Thinking About Moving to China? At What Cost?

Matt | Living in China,Working in China | Friday, May 20th, 2011

A reader recently sent me some questions about relocating to China with a family.  I will try to answer his questions and add any other information that I can over the next few posts.

What necessities should we pack, that would be hard to find or too expensive in China?
As for what to bring, I would recommend packing as light as possible.  This would make your future travel/relocation plans easier.  I’m guessing you would like to move overseas for a couple of years.  If so, again I wouldn’t take too much on my first trip over.  Some things that were vital for me were photographs and mementos from home.  These also come in handy in class.  Also if you have things that are unique to your culture or where you live this you may want to bring as it could add great context to your class setting.  My situation was different because I went over to China alone, whereas you will be travelling with your family, but still things that remind you of home can come in handy during the homesick stage of culture shock.
The things that I found difficult to find in China were minor things and or very specific.  For example, I found it difficult to find antiperspirant in China so I would bring an ample supply.  Also, I originally brought over some of my favourite English books.  The selection of books at the English book stores was okay, but I recently discovered that delivered to China and that solved my book issues.  Another specific thing that I brought over was my hockey gear.  This was something that I didn’t bring over until my third year in China.  Most things that you need you can get in China.  Remember they have Wal-Mart and Carrefour where you can buy most things you need. Depending on your size and fashion level, you may want to bring more clothing with you.  I am about 6 ft, 200lbs and I found it challenging to find clothes that fit.  Again, this is a minor thing. Overall, I found life in China refreshing, having less possessions to worry about.
What is the cost of living in China? For a family, I want to be able to travel and sightsee. How much to live comfortably?
This is a tricky question, because it depends.  The cost of living in China depends on how you like to live.  I like to hear that you want to travel and sight see through China, as it has so many beautiful and amazing sights to see.  Plus if you are teaching in China you will likely have some nice holidays off as well.  For cost of living, I will tell you how much I spent monthly, give you some background on this and you can adjust according to your situation.
Matt’s Situation
  • Living in a small bachelor apartment about 40 square meters/ approx 400 square feet (you will need a larger space, but for me it was clean, new and large enough for my needs; plus my goal was a commute that I could walk to my work).
  • Living in Beijing,
  • Monthly Averages
  • Near Central Business District (CBD), one stop south of Guo Mao,
  • CASH IN $2,250 CAD (13,500 RMB) working at Wall Street English as as Foreign Trainer
    CASH OUT $1,750 CAD
    • RENT $500 (3000 RMB) – but you could easily pay double this now depending on the size of your apartment and the recent inflation.  In China you pay rent 3 months at a time.  So first time you pay rent you pay for 4 months, because you have a 1 month deposit.  Then 3 months later you pay again.  So I have evened out the cost above, but you need to plan it out a bit when you are earning it because paying 3 months is a hefty amount at one time.
    • FOOD $650 (4000 RMB) – This is almost embarrassing to admit to spending such a large amount on food.  I ate out a lot and ate  a lot of Western meals.  Western meals will cost the same or more in China as in Canada/ the US.  For example a burger at Grandma’s Kitchen (Beijing) will cost about 65 RMB or $10.  A coffee at Starbucks, which I frequented a bit too often, cost 15 RMB or $2.50 CAD.  Whereas, if you like the Chinese do, eating at home mostly and eating Chinese food when you eat out you could spend a lot less than I did.  A large meal for 4 people in an average Chinese restaurant would cost about 100-200 RMB or $15-$30 CAD.
    • TRAVEL $100 (600 RMB) – I travelled about one weekend trip every month or so.  Travel in China is fairly cheap.  Decent hotels, like Home Inn, cost about 300 RMB ($50) per night.  Flights cost about 1000 RMB ($150 CAD) per person one way.  Travelling by overnight trains is the cheaper way to go where you’d spend 1/3 to 1/2 of that cost.  Overall, travel in China is cheap and highly recommended.
    • BACK TO CANADA $200 (1200 RMB) – I went home each year.  The flight home cost me about $1500 CAD, plus spending cash back home.  That is one negative about earning RMB is that when you go back to Canada/the US you burn through it quickly.  If you stay in China you can live quite comfortably on 10,000 – 15,000 RMB per month income ($1,500 to 2,500 CAD).
    • TAXIS/SUBWAYS $50 – Taxis are relatively cheap in China and I ended up taking them often.
    • SPORTS/HOCKEY $50 – Hockey is expensive, but great fun.
    • HOME PHONE/INTERNET/CELL PHONE/SKYPE $50 – Telephone and unlimited Net access was about $20 per month.  For my cell I used prepaid cards and that cost about $20 per month.  Skype was about $10.  This was all money well spent to stay in touch with family back home.
    • OTHER $150 -Books $40/mo (I was a book-a-holic); massages $30/mo (used to rehab my back and shoulder, but well worth the money).

    SAVINGS $500 CAD (3000 RMB) per month

    Could you breakdown the costs of typical food and services like: Utilities, Internet, Cell Phone, Groceries, transportation?
    Utilities are pretty cheap in China.  It is more of a challenge figuring out how and where to pay it.  For example, hot water I paid at my apartment complex and cost about $6 CAD per month.  You fill up on a card an insert it into the reader under the sink.  Electricity cost me about $11 CAD per month.  This one I could fill up at the bank (and some McDonalds actually!).  After I filled up the card, I would insert it into a reader outside my apartment.  Groceries are very cheap if you eat Chinese food or cook a lot from scratch.  For example chicken breasts cost about 7 RMB per which is just over $1 per breast.  If you are like me and buy imported coffee and cereal it will be similar to western prices.
    That is enough money for one night.
    I’m spent.

    A $4 Bowl of Cereal

    Matt | Cooking Chinese Food,Living in China | Monday, December 8th, 2008

    A little while back I was wondering why, on the one hand I was earning pretty good money teaching English in China, but on the other hand, I didn’t have much to show for it.  Then I realized, the biggest expense I have is food.  This is mainly because I eat like a foreigner.

    A lot of people ask me about what is a common salary is for teaching English in China and I say, that depends.

    I know people who earn about 5,000 RMB a month (about $800 CAD a month) teaching English.  I also know people who earn 15,000 RMB a month.  Additionally, I know people who earn 25,000RMB a month and higher. When I ask my students what a common salary is for Chinese professionals who earn about 5,000 or so a month or 10,000 per month as a family.

    Often I struggle at the thought of how does a family of two or three people live on this amount of money?.  For me, I spend almost this much by myself and I don’t think I live very extravagantly.   When I factor in the cost of my annual flight home then I pretty much spend this entire amount.

    When I look at where I spend most of my money each month, my number one expense is….food (next is rent).  Sometimes, I find it tough to believe the amount of money I spend on food each month, about 3000RMB.  But when I think about it more, I realize that I spend a lot of money because I buy mainly western food. Even though I try not to eat out much, but yet I still spend loads of money on food.  Why?

    Because I eat western food – cereal, toast, coffee, granola bars, instant coffee – for the most part.  For example one bowl of very healthy cereal costs me about $5.  That’s right, one bowl!  How?  The cereal I like costs about 60 RMB for a box (Nature’s Path Optimum Slim). I get about 4 bowls so that’s about 15 RMB a bowl ($2.50).  If I throw on top a handful of almonds 50RMB for 350g or about 8 RMB per handful ($1.25).   Then I add the milk about 6RMB using half a 250ml container costs 3RMB ($0.50).  Okay so it’s not $5 per bowl it’s only $4.25, but still it’s costly. On top of this, I drink a fair bit of coffee, which adds up to the weekly grocery bill.  This costs about 60RMB for a 250g bag of decent coffee ($10) which lasts me about 2 weeks.  My granola bars, Nature Valley Granola Bars, costs me 25 RMB ($4) per box of 6.  Eating western food costs a lot.

    Now these sound expensive and they are, but actually these are a LOT cheaper than my previous eating habits, of eating out.  A Starbucks coffee costs 15 RMB ($2.50 CAD) for a medium black brewed coffee.  A muffin there also costs about 15RMB and the cheapest muffins I’ve seen, that are edible, cost about 7RMB ($1 CAD).

    So what?  I guess if you are trying to save money while living in China you can:

    1. Eat like the Chinese cook your own food at home. Eat lots of fresh fruits and vegetables.  Eat healthy fruit as snacks.  Buy a rice cooker!
    2. If you are going to eat western, eat at home – if you drink coffee daily, get a coffee maker and brew your own it’ll save you heaps from Sbux.
    3. If you have to eat out eat more Chinese food.  In Beijing when I go out to eat a nice meal with my girlfriend it costs about 50 RMB for two of us (25 RMB each) for 3 dishes and a beer.  If I ate the equivalent in a western restaurant it would be at least 100RMB (50RMB each) for 2 dishes and a drink.

    I hope this can help you save a few dollars while living overseas.  Also remember, don’t be afraid to treat yourself once in a while as there are a lot of amazing restaurants in China.

    Blogroll: China Opening Up

    Matt | Chinese Culture,Living in China,Preparing to Come,Visas | Wednesday, November 12th, 2008

    I haven’t done a blogroll recently, as I haven’t been writing much recently, but here goes.

    Since the Olympics have ended, I’ve heard that the visa situation has gotten a bit easier.  Then I stumbled across this China Briefing’ post Hong Kong Issuance of China Visas Easing.  This article mentions that it is for tourist visas in China and once you get onto the mainland you’d need to change it into a working visa.  It’s nice to see the visa trade is opening up too.

    Lost Laowai’s You Buying the Angry Expat Ideology? This post talks about the importance of opening up our minds and hearts if we truly want to live in a foreign country.  It’s a nice idea about why foreigners get upset so often here in China.  Open your minds and hearts. has a nice exhibit to help you open your eyes: China’s Top 5 Most Beautiful Girls. has a post with pictures of an Adult hotel opening in Nanning.  The photos makes help you visualize how China’s sexuality is becoming more open in such a traditionally conservative culture. Open your minds, hearts, wallets (legs?!)

    After a while you forget you’re living in China

    Matt | Living in China | Thursday, February 14th, 2008

    I’ve been living in China for over two years now. And it this will probably sound strange, but after a while you forget that you are living in China. I wake up, do my normal routine (eat breakfast, check emails, read financial blogs, study Chinese,) work out and then go to work. In between I might stop off at Starbucks for a coffee. Come home watch English TV or a movie, read a book and then go to bed. I get so busy or used to my routine, that I forget what an amazing opportunity I have living in China. So now I try to challenge myself to realize this, to open my eyes, my mind and my heart (thanks DJ) and truly savour living and being in China. Wake up Matt!

    An English Teacher in China

    Matt | Blogging in China,Living in China,Teach English in China | Thursday, February 14th, 2008


    I’ve been living and teaching English in Beijing, China for the past two years. Finally, I’ve got around to writing a blog to capture some of the things I’ve done, seen and learned along the journey. I am still here now and will add what I find out about living and working in China. I hope this site will help others who want to come to China, Zhong Guo or The Middle Country, to travel, to live or to work. I look forward to hearing from you.



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