The True Cost of Living in Europe From an Expat on the Ground
I just paid $1.78 for a half-liter of beer while spending my lunchtime at a park in Prague where I enjoy writing. That’s neither here nor there, save for the fact that American friends often ask me what life costs living abroad.
Which got me thinking that maybe there’s an interesting column this weekend in comparing real living costs overseas vs. life in the U.S. Of course, I’m comparing Prague, where I live, with the two most-recent cities in which I lived in the U.S.: Long Beach, California, and Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I offer this decidedly parochial analysis because I think it’s relevant to this new world we live in—one where people increasingly have the freedom to pick up and live and/or work from pretty much wherever they want to be.
Some want to stay in the U.S., and there’s nothing wrong with that. Others want to spread their wings and try living in another country (which I highly recommend because of the joy that comes from integrating yourself into another culture). Either way, cost of living is, obviously, a primary consideration.
So, I share with you my costs…
First, some important caveats. These are just three cities. Costs obviously range widely across the U.S. and across Europe and the rest of the world. Moreover, this is the personal experience of one person—me. My lifestyle choices and priorities might not reflect other people’s. That said, here we go…
Let’s start with housing, the largest and most important expense. Here in Prague, I live in a desirable neighborhood, surrounded by leafy parks, an abundance of mass-transit options, and beaucoup pubs, eateries, shops, supermarkets, and a mall. I can be in the center of the city in about five minutes on the metro…or 17 minutes when I walk. My apartment was totally renovated in 2018 just before I moved in and is 782 square feet across the top two floors of a six-story building built in the 1930s (there are just 20 apartments in the building). My terrace looks out over a quiet courtyard totally surrounded by 15 similar buildings.
My rent: between $1,200 and $1,300 a month, depending on the exchange rate. That includes utilities.
In California, I was paying more than $1,475 a month for a dark, dreary, dated studio of 350 square feet. Water and electricity added another $128 a month to that. Granted, I was living across the street from the beach, but even at that, my rent was pretty comparable to what my California friends pay not living on the beach. In Baton Rouge, I was paying $1,175 for a generic, corporate-style apartment in a large, generic complex in a generic, uninspiring part of town. Utilities ran to more than $200 a month, largely because of Louisiana’s weather.
My high-speed WiFi and cable bill: $37 in Prague vs. well over $100 in both U.S. cities where I lived. My mobile phone here: $48 a month. In the U.S., I was paying $125.
Food: Being single, I eat out frequently. Then again, I’m just as happy with a bowl of cereal or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a glass of milk, meaning that my at-home eating habits aren’t terribly taxing on my income.
In Prague, my food costs for eating out and grocery shopping are a combined $460 a month. Of that, my grocery bill every month fluctuates on either side of $150 (and some months I’ve spent as little as $70), which means I’m spending a bit over $300 on restaurants and pubs. Here, an entrée, a side, and a beer is $8.50 to $12. I had lunch at a sushi bar near my apartment last week—a bento box with chicken, rice, soup, a small salad, three pieces of a cucumber roll, and fruit, with green jasmine tea—and my bill was $11.60.
In the U.S, I was paying $650 a month to keep myself fed, primarily because restaurants are pricier.
Health insurance: As I noted in a previous column, my insurance premium is 55% lower than California, where I was paying $550 a month for a subpar, barebones policy I was truly unhappy with. I faced a huge deductible of $10,000 annually, and I had copays that ranged from $30 to $65. In Baton Rouge, I paid $435 monthly for a better policy, but still had a $4,000 deductible and $20 to $35 in copays.
In Prague, I pay into the Czech state plan. It’s $113 a month (again, depending on exchange rates), and it covers everything. No deductibles. No copays. Prescriptions run me $1 to about $4, usually. On top of that, I opted for a private plan as well when I first moved here, since I was uncertain about the breadth of English-language services within the state plan (it’s actually pretty broad). That’s $125 a month, and again no deductibles or copays of any kind. So all in, I’m at $238 a month for top-quality healthcare (I do pay for certain dental treatments, but a recent wisdom tooth extraction was less than $80).
I have no need for a car because subways and trams take me anywhere and everywhere I want to go. And for that I pay $150 a year for an annual pass. In L.A. and Louisiana, my monthly auto costs (insurance, car note, gas, maintenance) were $800 and $580, respectively.
I still have various costs in the States that haven’t changed, primarily for insurance policies and subscription services such as Netflix and HBO. But all in, my cost to live in Prague—one of the prettiest cities in Europe—is radically less. And, frankly, that’s one of the reasons I wanted to move: to reduce the footprint of my costs on my own life.
I’m not implying that crossing borders to live elsewhere is the best move for everyone, but it can be an excellent move for anyone who wants to sharply pare their costs structure to save more or live richer.
By Jeff D. Opdyke