Expat Life in Shanghai: The Cost of Living and How You Can Budget
Here’s a little personal detail about me—I love budgeting. For all of my wanderlust and carpe diem-ness™, I love the peace that comes from planning for the future. Budgeting (and a lot of Ramen noodles) was how I paid off $15k worth of student loans in less than two years, allowing me to pursue my dreams. Plus, worrying is so not my thing—so instead of letting my finances control me, I am in control of my finances. And if you are moving abroad, then money may be on your mind.
Before we left for China, I scoured the Internet to find sample budgets to determine whether we could afford to live in Shanghai. I found cost of living information, but I couldn’t find one comprehensive sample budget. So, I decided to create one! If you are considering moving abroad as an expat, specifically to Shanghai, read on for a comprehensive cost of living overview and sample budget.
The Fine Print:
Take into consideration that this budget covers two people with two salaries.
We do not have any student loans and our expenses in the States are covered, so all of our China income stays in China.
I am a proponent of saving, but we have elected to save less than we typically would in America, because our RMB currency is more valuable in China than converting into USD.
Budgets err on the side of overestimates instead of underestimates. This leaves some financial buffer space!
All numbers are in RMB. If you want to convert to USD, you can divide by 6.5. However, if you are going to be earning RMB, I encourage you to start thinking of costliness in terms of your earned currency.
Ok, now we’re ready—here we go!
Rent varies considerably based on proximity to a metro station, neighborhood, and whether you have roommates. Andrew and I wanted a modern, Western apartment in a “cool” neighborhood. Our updated studio apartment has a brand new AC unit (very important!) and is within walking distance of great restaurants and bars. The metro is just ten minutes away. Our rent is on the higher end of the spectrum for most people in our pay grade, but since we have two salaries and only need one bedroom, we can swing it. Our friends who live in the same neighborhood with an equally nice (and very spacious!) 3-bedroom apartment pay about 3-4,000RMB each.
Utilities are fairly inexpensive. During the (HOT) summer months, our AC was cranked to 22 degrees. Our utility bill fluctuated between 300-500RMB. We selected the fastest internet speed (*I use the term “fastest” very loosely). The annual bill was 2,200RMB (or about 183RMB per month).
Phone plans in China are CHEAP! We each selected the least expensive option at 70RMB per month each. A word of warning: if your VPN runs in the background without Wi-Fi, it can drain your data within a day! It happened to me and then I needed to “top off” my plan to get more data. We budget 100RMB each per month to be safe.
Here is another category that can wildly differ for each person. You can save a lot of money on food…or you can spend a lot of money on food. We spend a lot of money on food. This was very important to Andrew. He wanted healthy groceries and the freedom to go out in a city filled with delicious restaurants. A good rule of thumb: local food is very cheap, western food is very expensive. Here are some examples so you can determine where you might fall on the spectrum:
Any international food you are used to from home must be imported—aka it’s expensive. We order some of our food from an expat grocery service. A week’s worth of groceries from Kate and Kimi’s delivery service might include: 4 greek yogurts, a package of frozen blueberries, 2 containers of hummus, 8 pieces of naan bread, 8 granny smith apples, 2 chopped salads with turkey, organic granola bites, 4 kiwis. Our order usually comes to around 500RMB.
As you can see, this doesn’t really cover many meals. This will usually cover my breakfasts and sometimes my lunch (lunch meaning small snacks—apples and peanut butter, hummus and carrots. Andrew orders a 12RMB salad through a Chinese co-worker). A majority of our grocery money goes towards eating out in the evenings.
On the cheap end, a large container of traditional rice or noodles costs 8RMB from the random guy in the alley behind our apartment (not as sketchy as it sounds, I promise!). On the other hand, when we go to Fat Cow for BOGO burgers and happy hour drinks, we easily spend 200RMB. A single black bean burger from our favorite vegetarian, organic restaurant is 70RMB. Because we enjoy eating out so regularly, we put a lot of money in our grocery budget—and sometimes we even use our “fun money” budgets to cover extravagant meals.
Andrew and I commute to work every day—via metro and bike. Transportation is cheap—about 3RMB for the metro and 1RMB for a bike. We sometimes indulge in a taxi for about 30RMB, especially if it is after 10:30pm when the metro stops. If you want to take a long distance train out of the city on the weekends, it’s usually less than 100RMB each way. We haven’t even come close to using our transportation budget each month.
Ok, I honestly would want to put more of our budget towards travel. Shanghai has a lot of overnight train options, but it is pretty far from Southeast Asia, so flights cost a bit more. If you are paying in USD, it’s very cheap, but in RMB some flights are still prohibitively expensive (especially when we tried to book during the October holiday and round trip flights were 6-8,000RMB each!). I will post more specific itineraries and budgets for our individual trips, but with three months’ of our travel budget, we have booked transportation and lodging (for two) to the Yellow Mountains, the Avatar Mountains, Hong Kong, and Tokyo.
I believe you should live in the moment, but always plan for the future. We send home some money each month so we can get new tires and groceries when we return to the States. I will write a future post about how we manage to get our money back to the States (it’s a little tricky).
We each have an individual “fun money” budget to spend on non-essentials as we see fit. Some examples are pedicures (80RMB), an escape room date (500RMB for 2 people), going out for drinks (160RMB for two non-happy hour margaritas), ice cream (50RMB for two cups), tickets to see The Lion King (130RMB for one ticket), etc.
Fun Money: 4,000RMB (2,000 each)
Another way I lured Andrew into moving to China (just kidding…kind of) was the promise we could afford massages more regularly than we could in the US. Enter the massage budget. We might go for massages twice a month (less than we had anticipated), usually leaving us with leftover money in the budget.
Anything that doesn’t fit anywhere else falls into our miscellaneous bucket. This includes haircuts (50RMB), doctor visits (20RMB copay), etc. This is another budget we don’t max out each month, so we carry it over or use it to pad other budgets that might need a little help.
As you can see, on a teacher’s salary, you can live pretty comfortably in Shanghai, even considering it’s one of the most expensive places to live in China (probably only second to Hong Kong). Depending on what you value, you can go out almost every night, or travel every weekend, or put away a ton of money, or live in a pretty lavish apartment. We elected to do a little bit of each.
If you are considering a move to this exciting city, hopefully this guide provides a foundation to build your own budget. Moving to a new country comes with a lot of uncertainty, so it can be comforting to control at least one aspect of your new life.
If you have any specific questions about budgeting or Shanghai’s cost of living, please leave a comment below or feel free to send me a message!
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