Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Second vs. Thirteenth (COLA... and not the Coke kind)

As any expat worth their salt knows, complaining about the high cost of living in Norway is a favorite topic. We relish commiserating about how ridiculously overpriced everything seems, and cries of ‘I could buy ten sofas for the cost of this beer!” ring out from expat homes across Stavanger. However, there is always the slight annoying issue of fact. So today I present you with the latest cost of living indicators so we can really see how bad off we poor expats are… or not.

According to, “The cost of living indexes are based on pricing the same basket of goods in local currency and comparing them in US Dollars using exchange rates with New York as the base (New York = 100).” Get your head round that, and come with me…

Oslo used to be the second most expensive city in the world in which to live. Not anymore, peeps! Oslo dropped in the rankings from 2nd in 2008 to 13th in 2009. Why? Because the kroner has weakened against the US dollar, and because cost of living adjustment (COLA) indices are measured with a USD base, so currency fluctuations force locations up and down the rankings accordingly.

COLA is based on an index of 13 different ‘baskets’ of goods. By choosing similar products in each country and grouping them into categories, an ‘apples to apples’ comparison is possible. So let’s see where Norway falls in those baskets.

1. Alcohol & Tobacco: 2 out of 276The good news here is you will probably be too cheap or too poor to be able to afford a heavy drink habit. But do prepare yourself for sticker shock when the nice bartender slides a Guinness across the bar and requests you pay him 70 nok (approx. $11). No, he is not demanding a sum for the entire keg. Alcohol is just crazy expensive here. It has primarily to do with the alcohol laws, but that rant is saved for another time.

2. Clothing costs: 104 out of 276Truth is you can get some decent togs here for a slightly inflated price, but you’re really not that bad off. What I find, though, is I am paying J. Crew prices for Wal-mart quality. Note this and stock up on clothes at home.

3. Communication costs: 19 out of 276
It costs a boatload more for internet and phone calls. However, beat the system by electing for a phone box like Telio and making good use of Skype.

4. Education costs: 109 out of 276
You can live with this. Part of the reason this rank is high is because most expatriates do not take advantage of free public schooling. Sure, you can send your kid to an international school, but prepare to ante up for the annual tuition. One of the international schools here costs more per year than the private university I went to in Texas.

5. Furniture & Appliance: 48 out of 276The furniture here is pricey, but you can get some beautiful pieces. In Stavanger, I recommend Slettvoll, Living, and Helgø Møbler in particular. You can get great mid-priced goods at stores like Skeidar and Bohus. And there’s always Ikea, which comes with the bonus of enjoying an ice cream after paying for your coffee table. Appliances are actually about the same as the US if you get a sale. Check out Lefdal, Elkjøp, and Expert for appliances.*

6. Grocery costs: 19 out of 276
Food is expensive here. The same caprese that cost about $5 in Italy to make is about $10 in ingredients here. Norway has strict import laws on food, with general preference going to local products. The good news is that you can find almost everything you need, but at a cost.

7. Healthcare costs: 86 out of 276
Because the rankings are based on averages of costs from both the public and private sector, I think this figure can be a little misleading. If you take advantage of the public health system, cost is much, much lower than the US. However, private care is also available for some specialties, and this causes the ranking to be a little higher.

8. Household costs (housing, water, electricity, etc): 91 out of 276
Rents are basically in line with many large American cities, but the cost to buy can be a little shocking. However, if you are willing to do some work yourself, you can purchase a gem and spend a little elbow grease on getting it up to snuff. This is the route Husband and I have taken, and it means we can have a home exactly how we want it without the (as) frightening price tag.

9. Miscellaneous costs: 3 out of 276
This includes items like linens and general goods and services such as domestic help, dry cleaning, office supplies, newspapers and magazines, and postage stamps. The cost of some of these items beggars belief. Dry cleaning, for example, is shocking. Don’t expect a 99 cent per shirt special in these parts. Buy some Dryel, lose the housecleaner (or suck up the cost and use the time saved elsewhere - it is what it is).

10. Personal Care costs: 159 out of 276
Your toothpaste and shampoo will not be as expensive here as you think. However, luxury brands are a pretty penny, so stock up on salon goods and expensive makeup at home or at duty-free.

11. Recreation and Culture: 32 out of 276
Husband and I went to the cinema last week and coughed up 95 nok (about $15) per ticket. It makes you a little choosier about the films you see. Wait for the DVD, my friend.

12. Restaurants, Meals Out and Hotel costs: 11 out of 276
One of the sources of my greatest discontent, a meal out is nothing to be taken lightly. Expect to pay fancy prices for Chili’s quality food. There are some great restaurants in Stavanger, but they are dear. This one is a mixed bag for me, as I come from a land where we eat out at least once per day usually. But the cost here means I spend more time socializing at home, which can be equally rewarding without the high price tag. Another one of those 'it is what it is' conundrums.

13. Transport costs: 5 out of 276
My car here in Stavanger cost more than my first flat in Houston. Not because one is exceptionally great or one was exceptionally rubbish. It’s down again to import restrictions. An interesting thing is that the car market here is not terribly varied in price, meaning that a good mid-level model sedan is not that much less than a higher spec car. If the car prices cause a nosebleed, there is always an excellent public transportation system of which you can take advantage.

So that’s the skinny on how COLA breaks down for Norway. I still plan to moan about the high cost of this and that, but at least now I can focus on the things that actually are more expensive, and I can have cause to remember there’s always somewhere where I could be worse off!
* If you can't read Norsk, no worries! You can use Google Translate as a web page reader. Not perfect, but it definitely helps. Just enter the web address and off you go.