South Africa vs. U.S. Prices (or Stretching the Nonprofit Salary)

South Africa is pretty cheap for Americans right now. Since the last time I was in South Africa in early 2012 the Rand has taken a pretty big tumble. Back then a U.S. Dollar was worth about 8 Rand (ZAR). Right now, the Rand is at 12.7 to the dollar – an almost 60% decrease in its value relative to the USD in 5 years. And this is after its value has recovered somewhat in recent months! Since October it’s been generally trending between 13.5:1 and 13.0:1.

I won’t get into all the details of why that is ( Zuma! ), but I thought you might find it interesting to know how much oddly cheaper or more expensive certain things are here.

Quick caveat: Obviously, my opinions are reflective of costs converted to USD and compared to U.S. prices, which is to say this may not be reflective of how prices feels to South Africans (who themselves are all over the income spectrum). But, hey, this is a blog written by an American for a largely American audience. So here goes:

Cheaper

My Photoshop skills are… lacking
  • Rent – Our place is Pretoria is nice and not ‘cheap’ by any means, but it’s almost certainly cheaper than a place this big and nice would be in any major U.S. city, let alone the capital, Washington D.C. But rental costs for office space and housing for middle and lower income folks is much cheaper in South Africa, I think.
  • Tipping – Tipping here runs about 10% and if we really want our server to like us we tip 12-15%.
  • Safaris – Ok, so we don’t have safaris in the U.S. and safaris here can be seriously expensive, especially at the exclusive private lodges that sit on private game reserves, but safaris here can be a good value. At a lot of game lodges accommodation, meals, and 2-3 game drives are often all included in the per person price. At a relatively more accessible private lodge like Pilanesberg Private Lodge this can be $200 per person per night in high season ($150 pp/pn in low season) – not cheap, but not bad either when you think that just a hotel room in a major U.S. city can easily go for $200-400 a night! And it gets even more affordable if you stay at the SANParks camps in the government-operated parks or do a ‘self-catering’ and/or self-drive option in the parks. This can put the price for a safari by more than half, easily.
  • Furniture – I was very pleasantly surprised by how affordable it was to outfit our place. A nice Sealy mattress was $400. Our entire living room and dining rooms combined was around $2,000. And we’ll probably get half of that back when we eventually sell everything up our departure. Solid!
  • Fruit and vegetables – I love how cheap fruits and veggies are here, routinely going for $1-2 or less depending on what you want.
  • Meat – Even better than cheap veggies? CHEAP MEAT! And not just beef, chicken, and pork. We’ve got inexpensive lamb (!), duck, you name it. Often free range too. Two nice steaks will be about $6.50. Chicken goes for $3.50/lb. Duck and lamb are probably half what they cost in the U.S. I’m glad our place has a grill!

Much Cheaper

  • Meals out – Dining out for an American here is a no-brainer. For a typical meal out at a sit-down restaurant it is easy to pay less than $10 a person for an entrée with a drink and a shared appetizer, $6-7 if you want to be cheap. Soft drinks and bottled water run about $1. Desserts are often $3-4. On the even cheaper end, I go to lunch at a local joint around the corner from my office and a quarter chicken meal with rice and two ‘salads’ (think relishes in the U.S.) is $2.50. On the more expensive end of things, Naama and I went out for a fancy dinner the day before Valentine’s Day where we each had two courses, drinks and a dessert. The entire bill was around $30 before tip!
  • Wine – South Africa has great wine, but when you think about how cheap it is it’s hard to not open a bottle a few nights a week. Good, middle-of-the-road bottles here comparable to a $10-12 bottle in the U.S. run about $6. And if you want something really good off that top rack in the grocery store (the $20-25+ ones in the U.S.)  you might spend about $12.
  • Drinks – At restaurants and bars alike, drinks are super affordable here. Imperial pints of beer are $3-4 (bottles are $2), shots of liquor are $2-3 and mixers (charged separately for mixed drinks) are about $1. Now I just need more friends to drink with regularly.
  • Hand-outs – There is a lot of begging here. Almost every streetlight (or ‘robot’ in the local parlance) will have someone asking for money. And Naama and I find ourselves giving away money a lot more regularly. With unemployment at ~27% and huge structural and long-standing inequality it’s easy to see a lot of these folks really don’t have any other options. And giving someone R5 ($0.40) goes a long way here.
  • Housekeepers, babysitters, gardeners, etc. – I already mentioned the high unemployment rate, right? Lots of people looking for work in this case translates to having help around the house be very affordable.  Expats pay a little more, of course (between our guilt and wanting to pay a living wage), but it’s still much cheaper than getting these services in the U.S. Houses with ‘maid quarters’ and having live-in help are pretty common among the well-to-do in South Africa.
  • The NES Classic Edition – Turns out people aren’t crazy here. This little system with 30 classic Nintendo games can be found from local online sellers for around $80, above the U.S. MSRP, but a far cry from the $170 these are going for on the secondary market in the U.S.
  • Movies – This might be why Naama decided to come with me in the end. A ticket for a regular showing at a movie theater here is less than $6.  Matinee prices are even lower. “But they probably get you at the refreshment counter,” I hear you saying. Wrong, it gets even better!  Yep, no $7 big gulps of Coke or $8 Icees. Popcorn, candy, and drinks typically go for $1-2 and you can get combo packs with all three for around $5.

More Expensive

  • The bed sheet cartel has a stranglehold on South Africa

    Gas – Fuel, a.k.a. petrol, could be a lot worse, but it’s definitely more expensive here than in the U.S. (like everywhere else). Right now, gas costs R13.3 per liter or right around $4 per gallon. Expensive, but not crazy. South Africa has a ton of tiny, fuel efficient cars on its roads.

  • Banking – Prepare to be nickel-and-dimed if doing any business with the banks in Africa. Fees for keeping a balance in a bank account, fees for making deposits in an account via an ATM (even more if making a counter deposit), fees for withdrawals, fees for wire transfers, fees for currency exchanges… the list goes on. Banking in Southern Africa is a good business to be in.
  • Using our Visa cards – This isn’t common necessarily, but it’s also not uncommon to be changed 2-3% to use your Visa card to pay for significant expenses here. It’s tempting to think, “Well, hell, I’ll just pay cash for everything then!” but after you take into account ATM fees, currency conversion fees, wire transfer fees, cash deposit fees (since we don’t have bank accounts here yet) and not wanting to carry tons of cash around (ask Naama about this sometime) that 2-3% suddenly doesn’t seem so bad.
  • Board games – Board games are a classic example of the type of imported product that is going to be more expensive in a place like South Africa. As a smaller market there just aren’t the same economies of scale when shipping things like this in bulk from Asia or elsewhere where they are produced. Import levies of 20-30% are common on these kind of non-essential items too. This may be a blessing in disguise though. Because let’s face it, the only reason I really want to buy more board games is because I’ve got two boxes of games that have yet to be shipped from the U.S. (along with the rest of our stuff – long story).
  • Running shoes – See Board Games, above. The pair of Brooks I bought here cost $180!

Much More Expensive

  • Linens – Believe it or not, linens are SUPER expensive here! Linens! One towel can typically cost $20 or more. Bed sheets are routinely sold individually, not as a set, with ONE sheet with a decent thread count costing $40-50 each and pillow cases costing $15 apiece. WTF? I have no explanation for this. Naama and I will be bringing back a suitcase full of bedsheets though on our trip back from the U.S. though, believe me.

I’m sure there’s lots of other things I haven’t thought of and I may revisit this list from time to time, but that seems like a pretty good start for now. Interesting, right?

– By Jon


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