At EF we always get questions about China's cost of living. Answering these questions can be difficult, because we all have different lifestyles, and one person's luxury is another's necessity. Luckily, one of our bloggers Adam has done some research on how to budget and win in China.
Let's first get some terminology out of the way. There are two “formal” names for Chinese currency, the RMB (RenMinBi-Chinese for “the peoples' currency”), and the Yuan. The Chinese way to say “dollars" or "bucks” like we would say in English however, is “Kuai”.
According to ChinaIRN.com, the 2014 average monthly income for Beijing was 5,343 Yuan. That ought to put any nervous minds at rest right away, considering the salaries for first year English teachers in China normally exceed that significantly. Here is the breakdown of the budget sheet that I use each month. But let me say first that I live in the heart of the city (hence the high rent), commute an hour south to work (hence the high transportation cost), and have a pretty luxurious diet.
Taking a poll of my co-workers (including myself), The average monthly rent cost for one person was ¥2,620, (mine the highest at ¥3,550 and the lowest at ¥1,800). As far as living expenses go, as you will see later in the article, it depends greatly on whether you're buying imported or local products, but if you're like me (and are very cheap in this category), you will spend no more than ¥20 a month on things like razors, toothpaste and the like.
Allow me to preface this by saying that I am, by no means, a penny pincher. I was born in the year of the monkey, which here in China is a tell all sign that I am notoriously terrible at money management. In spite of this fact, I wanted to challenge myself to try and spend no more than 100 RMB per week, for as long as I could, on food and living supplies. Instead of going through what I ate for each day of the week, here is the “menu” I stuck with for these few weeks.
Assorted breakfast items from street vendors (¥5)
Instant noodles (¥5)
A full breakfast from a local restaurant (¥15)
7/11 hot premade lunch (¥7)
Supermarket boxed rice and a side dish (¥10)
instant noodles (¥5)
Cook Dinner (around ¥20 and gives next-day lunch)
Local Dumpling restaurant (¥1 per dumpling, I normally order around 18)
7/11 packaged dinners (curry, chicken patty, etc. around ¥10)
Instant noodles (¥5)
And just like that, to my surprise, I made it a full two weeks without breaking my budget, TAKE THAT student loans! But before long, the stereotypical monkey in me came back with a vengeance, and there I was once again at the fancy Italian restaurant licking the cannoli filling off my fingers, which brings me to my next section…
Now I cannot speak much for the smaller cities, but one of the biggest messages I carry to my friends and family back in the statesis that if I wanted to live a completely American lifestyle here in Beijing, I could get very, very close. This is made popular because of the plethora of recognisable brands now available in China. In most cities, you can find “Tyson” and “American Select” packaged meat at grocery stores. You'll see a Starbucks and Burger King around each corner. And perhaps more shockingly authentic restaurants like “Homeplate BBQ”, “Annie's Italian” and “Lily's American Diner” have all made an appearance in Beijing. I could live for years in Beijing on a diet very similar to that at home, and in fact, I know people that actually do. But there's a catch; for American food, you pay American prices. Instead of naming prices, I'd like to now take the opportunity to give you a visual of the amount of Chinese food items mentioned above you can buy with the money from a single western item.
Example number one show's just how far your money can go for the price of a western meal. A home plate of pulled pork makes a great treat every now and then, but it really goes to show how much you can save with some home cooking.
Example number two is one close to many of our hearts. Coffee! Many of us can't function without it, so this is one of those things that seems difficult to cut from the budget. But as example two shows, we could buy six sandwiches for the same price. Luckily, EF does provide free coffee at work. It's not the best, but it does the job.
Example number 3 is a personal favourite. Annie's Italian spaghetti tastes great, but I could buy 9 pots of instant noodles for the same price.
Example number 4 is a real heartbreaker. Pizza is great, but I could have 13 full breakfasts that would feed two people. A great alternative would be to make your own or even buy a frozen pizza from a well-known brand.
As you can see from all of the examples above, living the western lifestyle is not so hard, but you pay the price (and really miss out on part of the whole experience in the process).
Whether you are looking for an opportunity to save money, or you're looking to live month-to-month like a king. Both options are available and waiting for you in China and China's cost of living can be whatever you make it. My personal suggestion, live comfortably but never turn down a chance to try some dangerous looking street food or try your hand at cooking Chinese food. China's cost of living can be whatever you make it. Life abroad is an adventure, treat it as such!