A rise in global nationalism paired with a worldwide drop in oil prices has brought about significant shifts in the global economy over the past year. As a result of these developments, certain destinations that have long been some of the world’s most expensive have recently seen a decrease in their cost of living.
Whether due to international politics, export and import changes or currency swings, cities like London – which recently voted to depart the EU in the Brexit vote – have seen their ranking dramatically drop in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s annual Cost of Living Index. And, since local currency values have fallen against foreign currencies in most cases (and the rate of local inflation often rises sharply), it’s expats employed by foreign companies that are likely to see the most benefit in these cost-of-living changes.
We talked to residents and expats living in these places to find out how the changes have affected them, and how to save the most money in these suddenly affordable destinations.
The 2016 Brexit vote in favour of Britain leaving the European Union had an immediate negative impact on the pound as compared to other currencies. So much so that London, long at the top of the cost-of-living index, dropped 18 places in just a year. International tourists have flocked to the country to snag deals on luxury goods and other shopping; one estimate said foreign spending has surged more than 36% year-on-year.
But since foreign currencies are stronger against the pound, the cost of imported goods have gone up in price, said Ian Wright, founder of international mover company MoverDB.com, adding that “or more sneakily, the size has been reduced”. (Though the company denies a Brexit association, Toblerone changed the shape of their chocolate bars shortly after the vote). Experts predict that important imports like fruits and vegetables will also likely rise around 8% as a result of Brexit.
Still there are plenty of ways to live even more affordably – and finding good deals on housing is top of the list. Generally, living in south and east London is cheaper than the west or north.
“London is really quite strange in that you can have council estates located right next to multi-million pound homes,” said Wright, originally from Canada.
Wright lives in Abbey Wood in southeast London, where he says a house can be rented from around £1,000 a month, or purchased for around £325,000. “While the area doesn't have a lot going on today, the ruins of the 12th-Century Lesnes Abbey and many parks and woods nearby can be wandered and enjoyed for free,” he said. Other affordable options include more centrally located Leyton near Olympic Park in east London, and East Ham just south of Leyton. East Croydon in south London is also being extensively redeveloped and will soon have a new shopping centre – but you can still find a rental from just £500 per month.
While the UK in general has taken on something of an anti-immigrant mood, according to Wright, he assures that the capital is still very open and multicultural. “London has far fewer ethnic enclaves than cities in the US so you get expats and immigrants from all over the world living next to each other, which I think is one of the best things about the city,” he said.
Many Chinese cities dropped more than 10 places in this year’s rankings, including Beijing which dropped 16 places. While the report didn’t speculate on causes, sources have attributed the drop to falling demand for Chinese exports and a decreased value of the yuan against the dollar.
Much like in London, being able to live comfortably depends on how far from the city centre you’re willing to live: a one-bedroom in Tongzhou, 22km east of the city centre, rents for only RMB 2,500 per month. “But your best bet as a foreigner is finding a room a bit closer to the centre for around RMB 4,000, which you can pretty much do in the ‘cool’ parts of town near Sanlitun [9km northeast from the centre] and Gulou [5km north of the centre],” said Om Buffalo, an American who currently lives in Beijing. In general, south and west Beijing are cheaper than the north and east.
Other ways to save money include taking the subway instead of taxis. “For medium to long-distance trips, taking a taxi in Beijing often takes longer and costs way more than the subway,” said Josh Ong, director of global marketing and communications at Beijing-based Cheetah Mobile. “It's a little daunting at first, especially during rush hour, but with a little research, you can learn your way around.”
His other suggestion is to eat like a local, using dianping.com to find the places real Beijingers are dining. “Western food in Beijing comes at a premium, but there are amazing noodle shops and dumpling houses just around the corner from you.”
Nigeria’s largest city also dropped 16 spots in the rankings, due to global dropping oil prices, one of the country’s primary exports. This may be helpful for foreign employees, but Hashim Zein, an ambassador for expat community InterNations and originally from the US, says that this may create additional security challenges as the related currency inflation has driven prices up for locals, which can lead to an increase in theft and related crimes.
A little common sense goes a long way, however, say locals, and it shouldn’t stop anyone from living here. “I feel at home in Nigeria because of the attitude of the people here. A can-do spirit and resilience plus always time to make merry no matter what,” Zein said. Plus, the city knows how to have a good time. “There’s no party like a Lagos party – seven days a week!”
Lagos is separated into two major parts – the Mainland and Island (which is actually multiple islands, but is separated from the mainland by the Lagos Lagoon). Most expats live on the Island part, including the affluent Victoria Island neighbourhood, 17km south of the city centre and part of the larger Lekki peninsula; or equally high-end Ikoyi, an island neighbourhood, located 15km south of the city centre, built for British expats during colonial rule. Nearby Lekki Phase, a brand-new city still in development, is also just a few more kilometres further down the island.
Those who work in manufacturing are more likely to need to be on the mainland, and Ilupeju (8km north of the centre) and Ikeja (15km north) are some of the best areas for expats, according to Zein, for their safety, more stable infrastructure and location close to many businesses.
Ranked 82 of 132 cities in 2017, Mexico City has always been relatively affordable – but also dropped nine places in the rankings this year. As the currency becomes weaker compared to foreign currency, inflation has risen and local prices have gone up slightly, including recently increased bus fares due to the gasolinazo, the higher gas prices that have been the source of city-wide protests.
For that reason, it’s better to walk to the metro than take the bus, said Lauren Cocking, originally from London who writes a Mexico travel blog. And while she relies on public transportation over private transportation, she recommends Uber for late-night needs. “It is often cheaper than taxis and far safer than public transport, especially late at night.”
It’s also easy to save money by shopping in the tianguis (local markets) than the big supermarkets. “The price difference is incredible,” Cocking said. “The food is my favourite part of life here.”
She says that most expats flock to the neighbourhoods of Roma and Condesa, but those may not necessarily give a good representative feel for the city. “My recommendations would lean more towards underrated neighbourhoods like Narvarte or Del Valle [7.5km and 9km south of the city respectively],” she said. “They are more ‘local', residential areas, and not as at risk from earthquake damage. Same goes for neighbourhoods in the south of the city, such as Copilco and Coyoacán [15km and 12.5km south of the city].”
“Coyoacán is a beautiful, colonial neighbourhood with more traditional houses and relaxing parks and quiet streets, and a bustling central plaza full of delicious street food and entertainment,” said Natalie B, a Mexico City native who works for local travel guide company My Local Cousin. “For those preferring a more traditional Mexican experience in a mostly residential setting, La Narvarte is a good option. This neighbourhood was built up in the 1940s through ‘70s and still has a lot of great original architecture, quiet streets and a family atmosphere.”
After London, Buenos Aires saw the greatest fall in the index, dropping 20 places due to Argentina’s economic volatility. Locals are used to these kind of price fluctuations though, says Madi Lang, an American who has lived in the city for 10 years and runs the Buenos Aires Cultural Concierge. “The economy is always pretty crazy,” she said. “They take it all in their stride – as long as there is beef for the grill.”
Lola Black, a tango guide and an InterNations ambassador, describes the city as “urban, but effortlessly cool and Euro-Latin laid back”. To get the most of this vibe, expats should consider living in Puerto Madero, 4km southeast of the city centre, a clean, high-end part of the city close to the ocean, or historic San Telmo, 4km south of the centre (though safety is a higher concern here).
Those in the city for its famous tango should live in centrally located Almagro, 6km west of downtown. “It's the perfect 'hood because it's super central. It’s close to the touristy/trendy area of Palermo and with excellent access to downtown,” Lang said. “Right in this area there are bars, restaurants, milongas (tango halls), live music joints and just real neighbourhood life.”
Plenty of free activities and parks also make the city very affordable for entertainment. “The hundreds of plazas and parks are perfect for spending the afternoon drinking mate (our traditional tea drink), people watching and general relaxation,” Lang said. Her personal favourites are Plaza Vicente Lopez in Recoleta, the Rosedal Rode Garden in Parque 3 de Febrero and Parque Lezama in San Telmo.
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