16 January 2018

The Cost of Living in Malaysia {Expat Perspective}

This post is not meant to be a scientific analysis of the economy or of financial trends, merely the observations of an American living long-term in Malaysia and loving it. I have often found that visitors are surprised by the cost of living here--either because it's much higher or much lower than they expected it to be. All of us have expectations for cost that are informed by our own countries--my own expectations are informed by normal life in Midwest America, and so I thought I'd write some observations about what is surprisingly expensive and surprisingly inexpensive in our adopted home. 

>>Less expensive than you might imagine:


Utility bills are a big deal in the USA. They're the reason that so many "how to slash your budget" posts include tips like turning down the heat, turning off the a/c, and not using unnecessary lights. They're the reason that some put time limits on their showers. matter how many lights I turn off, it's simply not going to affect my budget all that much. This past month, the water bill Angel and I received was under $2 USD and the electric bill was about $12 USD. The electric bills penalize higher electricity usage by charging higher rates for the amount of electricity used over a certain level, which can make your bill go much higher quickly if you own and use more electric appliances. Angel and I don't have a dryer or electric oven and only infrequently use our aircon unit, so the bill stays fairly low. Coming from Michigan, gas bills are the one to worry about this time of year. Like most homes here, we have a gas-powered stove, but no gas line coming into the home, simply a blue bottle hooked up to the stove that needs to be replaced when empty. 

Medical Care:

When you come from the land of extremely expensive medical care, everything about medicine in Malaysia seems amazingly affordable. Like responsible, law-abiding adults, we buy our own health insurance (ours is an international insurance specifically for American expatriates), but haven't used it ever since moving abroad, because our insurance doesn't cover any wellness care, preventative care, prenatal care, or anything like that. All of those costs must be paid in full to the hospital, but that's much less intimidating given that prices are much less expensive here. My doctor's appointments over the past seven months have ranged in price from about $25 USD to nearly $200 USD, and that's just depended on what tests or prescriptions have been required at different visits.


There's still a mad rush to get to the gas station whenever prices are expected to come up, but considering that most of the time I lived in Michigan, the cost of gas was well over $3 per gallon, gas prices seem low to us.

Car Repairs:

In the USA, we tried never to bring our cars to mechanics--it was well worth it to have Angel do the work of changing struts and O2 sensors and alternators at home. Here, the labor costs for mechanic work are very low, and parts aren't expensive either IF you have a locally-built car (parts for foreign cars are a bit of a different story), so the value of knowing how to fix your own car drops tremendously.

>>More Expensive than you might imagine:

Real Estate:

This will vary greatly depending on where you are in Malaysia. In a city like this one, we've found that a 1000 sq. ft. apartment in dire need of renovations in a slightly older mid-range apartment building could run 130K USD. Apartments in newer buildings will be a little bit more expensive, and in luxury apartment complexes, a lot more expensive. A house standing on its own with a postage-stamp yard will be more in the 250K+ range. If it's a reasonably nice house or a bit larger, you're looking at 300-500K, and going up from there. Housing money does not go nearly as far here as it would in, say, rural Midwest USA, where we're from. In addition, foreigners on work visas are only permitted to purchase homes at a cost of 250k+.


Much has been said about Malaysia's inexpensive night markets. In reality, though, even night market prices have been steadily creeping up, and sit-down restaurants are not as inexpensive as they once were. Eating out is still generally far less expensive than it is in the USA, but where I think people will get the most sticker stock about the price of food is when they go grocery shopping. Particularly for healthy foods or for foods imported from the USA. Organic fruits and veggies, or even any fruits and veggies that have to be imported from abroad will majorly boost the cost of your grocery bill. We think long and hard before investing in an avocado or two. Imported foods, like cans of refried beans, will easily run $3-$4 dollars a can. Any canned beans are expensive, and dried pinto beans (a staple for us in our USA days!) don't exist. A Christmas ham we would expect to be $6 a pound, minimum. A normal box of a brand of cereal you might recognize will be $4-$7 each. Anything like sales or coupons for foods are very rare indeed, so full price is just about the only way to eat.


Any foreign brand of car will be more expensive than you would expect, largely due to the hefty import taxed levied on cars that are not made in Malaysia. Used cars hold their value at a rate which astounds those of us from the USA, and that's a primary reason why we opted to buy a brand-new Malaysian car, as it was still significantly less money than something like a 7-year-old compact Toyota or Honda.

Beauty Services

I probably notice these costs a little more than others because of my background in the beauty industry! When I lived in China, I got a pedicure once a month because they were inexpensive, around $6. Here, that is not the case. Nail care services are still not quite what they cost in the USA, but higher than you might expect for southeast Asia. Nice salons here are also much pricier than a good salon was in ShenZhen--reasons I'm glad I can do colors and cuts at home! Massages also fall somewhere in the middle between USA prices and prices in other countries of Southeast Asia--where a foot massage may be only a couple dollars in Cambodia, or just slightly more expensive in Thailand, you can't expect those prices in Malaysian cities.

Brand Name Products:

We're not brand-name snobs by any means! However, there are some products that we prefer to buy a certain brand of because we know the quality, the fit, or the style. Angel swears by Asics GEL-Kayanos for his running shoes, and wears through about a pair a year (not surprising, given how much he runs). He hasn't found them here for less than $150 USD, but bought a new pair for $85 while we were in the USA in May. I was looking for a new pair of Keens, but passed when I could only find them in Malaysian shoe stores for about $100 USD, and then bought a pair for $60 when I was in the USA last year. I don't know if it's purely due to the phenomenon of sales and coupons in the US, which does not exist to nearly the same extent here, but we have often found that when we want something specific, we can likely find it much cheaper in the USA. For example, right now I'm interested in the Ergobaby 360 carrier...I found one on Amazon this morning for $130, but in my local baby store, it's over $200. 


When you move to a new place, you have to adapt your budgeting strategies to what makes the most sense for your new home! It would be a bit silly of me to run around turning off all unnecessary ceiling fans in order to save electricity (especially silly, since the air circulation helps prevent mold and mildew from forming on all surfaces), but strategically planning meals that won't rely on expensive ingredients makes a big difference in our budget, as does avoiding shopping and buying brand-name items in America when possible. What's surprisingly expensive or inexpensive where you live? What are your best budget strategies for handling those costs?
Beka @ Sunshine to the Square Inch said...

We thought Malaysia was really cheap overall when we visited. But of course, we didn't buy real estate or pay bills or own a car. It is always so interesting to hear about costs of living in other places.

I think the thing that shocks me the most is our annual home taxes and life insurance premiums. Our house is paid off so our taxes aren't built into our mortgage. And we got our first real estate tax bill and it was $2,300+. Insert major eye roll. And then it hit me, I don't really own my house because if I didn't pay taxes they would come get my property. I'm thankful God always provides for those bills and I can budget them in through the year it just is never fun to pay for crap like that.

AND if I lived in Malaysia I'd be eating at that Indian restaurant you took us too frequently. That was sooo good!

Lily (Beauty With Lily) said...

How funny, my husband's uncle is from Malaysia. He hasn't been in years, but his sister, who still lives there, recently visited. It's so crazy hearing about their living.

AnneMarie said...

Wow, that utilities bill is so low!! It's kind of mind boggling to me that dried pinto beans don't exist over there. I don't know if I can comprehend cooking without dried pinto beans, we eat them in so many of our meals! Do you guys have other varieties of dried beans that are available?

Farrah said...

My former grad school housemate is from Malaysia and is still debating about moving back after she finishes her PhD--it definitely sounds a lot more expensive than I would've thought--I'd love to go visit someday though!

Rachel ¦¦ A Nesting Nomad said...

This is so interesting - and I completely agree with your point about learning where to economise. I'm surprised by the beauty services being relatively expensive, it's good you can do so much yourself.

I'm still figuring out how to manage the cost of living here. In the UK the price of food remains relatively stable throughout the year, even fruit and veg. Here, it's all over the place and promotions make a huge difference on what is affordable one week to the next. You've really got to keep your wits about you. As for property, you'll struggle to find a 2 bedroom flat for under AU$1m (US$800k ish) within a 20k radius of the CBD. Horrifying.

Autumn @ Autumn All Along said...

Okay, it really surprised me how expensive housing is for ex-pats there compared to all of the other things being cheaper. The ATL metro is cheap, but I could easily find a house cheaper than that in a nice area with minor renovations (ours was almost 100k cheaper than that 5 years ago). That's wild to me!

Tab said...

I'm curious how much the international health insurance is though?

OscarJewerly said...

fruit and veg.