We've all been there: after getting that first paycheck, you blow it all in a week and then spend the next three living on instant noodles. One of the great things about moving to China is that, typically, a teaching salary goes a long way – even in the pricier city of Shanghai.
Don't worry; one can still be cost conscious in Shanghai if you know where to look (and spend!) and can be done without being deprived of the oh so important “treat-yo-self” moments. Here are my top tips and tricks for getting the best deals in the city.
The old adage: “location, location, location” applies especially to Shanghai. Rent will likely be your biggest expense per month. If you aren't opposed to commuting a bit, you can get a significantly cheaper apartment outside of the main “downtown” area (anything outside of Jing'an Temple, The Bund, and the French Concession areas). With the metro being so extensive, you don't have to commute more than 20 minutes to find a cheaper neighbourhood.
However, if you do want to live in a trendy neighbourhood then the advice I would give is: “roommates, roommates, roommates”, and if you aren't picky, the more the better. A co-worker of mine lives in the penthouse suite of an apartment in a ritzy neighbourhood and only pays around ¥3000 (less than $500) a month (with her own bathroom!) because she has eight roommates.
While cooking is the best way to save money in Shanghai, if you know where to look, eating out can be very well priced. However, there is one exception: Western style food. Forgo the McDonald's every day and visit your local food stall. My advice is to stick to two staples of street food in Shanghai: Bao Zi (steamed buns with filling) and Jian Bing (egg and flour crepes with toppings). Both of these items are under ¥10 ($2) and are tasty, filling, and healthy.
If you're in the mood for something a bit heartier, anything from a hole-in-the-wall restaurant will likely be under ¥20 ($5). Of course, if you're very frugal a bag of rice and some soya sauce can go a long way.
Good news for beer drinkers: beer is super inexpensive in Shanghai, and it's everywhere! Local brands like Tsingtao and Snow Beer are the way to go if you want to save money and aren't a beer snob. Another plus, they are available in every convenience store around the city. If beer isn't your thing, then a not so secret of Shanghai is to buy your liquor at The Avocado Lady (274 Wulumuqi Lu). This small store, with all the goods foreigners, could want, contains many imported goods at lower prices than regular grocery stores. Bottles of alcohol are a good price, as well as wine. (Pro tip: she also has the cheapest peanut butter I've found in the city!)
In terms of going out for a night with friends, the best bars for saving money are going to be the ones locals go to. The ubiquitous bar of Shanghai is Ellen's, a dive bar for sure, but their drinks are a steal! If you want to venture out to other drinking establishments, then I would suggest doing your research (for example on Smart Shanghai) for special deals, such as ladies nights, happy hours, buy-one-get-one, etc. A personal favourite is on Tuesday night, the club Unico has free mojitos from 9:30-10:30; just be prepared to push.
There is always something to do in Shanghai; just one of the reasons why I love this city so much. From parks, shopping, concerts, and even rock climbing, this city is filled with attractions, but not all wallet friendly. A positive is that a lot of Shanghai's museums are either free or reasonably priced. The Shanghai Museum in People's Square is always free, although getting in can be tough on the weekend.
Additionally, many museums, such as the Museum of Contemporary Art, is free on Tuesdays. A lot of attractions offer discounts to students. I brought an old student card to China, and it has proven great at getting discounts time and time again.
Your EF blue card is also great getting you discounts, from food, gyms, adventure parks, and more. If you're more of a movie person then I would suggest buying tickets on Alipay or similar apps. Tickets for movies, trains, planes, and even Disney Land will be cheaper online, for the most part, but you might need a Chinese friend to help you translate. Of course, for a real budget-friendly activity you can always walk around the city, or one of Shanghai's many beautiful parks, and explore for absolutely free!
Saving money in Shanghai doesn't have to be hard, or a sacrifice. Making conscious decisions every day to save money can really add up in the end – leaving you a nice nest egg to take home. It's easy to be conscious of your budget, while still enjoying everything China has to offer!