So You Want to Live and Work in the UK: Budgeting for Living in London

You may find other posts in the Expat Series helpful. Click for the post listings.

Another frequent question I get from people who are thinking about moving to London is “How much does it cost to live in London?” This is obviously another one of those “it depends” answers, because it depends on your lifestyle and the trade-offs you are or aren’t willing to make. Below, I’ve given a descriptive idea of my experience so that you can have an anchoring point for where you might fall along the spectrum. In addition, tax (VAT), is included in all the prices I’m discussing below.

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  1. Food (Grocery)

Generally, I’ve found groceries to be at least 10-15% cheaper here than in Canada, depending on the item. I’ve included a sample receipt for some groceries I’ve recently bought. However, you can take your average grocery receipt and try to find the equivalent items on the grocery delivery sites for the major grocery store chains (which will match closely with in-store prices) to estimate what your monthly grocery bill will be (Waitrose, Tesco, Sainsbury, Ocado).

SainsburyReceipt

In my sample receipt, I’ve taken a few of the items and broken them down into meals in this spreadsheet here. If you consumed the food I do, you’d be able to make a breakfast for £1, and a lunch / dinner for £3.20 (you can assume £4 if you have a big appetite). You can budget in £1.28 for snacks – I’ve put in 1 peach and a bakery item. In total, a full day’s worth of food would cost £8.57 if you never ate out and ate things similar to my taste. That’s roughly £260 for 30 days of groceries for 1 person.

Additionally, there will be a slight price differential between Central London grocery stores and grocery stores further out. You can also buy produce for cheaper at local fresh markets as well as ethnic grocery stores (for example, the bok choi is much cheaper at the Chinese grocery stores in Chinatown than at the Sainsbury in my neighbourhood).

  1. Food (Dining Out) & Drink

Dining out and alcohol is one of the most expensive categories when compared to food and drink back in Canada. I’ve thrown some international brands in here as well so you can get a sense of comparables. I’ve also linked you to menus, where possible. The prices below include VAT (tax), but do not include service. Sometimes restaurants automatically add 12.5% service, other times they do not. At your discretion, though not required except on large party sizes.

Restaurant Type Sample Cost
Subway Fast food / takeaway ·      £3.40 for a 6” Tuna Sub
Starbucks Coffee takeaway ·      £2.50 – £3.00 for an Americano
Franco Manca Small chain – casual ·      £7.50 for a handmade pizza

·      £5.95 for a glass of wine

Dishoom Mid-level restaurant – casual ·      £8.50 for a Chicken Tikka

·      £3.20 for a Garlic Naan

·      £8.50 for a cocktail

Pig & Butcher Mid-level pub – casual ·      £18.95 for a roasted leg of Saltmarsh lamb (Sunday roast)

·      £5.65 Bottled IPA

Granger & Co Mid-level restaurant – casual ·      £12.95 brunch pancakes

·      £9.95 white peach Bellini

Lima Floral Mid-level restaurant – casual ·      £14 tuna (starter)

·      £24 hot ceviche (main)

Dinner by Heston Blumenthal 2 Michelin Star restaurant – upscale ·      £21 meat fruit (starter)

·      £44 powdered duck breast (main)

·      £16 tipsy cake (dessert)

·      £15.50 glass of white wine

Housing & Bills

To answer the housing question, this really depends where you live, whether or not you want flat mates, the condition of the property, etc. However, there’s plenty of rental pricing information available online, and I’ve written a separate guide here to give you an idea for how much you might pay for a given neighbourhood, including the bills.

You could probably pay as little as £300-400 per month for housing and bills, but you’d live 50 mins + train journey away from Central London, or you’d live in a lower quality building, or you’d have a lot of roommates. A studio flat in Central London would easily cost at least £1600 a month, and more if you want more space or a one bed. If you’re living on your own, check your post code to see if you qualify for a single-person council tax discount. In my flat-hunting guide, I’ve also detailed what bills you need to factor in for your housing and where you can find information for what those bills might cost. An anecdotal survey from my friends indicate the following ranges:

Bill Type Amount per month per person
Council Tax £50 – £75
Water £10 – £15
Gas + Electricity £15 – £25

Internet and Phone

This is another area that I’ve found to be cheaper than in Canada. Especially because the population density in Canada is very low, phone plans (especially concerning differences in data included) are fairly expensive. As I bought an unlocked Apple phone, my sim-only contract is £15 a month and it includes 12GB of data and unlimited texts and phone calls in the UK. Though there are quite a few mobile providers here, I went with Three because of the awesome Feel at Home feature that is sure to help you when you plan all your weekend and bank holiday trips as it allows you to use your texting, calling, and data allowance in 71 other countries. Your other main telco provider options are O2, Vodafone, and EE.

For broadband, I pay £17 a month with TalkTalk for the most basic internet speeds and unlimited usage. If you stream a lot, this might not work for you, as I do find that my internet speed is occasionally laggy. I suggest you go on to a couple of comparison sites (uSwitch, Compare the Market, MoneySuperMarket) and find the best plan / deal for your needs, as you may also want TV or a landline as well, but make sure to be aware that some of the plans in their results are sponsored (those are labelled as such). In addition, Relish are a 4G internet company for home use that doesn’t require that annoying engineering set-up appointment where you have to be at home. As a result, they may be a viable alternative if you’re just looking to get up and running really quickly.

  1. Transportation

Your transportation options around the city include tube, overground, bus, regional train, taxi, Uber, ferry, or cycle. I’ve generally found transit cheaper than back home in Toronto, but the cost of everything, as always, will depend on distance of travel, frequency, and any government subsidies / programs you should look into.

Mode of Transport Approx. Cost Subsidies / Special Pricing
Tube Single journey – Zones 1-2; Oyster / contactless payments:

·         £2.40 – £2.80 off-peak

·         £2.90 – £3.30 peak

·         Daily cap of £6.80

·   Discounted travel

·   Travelcard

Overground Single journey; Oyster / contactless payments:

·         £1.70 peak

·         £1.50 off-peak

· Travelcard
Busses / Trams Single journey; Oyster / contactless payments:

·         £1.50 all journeys

·         Daily cap of £4.50

·         Weekly cap of £21.20

· Unlimited journeys in an hour

· Bus and Tram Pass

Regional Train Varies depending on time and destinations ·   Rail Card – 1/3 off train tickets

·   Season ticket pricing

Taxi / Uber Back Cabs (taxis) are 2-4x as expensive as Ubers. Generally I can get most places for £5 -£15 with Uber Install Uber with invite code n57u3 to get £10 off your first ride
Cycle ·         £2.00 per 24 hours unlimited use for journeys <30 minutes

·         £90 annual membership

Save 25-39% on a new bike for work with your employer
Ferry Single journey; Oyster / contactless payments:

·         £4.60 to £9.90

· Discounts

Entertainment / Leisure

Rather than give you a precise number, I’ve given a list of common “things to do” and links to pricing information so you can get an idea of cost. Theatre shows, plays, gigs, and admissions all vary widely, so I believe this is the best way for you to gauge cost. One thing to note is that a lot of the regular collections (i.e. not special exhibitions) at most museums and galleries have free admission. You can see the likes of Van Gogh absolutely free at the National Gallery, for example!

Type Merchant / Vendor Examples Sample Prices
Musical Theatre ·      Delfont Mackintosh Theatre

·      ATG Tickets

·      £49.75 – £94.75 (Aladdin)

·      TKTS discounts

Plays / Operas ·      Barbican

·      Almeida Theatre

·      London National Opera

·      Old Vic

·      £18 (Crave)

·      £10 – £40 (The Writer)

·      £25 (Acis and Galatea)

·      £8.50 – £100 (A Monster Calls)

Music Gigs ·      Ticketmaster

·      See Tickets

·      Dice

·      £28.25 (Of Mice and Men)

·      £22 – £83 (Walk Off the Earth)

·      £83 – £280 (Taylor Swift)

Museums ·      Somerset House

·      British Museum

·      Museum of Natural History

·      £14 – £17 (Rodin)

·      £7 to £38 (Wildlife Photographer of the Year)

Galleries ·      National Gallery

·      Tate Modern

·      Victoria and Albert

·      National Art Pass

·      £20 – £22 (Monet & Architecture Exhibit)

·      £10 – £32 (Picasso Exhibit)

Talks ·      Eventbrite

·      List

·      £27.50 to £35 (Sir Ranulph Fiennes)
Sport ·      Ticketmaster

·      Eticketing

·      Lord’s Cricket

·      £50 – £85 (England v. Pakistan)

·      £55 – £200 (Aviva Rugby Final)

Clothing & Goods

I haven’t done as much shopping here as I did back home, as I would often shop in the US. With the exception of home goods which will be the topic of another post, I would recommend you look at some generic fast fashion retailers online for pricing. Clothing prices depend so much on style and taste that you’ll have to budget for this yourself. There are plenty of thrift / charity shops that have a good selection as well if you’re on a budget. Have a look at ASOS, H&M, Forever21, BooHoo, and Pretty Little Thing for fast fashion. For some higher quality brands, look into Uniqlo, & Other Stories, Maje, Net-A-Porter, and Sandro, or check out the higher-end department store Selfridges.

For home goods, you might want to check out Amazon, Argos, Flying Tiger, Next, or H&M home. But also, don’t underestimate your ability to find free or good quality used items on Freecycle, Gumtree, Facebook Marketplace, or Schpock.

While this guide is not meant to be a comprehensive look at the cost of living in London, it is meant to give you at least an idea so you can start imagining what your monthly outgoings would be to support your lifestyle. If you have any tips or budgeting ideas, please leave a comment below!

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So You Want to Live and Work in the UK: Finding a Flat, Part 1

For the previous posts in this series, please see So You Want to Live and Work in the UK: Finding Work on Tier 5So You Want to Live and Work in the UK: The Visa and So You Want to Live and Work in the UK: Circular Finances.

Hopefully, you’ve now managed to wrangle yourself a bank account or have access to a place to store your funds so you’re able to put down a deposit down to let a flat. Assuming that this is the case, you can now begin the arduous process of finding a place to live. There are quite a few considerations when flat hunting. I’m splitting this into a two-part blog series to take you through the elements to consider. This post will focus on finding the right neighbourhood and property for you, and the second post will focus on dealing with letting agents and making an offer.

I highly recommend that you have a look at the property listings available on the market and use the pictures and information on the sites to form your preferences. You will likely not be making offers on flats in this information gathering phase, but you will be developing a list of requirements for a flat in your desired budget range. Some of the popular sites where most agencies post their properties (in order of most useful to less useful) include Zoopla, Rightmove, Spareroom, Gumtree, and OnTheMarket. You can also check out the websites for the bigger lettings agencies to see postings on their sites (Foxtons, Knight Frank, Hamptons, and Winkworth). Keep in mind that oftentimes a flat will be posted as available, but by the time you call to arrange a viewing, the flat will have already been let – that’s how fast the real estate market moves in London, which is why it’s more helpful to use these websites as research. Additionally, there are loads of smaller lettings agencies within each neighbourhood, so do not view my above list of lettings agencies as exhaustive.

When I was looking for a flat with my flatmate, there were generally seven factors that played into us being able to find a property that was a good fit for us. These considerations helped us narrow down the properties / neighbourhoods for which we wanted to view flats, and helped speed up the vetting process so that we weren’t wasting our time viewing flats that weren’t going to be a good fit. It also helped to manage our expectations for what would be reasonable requirements given our budget and the neighbourhoods in which we wanted to live.

Lettings prices are generally represented as per calendar month (pcm) or per week (pw). Note that pw pricing isn’t as simple as multiplying by 4 to get to a monthly rate: you will need to multiply by 52 weeks and then divide by 12 months to get to a monthly rate. Prices are primarily driven by the following seven factors:

  1. Supply and demand for a particular neighbourhood
    Generally, the worst time to look for a property to let is during August as this is when students descend upon the city; while there is increased supply as old students move out, the influx of new students provide fairly fierce demand, even in neighbourhoods that don’t border major universities and schools in London. Moving in mid to late September or October will make it an easier process to find a flat. Additionally, some neighbourhoods are simply popular with certain communities thereby driving up the rental prices; for example, many Australian expats choose to live in Clapham, and so Clapham is quite expensive in spite of the fact that it isn’t in Central London.
  2. Transport links / distance to London city centre
    Another consideration is the proximity of your property to Central London. Two things you need to understand: London is very large in area and London is a city comprised of boroughs. If you understand these two facts, there really is no notion of “downtown” as there is in North America. Central London is primarily where a lot of major government offices are concentrated, where property prices are highest, and where there is generally a high population density / high entertainment density. However, within each of the boroughs in London, there are enough shops, amenities, and interesting things to do such that you would never have to leave your borough to survive / not be bored on the weekend. So while being close to Central London means you will be close to an area that is quite lively, it is a completely personal choice as to whether this is important. The other important aspect of this is a property’s proximity to transport links (tube, rail, bus routes). Because London is so big, it can take two hours or more to travel from the east end to the west end. Consider the places that you will need to go most frequently (work, school, fun, etc) and make sure that you’re selecting a borough that will be a decent commute; otherwise, you’ll end up wasting time and money (see cost of monthly travel cards) if you live far from where you work / study / play.
  3. Condition of property (new, period conversion / refurb, old)
    Generally, new or period conversion / refurbished properties will cost more than properties that have not been renovated. If you see wooden floors, retrofitted / modern appliances, exposed brick kitchen walls, modern windows, and new faucets or newly tiled bathroom floors, these are all indications that the property has been renovated to some extent, and you’ll likely be paying a higher rent vs. properties that have carpet or older fittings.
  4. Type of property (council flats / estates, maisonettes, flats)
    Council flats / estates are essentially government housing that are now privately owned due to a buy back scheme. They are often cheaper rents as the properties may still be in dodgier neighbourhoods, or less safe bits of a borough, and some of the council flats within a council block or estate may still be publicly owned. Read more here. Maisonettes are two level flats with internal stairs. For more information about the definition of a flat, read here.
  5. Size of property and number of rooms / living space
    Often, living rooms get converted into bedrooms in some properties. Rent will usually be cheaper in these cases since there is no longer any shared living space, other than the kitchen. The needs of multiple flatmates will have be factored in when searching for a property as well. Some two bedroom flats, for example, are one massively sized master bedroom and a small double or even a single room. If your flatmates aren’t willing to split the rent according to the amount of space, it can cause headaches and disagreements. Equally, it can sometimes be difficult to find two equally sized double bedrooms if you’re looking for an equitable rent split, so do keep this in mind when viewing properties. Another consideration is the number of bathrooms; some flats have one bedroom with an ensuite bathroom which typically means that the letter of that room would pay more rent. You will typically pay more for a property overall if there are more bathrooms.
  6. Basement / ground floor flats vs. above ground flats
    Basement and ground floor flats are generally cheaper than above ground flats (2nd floor and up). The main reason is that basement flats typically don’t have good views and the sunlight is somewhat limited, though there are usually windows. Ground floor flats can sometimes be perceived as “more dangerous”, depending on the neighbourhood, as ground floor flats are more accessible at street level. Sometimes, ground floor flat windows have bars over them for safety reasons, and so ground floor flats may command lower rent.
  7. Other fees / costs
    On top of the monthly rent you’ll have to pay, you will also have to factor in one-time costs such as lettings agency fees (including inventory fees, reference / guarantor checks, and agency fee), as well as monthly recurring expenses including utilities (water, gas, heat, and electricity) and council tax. For one-time costs, make sure you clarify with the agent what the total fees will be, and then determine what it will cost per person, if you are renting with others. For the monthly recurring expenses, it is usually a good question to ask the agent if the rent price includes any utilities, and how much the non-inclusive utilities typically cost per month. For council tax, use the council tax band tool to look up the council tax band, and go to the respective council’s website to look up how much council tax is owed within the council tax band. For example, for the City of Westminster, these are the council tax rates across different bands. Then you can calculate how much you’ll need to factor in per month for council tax. Adding on these other fees / costs will give you an accurate total cost of rental.

People often ask me which neighbourhood or borough they should live in. Unfortunately, I give them the answer that it really depends. Even if you ask me which neighbourhood or borough is the safest, the answer is relative. Even in the safest neighbourhoods, there may be pockets or certain streets that are not as safe. The best way to see which neighbourhood or borough is right for you is to spend some time walking around the neighbourhood and getting a feel for the atmosphere. When you consider that visceral experience with the factors I’ve mentioned above, you’ll likely have a better idea of your perfect area. Good luck with your flat hunt!

If you have any flat hunting experiences or tips to share, please leave them in the comments below.