Mapping the Cheapest Cities for Living the Expat Life

A user-generated global city comparator.

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Expatistan

Among the young and the restless, the cost of living in different cities is as good an icebreaker as there is. Housing in Pittsburgh is cheap, you say? But transportation is cheaper in Montreal! And everyone knows that you can eat like a king for two dollars a day in Mexico City...

So when wanderers wonder if their salary might stretch further in Barcelona or Milan, why not direct them to the experience of their peers? That's the premise of Expatistan, a user-generated cost of living index designed by web developer Gerardo Robledillo.

Robledillo is something of an itinerant himself. He's from Spain, and lives in Prague, by way of Frankfurt and elsewhere. In 2009, he began to wonder if there might be some sort of middle ground in the city comparison game between the (costly) cost reports designed for corporate executives and the word-of-mouth testimony on forums like city-data or SkyscraperPage. Trying to figure out how far his salary might go in different places was a guessing game. "There has to be a better way," he thought.

After studying various reports from the United Nations and national governments, he devised a survey featuring several dozen common indicators of the cost of living -- the price of a monthly transit pass, a pint of beer, a house cleaner, and so on. (National indicators alone, Robledillo says, were not so useful as source material: "The differences between a capital city and a smaller city are way bigger than different capitals from different countries.")

Since Expatistan launched in January 2010, users have entered more than 600,000 points of price data. Each individual question factors into one of six categories -- like Transportation, or Housing -- which then produce a final comparative judgment: "Cost of living in London is 8 percent more expensive than in New York City," or "Cost of living in Paris is 132 percent more expensive than in Budapest."

Since no government data goes into these calculations, the figures reflect the biases of the users. Though many metrics are quite specific -- eg., the price of two liters of Coca-Cola -- others are more subjective, like the cost of a meal in the central business district. For Robledillo, that's the point. Expatriate costs can vary widely from those of locals, particularly in poorer cities like Cairo or Bogota, which makes generic metropolitan statistics misleading.

When an expatriate takes issue with a ranking, the site is at its self-correcting best: "You think that price is wrong? Enter the correct price. I try to use that impulse people have to improve the site," Robledillo says. (The site also prompts users for information on under-reported data points.) Over thousands of inputs, the disagreements get smoothed over.

That does leave lifestyle differences out of the equation, though. Owning a car doesn't matter as much to Madrileños as it does to Angelenos, so is it fair to report, as Expatistan does, that transportation in Madrid is more expensive than L.A. due to the higher cost of a purchasing a car? That, Robledillo confesses, needs some work -- though he maintains with the proper numerical data, lifestyle preferences could be factored in.

On the other hand, old habits die hard. "You adapt to your local conditions to a point," he notes, "but if you like beer, you'll pay a premium for beer in Muslim countries."

Top image: Expatistan.

About the Author

  • Henry Grabar is a freelance writer and a former fellow at CityLab. He lives in New York.