Note: This post was written in 2012 and cost of living expenses most likely have gone up in the meantime, as the Rand is now at 10 or 11 to 1 to the US-dollar, compared to 7 to 1 when we lived in South Africa.
"What is the cost of living in South Africa?"
I can tell you, however, that we are indeed spending more than we ever thought. I'm pretty sure the culprit is travel, but more on that later.
Having penned quite a few emails with cost of living advice, and having sat down to finally do some rough calculations, I thought it's time to put all of that in a blog post I can easily point people to. If you are an expat contemplating a move to South Africa, I hope you find the below list useful. If you are an existing expat, I hope you can add some of your own insights and advice.
Monthly cost of living averages in ZAR (based on a family of six in 2012) in descending order:
Food/Groceries: 10,000. When I actually did crunch some numbers for this I was surprised to see it a bit lower than expected, with most months not much above 8,000 and almost never exceeding 10,000. When we first moved here, it was our impression that groceries were more expensive than in the U.S., but I no longer think that's true. We are spending more than some years back, but this is probably due to the fact that a) food prices have gone up worldwide, and b) our kids have grown bigger and eat more. After living here a few years, we have adjusted our buying patterns and no longer yearn for some of the difficult to get and more expensive packaged foods, and have found the best places to find the right things. You might take note that if you employ a live-in domestic, you will also have to provide meals, which will be reflected in your grocery bill.
School uniforms/supplies/class trips: 3,100: You thought you had it all covered with school fees, but you were wrong. Obviously this item will depend on the number of your children and which school you enroll them in, but I thought it should be mentioned. It should also be mentioned, however, that the expense for school uniforms (as much as I complain about lost uniform pieces) will replace a large part of your expense for other clothing, as your kids will need very little of that (especially in this mild climate).
Domestic Help: 3,000. This is for a live-in, 5 days a week domestic helper (you'll have to add in food as well as initial expenses to furnish a room, and a 2% monthly unemployment fund payment). You can figure about 1,900 for part-time, live-out (3 days a week) help. Also read Hiring Domestic Help.
Electricity: 2,100. Electricity costs, if not paid for by your employer, are definitely something to be reckoned with. The cost of electricity has gone up dramatically over the last few years here in South Africa, mainly to finance the construction of several new power plants that are sorely needed to satisfy demand. There have been several price hikes between 2008 and 2011 that amount to 260% when compounded annually. Further price increases of 25% each for 2013 and 2013 are on the horizon.As of now, while you'll be able to keep your power bill in the above range or even slightly below during the summer months, expect some big increases to up to ZAR 5,000 and more in the winter months (June, July, half of August). Your water heaters (called geysers here) and underfloor heating will be the major culprits. Looking for houses with solar geysers (a no-brainer in a country where the sun shines every single day) and investing in gas heaters rather than using the underfloor heating will be a good way to save money.
Water/Waste: 1,500. Obviously this will depend on the number of people in your household and whether you have a sprinkler system for your lawn (in which case your costs will be higher in the winter dry months). Here in Johannesburg, the City of Joburg bills you for water and garbage (called PikiTup). If you want a recycling service, you have to contract that out privately (see Recycling in Joburg for more info).
Fuel: 1,800. This is for a large SUV but one with a Diesel engine that gets a good gas mileage. While gas/fuel prices have come up in the last few years, they are still well below European levels.
Insurance: 1,500. Make sure you cover your household goods, your vehicle, and your kids' musical instruments, if any. Obviously, the size of your car will play a role. The number here is based on one 7-seater sports utility vehicle. You will also have to factor about 180 per month for a vehicle tracking service.
Phone landline/Internet: 1,300. This item has gone down to about 950 for us recently, after I finally decided to drop the landline and only keep Telkom for our Internet ADSL line (after another 2 weeks of the phone getting no dial tone once again and my typical complaints to Telkom leading nowhere). We pay Telkom around 150 per month for the line rental, and 799 to Afrihost for an Uncapped bundle - the only way to go, in my mind, unless you enjoy running out of internet by the 23rd or so of each month.
Mobile phones: 900. Our service is with Vodacom, but I think they are all similar in price. We've got one iPhone and 4 Blackberries. Here in SA the latter is the way to go, due to unlimited browsing and BBM just for R60 a month. All the kids have Blackberries, so the good news is your kids won't be asking for iPhones. You can sign them up for the very cheapest phone plan (R49 or even R29) because they hardly ever use the phone to make calls. It's either BBM or Whatsapp here in South Africa.
Garden Service: 750. We have a regular garden service coming weekly to cut the grass. You can also hire a gardener at a lower cost who will come in on a Saturday, but then you have to supply the tools and lawnmower, whereas a service will come with everything that's needed and takes away your garden refuse. Factor another 550 or so if you want your pool serviced as well. Or do it yourself.
Cable TV (Multichoice): 700. This is something I'd honestly consider not getting. The programming isn't great, and thanks to services like UnoTelly you can configure much cheaper alternatives.
Pest Control: 550. Sometimes this is included in your rental agreement. Ants are definitely a problem in South Africa, particularly during the summer months, so getting effective pest control in place is well worth it, even though it is quite pricey.
These are the obvious expenses I'm able to give you fairly concrete numbers for. But there are a few other categories to consider, some of which you'll have to fill in yourself:
Additional Cost of Living Categories:
Eating out - obviously this depends on your habits and tastes. South Africa has great restaurants, and they are generally very affordable. Sometimes I think it would be cheaper to just eat out than buy groceries. Our monthly average for this is somewhere around 2,500.
Entertainment - going to the movies is also very affordable in South Africa, and there are always great offers for comedy and plays at places like Montecasino in Joburg.
Furniture/home improvement - you won't have to put much into home improvement if you're renting a home, but set aside some funds for the purchase of beautiful African artwork, as well as perhaps an investment in nice patio furniture - after all, you will spend most of your time outside.
Gym: If you want to join a gym, look at 250 to 400 a month for that. Some of the medical aid like Discovery gives you a gym discount at Virgin Active.
Health insurance/medical aid - our health insurance is funded via the U.S., so I have not listed it here. See Healthcare in South Africa for more information.
Sports and music: That can be a big expense item that obviously varies with the size of your family and extracurricular engagement. One thing I like about having the children enrolled in a South African school is that it pretty much includes all the sports you could wish for without any extra expense. Nevertheless, we seem to be running up the tab with outside tennis, horse riding, swimming, cricket and gymnastics lessons, which individually are not pricey but add up for four children. It's the same for music - lessons are actually very affordable here and often offered directly through the school, where music typically plays a big role, but your kids might get involved in more than they would have done at home, adding to your bill.
Travel - this is the biggie I mentioned earlier and obviously depends on your travel plans and budget. But let me tell you from our (and our friends') experience that no matter what budget you plan, you will always exceed it. There is simply too much to see and do in Southern Africa, and travel here is anything but cheap. Especially for larger families, because all prices are quoted per person, not per room (my theory as to why this is has to do with the African mindset - allow people to rent an entire house or apartment, and an entire clan including five goats will be moving in). You can easily spend 40,000 on a 3-day trip to the bush, but of course you can also do it for much less if you invest in some equipment and aren't opposed to a little bit of adventure. Also see Help! Which Safari Lodge?
I'm sure I've left out some smaller expense categories, but you get the picture. Yes I know, this is quite a list. Everything adds up quickly, and if you're anything like our family, you might have to dig into your kids' college funds to make this happen.
While you're at it, you might as well make sure to set aside a budget for South African wines and the occasional trip to Franschhoek to replenish your cellar.