How much does it really cost to make ends meet while living abroad?
Beginning on March 3rd, 2016 I had an idea.
I decided to start tracking every single one of my expenses and every little bit of income I earned—an idea stemmed from my desire to take advantage of…
This concept refers to earning money in a higher valued currency while living in a country with a lower cost of living. In my case, this would mean earning money in USD while paying all of my living expenses—food, rent, transportation—in Chinese RMB.
It’s like an artificial bump in the salary without actually increasing the amount earned…
Before I moved to Asia, I had always wondered, “how much does it cost to live abroad?”
Sure, this is different depending on which part of the world you’re in but I had heard good things about Asia and I was constantly thinking about how much money I could save compared to what I was saving in the States.
In fact, after crunching some numbers and doing a bit of guesswork, I realized that by living abroad I could save a fortune!
Well, maybe not a fortune BUT more than I could save making close to six figures in New York City.
I figured with the incredibly low cost of living and the relatively high salary for teaching and other business opportunities, this would be a great experiment.
But, I needed a way to prove this to myself. So the most obvious idea that came to mind was to start tracking—every meal, every beer, every bottle of water.
And here I am almost six weeks later and I have some pretty interesting results and some unique insights into my own spending habits as well as purchasing behavior.
Without dragging this out any longer let’s get down to business:
I tracked all of my expenses in a Google spreadsheet, both on my cell phone and laptop, which made it incredibly easy to keep everything updated and not miss anything.
I began my tracking with the more obvious expenses like lunch, dinner, groceries, rent, etc., and added new categories along the way as they were needed.
Below you’ll find a breakout of each expense and a brief explanation of what is included in that expense.
- Rent: $277.78 – This expense includes the includes the single room that I rent in a shared 3-bedroom apartment. If you’re wondering what a sub-$300 rent expense looks like in China, then check out this video I made about it here.
- Gym membership: $61.27 – This is kind of pricey but health is something that I prioritize so I decided to bite the bullet. Considering how nasty the air is here in China, you don’t want to be running outside. Plus, the gym is super nice—it’s got a ton of equipment, showers, saunas, spin room, yoga, you-name-it. And it’s hardly ever busy…I don’t think the Chinese have caught on the weightlifting craze that you see in the West.
- Groceries: $26.40 – Groceries include household items like mops, paper towels, cleaning supplies, as well as food items such as, oatmeal, eggs, peanut butter, fruits, vegetables, and more. I know it seems outrageously low for an entire month of groceries, but we’ll get to that shortly.
- Lunch: $50.00 – The reason my grocery expense is so low is because I eat out at almost every single meal. Now why would I do that? Because, as I’ve explained before, eating out here is dirt cheap. An average meal will cost anywhere from $2-$3. Based on this monthly figure, it looks like my average lunch expense was $50/30 = $1.67. Not bad, but this also doesn’t account for the days where I just cooked lunch at home. This assumes that I ate out everyday, which isn’t accurate. In the future, I will pay closer attention to which days I ate out so that this will better reflect the real average.
- Coffee: $15.51 – If you didn’t know already, I’m a coffee addict… There. I said it. But you’re probably thinking, “how is that expense so low if you claim to be a java junkie?” Good point. Here’s the thing—I really do love coffee but the coffee in China is overpriced and REALLY not good. So on March 13th I decided to quit cold turkey. Why continue to waste my money on this shitty coffee? Just doesn’t make sense. So I’m doing a good ol’ coffee cleanse and waiting for my arrival in Taiwan to indulge once again (I hear they have an incredible coffee culture so I’m looking forward to my next fix!).
- Snacks/Miscellaneous: $23.90 – Snacks and miscellaneous include things like nuts, fruit, drinks, etc., that I grab on the go. These are items that I will munch throughout the day when I am not back at my apartment. Quite cheap indeed.
- Water: $8.80 – Water from the tap can’t really be trusted here so we buy these big jugs that cost a little over a buck each. If I also included the water that was bought around town, then this figure would be closer to $10-$15.
- Maid: $5.40 – A maid in China is incredibly affordable. Our maid charges 35 RMB per hour or approximately $5.40. It takes her around 3 hours and we split it three ways, making it $5.40 each. This is a relatively new thing for us so this expense will likely go up as we plan to hire her every other week.
- Cell phone data: $7.72 – This is typically a bit more, closer to $20 per month, but my guess is that I had some data saved up from the previous month so I ended up not having to recharge as often as usual. This also doesn’t account for the initial purchase price of the sim card, which I bought back in December.
- Transportation: $61.88 – Transportation is actually very cheap here if you use the subways. This transportation expense includes all of my metro card refills, taxi rides, and even a round trip to Hong Kong last weekend. I think it should be a bit more than this but some of the expenses got put into another category that you will see later.
- Dinner: $84.24 – Dinner, like lunches, are mostly eaten out at local eateries due to the cheap cost and convenience factor. One thing that should be mentioned is that dinners tend to be more expensive, but after a long day, this is something I’m not too worried about splurging on. For the month of March my average dinner expense was $84.94/30 = $2.83! Now that’s just ridiculous… God damn you gotta love Asia. BUT, the more and more I hear about how unsanitary Chinese kitchens are, the more I will be cooking at home—so next month will be interesting to see what differences lie ahead.
- Drinking/Entertainment: $239.51 – Okay I know you’re thinking “whoah man! Cool it on the booze and partying, it’s like one of your biggest expenses!” But let me explain myself… This category includes a bunch of stuff. For example, this includes going out to dinner—not our everyday casual thing—but more like the nice sit down restaurants that have different Asian cuisines (e.g. Thai, Vietnamese, Indian). This category also includes the occasional night out, which means taxis (I know these should be clumped into transportation, but after a few drinks it gets hard to keep track so I just throw them into one category), drinks, and club entrances. And last but not least—as I mentioned before—a chunk of this includes our shenanigans last weekend during a trip to Hong Kong. It got a little out of hand to say the least, BUT had we not gone on this last-minute Hong Kong adventure, it could have easily been $50-$75 less, which is PRETTY DAMN GOOD if you ask me.
March 2016 Cost of Living Abroad Total: $862.41
Okay the expenses are fine and dandy but that doesn’t mean shit if you’re only making $600!
Well, I’m glad you bring that up.
Below you’ll find a simple break out of my income for the same period:
- Teaching: $1,836.42 – As I’ve said in other posts, teachers can make a good amount of income here. But here’s the kicker—I teach less than 15 hours per week. Yes, you heard me. LESS than 15 hours of teaching per week. You can imagine what a full time teacher can make if they are willing to work hard and find the right types of teaching gigs. As I’m trying to scale back these hours, this source of income will go down in the coming months.
- Copywriting/Freelance work: $911.59 – This is money I’ve made through copywriting gigs as well as writing website content for marketing companies and blog articles. Most of the work I have received is through sites like Upwork.com, but many clients have ditched that platform and worked with me directly to avoid the stupid 10% fee that Upwork charges. What you cannot see is that my income from online/freelance work has increased every week and as I plan to decrease teaching hours, I can only hope that my freelance income will continue grow..
March 2016 Total Income: $2,784.01
If we take into account my gross income and expenses you can see that I earned a net profit of $1,921.60!
Talk about some serious savings…honestly, this is almost four times the monthly amount of what I was saving after all my expenses were paid when I was living in New York City.
But beyond the savings benefit, what I found interesting was how much more I paid attention to what I was actually spending. Because I had to enter in each line item for every expense, I was forced to consciously think if what I was buying was absolutely necessary. This is part of the reason why I stopped drinking shitty Chinese coffee because it was no longer providing me any value. By entering this expense in everyday it made me realized that my daily coffee purchase was less of a need and more of a habit.
Furthermore, seeing all of your expenses laid out day-by-day is kind of cool because it shows you what you prioritize and what your spending habits look like. I found that as this experiment progressed, I began to compete with myself to see if I could get my expenses lower than they were the day before. A kind of snowball effect was taking place, which just compounded my savings.
For anyone looking to save a bit of cash and cut back on impulse spending, I highly recommend trying to use only cash and track all of your expenses in one way or another. You will be amazed at how something so simple can actually make quite a big difference in your monthly net profit.
If you have a tracking system or practice something similar to this for your personal finances, then I’d love to hear your ideas.
Share your thoughts below in the comments.
Due to the fact that all of my expenses and some of my income were paid in Chinese RMB, I used the average March conversion rate of 1USD=6.48RMB to convert back to USD for reporting reasons. Furthermore, I only included expenses of living in China—this doesn’t include my student loan payments or cell phone payment back home. I wanted this to be as neutral as possible so people could see what it could be like if they take a similar path in moving abroad.
If you feel that including those other expenses (loans, phone, miscellaneous back home) would be beneficial, let me know and I might consider including them in my next report.