Money in Georgia, part one: Personal Finance

First, I must regretfully inform you all that I got a total of zero responses to my blog carnival announcement and am thus postponing the carnival indefinitely. However, as always I press on in the face of adversity (and/or indifference) and thus in this post I will write a little bit about Money in Georgia.

First of all the Georgian economy is fairly weak and the currency (lari, or GEL) is of fairly low value compared to the US and Canadian dollars and the Euro. As a TLG volunteer I get paid a “stipend” of 500 lari every month which translates into something like $250 – $300 US, depending on the exchange rate (as of this writing it’s $285, which is up from $272 when I took the contract in August). Also, because I have no host family, the Police Academy pays rent and utilities for myself and my roommate (which amounts to about 350 to 400 lari per month for each of us).

Now, in New York City it would be totally impossible to live on under $300 a month – even $300 a week would be insufficient for all but the most basic needs. In New York City, just a monthly Metrocard costs $89 (By the way, my hatred of the MTA is such that when I went to mta.info to look that up, and when the website loaded, it gave me an instant feeling of loathing and revulsion, and a physical response akin to that feeling just before you throw up) and a month’s worth of groceries runs $200 at a bare minimum; rents for a single person range from $300 at the tiny room in a shitty neighborhood low end and up.

However, in Georgia the cost of living is significantly lower. Rent of an apartment in Tbilisi is something like $200 to $300 US per month, which means renting a room might cost as little as $100, or about 170 lari. A month’s groceries could be as little as 100 lari. Utility bills might run about 50 lari per person. Marshutka rides within Tbilisi are between .3 and .5 lari (a hundredth of a lari is called a tetri, so that’s 30 to 50 tetri) and the Tbilisi Metro as well as city buses cost 40 tetri per ride.

That being said, Tbilisi offers many more expensive options. I shop at the Populi XL in Gldani, where prices are somewhat higher than at Georgian bazaars, just because I find bazaar shopping to be difficult and overwhelming in general. There are also imported items – things like cheddar and mozzarella cheeses, certain spices and canned items, cereals, peanut butter, nutella, etc – that I buy from Populi, Goodwill, or GMart – that come at a premium cost.

There’s also the fact that the price profile for groceries is different here than in America. It’s actually more driven by the actual costs of making the foods than it is by government policy and trade arrangements. For instance, things like potatoes, rice, pasta, eggs, bread, and fresh vegetables are relatively inexpensive. Meat, dairy, sweets, and imported products are relatively more expensive. Georgian vodka runs at about 6 lari per bottle; things like whisky and tequila run for 40 lari or more. So I could easily live for a month on potatoes, cucumbers, tomatoes, herbs, and rice, and drink tap water, and survive on about 50 lari. Add enough vodka for a month and that cost hits maybe 70. Instead, I try to eat meat at least three times a week, and I go through about one container of peanut butter, one nutella, one box of cereal, a few chocolate bars, and a few bags of chips in a month in addition to the staple breadbasket foods, and this ends up costing about 200 lari per month.

In contrast, in the US, industrial beef and chicken are super cheap. Candy and sweets and junk food are super cheap. Bread is relatively more expensive, as are vegetables. Prepackaged foods are affordable and practical. In the US I ate meat at least once a day, often two or three times, and ate a lot of junk food and drank a lot of soda.

So here, due to simple economics, I’m eating a healthier diet. I’ve probably eaten more vegetables in the last three months than I did in the three years before coming to Georgia. In terms of calorie per dollar, vegetables and starches are a great bargain. It’s not that I didn’t know that adding potatoes and rice to a meal made it more filling, it’s just that in the US I never needed to make a dish more filling. I could sit and eat an entire chicken for $6 or $7 and that would be my dinner. Here, I am relying much more on vegetable-heavy curries (which are astonishingly cheap but delicious) and potato-based dishes like spiced french fries or garlic mashed potatoes. Basically I’ve been using veggies and starches to add bulk to meals and it’s cheap and healthy, which is a novelty for me since that’s not really how we do it in the US.

The other high-cost element of Tbilisi life is socializing. People want to socialize at restaurants and bars. In Gldani, I can go to a cafe and have a meal with drinks for ten lari. In Vake or Vera or Old Tbilisi, it’s more like 20 or 30 lari. Pretty much every weekend, some group of friends invites me to the city center for hanging out and eating out, and I end up dropping significant amounts of money just to see my friends.

My favored alternative is to invite friends to my house – it’s cheaper, I can be more selective with who is there, and I don’t have to ride the Metro – but this also has its downsides. For instance, if I have a group of friends over for dinner and drinks, and I provide the dinner and drinks, that’s a 30+ lari expense in itself. I want to be a good host and not have to do something lame like charge admission, but it’s too expensive for me and my roommate to host people all the time if we’re the only ones providing anything.

So basically, social life in Tbilisi is expensive. In fact, it’s too expensive to maintain on a TLG stipend. And unfortunately, many of the TLG volunteers seem to have some independent source of money to spend in Georgia – whether from savings or parents – whereas I have nothing but debt waiting for me in the US. My parents spent me some money for my birthday – which I used to splurge and throw myself a party at my house, which was very successful – but overall, I often find myself limited in what I can do by how little money I have.

The other major cost I deal with is medication. TLG insurance does not cover preexisting conditions, like asthma or allergies or acid reflux disorder, so I pay for my asthma medication out of pocket. That’s the bad news. The good news is that medication in general is five to fifteen times cheaper here than in the US. You may want to read that again, because I’m not kidding. My reflux medication, omeprazole, cost less than six lari for a two month supply – that’s about $3 US as opposed to the $40 US it would be for the same exact drug in the same exact dosage in New York City. My rescue inhaler that costs $40 US also costs 5 or 6 lari. My maintenance inhaler that retailed for about $180 in the US cost under 60 lari, or about $30.

So overall I’m paying about 50 to 75 lari a month out of pocket just for medications, but that’s a significant bargain compared to US prices.

That being said, TLG people in Tbilisi – because there is so much more to spend money on here – seem to have a harder time with money overall than people in the villages.

I also spend a lot more money because I have no host family. I spend money on fixing things around the house, on changing light bulbs, on laundry detergent, paper towels, toilet paper, basic staples like flour and sugar and spices, groceries, kitchen items (like a nonstick pan and a plastic spatula to use on it, which set me back 50 lari, or my brand new mortar and pestle for the mole I’m going to make) and various other expenses that a host family would otherwise be taking care of.

Now, as to the solution… the TLG contract that I signed prevents us from moonlighting. We are not allowed to accept paid work from anyone other than TLG as long as we are under contract with them. This means that I can’t get a part-time job on the weekends or whatever to supplement my TLG income. This has been a source of frustration for me, since I have a lot of free time and not a lot of money. If I had a part-time job, I would spend less time (and therefore money) socializing, and have more money to enjoy the free time I do have. I might be able to save money for travel, so I could see Batumi in the summer or something.

As of now that option is closed off. However, I am considering calling or writing to TLG to ask them to have pity on us poor volunteers and let us take some kind of outside work. If they don’t, I’m going to have to really tighten up my budget for the next six months until my contract is over, at which point I will be evaluating my next steps in life.

I would like to stay in Georgia past the end of my contract. However, the finances need to be ironed out. I’d either need to make more money from TLG or the Police Academy, or find a job with some other group – perhaps a private school – that will pay me more, or I’d need to work for an NGO, or the US Embassy, or the UN, or some other organization in Georgia that would be willing and able to pay me something a little closer to a Western level salary. I really don’t want to have to go to Korea, but I could make $2000 a month there and save at least half of it, which would give me some financial security for once in my life. But if I could even make $1000 a month in Georgia, I would have enough money to enjoy daily life without worrying about money, and be able to start paying off some of my student loan and medical debts in the US.

We’ll see what happens. People in Georgia seem to survive on significantly less money than TLGers make, although as with many things in Georgia, what seems to be true on the surface is often deceptive or complicated in ways that are far from obvious. I’ll be writing about that aspect of Georgian life – that is, how Georgian people get by given the apparent low wages and high unemployment – in a second post, hopefully sometime soon. As for me, I’m hoping my financial situation eases up at some point in the near future, although I’m definitely living better than I did in New York, so at least that’s something.

********************************************

And now, the return of the long-neglected multimedia portion of this blog. Here are two answers to the same question:

Dark and vulgar…

…or rainbows and kittens.

So what would you do with a million dollars?

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15 Responses to Money in Georgia, part one: Personal Finance

  1. katienaum says:

    I think using produce to fill out the meal is quite common in the US, particularly in areas where produce is cheaper, such as upstate where I come from. I went to a farmers’ market there over the summer and was flabbergasted at how veggies, eggs, everything organic there was cheaper than even the conventionally-produced items in the supermarkets in NYC, and many people I know use them a lot more. Growing up extremely poor there with a family that dislikes cooking, though, I do have to say the focus was on processed starches and processed meats rather than the relatively affordable and tasty veggies.

    I’m sorry to hear it sounds like money is tough. Depending on how feasible it is, something under the table could be a help. From what you know so far, is negotiating salary acceptable in Georgia as it is at some jobs in the US?

  2. Have you tried freelance writing? I work as a writer through elance.com and I get paid in dollars, into paypal, which I can then convert into whichever currency. Pay is largely “American-range” income, although it’s a globalized marketplace – and I imagine it would require less red tape than other ventures.

  3. pasumonok says:

    I’d recommend tutoring kinds in English–It would give you an extra 100$ a month. I don’t know about you, but I personally rarely spend more than 100$ on bars. I mainly drink beer-it is the cheapest drink.
    Populi is the most expensive, then Goodwill, then G-mart (generally). You can save a lot by buying a big bag (1,5 kg and up) of detergent on sale in Goodwill or G-mart (plus, it won’t ruin your clothes). Time after time they throw a detergent called “E” on shelves–it is Polish and it is wonderful! Soap and shampoo can be on sale in Goodwill and G-mart too. It took me 3 years to figure these things out πŸ™‚
    Now, if the dinner goes as planned, I’ll show you a dollar store near bazar. and spots where you can buy meat without getting poisoned πŸ™‚
    Do you own a metromoney card? You can use it in metro and on a bus. 1st time you swipe it, ride costs 40 tetri, 2nd time–30, 3d time-20 and it stays 20 tetries for the rest of the day.

  4. I was just talking to a more well-to-do Georgian friend of mine on living wages and he doesn’t get how a lot of these people are living either. I’ve met people feeding a family of 5 off of 180 lari a month (his job and his mother’s pension checks). It translates to a lot of potatoes, I’ll tell you that.

  5. Andrew says:

    I remember there being some clause in the contract that said you could have secondary income, if and only if it was cleared with TLG first. I was looking at that back when I was still an editor for a news website, that $750 a month would have gone quiet far in Georgia.

    I know in some countries you can’t tutor for money on the side, but you can sometimes do other jobs if you get permission. Maybe some side work with the embassy or with an English language paper or proofreading English text for companies. I am not sure what the Georgian equivalent of Engrish is, but I am sure it exists.

    If I remember correctly in the old facebook profile settings you were a cook at some point. Were you able to bring a proper knife along?

  6. Anonymous says:

    God, I’m ‘spoiled

  7. Barbara says:

    Okay, so IF you are still in Tbilisi (which you probably are not — unless you took an extended contract with TLG). There is a business in Varketili ( not sure if there are any in other places) that sales ready to cook frozen foods that are usually present at a Georgian celebration. They are CHEAP. Cheaper than it would be for you to buy the ingredients and make it anyway. ‘Gupta’ or the boiled Georgian meatballs cost 6 lari per kg where as 1 kg of ground beef will run you 15 lari or more. My husband makes more than 500 per month (we also have our 2 children and 4 of his nieces and nephews living with us) but we live comfortably. We get most staples like potatoes, tomatoes, canned foods, carrots, cheese, butter, honey, etc from relatives who have farmland in the villages and only spend money on things like cooking oil or seasonal produce.
    The bulk of monthly expenses is bills… Internet, cable, power, water, trash, as you can probably imagine with 8 people living together ( his relatives also don’t help with these as they are students at local universities). Anything saved is usually spent on medicine when our kids get sick.

  8. Anonymous says:

    wow, amazing writing style..great information. Thanks a lot.
    i just have one question. is it much different now from the time you wrote your article? i think of moving to Tbilisi this year

    • panoptical says:

      Thanks!

      Tbilisi is more or less the same. There are more foreign markets and goods and more (and better) restaurants, and so it’s easier and easier to spend lots of money, but you can still get by on very little if you do your shopping judiciously.

  9. anonymous says:

    Hi,

    Thanks for your writing πŸ™‚

    I wanna go to Tbilisi and stay there for 3-4 months.

    I have looked into Georgian Rental websites and I see crazy prices starting from 800$ above per month for small 1 bedroom apartments.

    I wonder if I should not trust these websites? I am single and should be looking for a nice clean Single Studio type in Tbilisi, hopefully I can find with 200$ per month?

    Thanks man

    • panoptical says:

      That should be possible. Look in Gldani and Varketili, they’re a little far out from the city center but they’re way cheaper.

  10. Pingback: Dollars and Laris | Georgia On My Mind

  11. Anonymous says:

    I am retired U S Military and also retired on Social Security. Can I live pretty well in Tbilsi, Georgia on say about $1200/month? How much is medical insurance? How easy it it to get 365 days Visa reset after a year has passed? curious. My daughter in law lives there now. I may move there some day but not sure. would appreciate it knowing how 2015 expenses are. I would not want to Drive over there as I heard it is Dangerous!
    Walt1948

    • panoptical says:

      Definitely. You can get a one bedroom apartment for $300 or less (depending on the neighborhood). Gas, electric, and water should cost under $100 total. Dinner and drinks at a nice restaurant will be about $10 a person. A loaf of bread is about $0.30 and a dozen eggs about $1.50; veggies are cheap and plentiful and even meat is cheaper than in the States (boneless, skinless chicken fillets go for maybe $2 a pound or less). When I was single I lived on $600 a month pretty comfortably and it’s not much more expensive now.

      A residence permit is not necessarily difficult but they keep changing the rules so I can’t comment on exactly what is involved now. I was able to do it with a passport and employment contract. You might need some kind of income statement. I’d also advise you to get a copy of your Birth Certificate with an Apostile because Georgia sometimes asks for it (for example, for citizenship, or certain types of visa I think) and it’s relatively cheap and painless to do it in the US.

      Driving is somewhat dangerous here but the danger is mostly on highways – it’s rare for cars on Tbilisi streets to be able to go fast enough to cause lethal accidents (except for pedestrians).

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