 

This is why Martin's great ambition in life right now is to save enough money to buy his own car.  

The oldest of 8 children, Martin started as a matatu conductor in Nairobi, collecting fares from passengers on the battered little minivans ("matatus") that dominate the roads here in Kenya.  He saved enough money to go to driving school, then became a matatu driver for 12 years, putting his younger brothers and sisters through school and sending money back to his parents, who are still living on their farm in Central Kenya. 

Now he's been a taxi driver for 3 years, ferrying wealthy Kenyans and mzungas (foreigners) like me around Nairobi. He works for 12-14 hours a day, 6 days a week, and saves his money with Karab, a micro-finance organization.  He needs to save about $3,000, and then Karab will give him a loan for the rest so he can buy a car. 

"Juli," he says, "I am thinking very much now how to buy my own car.  If I have my own car, then I have my own taxi company, and that will be the start of my success in life."

By his calculations, it'll take him another 2 years to save $3,000.  After that, he plans to start his own taxi company, and to buy an oven for his wife so she can start a baking business making wedding cakes. 

This attitude is why Kenya's GDP is growing at close to 6% per annum, despite the fact that only one-third of the country is arable land and they have no gold, oil, or mineral deposits.  From smallholder farmers to street vendors to hotel owners to the start-up tech companies to real estate developers, there is a tremendous entrepreneurial energy pulsing here.  

New highways and buildings are going up as quickly as the Chinese contractors can build them, which is of course extremely quickly.  People readily adopt new technology — everyone has a cell phone, mobile payments (M-PESA) are more common here than in the U.S.  There's already over 400 Kenyan listings on Airbnb.  Education is really important here, and parents will borrow money to send their children to the best schools and to pay for after-school tutoring.

As Paul Graham says, wealth is fundamentally about creating something of value that other people want.  Kenyans grasp this intuitively, and so I think that Kenya is on its way to becoming quite wealthy.