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4 Unexpected Ways Living In An Expensive City Made Me Better With Money

It was October 2013, and to mark the end of our final exams, my classmates and I decided to go out for a celebratory brunch. As we stepped into this small brightly-lit café in the middle of Denmark, I was confused at the menu — $30 for a brunch plate? A plate. Not a buffet, but a single lonesome plate. As a 22-year-old Canadian, I was all too used to all you can eat pasta for $15 in my university town restaurant of choice. But, not wanting to be the odd one out, I quietly went along with the group as we placed our orders.

As the waiter served us our plates, I looked around in astonishment, hoping that my newfound local friends were also surprised at the size of our meals. Placed before me was a small pot of yogurt with six almonds (yes we counted), two slices of toast with cheese, one small container of jam, and a cup of coffee. Voila. I recognize that I had lived a very privileged, and arguably unhealthy, “super-sized” lifestyle back home in Canada, but it was not the size of the meal itself that was so surprising. What I found notable was the mismatch between price and delivery of the product, a disparity that left me vowing to never eat brunch in Denmark again — a promise that (unsurprisingly) I didn’t stick to.

Four years have passed since that moment, and I have continued to live in one of the happiest and most expensive, cities in the world — Copenhagen. While citizens here receive many amazing benefits (free healthcare, child care, and education), they do so at the expense of being very highly taxed. As an entry-level employee, you can expect to pay 44% of your gross salary in taxes. In addition, goods and services are also highly taxed — for example, the same $18 H&M top in the U.S. might be the equivalent of $35 in Denmark. While it took a long time to take in the high prices of everything from food to makeup ($20 drugstore mascara!!), over time, I learned to adjust my budget — and more importantly, change my attitude towards spending money.

Here are the most important financial lessons I learned from living in one of the world’s most expensive countries:

1. Quality over quantity

Hands down this mantra has had the biggest impact on my spending habits. Buying quality over quantity is a result of the high prices of “cheaper” products (AKA they are no longer even that cheap), but also a Danish mentality of investing in what you buy. Dollar stores with a pack of 50 hair-ties for $1 do not exist in this country, and so without the “resource” of a cheap one-stop-shop for life’s little needs, I’ve been forced to buy more expensive, and honestly better quality, counterparts.

The upside? Things work and last longer. Who would’ve thought?! This mentality has begun to spill over into bigger purchases, like clothes and electronics, where I allow myself to purchase a higher priced item with superior quality. Overcoming the student mindset of “if not free then cheap” took some years, but now I am okay with spending more on purchases as long as I ensure to appreciate and take care of them over time. Not only did this new attitude actually reduce my overall spending (I typically shop less, because I’m not willing to invest in items I don’t need) but it also led me to reduce waste and unnecessary consumption. Win-win-win!

2. If I’m paying for food it better be worth it!

The brunch fiasco of 2013 will forever remain one my favorite introductory memories to life in Denmark. Since then, I’ve come to eat at a lot of restaurants, and have adopted a more Danish attitude towards the luxury of eating out. Going out to a restaurant here is a privilege, and so your money should go towards a quality meal with good service. This resulted in me almost never eating fast food, as the quality couldn’t match the price, and being more selective in my restaurant choices. Eating out isn’t just about fueling my body; it’s an entire experience I should appreciate! I’ve also learned to drop my polite Canadian response (“oh everything is great thank you”) to waitstaff inquiries if I feel that a meal was particularly disappointing. For a sound budget and healthy body, eating out should be a luxury treat (and not a daily occurrence), so I make sure my money goes towards a rewarding experience.

3. Walk, bike, run

I always tend to forget that when you book a 7:00 AM flight, it really means you have to wake up around 4:30 AM. Alas, on a recent trip, I did just that — and with no public transport service running that early, I had to catch a cab to the airport. That 18 km (12 mile) drive from door to terminal resulted in an astonishing $120 price tag. Taking taxis is notoriously expensive in Denmark, so the country has smartly invested in fantastic infrastructure for supporting alternative methods of transportation. The bus, subway, train and light rail systems are extensive and reasonably priced. In addition, Copenhagen is famous for being one of the most bike-friendly cities in the world.

Of course, there will always be times when taking a taxi or an Uber will be a smarter decision. However, I’ve found that using my bike and trusty set of feet to navigate around town has been such a rewarding decision. Incorporating exercise into my commute and saving money is the ultimate win.

4. Embrace the power of the picnic

In a country where it is expensive to eat out, I’ve had to learn how to be smart when socializing with friends. Enter the savvy Europeans and their innovative solution: a picnic. Gathering a group of friends, trekking to the nearest grocery store and splitting the cost of fresh bread, fruits, and beer not only appeases my fantasy of living a carefree European lifestyle, but it has also become one of my favorite ways to catch up. I previously held this notion that picnics had to be fancy endeavors with wicker baskets, cutlery and a wide selection of fine cheeses, but I’ve quickly come to appreciate the versatility of paper towels and the joyful feeling of ripping into a baguette with your bare hands. Not only is a group picnic a fraction of the price of a restaurant meal, but it’s also hands down the more fun option.

Maggie Clark is a 26-year-old Canadian currently situated in Copenhagen, Denmark. A nutritionist by trade, Maggie has spent the past four years working abroad in the food and pharmaceutical industries. Eager to return to her roots in preventative health, Maggie is embarking on a one-way journey back to her native Toronto to discover a career that can fulfill her energetic and creative needs. Most important of all, she has a wonderful golden retriever named Cali who is likely the most beautiful dog in the world, just saying.

Image via Unsplash

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  • Wolf

    #3 is a bit illogical.
    You mention that there is no public transport to the airport in the early morning, then go on praising the great public transport options.

    • Julie

      The public transportation usually starts around 5.00-5.30 AM if you don’t live in central Copenhagen. That being said, you always have multiple options to make your way to the airport and especially the metro system is impeccable, in my opinion 🙂

  • cc samm

    I have been trying to focus on quality over quantity, especially with clothes. It’s amazing how a quality piece of clothing will hold up over time (decades even!) and still be relevant.

    I’m sorry this is off-topic, but I’m going to be visiting Copenhagen next year and was wondering if you could suggest any budget-friendly (or at least won’t leaving you hungry) restaurants/cafes/eating places? Thank you so much for your help!