Experiences of an American woman who was married to a Serb.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

What Serbs Don't Understand About the High Cost of American Living

We just got back from a weekend trip to see my brother in the Washington DC area. I used to live there as well when I was single and wore suits and high heels to work for 15 years. (Now I work in jeans in my home offices in Sombor, Serbia and the New England coast, not to mention Nepal whenever my husband feels like hiking up a mountain.)

Since I left, DC has become even more of a boomtown. You'd never know there was a recession or that anyone in the universe was hurting. It's shiny, glossy, packed. Unemployment and crime at an all-time low; new housing, shopping mall starts at a high. Lots of millionaires in every industry you can imagine from plumbing to travel. It's everything Serbs in Serbia think of when they imagine American Streets Paved in Gold Living Easy.

It's a terribly trite observation, but most people are not happy. The faces I saw were not glowing. They were grey.

If you're the sort of person who gets very passionate about your job, and lives 24X7 for it, then you might be happier in DC than you would be in Serbia. (But you're also a thin slice of a real human being.) Partly it's because American-style prosperity is so expensive. My Serb friends who visit here, see the glittering cars and think wow, these guys are rich. They don't know that in DC, everyone is working like crazy just to pay for basics including:

- Monthly $150 or more student loan payments for college degrees you got in your 20s; and/or savings for your kids to pay for $30k per year college someday.

- Annual ~$10k house insurance, house taxes, house maintenance (does not include mortgage.)

- Annual ~$5000 car ownership cost for taxes, insurance, maintenance (does not include car loan, gas, parking fees); plus the near requirement for families living in the Subburbs that every member over 18 years have their own vehicle because it's nearly impossible to get to a grocery store, post office, doctor, workplace, gym, or day care center without your own car.

- $94 per month average on electricity, not including heating with is another $150-ish in winter, and cable/Internet/phone which runs about $130 per month.

- No socialized medicine. Your employer may pay part of your insurance, but you need to pay $300-800 or more per month, per nuclear family, in "co-pays" to keep health insurance. This doesn't usually include major dental, eye-care, or cancer treatments, so you need more savings for this.

- Debt servicing. The average DC family has more than $10,000 in credit card debt with monthly required payments of $300 or more. (This doesn't include mortgage debt or student loans.) Sometimes this debt is from healthcare costs not covered by insurance.

- 30-40% of your pay swallowed by taxes before you see it, and then 5-10% buying taxes on top of that for everything you purchase.

Washingtonians keep racing like hamsters on a wheel working more hours per week than almost any other nation to pay, pay, pay. The economy depends on them working like crazy, only taking 2-3 weeks of vacation a year.

Prosperity is also a lonely life. Family and old friends are often thousands of miles away; but, even 10 miles distance can take 45 minutes in traffic. Your neighbors are likely to be strangers or passing acquaintances, because everyone moves so much. You practically never ever see kids playing outside in neighborhood streets with each other... they are shipped by car to playing locations and then back to isolated homes again.

Before this weekend, I had been missing DC bitterly. Enough, in fact, to have dreamed late at night about moving back there someday. Now I realize I can't. I won't. I will not join those grey faces on the Metro. It's a fantastic city - the gardens, the parks, the architecture, the art galleries, the bookstores, the public sculpture everywhere, the sense of history, the libraries, the cafes, the Potomac River, the churches, the mixture of races, the 100s of international restaurants.... To me it is the most beautiful city in the world.

But, you know. Serbia's better for living.


Dejan Bizinger said...

You know, Serbia is better for living if you have money and live in Serbia. Then it is quite good. However, if you have money everywhere is good, except maybe in sub-Sahara countries.

However, if you are not one of those less than 5% adult Serbians who have enough money than it is not that case.

In Serbia you also have to pay for medicine, just it is automatically deducted from the salary, around 12%, and you pay for that usually when you need something more than basic GP service, you will have to pay the treatment at some private or state clinique or you will wait quite long to get the treatment if any.

You didn't mention that in USA is some average annual salary around 35 000 USD, depending on the state, and in Serbia annual brutto salary is around 5 000 USD.

Serbia is not better place for living because many youths still have never travelled outside of Serbia, many people even don't have passports, still Serbians are treated like ghetto people when need to get Schengen visa, however, now it is better situation than before.

Speaking about socialization, in Serbia is no longer that trend like before, people also got in 9-5 (or 9-you name it) schedule and usually are free only for weekends, even then, not whole weekends, because have to do many private things not done during the week.

I think that Australia, Sweden, Norway, Canada, Switzerland or other social-wellfare states are good for living.

ina said...

And I think that Boston is more beautiful than DC :)
Just joking... one cannot argue about tastes. Related to the subject: Dejan has a point.