Tips for Living Well on a Budget in China
I recently read an article by an American expat living in China. It was a good article overall but there was one point I disagreed with: that expats can live a good life in China or save money but they can’t do both.
At the time I read this, I had the habit of going to the gym every week, buying coffee on an almost daily basis and spending far too much money at places at McDonald’s. I knew I was wasting money but I always reasoned with myself that these so called ‘luxury’ purchases enabled me to have some quality of life. In reality, I was just fooling myself. Comfort food and gym visits didn’t bring me any real happiness and I was actually miserable most of the time because I wasn’t saving any money.
When I first considered going to China 10 years ago, I figured I’d have a good life earning easy money and pay off my student debt within five years. The reality though, has turned out quite differently, due mainly to my above habits, starting a family and the dramatic increase in living costs.
Although I wouldn’t get into a fistfight with an Aiyi for a dropped 5 mao note, it didn’t seem difficult to imagine at the start of this year when I had a bank balance of zero. With my youngest son also starting kindergarten later this year, I knew I would have to make some serious changes. So after reading the article, I set myself a challenge: to live a good life while cutting out unnecessary expenditures. In my first month, I reached my savings target of 3000RMB by following four simple rules:
Pay a little more for good dining experiences – but do it less often.
A couple of months ago I was walking through one of the exits at a busy metro station in Guangzhou, deciding what to have for breakfast. I looked in McDonald’s and it was a depressing sight: big queues, food wrappers everywhere and people hunching over tables quickly scoffing down their 7RMB meals. I instead went next door to Pizza Hut and for 20RMB, I enjoyed a quiet atmosphere, a big table to myself, a huge cup of coffee (with free refill), sandwiches and salad. I figured if I went there once a month instead of twice a week to McDonald’s, it would be a much better and cheaper experience.
Start a book and/or DVD exchange
I love reading and fortunately, it’s not difficult to find English books and DVDs in my city. However, they’re often very expensive and are rarely, if ever, discounted. One alternative in China is to shop online through Taobao or Amazon but if you don’t mind second-hand books, you could start a DVD/book exchange at work. We’ve had ours for about two years and in that time, I’ve read about a dozen books and watched as many movies without having to spend a cent on any of them. It all began by starting a WeChat group and asking who would be interested in bringing in unwanted books/DVDs, so it doesn’t take a lot of time or effort to get it up and running. I also visit the Guangzhou library once a month and enjoy browing through their extensive collection of English books.
Stop wasting money at the gym
Let’s face it, gyms are expensive. The one that I went to was the cheapest in my area but still charged around 2,500RMB for a 6-month membership, much more than I was willing to pay.
During the Spring Festival, I was browsing through a sports store with my wife and oldest son. On a whim, I went straight to the exercise equipment and saw a pair of 10 kilo dumbbells for 200RMB which gave me an idea. That was the amount I was paying for just four gym visits but with these, I’d never need to go to there again. I then realized that there was a park, apartment complex and a garden in front of my son’s kindergarten with chin-up bars and other exercise machines.
Now instead of going to the gym, I do dumbbell curls at home, powerwalk to a quiet park, do chin-ups and finish with five minutes on what I like to call the leg swinging machine. It costs nothing and I feel and (I think) look much better than I did when I was going to the gym.
Look to earn some extra income
As well as my full-time teaching job, I do some tuition on the side which is very helpful when it comes to paying school fees and other essentials. Parents are usually willing to pay well for experienced teachers and may refer you to their friends if they like you. Just be aware if you do this that it can be quite time consuming, as you may need to make all your materials from scratch.
Overall, you don’t need to be frugal to live a comfortable life in China, just smart. There are always a good range of alternatives for whatever you need and if you take the time to look at them, you can save some serious money.
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