International Cost of Living

This entry is part 6 of the series International English

potatoes-no-attrib“How much do potatoes cost in South Africa?” a cyber friend asked in an online group discussion on cost of living in our various countries. I gave the current price in rands (South African Currency) then converted it to dollars for the benefit of the others in the group.

“That’s for a 10 kg bag, or a ‘pocket’ as we call it here,” I added.

“Goodness! That’s nothing,” came the reply. “We pay far more.” As we continued to share prices, the Americans in the group became convinced that South Africa was the cheapest place on earth to live.

I wish!

You see, it’s not just about cost, or financial output. It’s about wages, or income compared to the output.

Consider your monthly income

If your monthly income is 7,000 whatevers (rand, dollars, pounds, tenge, yen . . . ) then if you pay 700 of those, it’s a tenth of your income. That’s a lot of money. Yet if you convert it to another currency, it may seem little to the citizens of that country.

I look at the price of my Strength Renewed book of devotions for those in the cancer valley as featured on American Amazon, I see it costs $13.00. That sounds cheap. (Americans? Only you can tell me if it’s a good price. Please comment below.) If I convert that to rands, according to today’s rate of exchange (one day post_Trump elections), that’s R185.68, which is a LOT to pay for a paperback. (Of course, to that we have to add shipping and import costs, so it’s a no brainer! We’d have to buy the kindle version!)

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Ice-creams on Holiday

When my husband and I went to the United Kingdom on holiday (vacation) a few years ago, we bought ourselves a Walls Choc Ice from a vendor shortly after our arrival. It was wonderful. It was so cheap, we went back and had seconds and then thirds! Only when we got home and worked out the cost in our South African rands, did we discover we had spent a fortune on ice-cream and if we were to continue to spend at that rate we would be broke within the week!

Well-travelled people like to say, “Forget about working on conversions. Just live with the price as it’s marked in the country you’re visiting.” But if you don’t pay attention to how much you’re actually paying of your available cash, you could end up in trouble.

To go further with the ice-cream example, say we can buy a choc ice for R11 here in S.Africa. We go to England and see a similar ice-cream marked at £2.99. That appears to be so cheap. Yet if we stop to do our maths, £2.99 = 53.91 ZAR! We could get a hamburger and chips for that at some food chains.  Buy three, and you could have had a steak dinner and drinks!

Understand the countries finances

You can only judge how expensive an item is, if you compare it with the income of the people. It is almost impossible for us to comprehend the value of each other’s currency unless we have actually lived in that country.

Visitors from the States to South Africa are considered “big spenders” as the goods in our stores are so “cheap”. But they’re only cheap when you’re buying them on an American income.

So as writers, how do we get round the challenge of writing about money?

Here are two suggestions:

1. Put prices into a context that will make sense for the reader.

If I tell my British reader that I paid R60 (60 rand) for an uncooked chicken, it means nothing to them. But if I say that I paid R60, the price of 4 loaves of bread, she can decide if it is expensive or not. She can compare the price of a chicken in her shop and compare it with the cost of her bread.

Rather than say, “The bracelet cost thousands of rands,” I can refer to “The expensive bracelet costing thousands of rands.” The reader on the other side of the globe knows it is an expensive bracelet without understanding my currency.

2. Consider inflation of the future.

monopoly-1356307_640If I play with my old Monopoly board, I can buy a house for the cost of a few loaves of bread today, and a hotel for less than a hamburger and chips!

Prices date our writing and can give our reader a wrong impression. Ten years from now, a person reading, “The bracelet cost thousands of pounds” may see it to be a cheap piece of costume jewellery, as the way inflation is going, “thousands of pounds” by then will probably be almost worthless. If we describe it as in the second example, as an “expensive bracelet costing thousands of pounds,” the reader of the future will still understand that the bracelet is an item of value.

Over to you:

What is your home country? And what currency do you use there?
Please leave an answer in the comment box below.

Have a great weekend / week!

6 comments on “International Cost of Living

  1. Hi Shirley. Whenever talking to folk in the UK about cost of living in SA I measure how many hours/days I would have to work to purchase that restaurant meal, plane ticket, car etc vs how many hours I would have had to work in South Africa for that same item. You’re right; people in the first world think SA is very cheap because of the exchange rate – but of you use the “hours worked” yardstick this is simply not true. I will say the one place SA still wins hands down is on restaurant prices. You’ll battle to find better value for money at a restaurant anywhere else that I’ve travelled 🙂

  2. Pretty much the same here. When people come on holiday , they all notice how much cheaper things are , but they don’t see that wages here are very poor compared to their home countries. The average full time wages is under 1000,- dollar / month. After paying 500-600 dollar rent … not much left for extras ? Great post Shirley !

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