The cost of living is a technical economics term. It means, generally, “the level of prices relating to a range of everyday items, and regular household, educational, tax, insurance and transportation expenses.” Investopedia provides a more complete definition:
Cost of living is the amount of money needed to sustain a certain level of living, including basic expenses such as housing, food, taxes and health care. Cost of living is often used to compare how expensive it is to live in one city versus another locale. Cost of living is tied to wages, as salary levels are measured against expenses required to maintain a basic standard of living throughout specific geographic regions.
Accordingly, newcomers from Paris, London, New York and Hong Kong will find Chile to be relatively inexpensive, albeit with lower salary expectations, while people from places like small town Italy, rural New Zealand and many places in the USA and Canada located outside of major cities will find it to be extraordinarily expensive. The same thing is true when people from those places travel to other spots in the world that feature a significant cost of living disparity.
Sometimes, normally rational people, make rather irrational judgments based on limited data. For example, newcomers to Chile from the USA see that gasoline costs much more in Chile and then extrapolate that the overall cost of living is higher in Chile. This conclusion is false. By the same logic, Venezuela and Bolivia, where gasoline supposedly costs fifteen U.S. cents per gallon, must be extraordinarily cheaper places to live than in the USA, where gasoline is “excessively” expensive. However, this reasoning is erroneous. Other things in those countries are not cheap. Living in the Third World is cheaper for a lot of things but the added costs of bodyguards, criminal threats, political unrest, unsanitary conditions, etc. have to be factored into the equation.
Can I fairly judge that the USA or Finland are excessively expensive for wine since I pay US$4 for the same bottle Chile that people in those countries pay US$25 or US$40? One must look at overall cost of living in Chile verses those other countries without getting caught up in extrapolating on the prices of individual products, whether they be cheaper (e.g., medical care, vegetables, yogurt, pharmaceuticals, maid service) or more costly (e.g., gasoline, peanut butter, boxed cereals, power tools). Also, to be fair and consistent, one should never compare cost of living in small town Italy or Arkansas verses a major metro area like Santiago. Instead, use Atlanta, Charlotte, Houston, Detroit, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Milan, Berlin, Hong Kong, Sydney or Singapore as a baseline. Should anyone be surprised to know that living in Chicago, San Francisco, Munich, Barcelona or Geneva costs more than it does in Mobile, Little Rock, Porto, Cuneo or Salerno?
In other words, any analysis is deficient that simply compares only the cost of living in a place without also considering the amenities which influence our standard of living and quality of life. With most of the aforementioned items, Northeastern Santiago and Viña del Mar, Chile provide far more to augment one’s standard of living than can be found in most metro areas of over one million population around the world. The same can be said of Auckland and some other places, but not many others. For many people, it is worth paying more to have a better environment and certain amenities.
Nevertheless, cost of living still serves as a good starting point. After all, newcomers must be able to survive. If they have no accumulated wealth, they can create portable income by becoming a 51Talk online English teacher with a decent salary, most likely tax-free. After having money to spend, they will likely want to avoid paying higher living costs. At this point, many newcomers become frustrated by the price of “little” items. Perhaps the following remarks will help keep things in perspective and alleviate frustrations about living in Chile for the fist couple of years.
One newcomer recently told me, “Prices are by far the most demoralizing thing about Chile.” I suggested that he read the chapter on cost of living in my book Life in Chile: A Former American’s Guide for Newcomers. He needed to get the “big picture.” Many smaller items are more expensive in Chile but many larger budget items are not. His frustrations and worries were based more on emotion than rational analysis. Do not make the same mistake.
It is always good to answer questions and concerns rationally when it comes to the relative cost of products and overall cost of living, especially when the products in consideration make up a small percentage of our overall spending in any five-year period. For instance, how much contact lens solution does one buy a year? Even if it is significant, are there alternative means to get it cheaper? Can you have it shipped to you via Amazon and pay the 25% duty in Chile and still come out ahead? Do the same exercise with peanut butter, pliers, shoes and alarm clocks. It is not more expensive to live in Chile. You simply have to change your way of doing things from what you used to do. Try ordering smaller things online or stocking up on them while on trips to Europe or the USA and even pay an extra suitcase fee to bring them back (you might save enough to cover the costs of the flight!).
A household’s biggest budget items are housing, insurance and taxes. Those costs are all going to be reduced dramatically in Chile, even as a percentage of income, dwarfing any extra costs one has for “little” things. Food, transportation and education are important second category items. Depending on how one handles them (mode, selection, quality, etc.), and where one chooses to live, they will be either a little more or a little less in Chile than where you came from.
Let’s consider another “little” item that tends to be expensive in Chile by USA standards, but is not something you can import: meat. Think about it. How much more does a family spend on meat, continuing to eat it normally in Chile as they would have in the old country? Let’s say it costs an extra US$200 per month or US$2,400 per year. This sum pales by comparison to US$40,000 less in paid taxes alone, once a newcomer starts working his professional job. Until then, he simply has to absorb the cost as part of the price of emigrating. Even so, assuming the family eats lots of fruits and vegetables, there might be savings of US$2,000 per year if those foods are regularly bought in open-air markets. Therefore, look at the big picture rather than individual items. Also remember that we do not eat GMO-fed beef in Chile and the fruits and vegetables are better quality. Again, the cost of living should not be divorced from the standard of living.
A similar thing could be said of electricity costs. A newcomer living in an apartment in Santiago once told me, “I got the electric bill; it is unbelievable. I cannot understand how people can survive here.” Yet they do survive here, and on much less than their American counterparts. Why? They know how to play the game, whereas a tourist does not. After my years in Chile, I am now spending about the same on electricity as I did in the land of the free. In our household, we use electricity for lighting, small kitchen appliances, range hood, oven, washer, dishwasher and things plugged into outlets inside the house. Outside it is used for a sewage pump, lights and outlets (e.g., for the lawnmower). Those that choose to heat with electricity make a mistake. Most locals choose to get one of the Japanese or European kerosene units, like Toyotomi. The cost for heating will thus be much less over the long run than using electricity. Another slightly more expensive but more convenient option is to hook into the natural gas system if it is available.
My (cynical) Chilean wife says that Chileans that heat with electricity have found a way to alter the electric meters and thus rip off the companies. She may be right. Others use some sort of gas heating system. Newcomers should listen to her. She often knows. While in Las Condes, we used the Toyotomi heater instead of the apartment’s furnace heat or electric heaters. We saved a bundle and the heat was better. Also, the maid could help fill up the heating unit, maintain it and the room temperature, which is a benefit that newcomers are likely not accustomed to having.
What newcomers often do not realize is that electricity bills come with whopping surcharges for “overuse.” In Chile, once you go over a basic amount of electricity in winter you get nailed with a rate that is 2x or 3x the normal rate and the bill skyrockets. So, in order to not cross the threshold, one learns to mix into one’s household some natural gas (or propane) appliances for heating, hot water, cooking and clothes drying. Is that inconvenient or a hassle compared to the USA (Europeans are used to such things)? Maybe so. But so what? You do not live in the old country any more. It is just something else to learn, in a new place. Locals know how to optimize energy use. Imitate them. Every government-sanctioned utility monopoly has its own unique way of “ripping off” citizens and tourists. You have to learn to cope here just like anywhere else. Locals know. Newcomers must learn. Why do newcomers expect to know everything the first two months after arrival?
A key point of my book, Life in Chile: A Former American’s Guide for Newcomers, is to inform newcomers of issues as much as possible prior to coming to Chile. Things will be hard enough as it is for newcomers. Yet these folks routinely put off reading it as if the information were optional. They pay the price because of when they arrive unprepared. All newcomers have a hard time, but the more ignorant ones suffer the most. Newcomers should not think immigration will be easy. I have never said it is. However, you can look at my experience and that of many others who have stayed and see that it is more-than-possible to make it. Hard times make for hard choices, but the diligent can succeed.
Consider, too, the cost of using interurban toll roads. For instance, driving from Santiago to the Talca (farm belt) area on the weekend will cost perhaps US$24 dollars in tolls round trip (33% less on weekdays). One might first ask why there is a toll when gasoline (not so much diesel) taxes are so high? In Chile, most interurban highways are private and tolls are paid to a company that has won a monopoly right through a competitive bidding process (one of the “Chicago boys'” innovations stemming from the 1980s). Because of that fact, newcomers will notice that highways are in perfect condition, unlike Chile’s city streets (often rotten outside of Santiago). Fuel taxes are used in part to pay for city roads. Hence, Chile is a case study in why all roads should be private.
Furthermore, before one complains that, “Roads are no better here than in the USA,” he should consider how much he pays in taxes in the USA or Europe to get those good roads. Remember, too, that in New Jersey, Illinois, Pennsylvania and California people pay tolls to the state on top of paying taxes. Also, tolls in Chile are much cheaper than New York and Europe. In those places one already pays high income and fuel taxes. Consequently, one must not judge the cost of living in Chile based on what a tourist pays for things. Once one has a job and pays less in taxes, owns a home and use medical care in Chile, all will become strikingly clear: the savings far outweighs the additional costs for some things.
For example, if one earns US$120,000 in the USA and pays US$45,000 in all taxes, including income, Social Security, car registration, capital gains, property taxes and fuel taxes, in Chile he might pay US$12,000. Europeans will have a similar experience. Given that fact, is it “excessive” to pay US$24 in tolls to go to Talca, especially if one only goes there, say, four times a year? Once again, if one only looks at the cost of the tolls, he is missing the bigger picture.
Newcomers also tend to be myopic in my experience. They might be saving, for instance, 80% on world-class medical care in Santiago (compared to the USA) or procedures like in-vitro fertilization, not to mention the associated high transportation costs of traveling to specialized clinics. Yet they completely ignore those massive savings (that even newcomers can garner) and instead complain about the relatively paltry costs of things like tolls, meat and contact lens cleaner. Doing so is really irrational, if not ridiculous. Those who do so are not yet seeing the whole picture. With the savings in medical care and procedures alone, how much “excess” costs for cleaning fluid, meat and tolls can one pay? Five or ten year’s worth?
Newcomers live as tourists for the first year or two in Chile. The associated extra costs have to be counted as part of the cost of resettling to a new country without a visa in hand. Probably, no one has ever told them that it would be cheap to leave the old country and settle into a new one. Ask yourself: “Is it worth it to me to spend an extra US$25,000 on store-bought products over the next two years in order not to have to stay in my present country?” If so, deal with it.
So many people come to Chile with the unfounded expectation that transactions costs to adopt a new culture and way of life will be low. This thinking is tragically errant, always leading to frustration. An international move, including full immigration to a new country where one does not speak the language, is not easy and is hardly cheap. Why anyone would think otherwise is beyond me. I never make such claims in what I write or on my webinars. Nonetheless, rest assured that over time initial costs do subside. In the meantime, do not be surprised by the transition costs you will face. Try to minimize them, of course. Yet, is it not far worse to live in danger in the old country? Be thankful that you at least have the money to pay to move, Most that want to do so, cannot. That fact is one reason why becoming a 51Talk online English teacher is a Godsend.
Consider, too, that coming to Chile can end up being a career enhancement. No matter what happens, even if one “goes back,” being in Chile provides an opportunity for career growth. Indeed, there is little downside professionally if one plays his cards right. These benefits offset transitional costs. Living productively overseas does not look bad on one’s resume: after a few years you will be able to list such new personal attributes as “bilingual,” “experienced in living in an overseas environment,” “dual citizen” and “cross culturally trained.” How many new opportunities will those attributes create for you? Might it generate a higher rate of pay, too? Thus, the higher transition costs do come with some ancillary benefits. In addition, if one ends up buying real estate while here, Chile is a good place to invest in rental units and a retirement or second home, even if one chooses to leave someday.
Think about it. Base your judgments and conclusions in rationality.
Be sure to become a member of Escape America Now and gain access to the monthly webinar. Details at www.esccapeamerianow.info. Visit AllAboutChile.com for discussion and forums about the country. Non-wealthy immigrants to Chile should also create a portable income by signing up to be a 51Talk online English teacher. Read more details about the job in my previous post on the subject.
For a brief introduction consider Dr. Cobin’s abridged 2015 book (56 pages): Chile: A Primer for Expats ($19), offering highlights (somewhat outdated) found in the larger book. Buy Dr. Cobin’s Public Policy books at Amazon.com: