Below is a break down of the cost of living in Calgary. Everyone may have a different perspective of the cost of living in the city based on their own budget and lifestyle, and this is obviously based on our own experiences as a South African family living in Calgary. It was also written pre-covid crash when life was still fun and carefree, so a few things may have changed since then, but it should give you a general idea of what to expect when it comes to the affordability of life in Calgary.
Generally speaking, the cost of living in Calgary is lower than other major Canadian cities – Mercer ranks the city as the fourth most expensive in Canada after Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal. If you’re coming from South Africa, and especially if you don’t have a job yet, you’re probably going to find it quite expensive, but once you start earning a Canadian salary, it’s all pretty relative.
We generally shop for groceries at Superstore, Walmart and Safeway. Depending on what you need, some things are cheaper at one shop, while others will be more expensive. No Frills (related to Superstore) is also a great place for your basics. While Safeway is expensive compared to the others, when there are specials, you can find some great bargains. It’s also generally a smaller shop, and I find it a more pleasant experience than the other chains, so I do go there for the occasional grocery shop when I don’t feel like the endless isles of Superstore or Walmart. Sobeys is another option for groceries, but very expensive compared to the others.
If you’re a bulk buyer, then Costco is the place to go. It’s more of a wholesale-type store with incredible bargains, but you’ll need to pay an annual membership to shop there. It’s especially great for those with a large family or little kids in diapers, who like to stock up regularly and have the space to store it all.
Flipp is a great app to use for comparing prices and shopping for bargains as it has all the flyers and specials for retailers in the city, and you can search for and compare prices. Instacart is another great option for online grocery shopping from Superstore and Walmart – I’ve found that shopping online has saved us quite a bit as I order precisely what we need, and have eliminated a lot of the impulse buys I’m guilty of when walking through the shops. It’s also saved so much time, so it’s great for those working long hours who don’t have time to still traipse to the shops on the way home from work.
Clothes are generally on par when it comes to price compared to SA, but this obviously depends on where you shop. I just love the variety here and there are so many more shops to choose from when it comes to clothing. The shops are very seasonal here, so when there are sales at the end of each season, you can really find some awesome bargains. Online shopping is also a great option – and sometimes you can find something cheaper at a store’s online store compared to the price in-store, so always keep this in mind. Some shops also do price match, so if you’ve found something cheaper elsewhere the store will match the price.
It’s expensive to eat out in Calgary, and alcohol is especially expensive. But there are often great specials and coupons on offer. Take out is popular and apps like Uber Eats and Skip the Dishes offer reasonably priced delivery. There is a lot of variety when it comes to dining out, but don’t expect the same quality you were used to back home. Portions are huge, though, so it can be good value for money if you share something. Most restaurants have some decent kiddies’ menus with discounted meals for the little ones. For a family of four (with little kids), having just mains and drinks, can easily cost about CAD 80. Don’t forget to factor in a tip for your server, which is a minimum of 15%.
Calgary is a very family-friendly city and there are a lot of options when it comes to entertainment, especially for the kids. We have yet to be bored here as there is always something or somewhere to explore.
The city is home to lots of museums and galleries, many of which have a discounted child or family entrance. The zoo is expensive, about CAD20 per child and CAD30 per adult, but for the price of two tickets you can purchase an annual membership to visit as many times as you want, and it’s definitely worth it.
The public libraries are also great for the kids, and they’re free. Most of them have free story time and activities for the kids so it’s a great place to visit when you’re at a loss for anything else to do. The central Calgary library in downtown is quite spectacular and it’s definitely worth spending a day there. Our kids love going there as there are play areas, tables full of Lego to build, daily story times and activities and, of course, millions of books.
There are plenty of free outdoor activities to enjoy in Calgary and you can’t let the winter weather stop you from getting some fresh air. You can take the kids tobogganing or to one of the outdoor community ice rinks for free, and there are also loads of community parks, bike parks, picnic spots and forests to explore as a family. Just about every community has a play park with jungle gyms and slides, and they’re clean and well maintained, and of course safe and free to enjoy with the little ones.
We’ve found the cost of cell phones to be quite reasonable here. When you first arrive it may be difficult to get a contract without proof of address, so your best option may be to get a pay-as-you-go deal. We got a good one with Chatr through Rogers that had unlimited calling and SMS within Canada for about CAD40 a month, and after a few months we easily upgraded to a contract that included a new iPhone. There are also cheaper pay-as-you-go options, so you just need to shop around. Most contracts offer really good deals with unlimited calling, SMS and data options, and wherever you go in Calgary there is free WiFi.
Don’t even think about bringing any of your electronics with to Canada – firstly, the plugs and voltage are different, and secondly, it’s really cheap to replace it here. Electronics in Calgary are much cheaper than what you’ll find in SA, and most times you also find a better variety, so it can be lots of fun kitting out your new house with cool gadgets.
When you rent an apartment or house in Calgary it’s standard for it to have most of the large appliances such as a fridge, stove, washer and dryer so you likely won’t have the expense of having to buy these. So this is a big saving.
Buying a car
Cars are a lot cheaper in Canada than in South Africa, and if you shop around, there are great bargains to be found. The thing that’s going to kill you financially when it comes to car ownership, is the insurance.
With the snow and slush in Calgary, you’ll soon have to accept that your car is going to be filthy most of the time. If you’re a neat freak who is used to having your car in pristine condition, this is something you may have to let go of pretty soon. There are restrictions on washing your car in your driveway, so you’ll most likely need to take it to a car wash on a regular basis to keep it clean and avoid rust. Car washes vary in terms of payment and options, and unless going through the auto car wash machine, you’ll have to pay to use the facilities to wash your own car – although some car washes have people to help you. A car wash can cost anything from CAD 1/minute to about CAD 12 to have someone to do it for you – don’t forget to factor in a tip.
There is no way around it, insurance in Calgary, and Canada in general, is expensive. As a newcomer, it’s even more so, and you may be required to pay upfront for a year. Many companies won’t give you car insurance with your SA licence, but you just need to shop around. After a year, and once you’re more established, it may be possible to renegotiate your rates, or to shop around for a better rate.
Housing – renting
We’ve found housing to be pretty reasonably priced and slightly more expensive, if not on par in some areas, with what we would have paid for rent in Cape Town (which is generally more expensive than Joburg). When looking for rentals, the square feet mentioned in the ad usually doesn’t include the finished basement and garage space, so you’re essentially getting a lot more space than you may realise at first.
Generally, in every community of Calgary you should be able to find something within your budget – every neighbourhood is quite diverse in the property options and prices, so you just need to shop around and keep an eye on what’s available as good rentals can get snatched up quickly.
We’re in a good area of Calgary’s SW quadrant and rentals are quite hard to come by and a bit more pricey than some other areas further north or south. A decent two- to three- bedroom condo or townhouse in our neighbourhood is around CAD 1,600 – CAD 2,000. For a detached three-bedroom house you’d be looking at paying anything from CAD 2,000, with the higher end properties going for way over CAD 4,000 per month. Further south of the city, you can find cheaper housing, e.g. around CAD 1,700+ for a three-bedroom house. Further in the NE of the city, accommodation is much cheaper, but the areas are not as good. Downtown has a mixed bag of options, from cheaper apartments to fancy penthouses.
There are a few sites and apps to search for rentals. We’ve found Rentfaster to be the best option and the app is very user-friendly. Other sites include Kijiji and Craigslist.
Housing – buying
The property market is really low at the moment and it definitely appears to be a “buyer’s market” so we’ve been advised by many Calgarians that now is the time to buy. We know of a number of new home owners who paid less for their house than the original owners paid. But we’re just not sure if it’s a good long-term investment at this point in time – there are just so many unknowns – but I guess we have lots to think about on this front.
Public education in Calgary (including the Calgary Board of Education (CBE) and Calgary Catholic School District) is basically free to all residents in the city. There are a few fees that you may have to pay for your children such as bus transport and noon supervision if your kids are staying at school during recess. Thus far, the only fees we’ve had to pay for our two kindergartners, who are in a CBE school, have been transport costs for some excursions and materials for some special art projects.
Calgary has a pretty extensive public transport system and it’s easy and affordable to use. The buses and trains work on an integrated ticketing system, so you can buy one ticket to use across both methods of transport. A general ticket, which is valid for 90 minutes, will cost CAD3.50. There are also options for daily and monthly passes. There is a CTrain free-fare zone along 7th Ave between 3rd Street East and 11th Street West in downtown, which is really convenient for moving up and down the core.
Gas/petrol is pretty cheap at the moment and, as it’s not fixed, you can shop around for the best price. Parking in the city centre is expensive, but most shopping centres in the suburbs have free outdoor parking. A number of train stations in the suburbs have park and ride parkades where you can leave your car – some have designated parking spaces that you can reserve and pay for on a monthly basis, but after-hours parking in the evenings and on weekends is free.
Residents in Alberta are entitled to free basic healthcare, which includes all doctor and specialist visits, as well as pathology and radiology etc. However, medicines, dentistry and optometry aren’t covered under the system, so if you don’t have health benefits through your employment you should consider supplementary cover via private health insurance as these health services are very expensive.
We’ll be adding a basic shopping list with the costs of most basics from the major grocery stores here soon. If you have any comments or suggestions about the cost of living in Calgary, we’d love to hear your perspective, so please comment below!