Last weekend, a former college classmate of mine shared an article on Facebook about the top 10 food trends of 2015 in my home city of Brisbane. I clicked to read it more for the inevitable eye-rolling factor than out of pure interest, but either way my curiosity was piqued.
The predicted eye-rolling came within the first paragraph, which contained the line: “[T]he chance of finding a simple plate of bacon and eggs and a coffee for less than $20 becomes increasingly rare.”
Since I’m guessing that this column doesn’t make it across the desks of the media elite in New York City, Los Angeles or San Francisco, where breakfast prices may actually require payment using a bill with Andrew Jackson’s face on it, the idea of dropping 20 bucks on the most important meal of the day probably comes a surprise – or even offensive – to folks in central Maine. Rightfully so, too.
After more than 18 months in Maine, one exclamation I still hear with great frequency when I tell people where I’m from is, “I/my son/daughter/parents have always wanted to go to Australia! Do you have any suggestions?” And my response, other than “go for it!” is “start saving.” Because the reality is that the Land Down Under is not a cheap place to visit. From people who’ve traveled Down Under, be it for a study abroad program, a vacation or otherwise, I frequently hear about how expensive things are, favorable exchange rate be damned. They’re not wrong.
To put it in perspective the best way I know how, here’s a comparison. Right around the time I immigrated here, Pabst Blue Ribbon was making its very first appearance on liquor store shelves Down Under. There’s not a lot of variety in the American beer that gets exported to Australia, but the blue collar-cum-hipster favorite had just arrived on our sunny shores.
A six-pack of 16oz PBR cans, which might cost you $5 here including tax, was going for $18 in Brisbane in 2013. Eighteen. Dollars. And since they were 16oz cans, that represented pretty solid value compared to six 12oz bottles of something Australian for the same price (or higher.)
For those of you who just spat a mouthful of coffee onto the Sunday paper in disbelief, I can’t fault you for it. Obviously beer prices aren’t indicative of everything, but the cost of living is overall much higher in Australia. The price of material goods is steeper partly because of the island nation’s geography: it’s thousands of miles away from everything, which adds transportation costs and the expense of bulk buying for retailers. Things like alcohol and gasoline are taxed at a high rate by the government. Rent is much more steep: my last place in Brisbane cost me 50 percent more per month than my average monthly rent has in central Maine, even though I was sharing a condo with two roommates back then.
Part of the reason that the U.S. was so appealing to me as a vacation destination between the ages of 22 and 28 was that the cost of living is substantially lower in almost all parts of the country. From around 2010 to 2013, the Aussie dollar spent a lot of time on par with the greenback, which gave me even better value.
When I first started job hunting in the United States, back in 2012, I found a lot of online application forms included a field which asked for salary expectations. Given I’d never worked in the U.S., and as such was relatively unaware of how pay scales worked here, all I could really do was put down something similar to what I was earning in Australian dollars. I’m still cringing at the faux pas, and am entirely unsurprised that I never got a call back from any of those prospective employers.
See, the cost of living back home is high, but the rates of pay are commensurate. With all the debate that’s happening here right now about raising local minimum wages – a column for some other Sunday, you can be sure – it might also surprise people to know that Australia’s federal minimum wage is currently $A16.87, or $12.97 in U.S. dollars. Employees that aren’t full-time are also eligible for loading, which is basically a percentage bonus on top of the hourly rate in lieu of vacation days, sick pay and more job security.
So when I was initially interviewing for my job here at the newspaper, I didn’t know what to expect when I asked what the salary was. Hearing the number itself made me far more nervous than I should have been, and I’m still cringing about that, too, because as it turns out, the cost of living in central Maine allows one’s dollar to go a lot further than it does Down Under.
This is a contrast I’m met with almost every day, be it with a $4 pint, or a gallon of gas that’s less than $3 (where it’s about $4.91 by comparison at home), or the album that’s $9.99 on U.S. iTunes that you’d pay $24.99 for the same digital copy of in Australia. It was driven home again this week when I finally made it to Winslow to eat at Big G’s Deli (which I’ve had on my to-do list for more than a year, and is home to a sandwich named after fellow columnist J.P. Devine) and was presented with a sandwich the size of a twin mattress for less than $10 and which fed me for three days.
So I think it’s all about perspective. While the media business (or any other business) may never net me any sort of enormous pay day – because let’s face it, novelty columnists are a dime a dozen, I’ll likely never have to pay $20 for a plate of bacon and eggs as long as I’m here. And that’s a pretty easy thought to stomach.