A few months ago, I spent two full weeks with my family in Poland. It was my longest stay in over 10 years, dating back to the long summers spent there as a kid, and my first time back in 3 years.
I was particularly self-reflective on this trip, more so than in years past. My recent maturity (I’m only 27), new perspective on things (now with a child & a personal finance blog), and the length of the trip combined to offer a unique experience.
Travel has a tendency to do that to people, but I think I also had a leg up in that we purposely avoided planning the trip, and instead went for the “everyday” experience when we could–it was just another day with the family. In that respect, the length of the trip helped tremendously in avoiding the feeling that we were rushed from place to place.
The environment was also vastly different from anything we experience on local travels, contributing to endless conversations that went something like “Where we live, yada yada, but here yada yada…” and “I wish we had X where we lived…or I wish things were more like X.” Having family members there to clarify and answer questions about daily life only fueled this further.
I’ve had a few months to think about and digest what I saw. In no particular order, I wanted to put pen to paper and share my thoughts on what I saw as some of the key differences between life in the States and Poland.
According to Wikipedia, the average gross monthly salary for Poland in 2010 was $1,290, which equates to roughly a $15,000 yearly salary. To put that in perspective, the per capita income in the U.S. hovers at about $50,000 per year, while the poverty level for a single-member household is just shy of $11,000.
Of course, everything is relative. Just as the cost of living in the U.S. varies dramatically from state to state, the cost of living in Poland is much different from what we experience here.
According to Mumbeo, here are some of the cost-of-living benchmarks for the city I’m from:
- Meal at inexpensive restaurant: $5.71
- Gallon on milk: $2.83
- Dozen eggs: $1.16
- Mid-range bottle of wine: $5.24
- 1 pound of apples: $0.55
- Basic monthly utilities (electric, gas, water, trash): $50.64
- Movie ticket: $7.01
- Nike shoes, 1 pair: $104.43
- 3-bedroom rent outside the city center: $508.86
- Square foot cost to buy apartment outside city center: $118.99
I was instinctively sure of how that compares to where we live, but decided to get more concrete data for the same benchmarks:
- Meal at inexpensive restaurant: $14.25
- Gallon on milk: $5.14
- Dozen eggs: $2.62
- Mid-range bottle of wine: $25.00
- Basic monthly utilities (electric, gas, water, trash): $165.00
- Movie ticket: $10.00
- Nike shoes, 1 pair: $45.00
- 3-bedroom rent outside the city center: $1,250.00
- Square foot cost to buy apartment outside city center: $270 for condos; $400+ for homes (this one courtesy of Zillow.com)
Seeing the data validated some of my direct observations and disproved others. Some of the discrepancies might simply be due to the small sample these cost studies use. In any case, here are my thoughts:
- Basic necessities cost much less, which includes shelter, utilities, and food. As a result, earning $15,000 in Poland isn’t a terrible deal if you’re happy with leading a simple life.
- Common services, like cell phones and cable TV are also inexpensive. For about $50 a month, the cable company will send you every channel, including HBO and other movie channels at their disposal to your TV.
- Imported goods, like “cool American” clothes, shoes, toys, etc. are much more expensive than their U.S. counterparts. However, locally made and European clothes and shoes are actually very affordable.
- Equally expensive is “Western” entertainment and shopping, like modern movie theaters.
- As I mentioned, rent can run much less than in the U.S., though the actual living space often corresponds to the price difference. For example, my uncle lives in a 2-bedroom apartment that’s the same square footage as our small 1-bedroom apartment used to be.
- Real estate, however, appears to be out of reach for many. Houses in the neighborhood where my grandparents live can sell for $400,000 up to $1M. Don’t get me wrong–they are in a desirable area and look amazing, but they have limited land space and small rooms. I suspect that a lot of the price is due to the cost of the land under the house, which from talking with my family seems to be at a premium in Poland.
- Buying a car can also be expensive. My uncle recently purchased a Kia for more than $50,000. The costs were so outrageous that at one point, he tried to buy a car in the U.S. and have it shipped, but the cost after taxes, tariffs and fees would have killed the deal.
- One thing that remains incredibly cheap are vacations. A couple from Poland can vacation for a week in the Canary Islands, flights, hotel, and all meals included, for less than $1,000. The same trip for two from Florida would easily exceed that in flights alone.
Although Poland joined the European Union in 2004, they have not converted to the Euro as of yet. For years, Polish politicians were blamed for stalling the process. More recently however, they are being applauded for saving Poland’s economy from the worst effects of the European monetary crisis.
If there’s a single area where the most change has happened in the last 10 years, it’s in transportation. Dirt roads get paved, single-lane roads become two-lane roads, and there are also completely new highways being built. The EURO soccer championships taking place in Poland and the Ukraine next year are helping to catalyze the process.
Right now, it’s still tough to average more than 30 miles an hour when traveling on routes other than between major cities.
The rail network is also undergoing major upgrades. High-speed lines are under installation, resulting in cross-country travel times of more than 24-48 hours during construction, but promising record-breaking times once complete.
Since Poland’s release from communist rule and my departure in 1993, much has changed. My visits every few years and my constant contact with family have provided a unique perspective from which to watch the process of improvement.
A lot of work remains. For years, the country’s infrastructure was its worst enemy, and thankfully this is where most improvement is taking place. Areas that have already benefited from highways and good connections for years are noticeably better off than their unimproved counterparts.
What’s next for Poland? After full integration with the EU and their use of the Euro, it will be interesting to see how the economy of Poland is affected, for better or worse. On a local level, many companies and people were hurt as a result of EU economic and manufacturing standards, but the hope is that on the larger scale, everything is moving to a better place.
The next 15 years will be fun to watch!