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China Is Still A Cheap Country To LIVE In

I was recently asked by a friend how much it costs to live in China. I had to think about this for a moment, and then replied, “China is incredibly cheap to live in, but it’s not so cheap to travel in.” No matter what country you’re in, living there or traveling there puts you [...]

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I was recently asked by a friend how much it costs to live in China. I had to think about this for a moment, and then replied, “China is incredibly cheap to live in, but it’s not so cheap to travel in.”

chinese-moneyNo matter what country you’re in, living there or traveling there puts you in two different expense brackets, and this is never more true than in China. This is a country where 29% of the population lives on $2 per day, where you can eat a meal at a restaurant for $1.50, where a nice apartment costs $150 per month, a 750m beer will set you back 50 cents, a train ticket for a 2,000 mile journey costs $50, and food at the market is so cheap that it’s hardly worth mentioning. If you’re living in China life can be very cheap — if you want it to be.

Every once in a while a news report comes out here that shines a light on how cheaply people can live in this country if they want — or have — to. I read one the other day (published in 2007) about a girl who claimed to live well on 1,000 RMB ($160) per month in Shanghai, and the article linked to other similar testimonies from around China. It is my impression that the reader was supposed to find this story amazing, but I couldn’t understand why: anybody could do this easily, China is a cheap country to LIVE in — if you want it to be.

Everywhere in the world has food, shelter, and transportation readily available that is priced in accordance with the local working class salary. This is a basic concept, yes, but it’s essential to look at to get an idea of the minimum it will cost to live somewhere. Income in China is incredibly wide ranging — it goes from super high to almost unbelievably low — and if you can make $500 per month you can live here well, on $1,000 per month you can live like a king.

I look into my refrigerator and I see chicken breasts that cost 50 cents a piece, pork for scarcely a dollar a pound, a bag of carrots for 25 cents, a head of broccoli for 30 cents, frozen dumplings for $1.50 a serving, a couple of onions for 50 cents, a bunch of bananas for 60 cents, a big bag of apples for $2, a huge bag of oranges for $3, a liter of milk for a dollar, and, as a splurge, a $5 brick of cheese. In my shelves I see a three pound bag of rice that I paid $1.50 for, a jar of peanut butter for $2, imported noodles for $1 a family size serving . . .

Going out to cheaper local restaurant I expect to pay roughly one to four dollars per head. A bowl of noodles costs between $1 and $2 depending on how much meat you want in them. A dish of meat costs roughly $2, a dish of vegetables $1 . . .

When out at a fancier restaurant, I generally spend around $15 for my three person family.

A coffee in a bakery costs around a buck, a cappuccino in a chain cafe $1.50 to $2.

If you drink beer in a restaurant or a cheap bar you’re looking at $1 to $2.50 per bottle. But if you go to a club or a higher class bar you’re looking at $5+ for a drink.

I’ve had four apartments throughout my time in China. The first two were in Hangzhou, and I paid around $100 a month for each, respectively. The second two were in Taizhou, and though they were comped by my wife’s company I asked around and the rent was estimated as being around $200 per month. The place we live in now is a new three bedroom, two bathroom, two floor apartment, but the rent is still pretty cheap. Why? Renting apartments in this country only gets expensive if you want to get fancy or live in the center of a major city.

Trains in China are cheap. If you go hard seat you’re roughly looking at $1.25 an hour. If you want a hard sleeper, raise that price a buck an hour.

Long distance buses are not as cheap, but are not at all expensive. You’re looking at around $4.50 per seat hour.

As far as the cost of taxis around the world goes, they are relatively cheap in China. The flag drop rate is between $1.20 and $2, depending on where you are, and the price rises in reasonable increments. For an hour long ride, the price seems to roughly be around $16 to $20. Not bad.

The price of taking a city bus is so low it hardly even warrants mention. The general fare is usually around 30 cents per ride, for longer routes the prices rises incrementally. The most I ever paid to ride a city bus was 14 RMB, and I was on it for over two hours.

The cheap living dichotomy

I say that China is cheap and mention all kinds of cheap prices, but this does not mean that you’re going to see things selling this cheap everywhere. It’s actually quite the opposite: there is now a massive middle and upper class presence here, and many of the most visible places to eat, drink, live, and recreate are going to cost many times the rates I mention here. As with anywhere, if you take what you’re offered in this country upfront, you’re going to drop a lot of cash. To find the good prices you need to look past the bright lights, get off the main drags, get away from the other expats an middle class Chinese, get to the places where nobody speaks English, and find where the working class people live, eat, and shop. If you’re living somewhere for an extended amount of time this is not difficult to do — if you want to.

There is a big difference between not being able to live cheaply and not wanting to. It is common for people to say that they can’t live any cheaper but what they are really saying is “I don’t want to.” That’s fine. It is normal for people to live up to their income and maintain whatever lifestyle their money can buy them, and this is as true in China as anywhere else.

In reality, it is so easy to avoid the middle class pricing tier in China that I’m often amazed when I see people wantonly not doing it. I don’t understand status, I don’t get why someone would willing spend more money to get something somewhere just to show off the fact that they can shop there. Why would you go to a bar that sells beer for 35 RMB when you could go to one that sells them for 10? Why would you go to a restaurant and drop $15 when you can get just as much food of a similar quality for $5? The fact of the matter is spending more for status is a normal phenomenon, and any projection of how much it costs to live somewhere needs to take this into consideration.

How much money it costs to live in China all depends on how much you want to spend. You can easily live here for under $500 per month and still enjoy eating at restaurants, hanging out in cafes, and drinking socially, if you stay within the working class realm of this culture. Living working class does not inherently mean slum dogging it, it does not mean depriving yourself or living an ascetic lifestyle, it just means not spending more money for something you can easily get for less, it means not wasting money on status — if you want to.


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Filed under: China, Money, Save Money for Travel

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3717 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

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