After a bowl of noodles for $2 and a few $1 bottles of beer in Thailand, you’d be forgiven if you suddenly shoot up from your tiny plastic chair, and declare loudly that you can live like a king at this price! One trip to an ATM in Ho Chi Minh City will fire out millions of Vietnam Dong that you can roll around in, like Scrooge McDuck in his money swimming pool (Yes, my brother Jeff and I actually did that). But Sydney is an entirely different beast…
Many people who visit a region such a South East Asia quickly realise that they can get a lot for their money. Then you go home, and you raise an eyebrow at that hot bowl of pho down the road, which Sydney is suddenly charging you 6 times the price for. And those beers are now $6 from the bar. Why? It’s still basically the same noodles and beer! Eventually, that ‘I used to find cheaper overseas!’ feeling wears off, and you realise that you live in a well-to-do, prosperous country, and that of course living here costs of a little more, for all those Western comforts and mod cons. But somehow, for me, I see things a little differently than before.
I was born in Sydney, and lived here most of my life. I lived back and forth between Sydney and the Central Coast for many years, but I consider myself a Sydneysider. My professional life and renting history have all been here, and therefore, my money barometer of what is cheap and what is expensive has set the standard extremely high. I work as a research scientist and my pay isn’t bad, i’m not complaining. However because the science industry is what it is, I still make below Sydney’s average. I therefore always feel as though Sydney costs just a little bit too much for me, and I honestly can’t understand how I could ever own an apartment here.
I feel very lucky to have travelled through so many countries on earth. I’m now looking at the cost of Sydney from a new angle. I always compare the cost of things to other cities; and occasionally I budget by the day instead of by the month (as I used to when I was backpacking). I always knew this place was expensive. But what seems so clear to me now is there’s no bang for your buck – there’s no sense that you’re getting a good deal on anything. Things are overpriced, but everyone is ok with it because they can handle it…but do we know we’re being ripped off? No, not really. That’s just the ways things are.
It’s not accurate to compare Sydney with Vientiane or Kathmandu or Dar Es Salaam; there’s a world of difference and they’re apples and oranges. It’s more fair then, to compare Sydney to the other cities in it’s class – Melbourne and Brisbane, but more pertinently (for me anyway, as I’ve spent a fair amount of time in these ones), Paris, London, Montreal, Antwerp, and so on.
So, in this essay I want to talk about Sydney in three areas:
– Transport costs
– Rental costs
– The cost of groceries and ‘the little things’
To me, the number one most glaring problem that a Sydneysider faces is their cost of rent. This is common knowledge, though! (I should have prefaced this article by saying that I have absolutely no insight into economics or real estate, these are just my opinions as a regular Joe. I should also point out that I made a conscious decision a few years ago (as if at some sort of mandatory life-crossroads) to spend my savings on travelling while I was young, rather an apartment deposit, which I wasn’t interested in getting into at the time.)
Anyway, the topic of renting is very broad due to many factors, who you are, what you want, what your budget is, etc. However, a 1 bedroom apartment in the city could cost around $500-600 (this obviously varies greatly) per week. The suburbs are cheaper, but living within, say, an hour or the CBD is still too much for what it is. I mean, think about that price, it’s just mental. We used to pay $600 CAD (The same as $600AUD) per month for our apartment in Montreal. It was bigger than our current place, and took about 30-40 minutes to reach the city centre by public transport.
So for me at the moment, rent is something like $2400 a month, and it’s downright depressing seeing those large sums of hard-earned money enter my account and leave again at wallet-exploding speed. Take a step back and look at the dead money pouring into Sydney rent. Is it really worth it? OK…yes, yes, I know, I could move to a cheaper area, but everyone’s situation is different, and we live in the city to save on both train tickets and car expenses by walking to work and walking to the shops. Which brings me to my next point – transport costs.
The high cost of transport in Sydney is something that I just can not fathom. The first time I seriously questioned it was after a 2009 trip to London, where I was exposed to the highly versatile and convenient Oyster Card. Now, looking at Sydney – a one-way train ticket within the Sydney city circle (I believe that’s about 8 stations, correct me if I’m wrong) costs $3.80. Let’s say you go from Town Hall to Wynyard, that’s a 3 minute ride, so you pay more than a dollar a minute! A bus ticket to zone 3 (which is the ticket for most city-suburb rides) is $4.60. Buy that same ticket from the driver and it’s $5. The price of a point-to-point monthly train ticket from King’s Cross to Redfern (my short commute, which covers 5 stations) costs $102.
Let’s compare that to the monthly Paris Navigo card at 67,10€ (roughly $100), which allows you to travel to every station in zone 1 and 2 (basically every station within the peripherique – the main Paris metropolitan area) on the RER (city trains), Metro (subway system), as well as the bus system! That’s hundreds of stations and bus stops! OK, I’m a little bias because I completely fell in love with the Paris metro! In New York City I loved their reasonably priced taxi system; due to the nature of the city and the large taxi numbers they’re actually an affordable transport tool for getting from A to B. I consider a Sydney taxi as a real last resort. Sydney to Lane Cove, a suburb north of the Harbour Bridge where I used to live, would cost $40 for a 15 minute drive.
Finally, I’d like to mention the other stuff – everyday items such as groceries and entertainment. Let’s look at one example, a common entertainment treat, a service basically uniform the world over – a movie ticket. One of the first things we did when we got back to Australia is go to the movies. I still remember my jaw hitting the floor when we paid for the tickets. Since when did a movie ticket cost $18? I can remember when they cost $13 (ah, the ‘good ol’ days’) just a few years ago. Might as well buy the DVD when it comes out. In Myanmar, we saw a new release for about $2. In Kuala Lumpur, about $3. For somewhere more comparable, Paris, a ticket to the movies costs 6.50€ – about $10. That sounds better, doesn’t it? For 2 hours of entertainment? (In fact, the seats in your average MK2 cinema in Paris are so much more comfortable too, very soft with double padded armrests).
At the moment, tomatoes cost something like $8 a kilo. One of these multigrain breads like ‘Helga’s’ comes out at $6. I know there’s $1 Coles bread, but seriously, the fact that a $6 bread even exists is mind-blowing. And I recently saw a 4-pack of 250mL glass coke bottles, $7! That’s $7 a litre for Coke! Bottle of bourbon? $45. I found the same bourbon in Europe and Canada for about $20. A pair of jeans is usually around $60-100, and it’s quite easy to find some good ones in Paris for around 10€.
So, there’s my rant. In a nutshell, I suppose I’m trying to say that I’ve always known Sydney was expensive. Now I see it’s too expensive. I must say that as I was writing this, it was very tempting to launch into a complaint about so many other things, such as the parking nightmare, the limited rail network, weirdos and public drunks, and many more. Whilst writing, we were also going through Cindy’s permanent residency application, and don’t get me started on the cost of that! It took a lot of saving and almost completely cutting out alcohol spending to afford for that visa cost.
A big part of the appeal of Sydney is the sun, the beaches and the beautiful harbour, and it truly is a beautiful harbour. When I was younger I told myself that I was paying a little extra here because I had the chance to enjoy the shimmering morning sunrise as the train rattled across Sydney’s Harbour Bridge. But since seeing facets of life in other large cities, I just can’t ignore Sydney’s prices anymore. So for now, what am I going to do? Move? Save up and dream big and have another world trip? Who knows, maybe. I certainly won’t be going to any property auctions any time soon.