It is not surprising to find that an expat's living costs in Colombo are one of the most asked questions when it comes to the ins-and-outs of expat life in Sri Lanka. I get about an email a week these days with this question from someone either moving or thinking about a move to Sri Lanka.
One of the things I always state when it comes to cost of living is that it can vary greatly from person to person depending on their income (i.e. are you paid in local or foreign currency), asset base and lifestyle (i.e, this includes things marital status, kids, eating preferences, social preferences and so on). An expat who is single versus married with kids will have a different cost basket to consider. Similarly, an expat that owns their own property and vehicle will have a different cost base to one that is renting and using other forms of transport. As with most Asian cities, there are higher taxes imposed on imported goods, so if you're living as if you're back in your home city (particularly when it comes to eating preferences) then you'll find yourself paying the same if not more than what you would have back home. If you adjust to the local lifestyle and food choices then it is actually cheaper.
Generally speaking, most expats will have a higher cost of living than the average local. It can be quite surprising to discover how much an average local will spend in a typical week.
When it comes to my typical week in Colombo I have to say upfront that I'm probably not your atypical expat. I probably fall somewhere in between a local and an expat and my weekly expenditure reflects that. When I first moved to Sri Lanka I still lived as if I was living back in London, so my expenditure was actually quite a lot higher in the early couple of years. But after I started to settle into island life and embracing the local culture, food and way of life, my lifestyle started to evolve.
Fixed Weekly Expenditure
The table below sets out my fixed weekly expenditure for a typical week in Colombo, adding up to රු19,200 per week. It's actually on the light side compared to most of my expat friends, who have to factor in higher accommodation and other fixed costs. Most of my family can't believe my fixed costs are around £400 a month. Yes, it's eye-opening! Even more so when you think about how much I spent when I was living back in London.
|Expenditure category||LKR (රු)||Notes|
|Accommodation||1,000||Estimate of expenses for general maintenance and upkeep|
|Vehicle||6,000||Estimate of car registration, insurance and fuel|
|Other transport||1,500||Estimate of public transport, taxis and tuktuks|
|Insurance||875||Estimate based on annual personal insurance|
|Electricity||800||Estimate based on monthly bill|
|Gas||250||Estimate based gas tank purchase and usage|
|Water||50||Estimate based on monthly bill|
|Telephone/BB||625||Estimate based on monthly bill for home phone & internet|
|Mobile||500||Estimate based on monthly bill|
|Domestic help||1,600||Estimate for part-time gardening and household help|
|Grocery items||5,000||Estimate for weekly supermarket spend|
|Pola (fresh market)||1,000||Estimate for fresh fruit and vegetables at the weekend Pola|
There are actually quite a few expats who own their own properties. They have either have lived here for awhile, operate a business in Sri Lanka or they're wealthy enough to have a second home in Sri Lanka. Most other expats will often rent accommodation because they're only here to work for a set period or they're still working out if Sri Lanka is the place for them or the property laws have been or are prohibitive to making that investment. I don't have any major accommodation costs in Colombo to factor in, other than maintenance, land taxes and general upkeep for my house. However, the most I've paid to rent a property has been around රු60,000 per month. For most expats accommodation costs will make up a sizeable portion of their weekly spend in either rental costs or mortgage costs.
If you're renting in Colombo the accommodation type, specifications and location will factor into the costs. It's good to consult one of the property websites for the latest market rates for different types of rental properties and locations. Numbeo provides some data on average monthly rental costs in Colombo:
- Apartment (1 bedroom) in City Centre රු30,000 - රු55,000
- Apartment (1 bedroom) Outside of Centre රු15,000 - රු30,000
- Apartment (3 bedrooms) in City Centre රු80,000 - රු150,000
- Apartment (3 bedrooms) Outside of Centre රු40,000 - රු60,000
Interestingly, most of my expat friends tend to live in apartments around Colombo. Some live in central apartments with limited facilities while others in one of the more modern apartment complexes with on-site facilities. I also have expat friends with larger families who rent bungalows or houses around Colombo. As an example, I have one friend who rents an older unfurnished three-bedroom house in Kotte who pays රු35,000 per month, while another rents a modern, furnished five-bedroom house in Mount Lavinia for රු150,000 per month, and another rents a four bedroom luxury house in Colombo 7 for over රු500,000 per month. As you can see the rental costs can vary greatly. Then I have one or two expat friends who are on a tighter budget who rent a room in a house rather than paying for a whole rental property themselves. They can pay as low as රු20,000 per month with their own en-suite bathroom.
Public transport costs in Sri Lanka are considered relatively cheap compared to other cities around the world. However, it's important to recognize that this is not necessarily the case for the average local who feels the squeeze at the slightest increase in public transport fares. For bus fares, check out the Southern Province Road Passenger Transport Authority website. Fares may vary slightly if you're catching one of the private buses. If you're going longer distances there are also other options to catch air-conditioned private buses that cost more. For train fares, check out the Sri Lanka Railways website. There are different fare types depending on class and journey. On some of the trains there are special privately operated train carriages that offer additional luxury and service.
For the most part, I generally use my own vehicle for getting around Colombo. But I also find it simpler to catch public transport or travel by tuk-tuk to avoid getting stuck in traffic or having to put up with driver rage. If there is a trip to Galle or Kandy I mix it up by traveling by rail or in my own vehicle. I rarely use taxis around Colombo unless I'm flying in-or-out of the airport or it's a very early start to attend a meeting or a very late one out with friends. Overall it can be quite handy having your own vehicle and before I bought my own vehicle I tried renting a car by the month. Depending on the model, make and age of the vehicle it can range from රු35,000 and upwards per month. My average spend at the time was around රු55,000 per month for a mid-range car.
My overall utilities bill is actually quite low. This is mainly due to the fact I have largely acclimatized to the heat and humidity in Colombo and don't run air-conditioning in my house all the time. My electricity bill reflects this because if I did, my bill would be at least triple what it is. Some of my friends have an monthly electricity bill of රු15,000 to රු20,000 a month due to their air-conditioning consumption and also for heating. For hot water, I've had a solar hot water system installed so I've rarely had to use electricity.
Gas is primarily for cooking and I buy a gas tank every three or four months. Water is relatively affordable and it's mainly for household use as well as my garden. Telephone and internet is also relatively affordable and the costs depends on what package you purchase from one of the local service providers. Likewise for mobile phone costs.
Hiring full-time or part-time domestic help is common in Sri Lanka. You have the option to have them live-in, which is very common for locals, or to have them come daily. I have part-time helpers for my garden and home and it seems to work for me. As a result my weekly expenditure is quite low. My helpers usually only speak sinhala and are used to the local way of doing things, as opposed to being experienced at catering to expats and being able to speak English.
Many of my friends with children, particularly those in my high-paying jobs, hire a few household helpers as well as a gardener and driver. They generally pay on average around රු30,000 per month for a household helper who comes daily. I know locals pay less than this but offer accommodation and food.
Food and Groceries
My grocery bills have significantly decreased the longer I've lived in Sri Lanka, notwithstanding inflation and increases in taxes on imported items. Mainly, I've become more accustomed to a local existence, which is handy when it comes to cost of living. I buy local rather than imported where possible, though there are some exceptions to this. Plus I have some very kind and generous family and friends who often pack half a suitcase of treats from home whenever they come for a visit.
As you may know I love going to pola or market as you'll get a lot of fresher fruits and vegetables. I have a vegetarian diet so that has also reduced my weekly spend. Previously my food and grocery bill was more than triple what it is now to accommodate for meat and seafood in my diet.
Variable Weekly Expenditure
Things like social activities such as gym membership, club activities, sports, dining out, entertainment, holidays and purchases fall into this category. I thought I'd set this out separately from fixed weekly expenditure as this is not mandatory spend and essentially comes down to preferences and lifestyle.
I don't belong to a gym and have never joined one since coming to live in Sri Lanka. I did ship over some gym equipment I owned and it all still works, though it has become a bit rusty. These days my preference is to exercise outside, either along a beach or one of the walking/cycling tracks. If you do join a gym somewhere around Colombo then I suggest taking a look at Yamu's write up on Colombo Gym Scene that was published a year ago. It will give you an idea of options and costs.
There are other activities such as yoga, dance, meditation and other similar classes that are available around Colombo. The cost of these classes are generally reasonable and start from around රු700 per class.
In terms of entertainment there are the usual options like attending a movie, play, local musical concert or occasionally there are international music performers visiting Sri Lanka. There are also other events like music, literary and art festivals throughout the year.
Other social activities might include dining out or catching up with friends for drinks.
For example, if it's breakfast you could have a kola kenda for රු50, a couple of shorteats for රු120, or you could have some kind of eggs and toast for around රු700. Likewise, dinner options vary significantly if you were to have a meal for two at the vegetarian Indian restaurant for around රු500 or dinner for two at a seafood restaurant for could be රු4,000 or buffet for two at a five-star hotel restaurant for about රු6,000. as you can see the choice of meal and location makes a difference on the bottom line.
I have an expat friend who is single and pretty much never cooks. You'll usually find him eating out for all three meals or bumming a meal while visiting a friend. I asked how much he spends on food in a typical day. His breakfast is usually simple - sometimes shorteats or a local breakfast. The most he spends is රු120 on breakfast. Occasionally he grabs a good coffee from one of the cafes and that adds on another රු400. At lunch he grabs a rice packet for around රු250 to රු350. But if he goes out for lunch with work colleagues then he might spend around රු800 to රු1,000 on lunch. For dinner, he sometimes goes local and has a few thosais or a kotthu from a local kade and that comes to රු150 at the most. If he dines out at one of the cafes then he'll spend around රු1,200-1,500 for a meal and drink.
Overall, I'd estimate my variable weekly expenditure at somewhere between රු5,000 to රු10,000. It's usually made up of entertainment expenses, meals or drinks with friends, take-out meals, the odd purchase for home or person, and donations.
However, if I'm traveling away from Colombo then this typical weekly expenditure gets blown out of the water.