I have generally found Bishkek to be a really cheap city to live in (with the caveat that I’m from New York, and I find most cities to be pretty cheap!). I’ve often been surprised and kind of delighted, walking around bazaars and supermarkets, at how low all the prices are. Of course, there are odd items that’ll cost similar to their American equivalents, but most of what you’ll need for daily life is on the cheap end of the spectrum. The som is currently about 70 to the dollar; 100 som is about $1.50. I’ve given estimated prices in dollars here.
You can expect to spend anywhere between $2.50 and $7 for dinner, depending on quantity (portions are much smaller than in the US) and location. If you want to spend less, it usually means getting less food, as opposed to just going to a cheaper restaurant: if you want an American-size meal, you’ll need at least an appetizer and a main, most likely, if not more. Main courses are usually somewhere around $3 or $4; bigger, meatier entrees are a little more, noodle-y ones a little less. Most restaurants include a 15% tip in the bill, though watch out, as some don’t include it at all.
Coffee at a café is around $2, varying on size and fanciness (of the coffee, that is—most places have your standard cappuccinos and lattes, but some of the more Western places also have mixed coffee drinks). A standard Central Asian/Russian beer usually goes for about $1.50, while an import or a local brew at a popular place like Save the Ales might be closer to $2.50. (And never order an import without checking the price—that’s how you accidentally end up with a $6 subpar Guinness.) Many local bars also have pretty decent cocktails, for $2–$3.
Closer to home, you can get lunch at the London School’s stolovaya for less than $2. And samsi (filled pastries) at one of the many street stalls around town go for about 50 cents.
While living in London School dorms on my SRAS programs, it was somewhat difficult to cook because the kitchen only consists of a hot plate and a refrigerator (the stove/oven does not currently work). This means that if you want to eat something fancier than rice and are not a hot-plate prodigy, you’ll probably end up going out.
Most groceries are quite cheap, though they add up fast if you buy imported items like peanut butter (sigh—it’s about $3.50 for a jar, which feels expensive after you’ve been living in Bishkek for a while). My favorite milk is a little less than $1 for a quart but you can also find other milk for around 50 cents. A lepyoshka (a round bread) will run you around 30 cents from the grocery store; sliced brown bread is slightly more. A 400-gram bag of pasta is also about 30 cents. Fruits and vegetables are more expensive than dry goods, of course, and the selection and quality varies, but prices are not usually outrageous, unless you want the ones that come from super far away. For example, apples range from 70 cents to $2.50 per kilo; I usually buy mid-range, as the cheapest ones are mushy and worm-hole-y. Enormous five-liter bottles of water run for about 75 cents.
Shampoo, toiletries, etc. will also be more expensive the more American-like you want them. Face wash, for example, can be hard to find and strangely expensive. The tampon selection is significantly cheaper than in the US, though also much less varied.
Public transportation in Bishkek is incredibly cheap. The marshrutkas are about 15 cents, buses slightly less. By taxi, you can get most places in the city for about $3, a little less if you bargain (which you usually can). A taxi from the airport shouldn’t cost you more than $8.50 or $9—and you might find one for as low as $5 or $6, if you are a better bargainer than I.
In terms of phone plans, I opted to overindulge myself, springing for the unlimited data plan at $14/month. This is pretty cheap by American standards and recommended. The WiFi in the dorm is slow and the data will come in handy for getting around your new city if you are using online maps on a smart phone. Less data is, of course, less expensive. I believe I also get unlimited text messages for this price, but everyone here uses WhatsApp, so no text plan is really necessary. Presumably you can also use your phone to make direct-dialed phone calls, but I know nothing about this. (For calling abroad, Skype or Google Voice will definitely be cheaper than whatever long-distance options your local phone has.) You also need to keep a small amount amount of money on your phone account to keep your service on—you’ll probably get text message alerts about this.
School supplies are super cheap at the grocery chains and underground perekhody—I buy small notebooks for about 15 cents each. These are also good for tearing up and making flashcards, since for some reason actual index cards aren’t available anywhere.
You can buy books on the street for about $1.50 or so, and from the big bookstore in the city center, Raritet, for anywhere from $2 to $7, depending on whether they’re regular paperbacks or something like illustrated fairy-tale collections.
The only thing I’ve found that’s been close to the same price in Bishkek as in the US is bedding. You don’t actually need to buy this for dorms or home stays. I elected to, though. For bedding, you’ll almost definitely have better luck at a bazaar, but if for some reason you opt to buy bedding/pillows from a grocery store and/or TSUM (as I did—do not recommend!), you can expect to pay a good $40 or more for a set of sheets if you’re not careful.
Pots, pans, and the like were slightly more expensive than I anticipated. My electric teapot was probably about $15, but, on the other hand, I bought a huge knife at the grocery store for less than a dollar.
Clothing is not terribly cheap either, though, again, you can find better prices at the bazaars. (This is where I brag about my $10 leather gloves from Orto-Sai.) If you wander TsUM long enough, you may also find some good sales racks.
Souvenirs tend to be cheaper at the bazaars than elsewhere, though TsUM may be less overwhelming. You can bargain at the bazaars, too, but it won’t always get you anywhere.
Women can get a perfectly decent haircut for less than $6, and probably even less if you just want something simple, like a trim, and don’t confuse them with your strange requests as I did. Tipping directly is apparently not necessary: I did, and my hairdresser seemed completely baffled.
There are a number of movie theaters throughout Bishkek; tickets are between $2 and $4, slightly more for the rare English-language showing. Opera tickets are also quite cheap, somewhere around $5 or $6. I don’t have firsthand experience with regular gyms—just the fancy yoga studio Lovely Mama, where classes are $5 each, less for a subscription—but I believe you can get a monthly membership at a gym near the London School for around $15.
You can get to nearby cities, such as Karakol, quite cheaply—about $5 by marshrutka, $7 in a shared taxi—and once there, you can get a bed in a hostel dorm room for about $6/night.
I did not end up renting an apartment. Some students look into this, as did I, but the London School dorm was perfectly fine for a semester. However, if you love cooking and privacy you might feel differently. The main site for searching is diesel.kg; there are also listings on stroka.kg. Prices vary, but there are plenty of listings for one bedroom apartments for less than $300/month, and you can get a room in someone else’s apartment for far less, as low as $100/month.