I have to preface this by acknowledging that my perspective on the cost of living here is an incredibly privileged one. As in Mexico, we are seeing things from the very advantageous viewpoint of a family functioning on a solid U.S. salary. Our housing is provided for us. The kids’ schooling is covered. All of that means we are in a position of real wealth by any conceivable standard, for which we are thankful. To not acknowledge that would be unfair. When I talk of things being expensive or cheap here I realize it’s a true luxury to be able to think about these things from the comfortable vantage point we have.
Accra is a COLA post, meaning that we receive a certain amount of extra money each month to account for a higher-than-average cost of living. I can’t recall the exact calculation, but State figures a family spends a certain amount of the officer’s salary on food, groceries, household expenses, etc., and we get – I believe – a 15% increase on that portion of Andrés’ salary that they calculate goes to daily living expenses. Before we came here we read on post report after post report that Accra is expensive. That food is expensive, restaurants are expensive, services are expensive. Knowing our habits and tendencies – that we aren’t loyal to particular brands or even types of household products, that we try not to eat too many convenience foods or processed foods, that I cook and bake from scratch more often that not, that we are open to learning to cook and eat local dishes – I was curious to see if we found that to be the case.
We’ve been here two weeks now and my sense is that it definitely can be very expensive in Accra, and that even without wanting or needing very specific U.S. products we will still not save the kind of money we were able to save in Mexico, but that we won’t be needing to watch every pesewa either (cedis – pronounced SEEdees – is the denomination and pesewas are the coins). I’ve been truly amazed at the prices of some U.S. products. When we first visited the nearest grocery store we needed laundry detergent. I bought a local brand at a cost of about $3 for a bottle that will probably last me a few weeks. I could have spent $40 (!!!) on a jug of Tide that may have lasted me a month or, at the most, two. Yesterday I bought some locally produced paper towels. They cost about what I’d expect to pay in the U.S., maybe a bit less. They were about $1.50 a roll for pretty fat rolls. The same store had a large package of Bounty paper towels, I think 12 rolls, for (the magic number!) $40 or so. I just can’t imagine loving Bounty that much, quicker-picker-upper though it may be.
So that’s one realm of super expensive grocery products – U.S. brands. Certain processed foods, regardless of their origin, are also quite expensive. Marisela ate way too much Nutella in Mexico but we won’t have that problem here – Nutella costs something like $8 a jar. Doubt we’ll ever buy it. And if you want Jif or Peter Pan the peanut butter here is not cheap, but if you don’t mind buying Ghana-produced groundnut paste, it’s quite reasonable. I bought the groundnut paste, made the kids’ sandwiches for their lunch boxes, and only heard how tasty it was – no complaints.
Services, in our experience so far, are widely varying in price. Taxis aren’t expensive by U.S. standards. Getting to and from a store that’s about 4 or 5 miles away last weekend cost us about $6. But dry cleaning, which Andrés needs as he wears a suit every day, is about the same cost as in the U.S. and with a far longer wait time (no 24-hour turnaround – more like three or four days). Cell service is quite inexpensive here by U.S. standards – as much as we use our phones on wifi and as little as we actually use them out and about, I think we’ll pay about $5 a month, maybe $10 for my phone. Even when I accidentally called my mom using my cell service instead of one of the many wifi-based options we have I only used a bit more than a dollar’s worth of my credit for a nearly hour-long call. We went ahead and activated a phone for Isaiah so he can call us or the Embassy if ever he needs to when he’s out and about, and we have a backup phone activated since power surges and theft are definite threats to our phones here. We’ve never had multiple lines before, in part because we just couldn’t justify the cost.
As relatively inexpensive as cell service is, though (including data), internet service is not a bargain. We were advised to have two providers – one a DSL service through our phone provider and one a 4G connection with a wireless router – since outages are very common. Between the two services we pay about $150 a month. (Having a backup was a good idea – we’ve been about one week now with one of the two services not working). That’s a stark contrast to the $20 or so we paid for phone and excellent internet service in Mexico, especially given the unreliability of the service we’re paying so much to maintain. But I think the difference reflects the fact that cell phones are very common here – I would venture to guess that far more people have cell phones than landlines – and so the cost is accessible. Internet service is still a luxury of the wealthy, and the prices reflect that.
So I guess the verdict is mixed – if we wanted to use Bounty and Tide and eat Jif peanut butter and spread Nutella on everything we’d run through that COLA and then some. I didn’t mention produce, but it’s what you’d expect: if we want to eat berries and peaches and veggies that don’t grow here (or just aren’t generally eaten here) we would blow through our grocery budget very quickly. But pineapples and pawpaws (papayas) and the tastiest bananas I’ve ever eaten are extremely affordable, as are cucumbers and tomatoes and green beans and spinach and lettuce. So we definitely won’t lack for delicious food. The tomatoes I’ve eaten here taste like they’re straight out of a backyard garden and I’ve never had such sweet pineapple. We have yet to visit any fine dining type restaurants but the few everyday places we’ve eaten have what we’d consider everyday prices in the U.S.: lunches at $7 – $10 a plate or so, dinner a bit more, drinks for a few dollars, etc. It’s not our dear Taquería Aaajiji, where we could eat dinner with drinks, desserts, and any extras we might have room to eat and spend $25, but it’s not Paris or Tokyo, either. It’s not even Bishop Arts or Santa Fe. I think we’ll be just fine.