Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken” speaks of a narrator who came to a crossroads while travelling in the autumn woods.
There were two roads to choose from: one that looked frequently travelled, and the other that was grassy, and “wanted wear.”
Taking the road less travelled, the narrator reflectively suggests, enriched his life.
In some ways, I’ve also taken the road less travelled. I had a great job at a high school in Canada, but seeking adventure and exotic travel, I moved to Singapore in 2003.
I don’t believe that most expatriates living in Singapore save much money. There’s a temptation over here to live large.
A previous post discussed the outrageous costs of owning a car in the Lion City, and if you’re rubbing shoulders with most expatriate business-folk, you’ll spend a small fortune on expensive drinks, and restaurant prices that could make your eyes water.
But that’s not the road less travelled. It’s the road worn thin by expatriates who live like Sultans in countries where salaries are high, and taxes are comparably non-existent. Then, when many of them come back to Earth and repatriate, they’re disappointed by how little they have in their coffers.
In a place like Singapore, where Hondas, Toyotas and Volkswagens cost well over $100,000, many road-weary workers don’t see a choice. But those who open their eyes and broaden their horizons can see Singapore as a very cheap place to live.
Forget owning a car if you really want to save money in Singapore.
During non peak hours, a taxi can take you roughly 10 kilometres for $9 Canadian/U.S./Australian. This is a fraction of what you would pay in most first world countries.
Public buses cost roughly $1— less than half of what I pay in Canada, when I travel by bus in Victoria, British Columbia, while visiting my family during the summer.
I rarely see expatriates on public buses. Most of them prefer paying through the nose for the convenience of a car.
Because I love getting visitors in Singapore, let me offer to treat you and three of your friends to dinner at a local hawker stall: a social roof-covered open eatery that’s similar to a North American food court.
Splurging on four plates of duck, fish or chicken with rice and vegetables and four cans of Coca-Cola could cost me the mighty sum of $12 Canadian/U.S./Australian.
The photo you see alongside is a local menu in Singaporean prices. Converting $2.50 in Singaporean dollars amounts to roughly $2 U.S.
Arguably, it can be cheaper to eat out than to cook, and many of the locals in Singapore do just that. Most community family apartments are built above or close to such hawker centres. They become places to eat breakfast and drink tea before work.
Many people enjoy them during their lunch breaks, and they’re great places for dinner or for socializing with drinks in the evening.
They’re generally filled with locals, but they’re pleasant, and never cramped. Few expatriates can be found at these establishments. Most of them prefer dining at expensive eateries, where they complain about the painful prices of alcohol.
Too bad for them. A 500ml bottle of beer (which is much larger than the average North American bottle) costs just $4 U.S./Canadian/Australian at a hawker centre, where you can sit, laugh and be served all night.
Fruits and Vegetables
Conveniently located near virtually all hawker centres are “wet markets” where flowers, fish, meats, vegetables and fruits are usually sold. Again, it’s rare to find these establishments frequented by Europeans or North Americans.
Many of those working at wet markets have a very weak command of English. If you were to tell the average expatriate that, they would be surprised.
Isolated in their world of higher cost establishments, they would be shocked to hear how many people in Singapore have difficulty with English, despite it being one of the country’s national languages.
By not purchasing foods at wet markets, many people miss out on a truly colourful Singaporean experience. And if you’re keen to buy locally, the costs of fruits and vegetables can be surprisingly low.
Rambutans, pictured alongside, are my favourite fruit. This morning, I took this photograph from the wet market near our apartment. These succulent beauties cost 80 Canadian cents a kilogram.
Malaysian bananas, pineapples, mangoes, papayas, seafood and an array of leafy vegetables are sold here for a fraction of the cost you would pay in Canada or the U.S.
Papayas, for instance, that are twice the size of my head, sell for less than $2 Canadian.
Most wealthy Singaporeans and expatriates have Philippine or Indonesian live-in maids who look after the children, cook, and keep their homes looking spotless…for $500 a month.
Before you consider this some form of exploitation, there are a couple of things to consider.
My wife’s former maid lived with her for seven years. From her relatively paltry salary, she was able to purchase the finest home in her local village. When too many of her relatives wanted to live in the house, she bought two other homes for members of her family…in cash.
She has since moved back to the Philippines, and my wife and I stayed with her a few years ago to see it all with our own eyes.
You can see Eliza’s four bedroom home alongside. It’s nestled in the mountains, roughly 10km from the sea. Eliza is on the left, next to her husband, with my sister Sally in the middle, and my wife Pele on the right. In the background, working in the kitchen, you can see Eliza’s mother.
So can you save money in a city with a reputation for high costs?
If you break from the high-cost establishments frequented by tourists, wealthy Singaporeans and expatriates, you can enjoy plush first world wages, pay fewer taxes, and likely save more than you could in your home country.
What’s more, most expatriate employers in Singapore cover the rental costs of large apartments (ours is 1,700 square feet) with gorgeous swimming pools, tennis courts and exercise facilities.
You can see my parents enjoying our condominium’s pool.
But few expatriates take advantage of the money-saving potential in places like Singapore. They live large and spend more than they would ever dream of spending in their home countries.
When two roads diverge in a yellow wood, most people see just one.
In my next post, I’ll take you to a tropical island nearby. We’ll spend a week on one of world’s most beautiful beaches, eat everything in sight, and spend less than it would cost to fill a motor-home with fuel.