While the cost of living varies between cities, even within each city's delicacies vary in cost dependent on how native they are to that region. Who comes all the way to China to eat western food all the time anyways? Eating locally is a lot cheaper than going to a Western restaurant to have a burger…AND you no longer have to travel downtown to get to find your favorite dumplings, you're in China town. Experience real Chinese food, not just the delicious orange chicken from Panda Express.
Living in Shanghai, the difference in cost is quite a bit. Last week, I got a bit lazy and I ordered food every night or went out to eat. I was nearly about 1,000 RMB poorer. That was around 800 RMB that I could have been saving. While in China, you will discover that western grocery stores will sell western food close to the same price as those available in your home country. You will also discover that the Chinese counterparts, most grocery store products are sold at a fraction of the cost. The next week, I decided to eat local and cook my own food. I spent about 200 RMB on my food for the week.
However, despite this, there's so many affordable foods that you can find in your area that are not only cheap but delicious. You'll be amazed with how much you can get for the price that you would spend on a single burger and fries from a western restaurant.
My personal cheap favorites (that I eat on the daily) include:
Dumplings: They can be sweet or savory, steamed or boiled (or even fried) and are commonly served with a dipping sauce made of vinegar, soy sauce and chili oil. The ones I usually love my friends refer to as “stinky dumplings,” but in my opinion they're delicious. Its pork and chive dumplings. Try it and you will not be disappointed.
Jian Bing, or as some people call them a “Chinese pancake”: this is the China's version of the French crepe. The Jian Bing is essentially a thin flour and egg pancake spread on a smooth pan. It includes eggs, cilantro, chopped green onion, and hot pepper sauce (if you'd like). Many varieties exist, also include lettuce and ham. They usually go for 3 RMB.
Rou jia mo—also known as the Chinese style hamburger: It is a perfect street food with savory filling and chewy bread. Rou means pork, Jia means placing the meat between the bread and mo means bread.
Baozi: This looks like a gigantic fluffy dumpling usually steamed and stuffed with meat or various vegetables. These are great as a breakfast option.
Bakes veggies right off the street: Veggies are extremely cheap in China, much cheaper than tropical fruits. You can get a baked sweet potato, a bunch of grilled carrots, sweet corn on a stick or boiled sugar beets.
Unless you're in New York City, chances are the subway system in your hometown isn't super great. Being from Chicago, whenever I went into the city - I avoided the subway at all costs. It didn't get me exactly where I wanted to go, and it took longer. I always opted to take a more expensive taxi ride then even try to figure out the subway system.
China has an excellent and far reaching network of public transportation. Everywhere in China, you can rent bikes very easily to help you get from one place to another. Shanghai has around 14 metro lines with 349 stations. Most big cities in China have comparable networks appropriate to their size. The highest possible fare is 15 RMB per trip, however most are around 5 RMB. Taxis while more expensive than the metro are still very cheap when compared to back home, with a flag fall of between 6-18 RMB (depending on the city) which will usually cover you for a 10-minute trip. China also has an enormous conventional and fast rail network which is very affordable. Getting around in China has never been easier.
If you see something you like and it doesn't have a price tag on it, chances are you can bargain the price down a bit. Street markets are usually the places to go for bargain-basement local specialties, rather than the "tourist supermarkets." The salesman may try to give you the highest price at first. This is the perfect opportunity to test out your bargaining skills.
Be mindful when choosing a place to live. Although the biggest living expense would be your housing, all the yummy cheap restaurants and meals out make up for it. Depending on where you live, will depend on your cost of living. Center of the cities/ more populated areas- rent is bound to be more expensive. Whereas if you go a bit more out of your way out of the city, you may end up saving a bit more. A normal commute to work on public transport is about 35-40 minutes for the average expat here.
When taking a holiday, consider going off-peak season to see some of China's main attractions. This typically means traveling in the winter. Many attractions and hotels provide lower price, and you can save a lot on flights.
Travelling off-peak has the added advantage that you will avoid the tourist crowds for a more stress-free environment. China's winters, though (very) cold, are usually the driest times of the year. If you don't like heat or rain, then saving this way will be a pleasure!
China has two distinct tour seasons — the high season and low season (November to March). In the low season, you can save $100 to $250, depending on length and hotels.