Jakarta’s cheap cost of living

 jakarta downtown

by Andrew Henderson

I have friends who, despite my commandment to never live or do business there, still live in Southern California. I lived there myself for seven months many years ago, when my career and first business were just starting to take off, and I’m still dealing with nonsense from the government mafia there.

There’s one thing all of my friends in California tell me, though… that they’ve got “the worst traffic in the world”.

Granted, traffic in LA can be bad. I’ve inched my way along the 405 freeway in rush hour once or twice myself. But traffic in LA – heck, traffic almost anywhere on earth – can’t lay a candle to traffic in Jakarta.

Here in this city of ten million people, rush hour is almost an all-day event. And there’s very little public transportation; some buses called Transit Jakarta and a train that doesn’t stop many places.

Imagine New York without a subway system. Aye!

Now, to be fair, living in Indonesia is nothing like living in Jakarta. Many are surprised to learn that Indonesia is a nation of nearly 250 million people; home to the fourth largest population in Asia. However, if you’re not so apt to live on the beaches of Bali forever, or join to oil industry, or run a rubber plantation on Borneo, Jakarta may be the big city for you.

Despite the traffic, living in Jakarta does come with its share of benefits. For one, things here are dirt cheap.

Thank the country’s ever-flailing currency, the Indonesia rupiah, for that.

Cost of living in Jakarta

How cheap, you ask? I’ve been bombarded by acquaintances here who each have their own recommended apartment, with some as cheap as $170 a month. Single rooms for rent in the city center – right across the street from the posh Grand Indonesia mall – go for the same if you don’t mind squat toilets and warm, not hot, water. From $500 a month, you can get a decent apartment in a nice part of Jakarta or South Jakarta.

A food truck in parking in downtown area

Food here is cheap, too. Well, most of it. Yesterday, I wrote that Starbucks should be a bit concerned about all of the quaint, well-run cafes. However, even Starbucks has cheap drinks. A large tea is $1.50, with credit customer customers from select banks able to avail themselves of two-for-one offers. That’s half the price you’d pay living in Kuala Lumpur.

In nice malls like Grand Indonesia, all sorts of decent fare can be had from $2 or $3 for a meal. Decent Mexican meals cost $5 at happy hour. Sushi is abundant. And, of course, all varieties of Indonesian food are available just about everywhere.

If you’re not a huge fan of Asian food, Indonesian food might surprise you. It offers everything from meatballs and vegetables in broth to fried pancakes filled with egg and ground beef. Nutella crepes are a fad among some street vendors.

And while many of the locals here in Jakarta advise against eating street food, I couldn’t help but dive in. Last night, my pre-dinner snack consisted of various meats with spicy sauces and chili powder. Cost: 8,000 rupiah, or about $0.70. No Haribo Gummy Bear effect yet.

If you’re a bootstrapping young entrepreneur who needs to conserve cash, or just want to cheap it out living overseas, you could easily live in Jakarta on $500 a month. I doubt you’d want to, but it’s possible.

For $1,000 a month, though, you could enjoy a decent lifestyle. Considering the average entry-level salary here is a few million rupiah, you’d be considered rather rich by much of the population.

The one thing that will really kill you is transportation. If you’re not willing to ride on the Transit Jakarta buses that require you to stand on an elevated platform to enter them, you’ll be stuck taking taxis everywhere.

A plate of sidedish in Mie Pinangsia restaurant

While taxis in Jakarta are also really cheap – flag drop of about $0.60 with low per mile rates – traffic is an absolute bear. Including all of the surcharges, my long ride in from the airport cost less than $10 including a small tip, but it took forever. At some point, you have to consider the value of your time.

In fact, I’ve taken to walking to anywhere within a mile and a half of my hotel. Not only do I enjoy walking and seeing the city up close in a way you can’t do as a tourist in a taxi, but I’ve found it doesn’t take much longer.

Unfortunately, walking that kind of distance wouldn’t work too well once it gets warmer or starts raining every day.

Jakarta does combine two elements I like: cheap commoditized goods with the availability of luxury goods. For example, a half-liter bottle of (halal) Coke at the local convenience store chain is $0.33. But there are also two Ritz-Carlton hotels, as well as other luxury brands from Mandarin Oriental on down, all too happy to sell you drinks in an upscale environment.

There are also no shortage of shopping malls with stores from the most basic to Louis Vuitton. While luxury goods are expensive – perhaps close to double US prices in some extreme examples – electronics and appliances seem to be rather cheap. In case you decide to live in Jakarta full-time, you’ll be able to buy that 65″ TV at a reasonable price.

Personally, I didn’t include Jakarta on my list of most livable cities in Southeast Asia exactly for its horrible traffic. I can’t imagine getting used to not being able to go anywhere.

In fact, traffic in Jakarta reminds me of the voluntarist concept of government building the roads. The Indonesian government has done a really bad job keeping traffic moving, no matter what the hour.

If you’re in the tech business, Jakarta does have a booming tech scene. And the low cost of labor, along with the huge diversity in a country wider than Australia, present some interesting opportunities for those willing to live in Indonesia.

Indonesia is a bit mysterious compared to the rest of southeast Asia and it has its share of trouble. It’s up to you to weigh the cheap cost of living and friendly people against weak mobility, moderate isolation, and coming currency-fueled economic downturn.

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