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09 April 2012

Cost of Living - How Different is it Really?

I was recently contacted by a reader considering a move to Singapore who wanted to know a little more about the day to day cost of living.  If anyone has asked me this question before my gut reaction has been to say that Singapore is not a cheap place to live, particularly in comparison to a lot of other countries in South East Asia.  I'd also automatically say that prices in Singapore were, in my opinion, higher than in the UK. 

As I've been back in the UK for a couple of weeks, and with this post in mind, it has been the perfect opportunity for me to make more of a comparison between the cost of living in the two countries.  My first thought was to compare the cost of a well known item available in both, and I selected a cup of coffee to make this initial comparison.  The cost of a grande latte in Starbucks in Singapore is $6, that's approximately £3 in the UK.  Having checked in a UK branch the same latte currently costs £2.50 so approximately $5.  Therefore on the face of it, the price is only marginally different, though it is still fractionally cheaper in the UK. 

This trend of prices being closer than I appreciated applies to more than just a cup of coffee though.  When it comes to purchasing toiletries and cosmetics I had always believed that these items were more expensive in Singapore.  Having now compared prices I was surprised to realise in some cases they were actually much closer to each other.  For example, a set of four replacement blades for a lady razor in the UK costs around £8 (approximately $16).  When I was browsing in Singapore just before I came back to the UK I found the same brand for about $15.  At the time I decided to wait until I got back to the UK before I purchased them but I actually did not make any saving by doing this as I assumed, at the time, that I would do.

In contrast though some of the hair products I regularly use are considerably cheaper (and with a better selection) in the UK.  I have naturally curly hair but when I lived in the UK tended to always straighten it.  Though I've embraced my curls since moving to Singapore and finding that no matter what I do the climate ensures my hair curls again pretty quickly, when I do want to straighten it I use various products to protect my hair from the heat.  What I buy in Singapore (the only thing I've found close to what I use to get) I have to pay $18 (£9) for and the only place I've ever found this product or anything similar to it is in Watsons.  Whilst these types of products can also be expensive in the UK, I found one of my old favourites for just under £6 ($12) whilst I was back, needless to say I've stocked up on that.

Where clothes are concerned, if I'm shopping in Singapore I generally gravitate towards shops you can also find in the UK.  Mainly because I know I'll be able to find items that I know will fit me.  Many of them also have the UK price on them though and the Singapore price will often work out to be a little more expensive.  I have to be honest that usually it is only a few dollars more but all these extra dollars here and there can make a big difference.  For example, in Singapore a top could cost approximately $75 (about £37.50), it is perfectly possible to find equivalent items in the UK for this amount or more, but the difference is I could also probably find something just as good but cheaper or on some sort of an offer.

The thing we all buy the most of though is food and this is where I can see the biggest differences, largely I presume because most food products are imported into Singapore.  There are several supermarket chains, just as in the UK, in Singapore with Cold Storage and Marketplace probably having the biggest range of goods aimed towards the expat market.  They consequently generally seem a few dollars more expensive than the likes of FairPrice and Shop n Save are.  For the majority of day to day items I find both FairPrice and Shop n Save are both perfectly adequate with only occasional items unavailable or limited and I probably shop at them the most. 

When I began to look at prices though it was clear just how much they differ.  For example, we get through a lot of milk and I usually buy a two litre container, even in the cheaper supermarkets I normally pay around the $5 mark (approximately £2.50).  In comparison the same size container in the UK (even in more expensive retailers) is only around £1.50 (around $3).  Meat similarly is something we've found to be more expensive in Singapore.  For example, in the UK I can buy a whole chicken from just over £2 ($4) upwards, depending on how big you want it.  In comparison in Singapore even the cheapest I've seen has been around $8 or £4 and they go up in price from there.  In addition they usually come with the head and feet attached, the first time that we brought one and found that out it was a bit of a shock!  Likewise we've managed to find some reasonably nice sausages in Singapore, but at a price, about $9 (£4.50).  In the UK a pack of sausages can be brought for around £3 ($6) or less. 

Vegetables are no cheaper, for one leek we recently ended up paying $5 (£2.50), in the UK I can get one for about 80p ($1.60).  We have occasionally brought vegetables from some of the individually owned stores and have got some bargains as a result, but we don't really do that enough in all honesty and only when we've been passing and needed something specific.   I do know of (though I've not used him) the chicken man that several expat friends use.  I gather he is cheaper and also removes any parts of the chicken that some westerners, at least, just don't expect to find and you'll get (whether you want them or not) in the supermarket.  Likewise I've also heard that QB Foods and Giant are good for cheaper meat etc., now I've really started to think about this as a result of writing this post I do need to investigate them further to decide for myself. 

Eating out can again be a variable thing cost wise in Singapore.  I think everyone knows you can eat cheaply and well at the hawker centres, though in some of the more touristy locations I feel that at times I've paid more than perhaps I have in the hawker centre nearest our condo.  Away from hawker centres in a mid-range eatery my husband and I recently paid $47.00 (approximately £23.50) for a couple of starters, main dishes and rice (enough for two people).  The drinks were paid for separately.  On a recent night out with a friend in the UK we both enjoyed a main course and a glass of wine each for approximately £30 (about $60), therefore on the face of it the meal out seems more expensive in the UK.  The Singapore price I've quoted though did not include the drinks (which we'd already brought before deciding to eat), add on the cost of them, where you can easily pay up to $15 (£7.50) for a beer in some places and our meal out with two or more drinks in Singapore soon seems more expensive than something similar is in the UK.

Alcohol generally is a lot more expensive in Singapore than it is in the UK, whether that be buying a bottle of wine to enjoy at home or on a night out.  In the UK it is possible to buy bottles of wine for £5 or less (approximately $10).  Of course wine can be a lot more expensive than that too in the UK but anyone who enjoys wine etc. in Singapore will tell you that you'd be unlikely to find a bottle that cheap there.  Indeed around $30 upwards for a bottle is a fairly common price to pay, the equivalent of around £15 in the UK.  I have seen cheaper wines for sale but not very often.  As I said drinking out is also an expensive past time in Singapore with, as I mentioned, a pint of beer potentially costing around $15 (£7.50).  A night out in Singapore is rarely a cheap option.  By comparison, the other evening I brought two drinks for £6.60 (just over $12), which was a real delight.


Although a lot of the prices between the UK and Singapore are not actually that dissimilar I still feel that generally Singapore is more expensive (particularly for groceries) and that it is harder to shop cheaply.  It seems to me that items can be found at a more competitive rate in the UK and that it is easier to find the same item at a different price in different shops.  This therefore gives you the chance to shop around and get a good price or a price that you can afford or want to pay for an item.  For example, our sofa in our condo has become a little tatty and to prolong its life just a little longer I decided to get a throw for it.  I shopped around in Singapore but could not find anything for the price I wanted to pay, no more than £10 ($20) ideally.  On my trip back to the UK I managed to buy exactly what I wanted for less than £4 ($8) in the typical type of cheaper shop that is common in the UK that sells all manner of household items, cleaning products, toiletries etc. that are similar, or in some cases, the same as the higher end products available in other shops. 

Another recent example of this I found was whilst browsing on Twitter.  A UK expat in Singapore commented that a large Easter egg was on sale there for $22.95 (approximately £11.50).  Whilst you can, if you want, pay that much for Easter eggs in the UK you do not have to.  The major UK supermarket chains have all had offers leading up to Easter, i.e. three eggs for the price of two, or three eggs for £5 (approximately $10) etc.  These eggs will be of a good quality and a well known brand, see here for a hint as to the likely one and when you have several to buy they are perfect, especially when you consider they'll have probably been eaten by the end of Easter day.  As another person then commented in response to this, in the UK there is high competition between similar retailers and as a result you can shop around and better prices can potentially be found. 

Something else I've found out since being back in the UK this time, is that if you shop at one major supermarket chain here your receipt will give you a price comparison of what you would have spent if you'd shopped at one of their major competitors.  If you have spent more then what you would have at this competitor they'll give you a money off voucher for the equivalent amount to use on your next shop.  This is time limited and of course they hope to encourage you to go back to them rather than another chain but this also helps to maintain healthy competition and hopefully better prices for goods.  I guess for me this is where the real difference between the two lies and why I feel in some ways Singapore to be more expensive - the lack of obvious and easy to get to alternative options and generally alternative prices for the same thing unless you are prepared to really hunt for it.

Whilst I know that cheaper items can be found in Singapore, for convenience sakes, i.e. not having to travel around to lots of different areas to shop, it does not always seem as easy to shop for those bargains, offers etc.  I also admit though that I haven't always made a point of looking for the cheapest options for everything we buy either.  One of the only places I know of that does have almost everything you might be looking for under one roof is Mustafa's.  Here you can get household items and products, food, toiletries etc. all in one hit but I'm not sure the prices are that different from anywhere else that I frequent.   

Writing this post has certainly made me think more about where I go to shop (particularly for food) and whether, if I'm prepared to shop around more, I can make some better savings than I have previously.  Up until now for some things I have found myself waiting until my next trip back to the UK to stock up rather than spend the extra money in Singapore.  Although as I now know too, with some of the things, there isn't actually the difference I thought there was in price and that perhaps I haven't always shopped as smartly as I could in the past either.  Regardless though Singapore can be an expensive place to live.  I don't know how the cost of living or these prices compare for expats living here from other countries and it would be interesting to hear.  Likewise if anyone knows of any other places where bargains can be had that I obviously don't know about I'd love to know about them to.

13 comments:

  1. interesting - and informative - post Laura.

    I have found the prices between Australia and Singapore vary ... with most items more expensive in Australia.

    I was speaking with a friend from KL - recently moved to Melbourne - and she says it is a lot more expensive here in Australia than London where she recently lived for two years.

    But overall, if we shop for 'specials' and at low cost stores I guess it all evens out in the end. Meat here is a lot less expensive, but vegetables about the same ... toiletries are cheaper in Singapore (in particular at Mustafas) than here.

    I often have to watch myself if I see soemthing for say $15.00 and compare it to Singapore and go "wow, thats expensive here" forgetting to do the currency exchange!! Then soon realise it is marginally more expensive, and hardly worth losing any sleep over!

    Vehicles are a lot cheaper here, but then public transport costs are a lot cheaper in Singapore ... so if I went from point A to point B via a car (in Singapore) and the same distance by public transport here ... it would work out the same.

    A daily train ticket for us costs $13.00 .... in Singapore I would not pay that in a week!!

    swings and roundabouts!!!

    great post and very helpful to others.

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    1. Ahh public transport didn't even mention that and yes that is so much more expensive in the UK than in Singapore. For example, a cheap day return from my parents in Kent to London by train is just over £21 ($42), OK this includes the tube but the actual train journey is only just over an hour!

      As part of this trip back to the UK I travelled to Liverpool by train, so travelled from Kent to London, then the tube and then a train out of London which took another two and a bit hours. I booked my ticket in advance so it only cost £32 ($64) but if I just turned up on the day I'd probably have to spend well over £100 ($200) for that ticket!

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  2. There was a time when £1 = approx. S$3.1
    I think it was just before the 08 financial downturn

    Now read your post again~ ;)

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  3. ... and .... yesterday I went to the pharmacy to purchase some Zovirax (yes, have a nasty cold sore) and paid $16.00 AUD for it.

    Came home and checked on line for UK and Singapore (obviously your post has hit a nerve!) and in the UK it is £4.45 which equals $6.86 AUD!

    and here we are paying nearly $10.00 AUD for a 2 g tube. :(

    Checked on line for Singapore but could not locate it (I think I paid about $11.00 SGD last time). About the same price in Malaysia too.

    Then I did a check for the Pharmacy on-line which seems to be big here in Australia. Located it at $11.87 AUD and I thought 'great, thats what I will do next time', and then looked at the shipping cost: $7.95 AUD to ship that tiny wee tube of cream that weighs all of 2 grams. Back to square one.

    So yes, it (and most things) is expensive here in Australia!!

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  4. It seems to me the cost of housing is the largest expense in Singapore (as in most expensive cities) that is difficult to avoid. There is plenty of expensive food in Singapore but there is also lots of great cheap food (I have seen the same thing in New York, London...). Alcohol is expensive. Cars are very expensive in Singapore (taxis are not, public transport is cheap).

    USA and European brands are most often more expensive (food or clothes or...). For some reasonable alternatives are available, for others it is difficult. For me, durian is as bad as marmite so seems like an adequate substitute for me :-) but I am not sure if crazy people that actually like those products would agree.

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  5. I definitely agree with you on the groceries thing - eating fresh fruit, vegetables and meat can be much more expensive than in the UK. I like cooking from scratch at home, rather than eating out all the time, and its definitely more expensive than it would have been before. I think part of this is the lack of competition - supermarkets here don't compete to be the cheapest like they do in the UK. Something to do with the state ownership/stakeholders perhaps?!

    Transport is definitely a lot cheaper here. Taking the tube in London has become very expensive. But then owning a car in Singapore is prohibitively expensive compared to the UK. Clothes and things are a bit more I find, although I'm sure if I wanted to change my style I could get some good bargains by shopping elsewhere :)

    I think you are right when you say there are bargains to be had if you are prepared to travel or get up early (to go to the wet markets for example). I think in the UK we get both affordability and convenience, whereas here you definitely pay extra for the convenience factor.

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    1. It is no surprise that people eat out so much at hawker centres, buying everything to cook from scratch here can be very expensive.

      You are right about affordability and convenience going hand in hand in the UK, perhaps I've taken that too much for granted in the past and not appreciated it until now.

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  6. I think it's more expensive to live as an expat in Singapore than in native country, which is pretty natural because expats are a minority and generally have a higher wage. But there are ways to manage, such as living as a local - eg. instead of a Starbucks coffee, have a $1 kopi, which I find is more tasty anyway. Don't eat out at Harry's, but have a $2.50 plate of bee hoon.

    The one area where I find Singapore startlingly expensive is housing, and it's gotten much worse. In the five years I've been here, I've seen the rent price on HDB double, rapidly approaching towards that of lower-end condos (4-room HDB in Bukit Batok now rents for more than $2400/month, yet it is still possible to find an 80 m2 condo apartment up the street for $2800). Singapore citizens are still ok with Built-to-order HDBs, it is possible to buy a 3-room close to MRT for $144,000.

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    1. You are so right about the ways to manage, i.e. having a kopi etc. instead and I know in the past I've probably not always tried as hard as I should and could have.

      I had no idea how much rental for HDB's is in comparison to condo's, it was a surprise to read how much people could be paying!

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  7. Loved this post Laura.

    When I travelled to London more than a decade ago, I was shocked at how expensive everything was - train tickets, food at restaurants etc. But I think Singapore over that period has become more and more expensive. Also my cousin tells me the same has been happening in Australia. She now thinks Singapore is cheap in comparison. She says a simple sandwich costs her $10 at least in Australia.

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    1. Travelling on public transport in London (and indeed where my parents live) is a lot more expensive than here in Singapore. Add on to that fact that (and especially when you don't live in London) trains and buses are not always that frequent and it is no wonder that so many people avoid public transport. I always find it strange when I get back to the UK now that I have to consciously check train or bus times whereas here I just turn up knowing I won't have to wait very long.

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  8. I am finding its expensive to live as an expat in thailand too but I know it has a lot to do with living in an expat community rather than out in the real Bangkok. I have never stayed in singapore but I read recently that it's an expensive place to stay??

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    1. Yes I believe so though I've never stayed in a hotel here (apart from when my husband first came here and his company paid for that). There are more and more hostel type cheaper places popping up but of course they aren't necessarily going to be suitable for everyone wanting to visit here or going to appeal to everyone. One place I did stumble across recently was via a friend's blog, which was staying at the YMCA. From her post it certainly looks adequate enough for a visitor without breaking the bank either. http://leonefabre.blogspot.com/2012/03/y-y.html

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