How to Live Cheaply and Save Money in Ukraine
Last update: Aug. 3, 2010 (minor edits)
Many TryUkraine.com readers are foreigners who either live in Ukraine or are interested in living here. This article provides useful information for expats who wish to minimize their expenses while in Ukraine.
Six different expense levels for Ukraine
For convenience we'll describe different categories of expats and their typical monthly expense profiles. These are not exhaustive; for instance, homeowners are not included here, and it is assumed that the expats are renting apartments. Also, expenses are given for Kiev as of January 2010, for one person, and may be 20-40% lower in other large cities of Ukraine.
1. VIP expat
Rent: $1200-5000 - posh apartment in central neighborhood or new, well-furnished building
Transportation: $200-600 - personal car or daily taxi usage
Food: $500-1000 - eating out at fancy restaurants or a good home cook
Total base expenses: - $2000-7000 / month
2. Middle-class expat
Rent: $500-1200 - relatively nice apartment with "Euroremont" furnishing anywhere in the city
Transportation: $50-200 - mixture of public transportation and frequent taxi usage
Food: $250-500 - mixture of pricier store-bought foods and eating out at decent restaurants
Total base expenses: - $800-2000 / month
3. Lower-income expat
Rent: $350-500 - decent separate Soviet-style apartment anywhere in the city
Transportation: $30-50 - public transportation with occasional taxi usage
Food: $150-250 - mostly store-bought foods and occasionally eating out at cafeteria-type restaurants
Total base expenses: - $500-800 / month
4. Poor expat
Rent: $200-350 - shared Soviet-style apartment anywhere in the city
Transportation: $20-30 - public transportation
Food: $100-150 - store-bought foods and occasionally snacks
Total base expenses: - $300-500 / month
5. Destitute expat
Rent: $80-200 - shared room in Soviet-style apartment anywhere in the city, or separate room in apartment on the outskirts of town
Transportation: $10-20 - public transportation only
Food: $50-100 - inexpensive store-bought food
Total base expenses: - $150-300 / month
6. Clueless expat
Rent: $500-2000 - a bad deal on a rented apartment, renting a short-term rental apartment long term, living at a hostel or hotel, etc.
Transportation: $30-200 - public transportation, getting ripped off by taxi drivers, etc.
Food: $200-600 - store food, frequent eating out and paying for other people's food
Women: $200-2000 - depends on level of cluelessness, gullibility, appetite, etc.
Total base expenses: - $1000-5000 / month
Don't take offense at the labels -- they're just for fun! I myself have only been in the "poor expat" and "destitute expat" categories and prefer to live that way. It's more fun, more communal, more Ukrainian, and much more economical! I'm proud of my $200 fixed expenses per month (update 7/2010 — okay, now closer to $400).
Living smartly and frugally in Ukraine
Ukraine (especially Kiev) is a place where two different expats can come and live, and after some time one says, "this place is sooo expensive!" while the other says, "this place is sooo cheap!" Let me share some know-how about how to keep expenses to a minimum using methods that generations of locals have perfected.
Rent a two-bedroom apartment with someone else and pay $200/mo. apiece instead of $300 for a single-room apartment. Choice of roommate/s is very important; if you choose wisely, it'll be a lot more enjoyable than living alone, but if you choose poorly, you'll wish you had rented alone despite the higher cost. If you have a wife/girlfriend/close friend, consider sharing a room for even greater savings, reducing costs to about $100 per person per month in a multi-room Soviet-style apartment. More enjoyment, more language immersion, more valuable "life skills" gained.
I recommend the Russian-language site slando.com.ua for finding rooms to rent (choose "rooms for rent" in the drop-down menu) without going through a realter. Real estate agents -- usually take a fee of 50% of the first month's rent and thus aren't too excited to deal with such low-cost housing options as separate rooms for rent or families looking to share apartments with other families. Also, you can ask around through friends and contacts, which is how Ukrainians prefer to do things whenever possible.
If you're a destitute, but shrewd expat, you might even be able to find an arrangement where you live with someone for free in exchange for English (or other) language practice.
Use only public transportation, preferably the metro
Even though the cost of transit has "skyrocketed" to 20 cents per ride, the Kiev metro remains a pretty darn good deal! You can buy a month pass for $11 and a half-month pass for $6 and ride all you want, anywhere in town. To take maximum advantage of this, get an apartment within 10 minutes from a metro stop by foot so that you won't have to use the more expensive minibuses (typically $0.25 a ride, oh no!). The somewhat higher cost of the apartment will probably pay for itself in terms of time and money saved.
Buy food at the cheapest grocery stores
I personally prefer "Ashan" near Petrovka metro station. Depending on how much you eat and the healthiness of your diet, you can get by on $50-100 USD a month. If you buy food on a day-to-day basis, you'll probably spend as much as $50 more for nearly the same food. Some foods that might be considered trendy "health foods" in the U.S. cost pennies per kilo in Ukraine. Examples are buckwheat, wheat berries, and grains in general. My wife and I eat a healthy Mediterranean-style diet with olive oil, grains, vegetables, fruits, and moderate amounts of dairy, eggs, and fish for about $200. for the two of us. To save the most money on food, learn some basic nutrition and buy the cheapest wholesome options in each food category. And buy more of a fruit or vegetable when it is in season.
Don't buy any good or service that can be substituted with a cheaper option
Simple enough. Instead of buying a $45 gym membership, take walks in the forest/park and do exercises at home or at the local school track. Or work out at Gidropark's fantastic and free open-air gym (see it to believe it!). Share things with friends like Ukrainians do, buying only the things that you have to have exclusively for yourself. Instead of shopping for $30 shirts and $50 pants, go to one of many second-hand markets where everything is 3-5 times cheaper. Instead of buying a nice cell phone and using it as your primary communication device, ask friends for an old used one, buy a pre-paid scratch card and use the phone only to receive calls and write text messages, spending $3-5 per month. Make it a kind of game to see how little you can spend and still get by. You'll be amazed at how low one's base expenses can be!