[UPDATE: Check out our 2011 update Cost of Living in Beijing, June 2011]
One type of question that I see pop up on forums about China again and again has to do with the cost of living here, things like, “How much does it cost to live in Beijing?” or “My school is offering X compensation. Is that a reasonable amount to live on in Beijing?”
So how much does it cost to live in Beijing?
Beijing is just like any other city. The spectrum of lifestyles is massive. There is a lot of money in Beijing, and there is also a lot of poverty. Obviously how much it costs to live anywhere depends on the choices you make. You can live no-frills cheap, you can live lavishly, or you can live someplace in the middle.
Forbes.com ranked Beijing as the 9th most expensive city in the world last year, but I think that it’s a bit misleading. Beijing is expensive if you want a two story house with a car and garage and a yard, but if you decide to live in a 20-story apartment building and use public transportation, it can be really cheap.
Kara and I moved to Beijing in March of 2008. We have both been working for most of that time and made a little over $4,000 a month between us. To give you an idea of our lifestyle: we live in a mid-range, two-bedroom apartment on the 22nd floor in the WangJing neighborhood. 98% of our neighbors are Chinese. We eat out at Western restaurants 2 to 3 times a week and have a Starbucks habit that’s in the $20-a-week range. I drive an electric scooter to work, and Kara uses public transportation and taxis. We have a washing machine but no drier. We have a toaster oven and a two-burner stove, and we have an Ayi* who comes to our house to clean two times a week. Over the past two years, we have returned to America twice to visit family, traveled to Thailand for a couple weeks, and have done a few small trips in China. We pay for Kara’s health insurance and visa and for a small storage unit in Wisconsin that holds our stuff back home. We have also paid off over $17,000 in credit card debt and student loans.
My point is, we don’t live as simply as we could, nor do we have an extravagant life here, but it’s actually cheaper for us to live here than it was for us to live in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. We have chosen to live without some of the comforts from home like a clothes drier or full-sized oven, but it’s really a pretty small sacrifice for all the other benefits we have from living here. The best thing for our finances about moving to a foreign country is that we were able to completely remake our spending habits. A change a scenery can really do wonders for financial clarity.
Straight-up answer: How much does it cost to live in Beijing?
As of June 2010, I would say you can live comfortably for 6,000 RMB ($875) a month per person, but you could make do on 3,000 RMB ($575).
*Ayi is the Chinese word for “Auntie.” Most expats living in Beijing employ an Ayi to help with cleaning, cooking, babysitting, or whatever. It really isn’t considered an extravagance here, but I will admit it feels a little weird trying to explain that to people back home.