While you'll love the food and the skyline in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, one of the best things about living here as an expat is definitely the cost of living. You'll find that Kuala Lumpur is a relatively developed and safe city where the standard of living is comfortable and the cost of housing, transit, food, and more is reasonable for a family, couple, or single person.
To give you an idea of the cost of living in Kuala Lumpur, I'll break down some potential daily and monthly expenses. Note that this is based on my personal experience as one person living in Malaysia for the last three years.
Be sure to take into account different preferences, the things you'll want to do in the city, incomes, and exchange rates, as the cost of living is bound to vary from person to person and in different moments.
Currency and Payment Methods
The only currency used in Malaysia is the Malaysian Ringgit (MYR). At the time of writing, the exchange rate is 1 USD = 4.40 MYR (January 1, 2023).
Kuala Lumpur is moving towards cashless payments, with a strong preference for QR payment methods like Grab Pay, Touch'n'Go, and bank apps.
Grab Pay is part of the Grab super app, which includes e-hailing, food delivery, e-wallet, and more. For this reason, I find it the most convenient. Touch'n'Go is also a good option as it's the same card or app used to access public transit.
Finally, most banks in Malaysia have a QR pay option, and many people use this to send money to each other (ex. one person pays for a restaurant bill and then shares their QR code so everyone can transfer what they owe).
There are constantly new condos being built in Kuala Lumpur, so finding an apartment to rent is not difficult. For more insight on this, read the full guide to apartment hunting in Kuala Lumpur.
On average, I would estimate my living expenses including housing, utilities, and transportation for central living are about 3000-3500 MYR ($700-$815 USD) per month. Of course, many factors can make this number much higher or lower, especially housing location, size, and quality.
Many foreigners choose a neighborhood downtown or near it, where you'll pay monthly rent in the range of 2500-4000 MYR ($580-$930 USD) for a nice furnished 1-2 bedroom apartment in a serviced condominium. This will typically get you a great place including security, pools, gardens/common spaces, and gyms - which saves you the cost of needing a gym membership.
My monthly rent was 3000 MYR per month when I lived in a 1.5-bedroom unit in Bukit Bintang. This included furniture, an open-space living room, dining area and kitchen, a small bathroom, a large master bedroom, and a small second bedroom (hence the ".5"). It did not include internet or utilities. Based on my extensive search, this price was average for the area as of 2021.
By moving a few train stations away from the city center, I lowered my monthly cost of living by 750 MYR per month. This is for a one-bedroom unit with other features that typically cost more, like a higher level, view, and a balcony.
If you're on a tight budget, you can find much cheaper housing by having roommates or by living further from the center.
Approximate cost per month
= 3000 MYR ($700 USD)
These are the costs that tourists don't have to think about, but expats need to factor in: wifi, water, electricity, and phone plans. Luckily, all of these come at a low cost in Kuala Lumpur.
Currently, I pay 130 MYR per month for wifi in my apartment. It's included in my rent to avoid having a contract under my name (note: Malaysian internet providers require 2-year contracts).
Water charges in my condominium are just 10 MYR per month and are paid at my building's management office.
My energy bills range from 30-50 MYR per month depending on how often I'm home and on how much I'm using the air conditioning.
Phone plans can be as low as 13 MYR per month but more likely you'll want a plan in the 30-70 MYR range for a good amount of data. Data really is a must in Malaysia, since you'll rely on it for e-hailing, payments, and day-to-day use where you don't have wifi. You can find a good breakdown of phone plans in Malaysia here.
Assuming 40 MYR for electricity and a 50 MYR phone plan, then...
Approximate cost per month
= 230 MYR ($55 USD)
With world-famous levels of traffic in Kuala Lumpur, I haven't bothered to use public buses. I tend to opt for trains, walking, or e-hailing instead. To maintain low costs, I suggest living near a public train or monorail station.
Besides busses, Kuala Lumpur has two LRT (light-rail train) lines, a commuter train line (KTM), and a monorail line (MRT). If going between stations, for example from KLCC (near Petronas Towers) to Pasar Seni (Chinatown) or Kerinchi (Bangsar South) to KL Sentral (Brickfields), then it is very convenient and inexpensive to take one of these lines.
The daily costs for public transit are minimal. For example, it costs me less than 3 MYR to get to work (4 stops) each day on the train (LRT), and my colleague pays 4.60 MYR to get to work on the more expensive monorail (MRT) each day.
If you're living within a few LRT stops from work and taking the train 5 days a week, then...
Approximate cost per month =
60 MYR ($14 USD)
Personally, I prefer not to own a car in Kuala Lumpur and I try to take public transit as much as possible. Some expats decide to buy a scooter and absolutely love it for convenience and affordability. However, I find traffic too chaotic here and prefer the public system or e-hailing.
The e-hailing app Grab (the Uber of Southeast Asia) is used by many to get around the city. Prices vary depending on traffic and driver availability but on average my rides between central neighborhoods like Bukit Bintang, KLCC, Chinatown, Brickfields, and Bangsar cost between 8-25 MYR. Prices over 25 MYR would be considered expensive to travel between these areas.
Alternative e-hailing apps are increasing in popularity as they offer lower prices. The downsides are that they tend to have fewer drivers available, inferior apps, and/or only accept cash payments. However, the savings can be considerable, so check out apps like InDrive and AirAsia, especially when Grab fares surge.
If you're conservative and using e-hailing 6 times per week roundtrip at 15 MYR per ride, then...
Approximate cost per month =
180 MYR ($42 USD)
The rest of the costs will be based on your preferences, but here are some examples and price ranges to give you an idea of the cost of vehicles, food, clothes, and outings in Kuala Lumpur:
Eating Out or Takeaway
Many people living in Kuala Lumpur find that they cook a lot less here. Dining out or ordering food delivery from Malaysia's delivery services like Grab Food or Food Panda is pretty inexpensive, after all!
Similar to kopitiams, food courts will have meals in the 10 MYR range. Not only are they delicious but these options will give you a taste of local culture too! Food courts in Kuala Lumpur are often hidden in basements or on top floors of malls and they are well worth exploring.
Restaurants serving western foods are typically a bigger expense - closer to the 30 MYR ($7 USD) range or higher. If you eat out at a lot of western restaurants, your cost of living in Kuala Lumpur will be significantly higher.
If you get coffee from a cafe, you can expect to pay just 2.75 MYR (0.65 USD) for a standard kopi (coffee) at a local spot (kopitiam) or 10-13 MYR for a regular coffee from an independent cafe or chain like The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf.
Kopitiams - local spots or a chain like Ali, Muthu & Ah Hock - will have Malaysian meals available for less than 10 MYR ($2.30 USD), whereas you'll pay double or more at other cafes.
Groceries are not as inexpensive as you might think in Malaysia. To help give you an idea of the cost of living in Kuala Lumpur, here are the prices for some grocery basics from AEON MaxValu Prime grocer (30 December, 2022):
- Milk: 12.50 MYR (1L)
- Kellogg's Corn Flakes: 13.87 MYR (500g)
- Eggs: 8.25 MYR (10 eggs)
- Loaf of white bread: 4.65 MYR (600)
- Kopi-O Coffee: 13.50 MYR (makes 20 cups)
- BOH black tea: 4.75 MYR (25 bags)
- Olive oil: 25.69 MYR (500 ml)
- Butter: 13.90 MYR (227G)
- Jar of peanut butter: 26.90 MYR (16oz)
- Salmon fillets: 12.99 MYR (100g)
- Chicken wings: 1.49 MYR (100g)
- Rice: 13 MYR (5KG)
- Yogurt: 6.80 MYR (470g)
- Green apple: 2 MYR (each)
- Mushrooms: 4.20 MYR (100g)
- Carrots: 3.55 MYR (500g)
Note: In most cases, I selected the least expensive or mid-range option. Prices can differ from store-to-store and even by neighborhood throughout Kuala Lumpur. AEON tends to have a lot of local options and decent prices. Jaya Grocers and Ben's Independent Grocer tend to have higher prices, but carry more imported brands and products that you might recognize and like.
You can find cheap unbranded clothes at local shops in malls like Berjaya Times Square and Sungei Wang Plaza, or then again by random stands in train and bus stations throughout Kuala Lumpur. Here you could find shirts for as little as 5 MYR and pants as low as 10 MYR.
If you're looking for high-end brands, then you have infinite options from huge malls like Pavilion Kuala Lumpur and Suria KLCC.
For an idea of mid-range options, here are prices for some basics from H&M Malaysia (December 30 2022):
- T-shirt: 20-30 MYR
- Jeans: 130 MYR
- Cardigan: 40 MYR
- Bra: 45 MYR
- Underwear: 45 MYR (3 pack)
- PJ set: 75 MYR
For Southeast Asian standards, alcohol isn't particularly cheap in Malaysia. Typically, beer will be your cheapest option, and cocktails or wine will be the most expensive.
At a convenience store, a regular 320 ml can of Tiger beer is about 9.20 MYR ($2.15 USD) and Carlsberg is 8.90 MYR ($2 USD). A case of 24 Tiger cans at a grocery store costs 169.40 MYR (~7.06 MYR/can). The least expensive bottle of wine from a grocery or liquor store will cost 60-75 MYR.
At a bar in Bukit Bintang, a hotspot for nightlife in Kuala Lumpur, beers will cost almost double. The cheaper option is usually to order a bucket of five beers, which will cost you about 196 MYR for Tiger or 105 MYR for Heineken at a bar like the popular Havana Bar & Grill.
There are some great craft cocktail bars in Chinatown and Bukit Bintang, but they will cost you 40-80 MYR ($9-19 USD) per drink. If that's a treat you're up for, you can check out PS150, Attic Bar or Pahit. For basic cocktails but an amazing city view, you can check out rooftops like Vertigo Bar at the Banyan Tree Hotel or Heli Lounge Bar, where cocktails go for about 60 MYR.
Affording Your Lifestyle in Kuala Lumpur
There is a large expat community living in Kuala Lumpur, including many working as teachers or as employees in the oil and gas industry or for multinational companies growing their presence in Southeast Asia. From what I've seen in 3 years of living in Kuala Lumpur, many expats tend to enjoy a relatively - if not very - lush standard of living here.
There is no doubt that the cost of living is more for a tourist or expat in Malaysia. Expats choose to live and hang out in expensive areas like Bukit Bintang, KLCC, and Mont Kiara. This isn't surprising since expats tend to make considerably higher salaries.
Plus, as the capital, Kuala Lumpur tends to be more expensive than other cities in Malaysia, like Johor Bahru and George Town. In all cases, Malaysia is a much less expensive alternative to neighboring Singapore and is certainly less expensive than other countries like South Korea, Japan, the USA, Canada, or those in western Europe.
The overall cost of living in Kuala Lumpur is very good for the standard of life you can enjoy. There is plenty to enjoy about Kuala Lumpur and I wish you the best in your time there!
All photos curtesy of travelynne.com unless otherwise stated.