Is Food Expensive in Finland?

Everyone (in Finland) “knows” that food in Finland is by far the most expensive in the world, because of “whatever the imagined reason du jour happens to be”. Hmmm… an astute reader might detect a hint of sarcasm in that previous sentence. Do I perchance seek to imply that food in Finland is cheap? What blasphemy! I hope I won’t lose my Finnish passport after writing such heresy…

So, instead of just claiming random thoughts on a blog to be The Scientific Truth™, I offer some actual data to support my position. Not that such a thing would be required; having a blog gives you the right to say anything and expect others to take it as gospel. Or at least so it seems to work on the Internet…

Back in 2007, when we moved from Germany to Finland, our food expenses per month went up by about 10-15%. Yes, I was actually keeping a close track for several months both before and after, so this is not just a gut feeling but real data. The comparison is a bit sketchy since 2 months after we moved, we were 3 people instead of 2, but the newest addition wasn’t contributing much to the food bill, so we can consider the effect to be negligible. (Yes, I did separate baby expenses from food, so the 10-15% difference is just on food and other everyday stuff for two adults.) Funnily enough, the difference in Value Added Tax on food between Finland and Germany was about 10%, i.e., VAT on food in Finland was 10% higher. And our actual food expenses were about 10% higher. Gee, where might that 10% come from? Obviously, it must be because Finland is so far away and is so large that transport costs are horrendous, and us having an effective duopoly in the retail market keeps prices artificially high. Or maybe not.

Then again, in Germany we did not shop in the cheapest stores (Aldi or Lidl), but neither are we doing that in Finland. I’m fully aware that this single data point neither proves not disproves anything, but I have read similar comments in Finnish press that taking the VAT out of food prices puts Finnish food prices on a similar level to most of Europe. Obviously this observation is at odds with the traditional view of Finland being expensive. (For the record, I’m not saying the current duopoly in Finland is ideal in any sense of the word, but 2 is better than 1 and the situation isn’t really as bad as some would like you to believe. In fact, most countries seem to have only a small number of big retail chains, so we’re not all that different.)

Well, all nice and fine, but we haven’t been in Europe this year, so what about Korea and California? In Korea, we did our shopping mainly in two small supermarkets and did not go into the very big supermarkets (since they were far and we didn’t have a car). Bottom line? We paid more for food than in Finland and not by an insignificant amount, even though we were mainly cooking Korean food at home. Beef was pretty much off the menu since it was way, way more expensive than in Finland, but chicken and pork were about the same or cheaper. Fruits and vegetables were definitely not cheaper, at least not overall, and anything even remotely Western (e.g., pasta) was clearly more expensive. The only cheap thing was soju; even beer was more expensive than in Finland… And soju, well it’s 20% alcohol, comes in a bottle of 375 ml (or so) and costs 1150 KRW, i.e., less than one Euro.

Coming to California, we’re lucky to have an excellent supermarket within walking distance from our home. This market is called Berkeley Bowl and it has an excellent reputation, completely deserved. Especially the fruit and vegetable section is magnificent, but when it comes to other stuff, the selection is good, but not spectacular (compared to what I’m used to in Finland). Price-wise we’re ahead here, since overall food seems to be cheaper than in Finland, but, again, it depends on what you buy. Meat is about the same or a bit more expensive and fish is way more expensive, in Berkeley Bowl at least; we also go shopping in a Korean supermarket and there fresh fish is about Finnish prices. Fruits and vegetables, however, seem to be definitely cheaper, and even buying organic produce, you’re about at the same prices as for non-organic in Finland. And they have a nice selection of beers…

When it comes to restaurants, Korea is the winner, at least in terms of price. You can easily find good restaurant meals for well under 10 EUR, something not feasible in Finland where even a university cafeteria hits you for 5 EUR (this being a public blog, I refrain from commenting on the quality of said cafeteria food, or whether it should even be classified as food). Sure, you can find expensive restaurants in Seoul, but in general eating out is pretty affordable (although getting a good deal might require knowledge of Korean). In California, the prices are closer to the Finnish level, actually almost at the same level in many cases, but the variety of options is much better. Not to say Helsinki doesn’t have its fair share of international cuisine, but it doesn’t come even close to Berkeley. Eating out in Helsinki is typically the most expensive of these three places. Quality-wise, I can’t really make any general statements. Each of these three places has their share of good and bad restaurants and the only universal truth is that a good restaurant serves good food, and a bad restaurant serves bad food.

So, is food expensive in Finland? Sure, but is it considerably more expensive than elsewhere? (Elsewhere here meaning the other countries where I’ve lived.) Not really, I’d say, but this is obviously a topic that will remain in active discussion for a long, long time. The sad part is that most of the discussion is FUD, based on anecdotes like “the peaches we bought on our holiday in France were really cheap” (sure, but did you check the price of, say bananas? prices actually vary on that level of granularity, trust me, I have checked), or others driving their own agendas. The only way you can actually compare these, is to live for a longer time in a foreign country, keep track of your expenses, and do the math. There’s a further catch that it obviously matters what kind of food you buy, as in insisting on a typical Finnish diet in Korea will be expensive, as will be the converse. However, it’s a starting point, so just go out there and form your own opinion. And don’t be afraid to try the local delicacies… 🙂


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5 Responses to Is Food Expensive in Finland?

  1. We just finished a 6 week stay in Portugal and Spain. We shopped for our family for the entire trip and on many days, we’d make lunch or dinner by ourselves. In those countries, local food (meat, veggies, and fruits) was _much_ cheaper than in Finland. Imported stuff cost the same as or more than in Finland. For example, different parts of pork tended to be priced around 2-6€/kg and beef around 5-10€/kg. About half of what you’d pay in Helsinki.

    Of course, this is only one or two data points as well.

  2. Sini says:

    Why on earth fish is expensive in Finland? I don’t understand!

  3. Rachel Paul says:

    Oh yes, u r right. I live in Finland. All i can see is food so expensive here. Nice to read ur blog mate. I think most of the food here comes from other countries, as Finland is way too cold for the crops to grow except potatoes 😉 So dats why it seems to be expensive i think.

  4. Travelling Finn says:

    Different supermarket chains obviously have different prices. I’ve noticed shopping in. Lidl compared to Alepa cuts your bill by at least 1/3. Then again, in countries like Portugal eating out is amazingly cheaper than in Finland (I am a Finn and I spend a lot of time kn Portugal). A bottle of wine costs somewhere between 20-60 euros in a restaurant in Helsinki whereas a similar bottle of wine costs about 10 euros in Lisbon. Having spent a few months in the US as well, I noticed you can get a huge meal in a restaurant for about 40 euros (including appetizers, the main course and a bottle of wine) whereas that same meal would be around 90 euros in Finland). In my opinion dining out is extremely costly in Finland compared to several other countries.

    Just some more data points. 🙂

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