Thursday, May 26, 2011

A Better Quality of Life? Not Necessarily...

One of the things most British people assume is that you can enjoy a much higher standard of living in the US.

Most Americans also typically take this for granted.  I have had total strangers in Chicago guilelessly tell me, "Wow, from England?  I bet you are really enjoying a much better life over here, aren't you?"  One person even had the gall to ask, "Tell me, did you have showers where you came from?"  (I kid you not, I was actually asked that on one occasion - the person in question then went on to tell me they had a friend in England who only bathed once a week, so they assumed this applied to everyone due to the water shortages in the UK.  Far be it from me to tell this person that they obviously had very dubious, pikey friends and were slightly misinformed about a) the British water reserves and b) the hygiene equipment/habits of the entire nation.)

I am not about to launch into a USA bashing tirade here, but I have to tell you that, in my experience, a lot of this superior standard of living nonsense is just that.  It is pure myth and conjecture.  I think it is compounded by the fact that many Americans are far more patriotic than we are and are led to believe that things are, in general, bigger and better in the US than anywhere else in the world - and many Brits love any excuse to diss their own country and believe the grass to be greener in other countries, but particularly America.

Now I know I lived in an American city, rather than a suburb, which can be more expensive overall.  My rent, for example, to live in a 3 bedroom apartment in a nice part of Chicago is the same as the rent that I pay to live in a 3 bedroom house in a salubrious part of North London.  However, my utility bills in Chicago were far higher.  I typically paid $300 per month for gas and electricity (which is equivalent to £200 in the UK, roughly).  This would be higher if it was an extremely cold winter (it costs a bomb to keep a house warm when external temperatures are constantly below freezing for months at a time) and/or a very hot summer, when air conditioning was essential.  It wasn't unusual in harsh winters to receive at least one monthly gas bill that was as high as $400 or more.  And this was for an apartment.  Having this information to hand was a foolproof way to shut my dad up every time he whinged about his heating bill (which even for a 5 bed detached house in the UK was a fraction of the cost).  My combined utility bill in the UK is approximately £100 per month, which I know isn't cheap but still, for me it represents a significant saving.

My mobile phone costs were typically $150 a month, which was partially due to a small proportion of texts and calls going to and from the UK.  However in comparison I have been able to get a plan in the UK which gives me 3,000 minutes of talk time specifically to/from the US for an additional fee of £10 a month, with unlimited texts.  As a result my mobile bill is less than half that I paid in the States, with far more International communication.

I also paid a huge premium for my cable TV, mainly because I became addicted to the quality programmes being shown on HBO and SHOwtime in particular, who aired Nurse Jackie, The Big C, Entourage, Episodes, The Wire, Weeds and United States of Tara to name but a few.  I have no need to pay this premium in the UK because all of the aforementioned shows are aired on non-subscription channels and therefore don't cost me a penny (apart from the licence fee of course - but again, peanuts compared to what I was paying - my cable TV and broadband bill would average out at $175 a month, here I pay £50 a month which is equivalent to $80).

When my ex and I separated and I started to research life as a divorced single mum in the States, I was horrified to learn how my finances were going to be penalised if I stayed in Chicago.

Ex and I mediated a fair maintenance/child support sum.  If I had stayed living in Chicago I would have been expected to pay taxes on that income.  My ex, however, would have received a tax exemption.  This would have increased his net income and decreased mine, by approximately 20%.  In the UK, however, the maintenance I receive is completely tax free.  Not only that but I also receive Child Benefit (although who knows for how much longer) plus Child Tax Credit from the government.  So the UK is not taking any of my income away in taxes...but instead giving me more money for free.  Bizarre.

In addition, both myself and the boys also qualify for NHS medical and dental treatment in the UK.  This is HUGE.  In Chicago, once divorced I would have had to pay medical insurance for my own coverage, which would have cost hundreds of dollars a month.  This would not have entitled me to free medical care, however.  I would still have had to pay between $20-$60 each time I visited a doctor (known as a co-pay) and then a percentage of the total medical bill itself.  To give you an example, when I was diagnosed with melanoma I was still officially married and was therefore still eligible to use my husband's insurance.  The total cost of my treatment over 6 months was $10,000 - and I was responsible for paying 10% of that cost, $1,000.  In addition I also paid an additional $200 in co-pays each time I attended a consultative/surgery appointment.  I really struggled to pay that $1,200 and am just relieved that I didn't need further treatment, which would have pushed my costs even higher.  In the UK my follow up costs and any subsequent treatments will not incur any expenses, apart from bus fare, for which I am incredibly grateful.

There are so many more examples.  Having a baby in America, for example, is another very expensive exercise.  I don't know how most people afford to do it.  A 'normal' pregnancy and birth typically costs $4,000 in ob/gyn fees, of which you are liable to pay at least 10%.   I wasn't fortunate to have normal pregnancies or births and our medical costs were a lot, lot higher.  Thankfully our medical insurance capped our out-of-pocket payments to $2,500 per family member a year.  Which is just as well, because in the space of 12 months Captain Underpants and I wracked up a total of nearly $300,000 in medical costs.  Paying the $5,000 that year was challenging.  Paying $30,000 would have been catastrophic.  As you can imagine, as well as stressing over the pregnancy and then our newborn baby's health, it was hard not to stress over all the bills we were incurring.  Costs that simply would not have been demanded of us if we had been living in the UK.

There was also no such thing as a free weekly mother and baby clinic and in my area all the mother/infant activities were very expensive.  Baby massage / Gymboree / sing and sign / baby swim typically cost between $18-$25 per session.  It just wasn't affordable to participate and I ended up spending far too much time at home, alone with my baby, feeling absolutely miserable.  It was winter in Chicago - going for a walk with the buggy wasn't really an option.  I struggled to meet other new mums and became very isolated.  Friends back in the UK were enjoying social events with their newborns for a lot, lot less.  I was envious of how easy it seemed in comparison.

Once the boys were older it was depressing to realise that there were no subsidies for nursery care.  Both boys went to a Montessori nursery 3 days a week, while I was working, which cost $1,600 a month (aka pretty much my net income).  Once school started there was the obligatory extra-curricular activities and then summer camp to factor in.  I did keep the boys out of summer camp one year.  This turned out to be a Bad Decision, because I hadn't accounted for the fact that every single one of their friends were attending camp, so in effect they had no-one to play with.  Except me.  Joy.  I saved myself approximately $800 a week that summer in camp fees (the summer holiday was 9 weeks long)...but would rather go into serious debt than repeat that exercise a second time.

I could go on and on with other examples relating to my particular circumstances of life in the US vs. the UK.  And these are the financial examples only.  Factor in personal examples - being able to access your family and friend support network for example - and the standard of living argument, for me, starts to flounder even more.

That's not to say that living in America doesn't have its plus points and advantages.  It does.  I am very grateful that I had the experience of living there and wouldn't change that for anything.  But if we are comparing apples to apples, and you are asking me my opinion based solely on my experience, then it's not necessarily a superior quality of life after all.


  1. Again, so so so glad we decided not to move there. I loved living in the US when I did, but the UK as a parent just feels safer.

  2. Totally agree with you. I do like many things about America, but it expensive. I am appalled by the cost of healthcare, dental care, mobile phone plans and many other things which you mention. Even more surprising is that many people are just happy to pay them - at least, where I live. The only things that really seem to be cheaper are gas (although not so much now), eating out (definitely) and clothes. But I would not say it is a better quality of life - necessarily.

  3. Anonymous26 May, 2011

    That money stuff certainly is scary, so I suppose I can understand a highly ambitious career culture sitting along side.

    When I spent time living in the US (as a student) I remember a conversation with a 1st generation American in which he stated (as though it were a fact) that 'obviously' if I could choose where I'd been born it would be America. He was dumb struck when I disagreed and honestly couldn't see why everyone wouldn't want to be born a US citizen.

    The States has an awful lot going for it and I do enjoy visiting. But as a lifestyle, it isn't for me.

  4. As you know, I totally agree with everything you have just written. Now if you could only get all this information in the head of my ex, then we would have progress.
    That was a really good post Nic. xx

  5. Wow that's a lot of money. Glad I'm on the cheap side of the pond. Ps what's a shower?!

  6. Wow. That sounds ridiculously expensive. And once again I'm so happy to be living in Belgium. Very informative, lovely post.

  7. Hi Nic,

    I have never visited to the states and would like to go on a holiday maybe NY. But the rat race/insurance/college thing would drive me mad.
    I know our health care is always being moaned about but I am so glad it is free. Free healthcare. I have managed to get an NHS dentist too which for me is a brilliant. I have free baby groups to go to. Free books and bits and bobs from the health visitor. We are so very lucky here and I am glad that I live here. Even when it rains! xx

  8. The free market doesn't seem to work well when totally unfettered. In the case of health care, it just seems to have spawned huge amounts of people round the edges - insurance bods, lawyers, bla bla bla.

  9. HOM - I think a short stay in the US of 2-3 years is a great opportunity and can be an amazing experience for a family...but living there forever compared to living here? There are definite financial and social disadvantages, I think.

    NVG - totally agree. Fairtrade and organic food in America can cost an arm and a leg and the selection is harder to come by than here...but eating out is cheaper. But other costs seem way over the top, don't they?

    Mud - I have had many identical conversations with Americans!

    Lulu - thanks babe x

    Kellogsville - Yep, count your blessings! And I guess America is obsessed with showers in

    MWA - Thanks - I did hesitate over writing it because I was concerned that American readers might be offended (which they might be, given the lack of comments)

    DC - Honestly, as a parent this country makes like quite a lot easier for us...

    Iota - Oh I have had many other shocking experiences with the US healthcare system, with the insurance company refusing to pay for some treatment when I was pg with CU and JD and we had to fund it ourselves...even tho the treatment was recognised and freely available in the UK. Don't even get me started...

  10. Wow - that is an eye opening article. I hadn't realised just how expensive living in the US is. Luckily, the opportunity we had to move there didn't materialise in the end because I'd have bankrupted the family with dental bills alone!

    Thank you for opening my eyes to this. I will thank my lucky stars that I am British and living in Britain. After all, thousands of people try to get into this country (legally or illegally) every year so it must be pretty good!