I whine a lot about the high cost of living in Switzerland. I’m not alone. A few weeks ago, I watched a young couple with their toddler son do a slow march through a nearby grocery store. Their eyes had that sick look people get when they’re doing math in their heads, trying to figure out if they will make their next rent payment.
They were speaking English in that unguarded way we foreigners do when we’re pretty sure no one else around us has a clue what we’re saying. I almost said hello, but stopped when the husband said, “We can’t afford this,” after scrutinizing a wedge of cheese the wife had just dropped into their cart. He returned it to the shelf. “What can we afford,” she asked. “I don’t know,” he said.
Their eyes scanned the shelves and my heart pulled. I was standing right next to them, but even if I wasn’t, I would still have heard it all as their volume was set to ordinary. They had taken me for a German-speaking local, unaware that I was an all-too-comprehending audience to their shock on what must have been their first venture into a Swiss grocery store.
Wishing to spare them the knowledge their naked fiscal pain was out in the open, I moved on.
We’ve been here three months, and the price of food is as mystifying as it is annoying. On the same shelf, a box of 10 eggs sells for $8.40 and another for $2.40. I’ve purchased both and can’t find any substantial difference in their expiry dates, source (they’re both Swiss) or taste. The $2.40 eggs are supposed to be small and the $8.40 large, but lay them side-by-side on the counter and I can’t tell the difference.
In one week, our food costs added up to 506 Swiss francs. 130 francs (CHF) of that were for dining out (remember the 65-franc cheese fondue lunch?), bringing the grocery bill itself to 376 CHF. It is probably a little higher. As I watched the numbers mount, my accounting grew more sloppy as a self-protective measure. I didn’t really want to know how much I was spending on food. Are we really paying about 1,600-2,000 CHF per month for food that I can’t even cook properly (owing to my challenges with high-tech state-of-the-art kitchen appliances)?
As much as that thought hurts, it gets worse when I put it through a currency converter. In Canadian dollars, that’s $2,359.67. In U.S., $2,392.80. Swoon.
On the up-side, Switzerland prides itself for its comparatively high wages. In Switzerland in 2004, the average monthly wage in U.S. dollars across all sectors was $6,385 (32 per cent would be siphoned away through taxes). In 2005, in Canada, it was $3,156, minus 28 per cent tax, and in the United States it was $2,821, minus 18 per cent tax. *
I’m not sure I trust that $6,385 average, though. Switzerland has a robust technology and financial industry, which might pull the average up. Nevertheless, even hotel/restaurant staff here make a good wage at $4,139 a month, compared to the U.S. ($1,749) and Canada ($2,151).
I just hope that young couple’s fiscal pain was short-lived.
* Source: International average salary income database, which gathers data from federal government agencies. Check it out at www.worldsalaries.org.