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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
So which city is cheaper?
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.