Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Hummus is how much? The cost of living

Today I did my weekly food shop, got back, looked at the receipt and thought, holy crap! I just spent £4.50 on hummus! I don't know how it is possible that hummus is so expensive - maybe there was an unspecial offer. Before I came to Russia I assumed that food would be cheaper than in the UK, but this has not turned out to be the case. Specifically, anything I eat appears to be expensive.

Of course, I don't have to eat hummus. But it does take a while, when you move to a new country/new living situation, to work out what you are now going to live on. You have to go round the shops, pick up the food, examine it from all sides, and consider the all-important question, can I cook this in my current kitchen? For me, this has generally meant on one ring. Technically when I lived in New York I had an oven for a couple of years, but I was short of bookshelves at the time so I had to fill the oven with books, which made turning it on difficult. Currently I subsist almost entirely on risotto, which I can cook in one pan and requires a minimum of excess water. This is important because everything has to be done with bottled water so it is a huge waste of water to boil anything. At the end of the month I will have another problem, as my room mate is going back to Japan, taking her fridge with her. No more cereal for me.

In Russia there is a lack of several important (to me) food items, including tins. There is very little tinned food in the supermarkets near me, and instead they go in for dried food in a big way. This means no tinned soup, no tinned chickpeas or butter beans (well, they have imported tinned butter beans in Елисеевский (Yeliseyevsky), the Moscow equivalent of Harrods food hall, but at more than £1 per tin, it's just not worth it). I am too lazy to soak beans overnight, and dried soup is not as good as tinned soup. These aren't the only deficits: Russia, along with the entire non-UK world, is yet to discover the delights of salt and vinegar hula hoops, neither are they alive to the wonders of orange squash, although you can get the strange French mint squash in Ашан (Ashan - a French supermarket chain). One the other hand, they have better bread than we do, especially dark rye bread, which is hard to get hold of in the UK, and Armenian bread, which is a bit like a tortilla. There is also something called творог (tvorog), which is like cottage cheese only less liquid, which is wonderful stuff. The honey here is better, and they sell пряники (lebkuchen) all year round, which is an improvement on trying to eat a year's supply at Christmas, my usual custom. Plus they have a lot more types of cured meat. In terms of fruit and vegetables, you can get most things, just possibly not when you want them. Either that, or the supermarkets near me need to fire whoever does their buying. One week they will purchase an enormous quantity of red peppers, which will proceed to slowly rot over the next few weeks, without them getting any more in. Likewise with broccoli - sometimes loads, then none for a month. Prices for some fresh foods vary from week to week, sometimes by as much as 25%, for no discernible reason.

A few (currently) strangely expensive foods here (using Ocado as a comparison): hummus (£4.58 vs 99p for 200g), squash (£5.16 vs £3.20 for a litre, using lemon syrup as squash), cauliflower heads (£1.46 vs £1.05), broccoli heads (£1.32 vs £1.20), Activia yoghurt 4-pack (£2.10 vs £1.84), cottage cheese 340g (£1.65 vs 95p). Rye bread is much cheaper (50p vs £1.60 per loaf), as is risotto rice (£1.11 vs £2.24 for 900g), and orange juice (79p vs £1.20 for 1 litre). Overall I spend about the same amount on food here as I did in when I was a student in the UK.

The trouble with this is the difference in wages. The average (median) annual wage in Russia in 2011 was £4,200 ($6,875), vs £20,800 ($33,385) in the UK (2010) and £16,425 ($26,364) in the US (2010). Even assuming the median wage in Russia is actually higher due to the white/black income thing, food must take up a much higher percentage of a family's income than in the US/UK. As this article indicates, for 10% of the population it takes up 100% of their income, and 53% of the population only have enough money for food, utilities and clothing. Something like buying your own apartment is only possible for 1% of the population. To buy a one-bedroom flat in Moscow would require the average Muscovite (who already earns more than most Russians) to save 100% of their income for 12 years!

[Of course, in the UK unless you're really rich you have to pay tax on income, and in Russia, well, multiple people have told me no one in their right mind pays their taxes. Theoretically income tax is 13%, but you can get around this by having a difference between your white income and black income.Your white income is your official income on which you have to pay tax. The company you work for will often set this really really low, and then just pay you the rest (your black/grey income) on the side. However, if one day you suddenly need a much larger official income, for example if you want to get a visa to visit Europe or the States, your firm will just print you out a new piece of paper saying you now earn shed loads of money.]

As newspapers in the UK are constantly telling us, the most expensive thing in life is children. The Guardian reported this year that the cost for raising one child to adulthood is now £218,000, a number that cannot possibly be true, because it would mean most of the population would be unable to afford any children at all. [In fact, if you look at how they calculate these numbers it becomes clear that the people who write for the Guardian are quite odd, since this total includes more than £62,000 on childcare and babysitting and their list of "essentials" includes buying the child a car.] In Russia, however, it must be legitimately difficult for parents to afford to raise more than one child, given the high cost of essentials that are actually essential. This is why you get situations like the tour guide I had in Krasnoyarsk, who had an undergraduate degree in Physics, a PhD in Political Science and had to work three jobs to support his one son. He wasn't even doing this on his own - his wife also worked, as a lecturer in Mathematics at the university. These were highly educated, professional people - if they had to work this hard just to support one child, what hope does anyone else have? Maybe this is why Russia has such a big demographics problem.

Note on source for median wage: Rosstat (Russian source for statistics) didn't provide median, only mean from what I could see, so I averaged the mean wages for the 5th and 6th decile of workers. Not perfect obviously, but I think the underlying point still stands. I was surprised about the difference in median wage between the US and the UK as well, but I think this is correct. The mean US wage is of course higher than the mean UK wage, but wealth is more unevenly distributed. And the tax rate might be lower in the US, I can't remember, and this is wage not income, which might also make a difference. Exchange rates used as average over period. 


  1. Ого! Что-то дорого для хумуса.
    Только что вернулся из Ашана. Там 200 гр. хумуса стоит 70 рублей.
    Специально для Вас сфотографировал.

  2. And about children in Russia I wouldn't agree. It's not so expensive as you write. An appartment is expensive. And the life in Moscow and prices in Moscow differ a lot from the prices and life in other places.

  3. Well, you have almost hunt down the question!

  4. where did you buy the hummus in moscow?