Thriving in Singapore on a Budget

Posted By Gerardo ( on 21/04/2012

This is a guest post from the Singapore based expat Susan Rawlings.

Singapore is a city with one of the highest costs of living in the world; it moved ahead of Hong Kong in the 2012 list of most expensive cities. The city-state’s economic boom of the last 20 years has combined with its very small landmass to generate high price tags for everything from housing to food.

While the cost of living in Singapore can be a challenge if you are a new immigrant or a visitor, there are ways to make your Singapore dollars go farther. The city offers a wide range of reasonable options in every category. With proper planning, your reward can be a truly remarkable, cosmopolitan experience at a cost that meets your budget. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

Use Public Transportation or Join Car-Sharing Schemes

If you have owned and operated a car your entire adult life, then you will have a decision to make. Singapore is one of the most expensive places on the earth to own a car. The price of a new car in Singapore is about five times that of the same vehicle in the United States. This is partly due to a government policy of limiting the number of cars that are allowed each year on the roads through a market-based permitting process. When you add the high cost of parking, high gas taxes and other vehicle permit fees, owning a vehicle soon becomes an extremely expensive proposition.

The best suggestion? Utilize Singapore’s outstanding public transportation system. Public transportation in Singapore is cheap, efficient, safe, and air conditioned. If you do not want to use public transportation, taxis would be a good second choice. Singapore taxis are clean, dependable, relatively inexpensive and very easily hailed. But if you absolutely must have access to a vehicle, there are several car-sharing schemes available. Here is how car-sharing and carpool schemes work in Singapore:
  1. Join a scheme of your choice
  2. Pay a $100 entrance fee
  3. Pay an annual fee of $100-$150
  4. Rent or hire a car: Call, fax or email in advance to book a car
  5. Pick your car up at authorized locations.
Typical usage fees run between $7 and $10 for an hour, or can be as low as $55 a day. Overnight packages are also available, and cost about $35 from 7pm to 8am the next morning. The Car Club is a popular car-sharing scheme.

Like other major cities around the world, carpools are also available, and you can sometimes find ads seeking carpoolers in a magazine or newspaper.

Rent a Public Housing Flat (HDB Flat)

Securing a comfortable place to call home can quickly become your biggest expense in
Singapore. The rising real estate prices have been one of the biggest contributors to Singapore’s high cost of living. On the other hand, rents have not risen as fast. Therefore, to save money, rent and do not buy a house. You’ll find many attractive options available whether you’re seeking a private or public rental property.

The most important fact about Singapore's public housing is this - Singapore’s public housing is not at all like the public housing “communities” you will find in western countries like the United States and Great Britain.

Singapore homes are built by the country’s Housing and Development Board (HDB) and then sold to new occupants. The advantages of living in such flats are that they are cheap and well-served by shops and public transport. Staying in HDB housing in Singapore is both affordable and convenient, especially for those new to the country. About 85% of Singaporeans reside in such public housing.

Shop in Singapore’s Wet Markets

Your other large expense will be on groceries and daily household items. Here you can save by acting like a local and shopping at the wet markets and thereby avoiding the hidden “foreigner ignorance tax”.

Not everyone enjoys wet markets; these markets earned their name because their floors always seem to be wet. The markets themselves are very large, and offer just about every food item, including fresh fish, chicken, vegetables, fruits and dry goods. Prices at a wet market are generally far lower than those at supermarkets and the food is more fresh and interesting. A wet market is more like an open-air or farmers’ markets, therefore, you won't be able to find the specialty or pre-packaged items you may usually buy. Also keep in mind that most shop employees will not know more than the basic greetings of "hello!" and "goodbye" in spoken English; so be prepared to improvise your communication skills at a moment’s notice. You should be able to find a wet market fairly easily. Many wet markets can be found in housing estates, usually with a food hawker centre nearby.

Eat at Hawker Centres

Hawker centres and food courts dot the Singapore landscape and are perhaps among the most interesting food experience one can enjoy anywhere in the world. The centres are very large structures, presenting diners with every dish imaginable under the convenience of one roof. You can expect to pay around $5-$6 for a meal at a hawker centre. On the other hand, a meal for two at a top end fancy restaurant in Singapore can easily run above $1,000.

A hawker centre is a great place to find affordable, delicious and authentic cuisine in Singapore. By definition, a hawker centre is an open air dining area where one can find several food stalls bundled together, all selling different Singaporean specialties at low prices. Just because the setting is simple, there’s no need to be concerned about the food quality. Hawker centers are licensed and monitored by the government; Singapore health inspectors visit often, and proprietors must post the letter grades they receive from the health department, which display the level of cleanliness and quality offered by each stand. In essence, hawker centres are an important stop for anyone who enjoys local cuisine. They are a great eating experience even if you have Bill Gates’ bank balance.

Shopping & Entertainment

Since one of the nicknames for Singapore is the “millionaire capital of the world,” one can only imagine the level and selection of goods available to the shopping enthusiasts in Singapore. But much like every other country or major metropolitan area in the world, shopping centres can quickly become popular destinations for tourists and new residents. Many of them seem replicas of each other with the same set of hackneyed fashion stores in them. The many local shops and shop owners doing business outside of the mainstream malls offer a far more unique and interesting selection of goods for purchase.

For nightlife, there are countless clubs to frequent. But beware: these clubs can be quite costly. With an abundance of beautiful beaches and parks around the city, there is no shortage of options for those seeking to relax and enjoy everything the city has to offer, including its natural beauty. And most of these options are completely free.

There is little doubt that Singapore is one of the most exciting, cosmopolitan cities in the world, a distinction that often brings with it a higher cost of living as well as an elevated quality of life. The key to living well in Singapore is to determine what your priorities are, whether it be an active nightlife, dining out, owning your own automobile or renting a home, and then budget your money to meet your most important needs first. The experience of living in Singapore will be well worth the effort you make to accommodate your new lifestyle and home.

About The Author

This article was contributed by Janus Corporate Solutions – a leading Singapore-based firm that specializes in Singapore company formation and relocation services for startups and mid-size businesses.