Reign the streets of London
April 3, 2008 8:57 AM   Subscribe

How much has it cost you to stay alive in London?

It is very possible that my partner will be moving to London in a few months and that I will eventually join him. I have only ever lived in the US, so while I know exactly how much I spend a month and what expenses I have here, I'm not sure how this differs from the living situation in London (for example, because I won't have a car there I obviously won't have car insurance payments, but will have other travel expenses instead). I know similar questions have been asked before, but I haven't found exactly what I need to know. Online calculators and cost-of-living sites have been helpful, but I still don't have an absolutely clear idea.

Specifically, what should we expect to have to pay monthly/annually to stay alive in London, and what is the average cost of this for two people? Expenses like travel, electric, and any other surprises; I would like us to be prepared going into this and don't want to encounter any financial surprises in the first few months or so due to naive budgeting. If it matters, this would likely be on the Southern outskirts in a one bedroom flat (the flats he's priced out are around £200 a week).
posted by Polychrome to Work & Money (23 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
A good overall rule is: Ignore the exchange rate.

e.g. A USD10 meal will cost you GBP10

Another rule is: Don't live on the southern outskirts :-)
(Public transport is far better north of the river unless you are on the northern or victoria lines)
posted by i_cola at 9:09 AM on April 3, 2008

Everyday travel is a lot. If you're going into central London most days, you'll be looking at around £25 a week. Council tax varies enormously, but is a very serious consideration and can add quite a bit to your bills. Research this before you go.

Gas and/or electric (some flats are only electric) again vary quite a bit. I'd say £30 a month each for both gas and electricity is a decent round budget. There's also the water bill, about £300 a year on average.

A telephone land line costs £10.50 a month, with free land line calls on weekends. Most people here have mobiles, for which you can either buy for around £50 and use on a pay as you go service, or get for free and spend betwee £15 and £30 a month on a contract, which will probably include a fair amount of free minutes.

These are all fairly conservative, based on my own experience.

One other thing to bear in mind is that eating out is a lot more expensive than I've found in the US, but buying decent quality ingredients isn't so costly, especially if you're sensible about it.

I manage to literally scrape by on quite a measly salary, so I know it can be done. There's lots of fun free stuff to do.

Check out Time Out, London Is Free and Londonist for a variety of activities.
posted by Magnakai at 9:10 AM on April 3, 2008 [2 favorites]

Re: i_cola's comment:

Living in a nice area is worth its weight in gold, though you either have to pay more or be lucky.

I live in a nice, leafy area in North London about 4 minutes walk away from the Northen Line, yet within 5 minutes walk of two beautiful parks and 15 minutes walk away from the gorgeous Hampstead Heath. I pay around £90 a week (living with several housemates). Needless to say, I got very lucky.
posted by Magnakai at 9:14 AM on April 3, 2008

Disclaimer: I'm Finnish and I lived near/in London for 5 and a bit years until mid-2007.

£800 a month? That's pretty good for a flat in London. Bear in mind that the price might not include council tax which can be a major expense.

The problem with living in the outskirts is the price of travel if you work in the centre of town. A travel card costs money as does trains. Get an Oyster card when you land at the airport. Buses are much cheaper (but slower and less frequent) and if your flat is not near a tubeline, it will probably have reduced rent.

Generally London is divided into 5 sections:

North, East, South, West and central. Each has an entirely different vibe and I could go on about every single one of them for ever. You'll have to try each one to find out which one you like. Unfortunately South London is the only area of London I've not lived/extensively visited in so I can't be too specific about it. What I've seen of it can be pretty rough though.

Umm... I don't really know what else I can say or where to start.
posted by slimepuppy at 9:28 AM on April 3, 2008

A good overall rule is: Ignore the exchange rate.

This does apply to food, for sure. You haven't said where in the US you're coming from but I'm in the process of moving to London from San Francisco and I've found the cost of housing to be equivalent, with the exchange rate, from city to city. That is 200 pounds/mo = 1600 USD/mo and you get something similar in both places. The cost of mobiles is also about the same as the US.

Surprises, as an American, I've encountered:
- Council Tax. I'm still not sure how its figured so I'll let others chime in but there is no real US equivalent.
- Transport. It's absurdly expensive to get around London compared to any major US city. Buses are a slightly better deal than the Tube but still not cheap. Factor this in when deciding where to live.
posted by vacapinta at 9:31 AM on April 3, 2008

Not London-specific, but if you're going to qualify for the NHS, your savings on health insurance and related expenses will be substantial. At least they were for me while I was there. I'm not sure of the difference in cost for private health insurance in the UK versus the US.
posted by the christopher hundreds at 9:31 AM on April 3, 2008

A good overall rule is: Ignore the exchange rate.

e.g. A USD10 meal will cost you GBP10

When I lived in London 2 years ago I found this to be true (about everything except for weed, which was cheaper in London).
posted by ludwig_van at 9:35 AM on April 3, 2008

When I was living in lovely Muswell Hill, albeit in a shabby bedsit, in North London, I was just about surviving alone on my minimum wage-ish salary.

I was being gouged just over £400 per month (incl. council tax) for the aforementioned dive, then bus travel, food, bills reduced my measly, typically just shy of £800 salary, to roughly £0 in a month.

Whilst there was usually little money to spend on actual living, I'd do it all again, and plan to do so once I've got some moneys together.
posted by iamcrispy at 9:54 AM on April 3, 2008

I agree with i_cola's quick n dirty calculation. Everything costs the same, but in pounds.
Oh and salaries are half as much. When I moved here and I essentally got a 50% salary decrease for the exact same job. Oh and income tax is higher. Fun huh?

I'm also still getting my head around council tax. It varies hugely and is not paid monthly which totally messed up my old methods of budgeting. The easiest solution for me was to find a place that included council tax in my rent so that I didn't have to worry about it.

Depending on where you live and what kind of place you live, electricity can also be tricky. Lots of companies charge you based on estimates of previous months and it is up to you to call them to correct them by reading your own meter. (I suppose it saves them money to send out people). Some also bill you every 3 months instead of monthly. I think E-On bills monthly though.

Oh and then there's the tv license. There's no point in trying to evade this. It's about £100 a year and there's weird rules about it depending on the type of housing situation you live in.

For London travel, the Oyster card is the way to go. How much you actually spend will depend on where you go and and how often you decide to walk or bike instead.

On the flip side, you'll save money on health insurance! People may gripe about the NHS, but I'm amazed at how much they are able to provide for FREE!

I know it sounds super duper expensive (yeah, it is) but you know what, I've been here a year and a half and have absolutely no regrets.
posted by like_neon at 9:59 AM on April 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

Ha! When I moved here from Australia I used the same metric for prices - pound for AU$, ignoring the exchange rate. The first 6 weeks or so here are the hardest, when you're spending dollars and haven't yet been paid any pounds - don't forget to factor that into your budget (and more than you think you'll need; add 20% for unexpecteds).

I advise you to live near where your partner/you work, or as close to the centre of in between unless it's a shitty part of town. The £25 Magnakai suggested is the price of a zone 1-2 travelcard, it will certainly be much more if you are in the southern outskirts. Zones 1-5 is £41.40 per week, which you can spend on rent to live in a better place closer to work and not have to deal with the sardine-ness of peak-hour public transport - truly horrible and soul-destroying, particularly if you have to do it for an hour or more. Here is Transport for London's current fares brochure.

Gas and power are pretty expensive - in winter gas bills can be ridiculous (£300 per quarter for a one-bedroom flat), moreso if you live in an older flat with an old boiler. Newer/refurbished properties will probably cost you less as the appliances will be more efficient.

Food - the two of us spend £125 per month on groceries, including a weekly organic box delivery, and we eat damn well. Nights out drinking (if that's your thing) are expensive as drinks are very expensive.

Keep in mind you won't have a credit rating here, so things like mobile phone contracts are quite hard to get - it took me two years, and 12 months to get a credit card after opening a bank account. Which is also very difficult - sign up for council tax or a BT landline as soon as possible, so you have a bill as proof of address.

Check out This site looks good too.

Let us know when you get here - we'll plan a meetup to welcome you to our windy grey city!
posted by goo at 10:04 AM on April 3, 2008

And to offset some of the doom and gloom from above me - my salary here is almost double what it was in Australia (for work of similar responsibility), I have far more disposable income and my partner and I save at least 30% per month. Moving here was a great decision financially.
posted by goo at 10:09 AM on April 3, 2008

Okeydokey, this is a fairly multi-layered question, and nearly everything has, as a secondary answer, 'well, it depends'.


1) Housing - you can essentially pay what you like. One bedroom flats are usually at a premium and expensive, depends how close in they are. You will usually pay somewhere in the region of £800 - £1000 a month anywhere from Zone 2 outwards. Inside Zone 1, it'll be closer to £1200 - anything you like a month. The closer in you live, the less you'll have to pay in transport costs. it's perfectly possible to live in Zone 1 areas and walk to work. My brother pays £500 a month for a room in North London and has a twenty minute walk to work. Get an A-Z and use Google Maps to figure out walking distances. London isn't as large as you think.

2) Council Tax - Council tax is levied by your borough council, and pays for local services like libraries, rubbish collection, police and so on. It changes based on whether you're employed, the number of people in the house, whether anyone's in full-time education, the size of your house and so on. It can be really high (adding 15-20% to your rent). As a guide, you can reasonably expect to pay over £50 a month but will rarely pay over £100 unless you have an enormous house or live in a very affluent borough.

3) Transport - Get an Oyster card and get weekly, monthly or yearly passes. Most London employers will offer a season ticket loan that you pay back through your salary. You can save £200-300 a year by buying your season ticket up front. Again, seriously investigate living closer-in to save money on transport, a Zone 1/2 pass (which gives you tube and rail transport in Zones 1/2 and bus transport anywhere in London) will cost you £968 for the year, whereas a Zone 1-3 pass will cost you £1,136. Or you can walk. Check for all the info.

4) Healthcare - If your partner is British, and you are married to him, then you will enter the country on a spousal visa, and you'll be covered by the NHS on landing (you'll need to apply for the visa, and costs a lot - mefimail me if this is the case). If your partner is American and you are also, then I'm not sure, but his employer should arrange health coverage. You can buy relatively inexpensive and fully-featured coverage in the UK, and many employers offer it. Co-pays and so on are pretty much unheard of. You'd be looking at about £30-50 a month for a basic plan.

5) Sundry bills - expect to pay around:
£20 a month for gas
£20 a month for electricity (both standard charges each month with a rebate if you set up a direct debit)
£10.50 - £15 a month for landline and broadband
£30 a month for the first six months of the year on water rates in London

For two people, I'd budget around £160 a month for food. Use web delivery from people like or Ocado, trust me on this, nothing sucks more than doing a bi-weekly shop in London and trying to hustle it home by public transport. Delivery fee is usually £6-8, and you can buy more in bulk than you could comfortably carry. Totally worth it.

My wife and I don't live on a horribly tight budget, but we do have pretty low rent (less than £700 between us) and live in Zone 2 (a very cool situation that's taken me 4 years in London to find). We spend about £950 a month all told, though that varies from month to month.

If you do end up moving, get in touch, my wife is American and has just been through all the adjustments that you'll be making.

Good luck!
posted by Happy Dave at 10:23 AM on April 3, 2008 [3 favorites]

I live way up north but here's my 2p:

Last I checked (a few months ago) we were paying about £108 - £110 per month for council tax - and we're on a low-ish band. We are by no means in a huge house/wealthy area. It may vary from council to council but we have it deducted from our bank account on a monthly basis, which is handy. Also, February and March are council tax-free months in my area.

I budget £200/month on groceries but probably spend £250. Make sure to check out all the fruit and veg stands on the street. I find that they are less expensive than grocery stores and the produce often tastes better.

Definitely get a season pass loan through your work if you can. I have an annual bus pass and they just take a small amount out of my pay every month.

The TV License, as mentioned above, is only about £11.50 per month (can be deducted from your account monthly), don't forget to sign up for it. Penalties are steep for not paying.

I don't know if you like tv or want good reception, but don't forget about cable costs. We have Sky and pay £50 per month for it, but we have all the sports and movie channels. I think you can probably get a basic package for £30 - £35.

If you look around, you will be able to find a package somewhere that gives you free broadband. I think Carphone Warehouse still does this if you sign up for their phone services. BT and Sky probably have similar offers. I'm fairly sure that you will not have to pay for broadband if you're willing to shop around a bit.

You have to check out MoneySupermarket if you haven't already. It will compare all the deals out there for mobiles, gas, electricity, insurance, travel etc. You can find which credit cards/ISA's/bank accounts give the best interest rates as well. I've used it many times and its always come in very handy.

Haircuts is another expense I never considered. I get a trim every few months and it costs about £30, but it is at a place that offers special deals at lunchtime mid-week. If I went at normal time, it would probably cost £45 - £50 at least. I have seen a few Cost Cutter type places, but I don't know if they're widespread or even that cheap.
posted by triggerfinger at 11:06 AM on April 3, 2008

Haircuts is another expense I never considered. I get a trim every few months and it costs about £30, but it is at a place that offers special deals at lunchtime mid-week. If I went at normal time, it would probably cost £45 - £50 at least.

London has Supercuts, I'm pretty sure you can get a trim there for £15. I used to get my hair cut at a small local place for £11.
posted by ludwig_van at 11:12 AM on April 3, 2008

Not a money answer, but you may find these public transportation travel time maps helpful (made by a friend of mine).
posted by oneirodynia at 11:21 AM on April 3, 2008

One thing to note about rents (and it shocked me) is the way a price is quoted and calculated. Estate agents will quote you a weekly price, say 220 per week. However, you pay your rent monthly.

A reasonable North American says "Ok, cool. 220 per week, times 4 weeks a month, 880 per month. Groovy." The math is actually 220 x 52 weeks / 12. So, that 220 per week is more like 953 quid a month.
posted by generichuman at 11:22 AM on April 3, 2008

OMG generichuman that is such a good tip. That concept was utterly foreign to me when I first moved here and it still drives me nuts. You don't actually ever pay weekly and you will probably have to sign at least a 6 month lease with at least a month's notice to leave so the whole weekly rent notice is just misleading and I.don'

Also when looking for a flat, there is huge debates about using or not using estate agents, which you may also be unfamiliar with (I think it's similar to brokers in New York). I personally find them annoying because they don't seem to listen to my needs. If you are looking for a flat for just the two of you, you may want to use them. If you are looking to house share, they are useless. Try Craigslist or Gumtree instead.
posted by like_neon at 12:04 PM on April 3, 2008

Don't forget too that you'll need a deposit for your flat - which is usually 6 weeks rent (but my landlord is pretty cool and he just asked for a thousand pounds).
My stats - 1050 pounds/month for nice 1 bed flat (half a victorian house) in zone 1. I can *barely* afford it, but with the garden, and being able to ride to work, or anywhere in central London in 10 minutes, makes it worth it.
Council tax is 94 pounds a month, utilities and phones probably another 60, and I'd guess 40-50 per week on groceries, and say 15 per week for lunch at work. Probably 20 pounds per month on an Oyster card for the odd bus or tube trip.
Fast (great) internet with 'BeThere' is I think 18 a month
All told it would probably be 1500 pounds to cover the minimum costs of my existing here, going up to 1600 or more when I factor in things like climbing gym membership, going to the pub, buying the odd piece of clothing, bike maintenance etc..
It looks insane when I convert it to Canadian $ (it took a couple of years to rid myself of this habit) but then again, as Goo pointed out, my salary here is much higher, so it all balances out, and it's a damn good place to live.
posted by Flashman at 12:42 PM on April 3, 2008

Wow, thanks everyone--this is a ton of info and what I needed to hear. I especially appreciate the willingness to share just what your expenses are per month. Although I have visited London and know that in general stuff just costs more (compared to where I am in the US), I didn't feel like this provided a good concept of how far my finances would go while living there, so these answers have all helped a lot.

As for southern London--that location was selected by my partner because he knows people there and is familiar with the area. I'm sure it's a negotiable point, especially if travel considerations are taken into account, but he is familiar with the layout of London to the point of being able to navigate it with ease, so if he has a strong case regarding the geography of our flat, I wouldn't protest.
posted by Polychrome at 12:47 PM on April 3, 2008

On your last point, there's huge snobbishness between people who live in the different areas of London, with the major dividing-line being the Thames. Those who live in north London would never come south of the river, think southerners are all inbred criminals, bemoan the lack of decent transport, decent restaurants, decent bars, etc. South Londoners think much the same about north London, with the addition of hills and an absence of parks.

I'm a south Londonder, married to a north Londoner who sometimes starts to carp about how nice it is up there. I ask her how many Michelin-starred restaurants she used to have within walking distance of her old flat, and she shuts up.
posted by Hogshead at 2:12 PM on April 3, 2008

There are some really, really nice parts of South London. The compass divide isn't really fair, as there are lovely parts of each "segment" and rough parts of each one. Sometimes right on top of each other.

The thing about London is that, apart from central central London, it's a series of villages that sort of grew into each other. So different areas have their own vibes. It's quite cool really.

One more tip: Get an A-Z book when you get here. Preferably a small, handbag sized one. My foreign friends swear by carrying one around with them. Surprisingly, not everyone is born knowing where Dean Street or Kingsland Road are.

Oh, and if you wanna join Be internet (who Flashman and I are with), get a member recommendation from someone. You save the £25 setup fee, which can merrily go on something fun instead.

Oh yeah, and haircuts: there's a really good place in Covent Garden called Hair By Fairy. You have to tell them what you want, but they'll do a great job for about £13. For simple guys haircuts, Mr Topp's is actually fairly decent, and only charge £6. More expensive girly stuff is beyond me.

Foodwise, I probably spend an absolute maximum of £80 a month, and that's eating very well, but cooking almost everything from scratch. Just being careful about stuff can go a long way.

Also: Hogshead! Absence of parks? Are you mad? Sure, I live on a big hill, but North London is leafy. Time Out repeatedly calls it leafy. Repeatedly!
posted by Magnakai at 5:40 PM on April 3, 2008

When I lived in London (which was 5 years ago now) basically whatever cost me $5 cost me 5 pounds. This was particularly true when going out, eating, drinking, buying clothes etc... That's not to say you can't find cheaper, but it isn't always easy. Also, you may not love the English food so much in which case you are going to want to do all your shopping at the nice supermarkets, like Marks & Spencers (yay!), which is expensive, but worth it. ASDA is scary except for the brand name stuff.

I know less about rents, because I was a poor student and lived in the dorms, but from what I remember it wasn't cheap, think Manhattan type prices.

All this being said, when I left the UK it was 1.8 exchange rate and it's gone up quite a bit since then.

Another thing, go buy all your clothes now while you are still in America. Buy as much as you can and then buy some more. Seriously, once you go to the UK, you'll come back and feel like every store in the mall is having a 30% off sale.

The one good thing I can say about London (well there are many, but not $ wise) is every one feels poor, unlike NYC for instances. So everyone is looking to not go broke when you pick a restaurant or a bar to go to, etc, which I feel makes it a lot easier. Also, flights out of London to the EU are dirt cheap (cheaper than a week's tube pass sometimes), so there are a ton of great trips you can take. Also, museums are free, as are a lot of other forms of entertainment, so it is manageable.
posted by whoaali at 8:57 PM on April 3, 2008

I'll chime in too:

Firstly, re: transport: Get a bicycle. You will save a medium-sized hillock of cash, get fit and see more of London, and you'll get around faster than anything with a motor and even faster than the tube for many journeys.

And, my stats: nice 2 bedroom flat in East London zone 2, sharing with a random flatmate, for about £600/month (each) including bills and council tax, but minus things like food. We found it through a high-street letting agent. You can get vittles quite cheaply from weekend markets, Lidl, butchers, bakers, grocers etc. Restaurants, sandwiches and snacks are very expensive, though.
posted by Drexen at 4:21 AM on April 4, 2008

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