FREE NEWSLETTER

Relative Affluence

Sanjib Saha

WHEN RESTRICTIONS ON travel eased this year, I visited Kolkata, India, where I grew up and my mother still lives. The airline ticket and other travel costs were almost 75% higher than my last visit four years ago.

This year, I’ve grown used to price shocks at every turn, from groceries to gas, so the steep ticket price didn’t shock me. What did surprise me was my feeling of affluence once I arrived.

Traveling to a low-cost country as a tourist doesn’t necessarily feel like a bargain because most items still have an international price tag. But living like a local is another matter. Everything seems dirt cheap to folks from high-income countries. Curious to know how far my U.S.-earned dollars went during my stay in India? Consider:

A dime would get me a freshly made hot tea from a roadside tea stall, served in a disposable earthen cup. For a nickel more, most sellers would upgrade it to a masala chai—milk tea flavored with ginger, cardamon and other aromatic spices.

A quarter paid for the return bus ticket to my aunt’s place four miles away. What else could I buy for a quarter? How about a recently picked large guava to savor with rock salt, or a bag of fresh flowers that my mother needed for her morning offerings to the gods?

A half-dollar would buy a hearty Bengali breakfast dish from an outdoor eatery, if you didn’t mind waiting while the cook prepares it right in front of you. The food would typically be served on a Sal leaf plate, to be trashed afterward in a designated bin.

A dollar for a man’s haircut might sound like a promotional offer, but that’s the regular price in the neighborhood salon—and it wasn’t due to the thinning hair of its regular customers. The small shop not only had the needed hygiene standards, leather seats and air-conditioning, but also offered nice add-ons, like a 30-minute head and shoulder massage for one dollar more.

Two dollars was the cost of my cab ride from the Kolkata airport to our house five miles away. As soon as I walked out of the arrival gate, a few touts approached me to offer a no-wait, luxurious ride. I declined and waited in the queue for pre-paid cabs. Fifteen minutes later, I got a cab assigned to me, helped the driver to load my bags and was on my way.

Five dollars covered the electrician’s labor for two visits to our house to take care of a few things for my mother. The work didn’t take long but, as a courtesy to my mother, he also bought the necessary fixtures from our neighborhood electrical store.

Ten dollars may not seem like a lot, but it was enough for a trained masseuse to come over and help me with my sore calf muscles and feet. The massage lasted about an hour, not including a brief break for tea and light snacks that my mother made for him.

Fifteen dollars was the cost to take my mother for a sumptuous lunch at a trendy restaurant on Park Street, the Fifth Avenue of Kolkata. The fresh green coconut water added another dollar to the restaurant bill. The experience and service were well worth the hefty tip we left.

Twenty dollars got me an all-day ride in a private, chauffeur-driven compact car. We started in the morning to visit a few places within a 25-mile radius and returned in the evening. I could’ve used a ride-hailing service instead, but the neighborhood operator seemed more friendly and convenient.

Twenty-five dollars covered both the labor and materials for a long-overdue plumbing overhaul of the main bathroom. The plumber replaced the leaking pipes, ran a new water connection to improve the flow and installed a new showerhead. He took two days to complete the work, and it was immaculate.

One hundred dollars connected our home with high-speed broadband internet for a year. I tested to check if the connection lived up to the advertised speed of 100 Mbps. It outperformed.

One thousand dollars covered the cost of new Bosch appliances I bought for my mother and sister-in-law. These included an energy-efficient refrigerator, an automatic front-loading washing machine and a high-powered kitchen chimney. The cost, which included delivery and installation, was lower than I expected thanks to the seasonal discount for the Diwali festivals.

My feeling of affluence was shattered as soon as I was on my way back to the U.S. A cup of tea purchased past the security checkpoints at Kolkata airport cost $3. Thirty hours and 9,000 miles later, I was home, catching up with my wife after being away for a month. That was a moment worth $1 million.

Sanjib Saha is a software engineer by profession, but he’s now transitioning to early retirement. Self-taught in investments, he passed the Series 65 licensing exam as a non-industry candidate. Sanjib is passionate about raising financial literacy and enjoys helping others with their finances. Check out his earlier articles.

Do you enjoy HumbleDollar? Please support our work with a donation. Want to receive daily email alerts about new articles? Click here. How about getting our newsletter? Sign up now.

Browse Articles

Subscribe
Notify of
19 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
John Redfield
John Redfield
1 month ago

Wonderful article!
I worked for Shell for 4 years back in the mid-90’s on their international staff in the Netherlands. I received a bonus for an international posting that was dependent on the country, e.g. smaller for the Netherlands than Nigeria. Interestingly, after 4 years they would remove the bonus in increments of 25% per year for that posting. They wanted their international staff to be mobile and not have motivation to stay in one place. They also recognized that as one acclimated to the country, the cost of living decreased. I slowly changed my spending habits to be more ‘native’ and not try to replicate my American patterns. I remember buying a box of macaroni and cheese for about 19 cents in the US around then. If we could find it, the cost was about $3 in the Netherlands. A real treat for my children!

Sanjib Saha
Sanjib Saha
1 month ago
Reply to  John Redfield

Thank you for sharing your experience, John. Mac n cheese is still a treat for my grown-up daughter :).

Fred Wallace
Fred Wallace
1 month ago

Sanjib… Thanks for your wonderful article. It reminded me of how inexpensive things were when my family visited Cambodia 3 years ago. I have always had hesitation in visiting India given extreme poverty and the challenges of visiting this country with pollution and general uncomfortableness. Care to comment?

mytimetotravel
mytimetotravel
1 month ago
Reply to  Fred Wallace

To add to Sanjib’s comment: I spent ten weeks in 2001 and six in 2010 traveling solo in India, mostly by train (regular Indian trains, not the pricey tourist specials) and staying in budget to mid-range places. You can easily spend a lot of money for luxury, and that will insulate you somewhat from India. It is indeed very noisy, very dirty and over-provided with beggars and touts. The south is somewhat quieter and cleaner than the north. I didn’t have trouble with pollution but I think it has gotten worse, while the roads may have improved. Avoid the hot season unless you are headed to the hills, and definitely avoid the monsoon. You will be rewarded by magnificent scenery and sights (although some that could be great are in poor repair) and good food. Note that I, female, would not travel solo in India today, as I think it has become more dangerous for women. I would look for a small group tour, or a well-recommended driver. (And add Laos to your SEA list.)

Sanjib Saha
Sanjib Saha
1 month ago
Reply to  Fred Wallace

Thank you, Fred. Glad to hear about your trip to Cambodia. It has been on our list of places to visit. I think you’d also enjoy visiting Thailand and Bali.

It’s hard for me to comment objectively on India as a travel destination. It’s a very diverse country with many aspects to attract visitors. Tourism infrastructure for foreigners is great (and pricey!) in certain commonly visited areas, whereas some other places may need more planning and flexibility. I haven’t visited many of the famous places myself, and I feel it might take me at least a year to get a taste of everything it has to offer.

Purple Rain
Purple Rain
1 month ago

A dime for a cup of chai? You got ripped off, Sanjib. The lady who cut my hair in Mumbai last month offered me free chai 😉

Sanjib Saha
Sanjib Saha
1 month ago
Reply to  Purple Rain

:). I think it was included in the price of the haircut ;).

mytimetotravel
mytimetotravel
1 month ago

Sounds like a great trip. (I was once in Kolkata during Durga Puja and had a great time.) Living like a local also helps in higher cost countries. People complain that Japan is expensive, but if you stay in the hotels used by Japanese business men (Toyoko and Dormy Inns, not capsule hotels!) and eat in local restaurants it’s really not that pricey. Staying in international hotels not only cuts you off from the country, but tends to lead to higher prices for other things, especially in countries where taxis and rickshaws don’t use meters!

Sanjib Saha
Sanjib Saha
1 month ago
Reply to  mytimetotravel

Thank you. Yes, it was a great trip. Agree that non-tourist living costs less everywhere.

William Perry
William Perry
1 month ago

More time with your mom – priceless!

Sanjib Saha
Sanjib Saha
1 month ago
Reply to  William Perry

Absolutely, William.

Peter Blanchette
Peter Blanchette
1 month ago

That feeling of affluence you felt while in India would have been a whole lot greater if not for the projected $100 billion of remittances(ie… your appliance purchases) in 2022. What does that say about how the world works?

Brent Wilson
Brent Wilson
1 month ago

Sadly I haven’t done any international travel. Can you or someone clarify what this means? “Traveling to a low-cost country as a tourist doesn’t necessarily feel like a bargain because most items still have an international price tag.”

I assume there is a small fee to withdraw cash from an ATM in a foreign country, or exchange US currency for foreign currency. Is this small fee (I think maybe 3%) the “international price tag” you refer to? Or are you saying merchants will give you the option to pay in your home currency at a higher price?

mytimetotravel
mytimetotravel
1 month ago
Reply to  Brent Wilson

The 3% (not, in my view, “small”) is charged by some banks but not all. My Capital One current account used not to charge it and their credit cards still do not. The option to pay in your home currency applies these days to both ATMs and credit card transactions and is known as the Dynamic Currency Conversion scam (look it up).

I believe the author’s point is that you can choose to live it up at international chain hotels and fancy restaurants, or live more like a local at much reduced cost. The latter is also more fun.

Jonathan Clements
Admin
Jonathan Clements
1 month ago
Reply to  Brent Wilson

If you travel abroad, and stay at well-known hotel chains and eat at the better restaurants, prices aren’t much different from those in the U.S.– and, in fact, they may be higher, especially if you stay in areas frequented by tourists.

Mik Cajon
Mik Cajon
1 month ago

Your heart is in the right place by helping and sharing with those less fortunate…a true sign of wealth is the ability to give it away.

Sanjib Saha
Sanjib Saha
1 month ago
Reply to  Mik Cajon

Thank you for the kind words, Mik. To be clear: I wasn’t really helping anyone less fortunate in this trip, at least knowingly. I was just visiting Kolkata to spend a month with my mom and meet other relatives. All the spending was for goods and services that we received.

Rick Connor
Rick Connor
1 month ago

Sanjib, thanks for the fascinating story. I enjoy learning about different cultures and countries. Are salaries and major purchase prices (like houses and cars) commensurate with the price level you reference?

Sanjib Saha
Sanjib Saha
1 month ago
Reply to  Rick Connor

Thanks, Rick. I think you can get a new hatchback compact Indian car for about $4,000. Buying used cars is quite common. The gas-price is comparatively high even with subsidies. House price depends on the city and the age of the house. Kolkata is relatively low-cost compared to some other metros in India. My brother’s family recently purchased a new 2-bed 2-bath apartment on the 16th floor in a modern high-rise for less than $100K. It’s in the suburbs but has a breathtaking view of the Ganges River (the fridge and chimney were for this house).

Free Newsletter

SHARE