Categorized | Money, Work

Salaries in Spain and the standard of living

Posted on 09 October 2012 by American expat!

Note: This was originally the last part of the post: Working in Spain but has been expanded and thus warranted (in my opinion) its own, albeit short-ish, post.

You know that moving here requires a change in your cultural expectations, some of which you will be prepared for and some of which will leave you shaking your head in disbelief and muttering to yourself “how can people live like this?” (Cases in point: The infuriating bureaucracy, the acceptable levels of inefficiency of most blue collar workers, and my personal pet peeve, Spanish TV).

One that you had better not let catch you off guard is the average salary for a white collar, knowledge worker position. Salaries for these types of skilled jobs are much lower in Spain than in the US and Northern European countries. This did not use to be a big issue here, as the costs of living were also relatively low. However, since joining the EU salaries in Spain have stagnated while housing, food, utilities and just about everything else have increased in price significantly.

How much lower I hear you ask? I am just going to tell it to you straight: Be prepared to take a 30-70 percent pay cut from your US salary. My last US salary was $75,000 a year plus benefits, 401K, three weeks vacation, etc. My last salary in Spain was EU27,000 (which converted to between $32,000 and $39,000 over the course of the year I worked there), and was considered a good salary–OK, I did get about 8 weeks of paid vacation and 5 hour workdays through the month of August, (but I also paid about 21% into the social security/public healthcare system–which I did not and do not use personally). But seriously – 32K??? That is a big step down my friends.

Now, this might seem like an immediate deal killer when deciding to live here, but what you won’t realize until you get here is that life is much simpler.  It took me a while to figure this out, but now when I visit my friends (who are essentially living exactly as I was before I moved here), the conspicuous consumption of the most inane shit is SO obvious to me, whereas while living there it was an invisible norm. For example, a friend of mine makes $115,000 a year. She is single, has no children, has paid off her student loans, and rents a two bedroom condo in downtown San Diego. The last time I visited her, she made a comment about needing to make more money, to which I responded “but what exactly are you spending 115k a year on now?” Mind you, she has no hobbies, and yet her answer was not shocking: Two gym memberships (one near her work and one near home). Manicures and pedicures every two weeks. Haircut and color every month. Car payment. About $100 on drinks and taxis home every week. A house cleaner every two weeks. Eating out 3x a week. Cable and Tivo. Multiple magazine subscriptions. Lunch in the office cafeteria every day. Fancy coffee 2x a day. New shoes or item of clothing at least once a week.

All of this is pretty standard for the average single, childless California resident. I had most of this and more, because I had a yard and pets and hobbies and sports and everything needed taking care of and maintenance. And yet none of it was essential, although it certainly feels like it is when you live there.

But I don’t have any of those things now, and I find myself going out at night far more frequently than when I am in California, getting outside for a few hours or more every single day, spending far more time with friends, going to the beach more often, participating in more activities and sports, exploring more cultural sights, museums and exhibitions, relaxing a lot more–and not even feeling guilty about it–just being more social in general, because that is what you do here, that is how the cities and neighborhoods are arranged.

I cannot seem to replicate this whenever I am in the US just visiting. It is too spread out, people and things are more isolated from each other, even down to how people work- in the US was have cubicles and walls and offices.  Here, you sit next to your coworkers at a long table, or facing each other at a desk. You can always see other faces around you.

And this is about as best as I can define it now. I miss the great US salaries. But giving them up, (temporarily, I hope) has shown me a way of life that, if not everyone’s cup of tea, at least has made this expat a lot happier.


8 Comments For This Post

  1. Emily Says:

    Great point about how complicated American lives are. It floors me how much we take for granted, the amount of trash we create everyday, and how little people care to hear about how wasteful we are as a society. It’s what makes me want to leave.
    I just happened upon your blog this evening and appreciate the information you’ve shared. I have been educating myself a lot recently about Catalunya and I would really like to visit. I would really like to save up, but my job isn’t sufficient to even pay for a flight, with everything else on my plate, right now. I have kids, pets, new car, etc.
    As poor as the economy has become there, how are people dealing with getting bank loans for homes, cars, etc.? When the market crashed here, the banks took forever to get back to writing mortgages, and then qualifying was even harder than ever. As an ex-pat, jobless, foreign… it must be really hard. Don’t know if I could do it.

  2. American expat! Says:

    They are not taking loans for the most part. Most people inherit their homes or rent. MANY people don’t own cars – you don’t need one. I don’t know a single person that would take out a loan to buy a vehicle either – living on credit is a very American phenomenon you don’t see many other places. That’s what I mean by the standard of living being different here. The living tends to be socially richer yet materially poorer, though not poor in the sense of poverty. Jobless expats with a little bit of chutzpah can have quite a good live here.

  3. Michael Hull Says:

    what’s your email address? I want to ask you some questions that my wife and I have.

  4. Barcelona Says:

    Way cool! Some very valid points! I appreciate you penning this post and the rest of the site is also really good.

  5. Miquel Says:

    No es mas rico quien mas tiene….sino quien menos necesita!!!

  6. Monika Says:

    Well said 🙂 It is so great to get the ‘broader’ perspective, isn’t it? I think it is only possible when you leave your country and live for some time in another one. Only then you can see the good and the bad sides of your own culture

  7. Steve Says:

    curious why you haven’t and don’t plan to use the social security/public healthcare system? at the least there is reciprocity between u.s. social security and spain and you should draw a spanish pension after 15 years. is this b/c you’re freelance and money/taxes go to the u.s.?

  8. American expat! Says:

    I have a public health care system card, but my (and others) experience with the system is that the level of care is so bad, I pay for my healthcare or go elsewhere. Just a few examples of what puts me off public health care: Blood stained sheets in hospitals, being told to go buy water from a vending machine when you have a kidney infection and have sat in a hospital bed for 6+ hours with no liquids, dentists bonding teeth together with materials while filling cavities (this has happened to no fewer than 3 people I know personally), alcohol on the breath of doctors and dentist (drinking at lunch is acceptable), being released out of the hospital while still extremely sick when they can’t make a diagnosis…

    There are a multitude of reasons for the above: extreme hierarchical organizational structures, public education that is theoretical and lacks much or any practical application of skills, lack of reward/recognition for doing a good job or thinking outside of the box…I generally makes for poor service and below par skills. For prescriptions or general health care I use it, but for anything serious or emergencies, I go elsewhere.

    As for drawing a pension, I wouldn’t be eligible as a freelancer but would never rely on collecting from the government in my retirement anyway, no matter where that ends up being. I have a 401k and a Roth IRA that I have paid into every year or so for 15 years.

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