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April 6th, 2006

Cost of Living: Part 3

Posted by natdavauer in Around the World

Disclaimer: These statistics, though not made up, are only as accurate as time allows when doing research on a computer that costs two baht a minute.

The Census Bureau shows the cost of living in the USA broken down this way: Housing: 29%, groceries: 13%, utilities: 10%, transportation: 9%, health care: 4% and misc: 35%.

So let’s take a financial peek into the home of a backpacker.

They spend very little on housing, maybe $5 a day. However, housing is pretty loosely defined. It pretty much means a semi-permeable structure that’s above, around or somewhere next to you. This could be a room in a high-rise building or a mosquito net. It’s hard to cut this cost unless you want to sleep on benches outside. In which case you should read “The Cost of Living for a Hobo.” Needless to say, I am comparing a university graduate or super spy to a common backpacker not a bum.

Grocery cost can vary quite a bit for the no-account drifter. This is the item where you can really cut your costs depending on your resolve. I’ll say this varies from $10 a day to $1 a day depending on location and weight class. Eating what the locals eat can save you big bucks, but you can loose that savings in the hospital bill for E. coli poisoning. Calling food “meals” and trying to eat them on schedule can be dangerous for the pocket book. The miser will eat when the hunger pangs tell him to. Street food is a friend to the pennywise as well. Any food that comes from a “kitchen” that has wheels and handlebars is priced to sell.Utilities? Score one for the backpacker - or don’t score anything at all to be precise. There is no climate control on the road. Sweating and shivering become natural reactions the world around you, like breathing. Sometimes you have to wear all of your clothes to bed and sometimes you just sleep under a cold, running shower.

So much for your savings on utilities, because here we have transportation. This one can be deceiving if you don’t look at the overall picture. A local bus in china can cost as little as five cents while there is no budget transportation across oceans (no, not even freight ships. They charge around $100/day for weeks to bring passengers). So, while we spend $1,000+ a year at home on gas, it can cost that much just to get over the pond. Which, when you add in the affordable local travel costs after you get there, it makes this one even out a little.

Note regarding Transportation: The cost of living in terms of transportation may sometimes include dying. To ease the minds of worried mothers out there, here are some comforting stats: While the chance of dying driving a car is 1 in 17,625 it is only 1 in 6,696,307 on the good ‘ol bus and 1 in 10,283,615 on the romantic rails. Planes come in a little worse at 1 in 440,951 but that statistic includes space travel.

The average backpacker would screw up their eyebrows when you asked them about their health care costs. Most just don’t go to the doctor. I can tell you that after a slow-motion crash on a moped yesterday, I came away all patched up and just 85 cents poorer from the pharmacy. The smart (read: older) ones have travel insurance policies but we don’t tell our fellow travelers about these. The aire of danger is part of what makes backpacking so enticing. There is a reason that the Census Bureau keeps no statistic regarding chances of death while watching TV and eating chips.

Miscellaneous is a tough one. I know what you’re thinking, “I should be doing a lot less misc.” Conveniently, our biggest expense is an undefined money pit called miscellaneous. I shouldn’t say “undefined” because it has a definition:

Miscellaneous in the English language is a word used to describe a thing or a set of things that cannot be categorized into other categories. It can be distinguished from Etcetera as etcetera is a continuation of a set of things while this word deals with the incategorization of things.

So… uh, good luck with that. Miscellaneous would account for all the sightseeing you do while backpacking. Once you get to the paradise island planning to live out the year on your meager budget you realize that you should probably go see that amazing waterfall or that ancient temple or that solid gold Buddha. All of a sudden your budget is doubled with the cost of actually seeing the place you came so far to see. You thought you were just going to go to the lost Shangri-La and live there on a shoestring, but as soon as you arrive there it is: Miscellaneous.

So there it is: the backbacker’s financial breakdown. For yours truly it breaks down something like this: Housing: $5/day, Groceries: $5/day, transportation (this is for all travel costs over all days spent): $15/day, Health care: $1.5/day, Misc: $3/day. We’re talking about $30/day to live on the road. This is no $730 year that dude told you about in college. This is, in fact, a $10,950 year on the cheap end of the scale. OK, to put this in perspective: a liberal arts degree at UW Madison (cheap end of the scale being the four-year-scale) including housing and food would be $12,600. That figure does not include health care, the cost of a car and a whole lot of other Misc. So the costs are close, but you would have seen all of the waterfalls, temples and Buddhas in a textbook instead of in person. That’s if you even bought the textbook. Imagine the temple of Angkor Wat in all it’s photocopied glory.
One expense conspicuously missing from this analysis is the very one that makes it possible: The Internet. Not too many years ago this was not even listed under a backpacker’s expense report. The closest thing was postcards, and you could just throw them in the misc column. Now, this is a powerful force that can make or break entire countries in terms of their stayability. No internet = not sticking around.

“You know… the internet is half as much in Tajikistan.”

“OK, let’s go!”

The cheapest internet I’ve found on this trip was 37 cents/hour while the most expensive is over $5/hour. If you plan to spend three hours on the net every day, $1.10 vs. $9 is the kind of difference that can make the ocean less blue and the mountains less majestic. “You know, this island kinda sucks anyway.”

If you look at spending a couple hours on the internet every day, an average of $5 let’s say, that is now the same as your food and housing costs. If you’re paying normal rent at home, imagine paying $700/mo for internet! What used to be one more of the many things you no longer had to worry about while backpacking has become a guiding force that takes up a sixth of your budget. It seems that the net has made it easier to travel but harder to stay.

I will admit that I have been writing these last three posts from the most expensive end of the internet-cost scale. Now that I see the expense in numbers, cold, hard facts, right here in front of me, I have to end this discussion. I will give in and walk to the beach, just two minutes from where I sit and watch the sun set over white sand and a slow, rolling surf. Only because of the expense involved sitting here in front of the never setting glow of my monitor will I go soak up the intense beauty of the 100% free beach outside.

And that, my friends, is the cost of living.

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