TUESDAY, February 27, 2024
Sukhumvit squeeze: Bangkok’s affordability crisis hitting even high earners
By Pattharin Ongartitthichai

Could you make 1,000% more than the average income, yet still feel as if it’s never enough? A case of a disheartened professional in Bangkok

This New Year holiday, I was browsing through a well-known Facebook group for aspiring professionals in Thailand when I stumbled on a viral post that has haunted many of us for weeks. The talk-of-the-town post was written by a professional venting his frustration that despite his high-flying career, he still does not earn enough to actually “make it” in Bangkok.

Regardless of his attempts to supplement his income each month, he feels that his salary is not even enough to cover his “basic needs”. This has left him wondering how much better life would be if he relocated to a country with better pay structures and social welfare.

A little context before we dive in: This individual is a specialist physician earning a salary of 220,000 baht per month, which, according to the National Statistical Office, is over 1,000% higher than the average monthly wage of approximately 15,000 baht. Yes, you read that right, he earns over 1,000% more than most people. The revelation that he struggles to make enough money to live a “comfortable life” in Bangkok has left many people puzzling over exactly what has gone wrong.

If a doctor’s salary is barely enough to live the good life in Thailand, how on earth does the rest of the country survive? The post sparked a heated debate, with critics convinced the man had mismanaged his finances while sympathisers echoed his frustration.

The post included a breakdown of the doctor’s monthly living expenses for his family with one child:

- 44,000 baht for home loan repayment

- 13,000 baht for car loan

- 30,000 baht for wife’s expenses

- 20,000 baht for health and other insurance plans

- 30,000 baht income tax

- 25,000 baht for child’s school fees

- 20,000 baht for housing utilities

- 15,000 baht for personal expenses

- 5,000 baht for personal savings

After paying additional miscellaneous bills, he said he was left with almost nothing to cover other essentials, let alone the luxury items or international travel that many of his fellow professionals enjoy.

Even with income that places him among the elite, the doctor is dismayed by how Thailand’s wages and benefits fail to keep up with the soaring inflation that all Thais currently face. He points to the inefficiency of economic structures and social policy, resulting in crises of debt-laden households and a depressed population.

The lack of quality public healthcare and education, he argues, forces parents into seeking extra income to afford private hospitals and international schools that are expensive even for above-average-income families.

As an expat who frequently travels between Thailand and America, I resonate with his sentiments. Bangkok’s rising cost of living compared to its minimum wage – especially since the COVID-19 crisis – is perplexing.

Living in Seattle, a relatively expensive American city, I often wonder at the negligible gap in food and transport costs compared with Bangkok, despite a difference of least 15 times in basic pay.

Seattle’s minimum wage is $19.97 per hour, the equivalent of around 700 baht an hour or 5,600 baht per day. Workers in Bangkok earn an hourly wage of 45.3 baht or 363 baht per day.

Against this huge gap in base pay, commuting to work on the metro in Seattle costs $3 (one way) while riding the Skytrain in Bangkok costs $2 for the maximum distance. Supermarket prices for basic groceries like fruit and vegetables are roughly the same, with a pound of bananas costing around $1 in Seattle versus $0.8 in Bangkok. While bubble tea in Seattle generally costs between $5 and $8, you can find it at a similar price, ranging from $4 to $7, in a Bangkok mall.

Compared with international standards, the huge discrepancy between Thailand’s pay levels and its cost of living is simply staggering.

Sceptics argue that pressure to keep up with luxurious lifestyles showcased on social media spurs dissatisfaction, blaming distorted expectations for the doctor’s situation rather than shortcomings in the Thai economy.

They question the necessity of sending his child to an expensive private school or opting for housing and car loans instead of renting.

However, since conspicuous consumption plays such a major role in Asia’s big cities, blaming Bangkokians for adopting such a lifestyle may be unfair.

Materialism, fuelled by images of pop stars and influencers endorsing luxury brands, has become ingrained in Asian cultures of late, and Thailand is no exception.

Women wearing Chanel and men checking their Rolex or Patek Phillipe stroll through Bangkok malls like Siam Paragon and EmQuartier immersed in displays of opulence. My Instagram feed is flooded with photos of people stretching their legs on business class seats, glass of wine in hand, enjoying another great day in their seemingly comfortable lives.

You may scoff at peer pressure, but it nudges subtly, and from every angle, at even the most modest souls. As happy and satisfied as I am in economy, I wouldn’t hesitate to buy a business class ticket if money was no object. When we see more, we want more. So when people achieve a higher income bracket than most, like this doctor, I reckon it’s natural for them to crave something more.

So, could you be raking in over 1,000% more than average and still feel as if it were never enough? Perhaps the answer is yes, perhaps no.

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, but one thing’s for sure – Bangkok is an international outlier when it comes to living costs versus what folks are taking home. It's time for a serious rethink on how we're getting paid in this city.