Using geoarbitrage to maximise value for money when shopping

If you’ve seen my cost of living breakdown and monthly reports, you’ll know that Bangkok can be a very affordable place to live. Basic expenses  – rent, transport, utilities and eating out – are a fraction of what I would pay back home in London.

But beyond these essential monthly costs (and the occasional massage), Thailand often doesn’t offer great value for money. This might be a surprise to those who come to Thailand for cheap shopping and expect bargains. Yes – those fake Adidas shoes may be cheap, but they’re not made to last, which means having to make a repeat purchase. That’s not a bargain at all, and is a huge disservice to the environment.

Over the past seven years living in Thailand, I’ve learned tips and tricks to make the most of my trips back home to the UK to save money on shopping. I suppose this is one way of using geoarbitrage to maximise value and minimise spending.

Using geoarbitrage for better value shopping

What I take on my trips back home to London

Before I make each trip, I usually fill my suitcase with little treats that I know my friends and family would like, and that represent good value and novelty. These include:

  • Mama noodles – creamy tom yum flavour (the BEST flavour)
  • Tao Kae Noi seaweed snacks – soooo good
  • Northern Thai coffee
  • Thai cooking sauces – these are much more authentic that those in UK supermarkets
  • Sheet masks – these cost much more in the UK than over here
Everyone loves these mama noodles

After I distribute these gifts, I’m usually left with an empty suitcase because I have enough clothes still in the UK to wear when I’m there. I proceed to fill that suitcase with items that I know are much cheaper in the UK, or represent better value for money. Since the UK pound has dropped against the baht in the past two years, my money also goes further!

What I bring back to Bangkok from the UK

Clothing

Markets in Thailand sell fantastic looking clothes for very little money. I myself was seduced by the cheap and on-trend clothes being sold in the various market stalls (it seems whatever appears on the catwalk is on Bangkok markets the following week).

After a couple of years of buying cheap garments and having them fall apart soon after, I learned to buy for quality and durability instead, which is often found in more recognisable brands. Unfortunately in Bangkok you pay a premium for this due to import taxes. Zara and Mango – which are not exactly known for their great quality either – are almost seen as premium brands in Thailand, and have price tags to match. Thankfully Uniqlo seems to deliver quality on a lower price price point, but I don’t like the fit of all their clothes.

Meanwhile, shops in London seem to be perpetually on sale. No matter the timing of my trip – around Christmas, spring, summer, or autumn, it seems there’s always a sale on. I buy little, I buy smart, and always with something in mind.

Shoes

Bangkok is not kind to shoes what with the dirt, rain, uneven pavements. I walk a lot, so my shoes get a lot of wear and tear. Again, Bangkok offers great looking shoes for a few quid, but I want to be kind to my feet. It’s important to me to find quality shoes that are breathable, comfortable, and supportive (since I’ve had problems with plantar fasciitis).

I’ve tried buying shoes from Bata, which are everywhere in Bangkok, but they don’t really last long. So when I’m in the UK I go back to what I’m familiar and comfortable with – Clarks, M&S, or Adidas shoes. And since there always seem to be a sale on, I’m much more likely to find comfortable, quality shoes for a much lower price in the UK.

Underwear

Good underwear is so expensive in Thailand!! As soon as I’m in the UK I head back to M&S to restock. Enough said.

Tea

Is it any wonder that as a Brit I fill my suitcase with teabags? I grew up drinking PG Tips, and it’s just one of those creature comforts I love to indulge in. A box of 40 PG Tips teabags in Bangkok costs £4.50. For the same price, I can buy 240 bags in the UK. That’s less that 1p per tea bag, versus 11p in Bangkok! I also stock up on herbal teas like peppermint.

Chocolate and biscuits

Everyone needs some chocolate or biscuits to go with their tea, right? Give me Cadbury’s over fancy Belgium chocolate any day. They do have Cadbury’s here, but it doesn’t quite taste the same, and they sell tiny bars for 50p. Whereas I can go around Sainsbury’s and pick up four bars for £1.

Cheese

If I’ve bought any clothes in London, they’ll be stinky on their arrival in Bangkok because of all the cheese I’ve packed alongside. I looooove cheese, especially mature cheddar, stilton, camembert, and halloumi, all of which practically sell for peanuts in comparison to the mini fortune they cost Bangkok.

Chia seeds

I had no idea how much cheaper chia seeds could be in the UK until a friend asked me to bring some back from London. You can buy 2kg of chia seeds from Amazon for £8.99. The equivalent in Bangkok would cost £45!! I also used to buy things like sunflower seeds and flaxseed from the UK. But I’ve since found some amazing vendors in Chinatown that are the equivalent of Holland and Barrett and have good prices.

Makeup and Toiletries

I’m not big on makeup, but occasionally I’ll need to replace my Mac concealer, which I’ll do at the airport duty free. I do invest in skincare however, and for some reason basic face creams in Bangkok cost much more. So if I see a good deal on products I use from Soap & Glory, or Botanics, I’ll pick them up. I also bring all of my contact lens solution from the UK. I have gas permeable contact lenses, and finding the solution and cleaner for them in Bangkok is too much of a challenge.

Final thoughts

I realise that even after so many years abroad, I still crave the familiarity of recognisable foods and brands! It’s no wonder I miss home.

As I’m making the big move back to the UK this year, I won’t be needing these shopping hacks anymore. Instead I’ll be thinking of what I should be bringing back to the UK from Asia. I expect sheet masks and seaweed will be filling in the crevices of my suitcase.

How many packets of seaweed will fit in my suitcase??

Over to you – have you put shopping geoarbitrage to use? Have you found unexpectedly good deals or false bargains when shopping abroad?

 

I’m glad I chose passion over money – even if I’m poorer as a result

“Even dream jobs involve a ton of compromise and grunt work. Tedium. Dread. Anxiety. Moments of self-doubt. And cold feet. If I made career decisions based on how “passionate” I felt, then I’d probably be broke.”

On a dull and quiet afternoon at work, I came across this Medium article by Jessica Lexicus on the Dangerous Myths of Passion. The passage above jumped out at me. Yes! I thought – my dream job in social justice had started with immense passion and excitement. Yet here I was on yet another sunny Bangkok afternoon, stuck behind a computer, unmotivated, wondering if I was actually accomplishing anything.

I’ve been mulling over that passage ever since, wondering if I should have chosen a career that served me better financially. If I’m already feeling disenchanted and rather cynical about my field of work in my mid-thirties, would it have been any different working in a well-paid corporate job? I might have even saved enough to quit work and travel the world by now…  and so on and so on went my little monkey mind.

But after some time, I realised there’s no point for me – or anyone else for that matter- to feel doubt or regret about the life and career choices we made in the past. The most important step is to acknowledge and appreciate what we’ve learned from life so far, and to build on those lessons to craft the future we want.

Everyone’s path is different  

When I first discovered the world of financial independence, I came across the inspirational stories of so many people who had used their twenties to make good money and chart out their financial freedom. By their early thirties, they were free of the tyranny of salaried work, and could live out their passions on their own terms.

By comparison, I had also spent my twenties working hard and building a career. But I was focused on building a career in international development, with smaller non-profits that had low prospects for leading to a very-paid job. By pursuing this career abroad on Thai-level salaries, I was further derailing my prospects of buying a house in a desirable part of London, tending to a rooftop garden, and cuddling with puppies (which is how I often imagine my dream life).

But I realized most of us who finally discover financial independence probably kick ourselves about our earlier choices. Maybe you also discovered it a little bit too late and have racked up huge commercial debt. Or maybe you’ve succumbed to lifestyle inflation, and wonder how you’ll manage to pare back your family expenses.

Looking at financial rockstars who’ve built up a sky-high net worth can feel disempowering when you feel so far behind. But comparison won’t get us anywhere – rather we should learn from these rockstars and start implementing advice and tactics that make sense for our own lives. It would be worse to just get stuck in a cycle of despair and regret and fail to take any action at all.

Why I’m glad I chose passion over money

I think that the question of whether you should choose either passion or money can be a false dichotomy. I’m sure that the founders of Google followed their passion, and are definitely being paid handsomely for it now. There is no correct answer as to whether you should choose money, or passion, or both, nor any correct order in which to pursue them. Passion is also not synonymous with career – you can indulge in a whole range of passions that have nothing to do with work.

In my case, however, choosing my field of work was a conscious choice to follow my passion and reject money, as I hadn’t yet honed a healthy money mindset. I’m definitely poorer for making career choices I have, but I definitely would have been worse off if I had succumbed to consumerism, credit card debt, and whole host of other destructive money habits. A person making £200,000/year is poorer than me if they’re spending £200,001/year.

Instead of wasting time mulling over what could have been, I decided to turn it on its head and instead seek some gratitude for the choices I’ve made so far. Here’s what I came up with:

My work has given me an appreciation of money

I realize that by pursuing a career revolving around humanitarianism and social justice, I’ve always had a keen understanding of my own relative privilege and the value of money. By earning little and somewhat inconsistently (at least before my current job), I’ve learned how to live on less. This means that I can make necessary adjustments and embrace a level of discomfort more easily than others who may need to start tightening their belts. I realise that while I really need to work on earning more, my values and experience have given me a framework that is conducive to financial independence.

I’m already partly living the dream

Although I am mostly stuck behind a desk Monday to Friday, I often use the numerous Thai public holidays and my annual paid leave for trips abroad, plus I sometimes have work trips in the region. Over the past years, I’ve managed to visit most countries in South-East and East Asia. Being able to frequently travel to diverse countries has been an incredible privilege and a benefit of living in Thailand, even if I occasionally feel resentful for having to show up for a 9-5 job. Living and travelling in South-East Asia is a dream for others, so sometimes I need to recognize how lucky I am to have lived in a fascinating country and explore others.

I recently came across this timely reminder from the sadly departed Anthony Bourdain:

“To be fortunate enough to be able to visit Thailand, to eat in Thailand, is a deep dive into a rich, many textured, very old culture containing flavors and colors that go far beyond the familiar spectrum. Given our limited time on this earth, and the sheer magnificence, the near limitless variety of sensory experiences readily available, you don’t want to miss ANY of it.”

I get paid to learn and try to make the world a better place

Catch me on a bad day and I will come across as a cynical curmudgeon, railing against the failure of progressive activists to create change. But the path towards economic, social and ecological justice is a long, hard slog. Despite getting frequently frustrated about it, I’ve also developed an appreciation and admiration of the people who keep at it.

I’ve also learned so much through my work. Apart from when I have to stare at budgets and reports, an important part of my work is to keep up to date on what’s happening in the world (which supports my Guardian addiction). I’ve also had the privilege to learn directly from people and communities on the ground trying to forge change – and this knowledge and experience is far more valuable than anything I could learn from reading books or newspapers.

Ok my job is kinda awesome, but I’m quitting

Writing the above has made me realise I do have my dream job, and that I’m lucky I ended up here. But even this dream job comes with office politics, repetition and a feeling of being stuck.  While I have lots of autonomy in terms of what I do in a work day, I have less autonomy over my time and location – I feel I have to be in the office during regular hours – and that daily frustration builds up. What’s more, this job is on the other side of the world from my friends and family back home, who I’m missing more and more (the main downside of living abroad).

I realise no job will ever be perfect forever, because I’ll continue to evolve as a person, and my needs will change. Social justice will continue to be hugely important me, but I’m also aware that I can pursue this passion outside of a profession as well.

I’m happy with what I’ve achieved in my career so far, but I’m also open to stepping away from it to explore new horizons. I don’t know what kind of job/work awaits me when I come back to the UK later this year, and (apart from when I’m totally freaking out about it) I’m kind of excited about the possibilities.

Over to you: Did you choose passion over money? Or are you pursuing another route? Sound off in the comments below!

Why I'm glad I chose passion over money

How I save half of my income living in Bangkok

If you’ve read my goals for this year, you’ll know that I’m aiming for an ambitious savings rate of 60% this year. While my past two savings reports (here and here) show I’m clearly going to fail on this, I do think I’ll be able to meet a 50% savings rate quite comfortably this year.

Although people might assume it’s easy to save money in a low-cost of living city like Bangkok, it’s taken me a while to cultivate habits and find little hacks that allow me to save this much. When I moved here from my previous job in the north of Thailand a few years ago, my income doubled, but my spending multiplied by 5!

I went straight into renting a condo for two people even though my partner hadn’t yet moved down to Bangkok. I got an expensive box of organic veggies delivered to my door each week, and tried every brunch place in the neighbourhood. I fell DEEP into the lifestyle inflation trap. But over time, I’ve managed to optimise my spending so I can save for financial independence without feeling any sense of deprivation at all.

How I save half of my income each month

As I wrote in an earlier post about the cost of living in Bangkok, I don’t believe that people should budget the bare minimum in Bangkok. But I do think there are ways of getting more bang for your buck when living here. Here’s how I keep my expenditure low in the main categories, while still maintaining a great quality of life:

Housing

I’m still in the same condo as when I moved to Bangkok, but now I share the rent with my partner, which leaves me much more room for saving and other expenses. My housing now only comes to 15% of my income instead of 30%. But if I was smarter when I first moved to Bangkok, I could have just rented a studio for half the price, and then moved into the one-bed once my partner moved here full-time.

INSIDER TIP: If you happen to be looking for a cheaper apartment in Bangkok, look for units in older buildings as you tend to get more space for your money. Also make sure you have a good look around – Bangkok is a renters’ market – there’s lots of choice, and you can try to negotiate the rent with the landlord.

Travel

I keep my travel in Bangkok low by mostly keeping to mass public transport. I use the BTS and MRT to get around, and I tend to avoid taxis and motorcycles unless I’m going to a place that doesn’t have a station nearby.

INSIDER TIP: Using the Grab app can be really helpful at times. If you’re running late and you do need a motorcycle taxi, using GrabBike is cheaper than hailing one on the street. Also, if you’re having trouble finding a taxi driver to take you somewhere using the meter, get a GrabTaxi instead – it’s slightly more expensive than using a regular metered taxi, but they won’t rip you off. If you fancy trying it out, use my referral code to get 150 THB off your first ride.

Food

I’m a vegetarian, so I tend to cook a lot at home. This means lots of beans and vegetables, which keeps our grocery shop quite low. When I first moved here, I was really missing Western food, so I bought lots of imported food, including crazy expensive cheese. Now I’m a bit more selective about what I buy. Also I usually just wait until either me or my partner go on a trip back home, and we literally stuff our suitcases with cheese, tea, and chocolate.

Whenever we’re feeling organized/motivated, we go to the local market to pick up eggs and vegetables. Not only does this mean supporting and interacting with local market vendors, and it also costs about 1/3 of the price compared to the supermarkets!

Local market haul Bangkok
All of this cost just 240 THB (about £5.50). The equivalent in my local supermarket would have cost loads more.

INSIDER TIP: If you are really desperate for a bite of cheese, the food hall at Emquartier usually has a few samples out 🙂 If you want some decent bread, lots of bakeries and supermarkets halve the price of baked goods after a certain time. We usually find half-price baguettes at Emporium after 6:30pm, and at Childlom Central Food Hall after 8pm.

Eating out

The peculiar thing about Thailand and much of South-East Asia is that a lot of the time, it’s cheaper to eat out than it is to cook. Most of my lunches are eaten at the canteen at work, which cost about 35 THB each ($1!).

Canteen lunch bangkok
This is a typical lunch for me. Broccoli and Thai omelette on brown rice. 33 THB.

We also eat out at more expensive places at least twice a week, paying on average 300THB each per person (yup that’s almost 10 work lunches). But because our other meals cost so little, our food cost still stays low. Plus over time, we’ve found places that we love, and that we think deliver value for money.

INSIDER TIP: Check out Eatigo, which is an app where you can get up to 50% off your bill at loads of restaurants. We use it quite a lot, especially for hotel buffet deals.

Drinking

I don’t drink as much I used to. This has less to do with saving money than the fact that I wake up with a raging hangover that stays with me for a whole week. Three drinks is my limit, which means I don’t end up blowing up my budget each weekend.

INSIDER TIP: Make friends with someone who works for an Embassy and can invite you to their events, or go to exhibition openings. There is seriously a lot of free good wine being served at these things. If you’re a lady, there are a bunch of ladies nights with free booze happening throughout the week. If my friends and I could still handle drinking on a weekday, we’d be definitely be regulars.

Entertainment

Our entertainment usually means going to the cinema, and we go to independent cinemas where tickets are actually cheaper. As I’m into politics and current affairs, I tend to go to a lot of the free events at the Foreign Correspondents Club, SEA-Junction, and the Asia Centre. We also check out free art exhibitions.

INSIDER TIP: Check out Meetup – there are an incredible number of active groups out there that range from fitness, to language exchanges, and blockchain discussions. I’ve used it mostly to join walking tours around the city, and to meet with fellow environmentalists.

Utilities

We only use the AC for a bit in the evenings, and sleep with a fan. This keeps our bill super low. Water is crazy cheap.

INSIDER TIP: Before renting a place, make sure you’re paying government rates, not an inflated rate you pay to the building owner.

Fitness

There are so many free fitness options in Bangkok. You can run in the parks, use outdoor exercise equipment, or join in the free aerobics or tai chi classes. There are also public swimming pools and public indoor gyms you can use for a pittance a year. I used to go to Muay Thai classes, which cost 6,000 THB for 15 sessions and thought it was well worth the money. But right now I’m just alternating running outside with YouTube videos at home. We have a gym and pool in our condo, but for some reason I hardly use them.

INSIDER TIP: Ok this tip is courtesy of someone else. Have a look at this fellow blogger’s post for the full range of fitness options in Bangkok.

Health and beauty

Tourists in Thailand love to take advantage of the cheap massages, beauty treatments and spa packages here. But being here full-time, these sorts of treats end up costing a lot of money. I used to get a massage twice a week, but realized that I was feeling even achier than before from being stretched and prodded so much! So while I still love massages, I’ve scaled them back to maybe once a month if that. Regular hair cuts, mani-pedis, and spa treatments are all a bit meh to me. I get super bored and frustrated just sitting there, so I don’t bother with them very often. They’re also not as cheap as you’d imagine – a mani-pedi usually costs between 800-1,000 THB – so basically a month worth of lunches!

INSIDER TIP: One thing I do enjoy is a trip to the Japanese onsen. For example, you can go to Yunomori onsen and pay just 450 THB and hang out all day reading, napping, or even working on your laptop between trips to the baths.

That’s a wrap

So that sums up my champagne lifestyle on a lemonade budget strategy (ok maybe more like a nice chilled glass of rosé – I’m not exactly going around dressed in Gucci).

Any questions or comments? Any Bangkokians have any further insider tips to share? Sound off in the comments below!

How I save half my income living in Bangkok