Just how much monthly income do you need to live an easy life in China?

March 28, 2012Jing Gao5 Comments, , , , , ,

The costs of living vary greatly across China, as does the average salary. National per capita monthly income for city dwellers in 2011 was 21,810 yuan ($3,461), which averages out at 1,817 yuan. In Beijing and Shanghai, where residents’ living standards are among the highest in China, per capita monthly income in 2010 was respectively 4,201 yuan and 3,896 yuan.

However, the median personal income may actually be much lower, considering that unusually high values contributed by the small wealthy class in the cities can dramatically affect the mean value. In fact, even in Beijing and Shanghai, a job that pays 4,000 yuan a month is highly sought after by college graduates.

But is 4,000 yuan really enough to tide a Beijinger or a Shanghainese over from the previous payday until the next? Hardly. Even a man making 10,000 yuan a month, who is the envy of most city dwellers, can be complaining about running short of money all day.

The admission by Cui Yongyuan, a member of CPPCC, China’s top advisory body, that he feels economic pinch, highlights the growing unhappiness among ordinary Chinese people with their current circumstances. Below is an excerpt of a China Daily article:

“There is no problem with my current monthly income exceeding 10,000 yuan ($1,578), even more, but still, I often feel I cannot cover my daily needs,” Cui Yongyuan, who is also a well-known anchor with the China Central Television (CCTV), recently revealed on a People’s Daily website forum channel.

As a popular CCTV anchor with a reasonable income, Cui’s self-disclosed financial worries caused a stir on the Internet.

“If a person with a considerable income like yours suffers financial difficulties, what about people who earn less?” was a common response.

“The main reason for the lack of a sense of economic security among ordinary people is that income growth has failed to match the pace of price rises,” Cui said.

The anxiety with limited disposable income due to soaring consumer prices is felt by all income groups in the lower and middle class. As the purchasing power diminishes, the financial burden is only heavier.

What do Chinese people spend on, and how do they spend? Here is a breakdown of typical monthly expenses of a resident in Shanghai making 10K per month: (Graphic by NetEase)
(To give you a better idea of life in China, we decide to use only RMB (Chinese yuan) in this article and refrain from converting the currency to the dollars, as speaking in terms of U.S. dollars while living in China on Chinese payroll does not make much sense. But for your information, the current exchange rate between USD and RMB is about 1/6.30. )


Below is an infographic made by iSunAffairs that compares consumer prices and incomes in five of world’s largest cities: Taipei, Hong Kong, Shanghai, New York and London – by showing what 100 yuan can buy in a local corner shop, and measuring it against the local hourly and daily wages. (In November 2010, we had a similar post about what 100 RMB could buy in China. A year and a half later, it surely can cover even less.)


In the southwestern city of Chengdu, where per capita monthly income is only 1,920, or half of that of Shanghai, women making 3,000 yuan per month are generally regarded as white-collar office ladies that belong to the middle class, and yet the following photo essay from QQ illustrates just exactly how the middle class tighten their purse strings and fight the lasting battle with the rising costs of living in urban China.


Ximu: 3,000 yuan = living allowance

Ximu, 28, works as a designer. Most of her monthly income goes toward family expenses, whereas a small amount is put into savings. Last year, Ximu got married after a 5-year relationship. They bought a small 58-square-meter-apartment (624 square feet) in the eastern part of the city. Her husband’s income is used to pay the mortgage on their property; Ximu’s is used for family expenses. Their life has become carefully calculated and planed. Luckily, it is passable. Ximu’s home is quite far away from her workplace. Having grown tired of being sardined onto public buses for her daily commute, she started to ride a scooter every day last year.


On the Valentine’s Day, Ximu bought a down jacket for her husband. It still cost her nearly 1,000 yuan with the steep 70 percent discount. She hesitated for days, before she finally made up her mind on the payday. The down coat feels comfortable, but Ximu felt a bit sad, “How great it would be had I bought it in the winter! In this past winter, he was wearing the down coat bought three years ago all along.”


Ever since she got married, she has kept an account book handy, where each and every family expense is recorded month by month. Each month, she must meticulously plan her budget and wind up the accounts of the previous month. Xumu used to dread receiving wedding invitations the most. Her biggest wish is to stop worrying upon receiving one.


Every day after work, she meets her husband and goes grocery shopping together before heading home and cooking their dinner together. Even though they cannot afford a feast of exotic food, tastes of homely food have such an emotional appeal. Maybe such a life is not romantic enough, but their mutual love and relief in humble circumstances is more treasurable.


Her husband has stomach problems. Boiling porridge for him each morning has become a ritual. The weekly nourishing soup is must-have as well. Ximu says to her husband, we should never make our life bitterer than it is.

In the end, Ximu showed us what she reckoned up: half of her 3,000 goes to the payment of their mortgage. Besides, they needed to pay the debt they owed when they made the down payment. She records their living expenses on her account book stroke by stroke and carefully does the math, while calculating how to make the best of their limited balance and upgrade their life.


Zhou Zhou: 3,000 yuan = starting point

Zhou Zhou, 23, is a reporter. Her major expenses are rent, transportation and telecommunication.

Zhou Zhou, who has just got out of the ivory tower and arrived in a strange city alone for a new life, has inevitably tasted bitterness and difficulties soon after her entry into the job market. As a cub reporter, her working on stories late at night is a commonplace. This past Wednesday, she worked until 10 p.m. Luckily, she caught the last bus. Otherwise, she would have spent several dozen yuan. She got back to her apartment at 11:30 p.m., exhausted and hungry. She borrowed a pack of instant noodle from her roommate, who said to her, “Wow, your job is really tough.”


She was going to an evening gala, and she may even have a chance to interview a celebrity she likes! No sooner had she gotten thrilled than she began to worry about lack of clothing for the occasion. She went to all department stores in the city over the weekend and bought a dress with a 40-percent discount. It was still quite expensive to her: 680 yuan (US$110)! It is almost equal to Zhou’s weekly allowance.


Zhou seldom goes out on weekends, as going out means spending money. Once money is spent, her expenses will be messed up. Zhou said that she doesn’t want to cut back on things she can’t live out to buy things she can live without. Once, for a pair of high heels, she ate veggie noodles for 13 days. Even now, the sight of noodles repels her. That’s why these days she usually stays home, and does laundry or watches American serial TV dramas. Sometimes she cooks a pot of nourishing soup for herself.


Zhou Zhou and her boyfriend are in a long-distance relationship. In order to save money, they only meet once every two months. That is the happiest and sweetest time for Zhou Zhou, even though each time, they only stay together for two days. Her boyfriend ordered 11 roses on the internet for Zhou Zhou as her Valentine’s Day gift. Zhou Zhou loves roses, and put the flowers in front of the window. The flowers wilted long before he came.


She had just got paid. The money had not even turned warm in her hands when her roomie called her and broke the sad news: “Time to pay rent again.”


Zhou Zhou is a typical example of recent college grads in the city who hail from elsewhere and live in rented apartments. 3,000 yuan is all her income and must cover all her expenses, including on food, clothing, rent and transportation. However, she is pretty satisfied with being able to find a job that pays 3,000 soon after graduation. This 3,000 is a starting point to her. Perhaps five or ten years later, she will reminisce these early days since her debut into the society, because it is exactly these difficulties that will toughen her and make her who she will be.

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5 comments to “Just how much monthly income do you need to live an easy life in China?”

  1. Guy In China | March 29, 2012 | Permalink Reply

    Yeah, I’m a single male in small town China, and on a month where I do absolutely nothing but eat, I can save a couple thousand, but I don’t have to pay rent. If I have any kind of social life, or buy clothes, I can barely save 1 grand. I don’t know how families get by on 3,000 in big cities.

  2. Tom | March 29, 2012 | Permalink Reply

    When I first arrived in China in 2005, I earned four hundred RMB per month. That’s ‘hundred’, not ‘thousand’. I had free accommodation (inclusive of bills) provided by the school where I worked, and 1 free meal per day for six days per week. Most days (except for my day off) I just had to pay for ‘top-up’ food. This mostly meant the 1-yuan jian dan bing, or occaisionally splashing out on a 5-yuan bowl of noodles. The 5-mao rise in the price of pancakes in 2006 really hit me hard, but I economised on my ‘day-off’ spending. Holidays were the toughest, but they were only ever a week long, so I could get by ok. I supplemented my income by taking on dares and bets. The best kind were those that involve the consumption of food, because even if you fail, you still get to eat! Someone once bet me 20-kuai that I couldn’t eat an entire plate of tian suan zhu rou in under a minute-and-a-half. I failed, but ate well. These days I live in Hong Kong. I’m married and pay my own rent. My salary is over 22,000 dollars, but I’m finding that very hard to live on.

  3. sam | April 1, 2012 | Permalink Reply

    Thanks for this article and the detailed data along with your interesting comments, all very informative, thanks.
    First in 1959 as an aviator,
    I have delightful memories of Hong Kong and all the other Asian Countries.
    For about 14 years I enjoyed going in and out of Hong Kong.
    I lived/visited/worked in numerous countries of Asia.
    I was very happy in those years. I fell in love with everything in Asia, most especially the people.
    In my formative years I was fortunate to learn so much from my wise Asian friends and associates.
    I am very happy for the Chinese and American friendly relations and hope we can continue to grow peacefully.
    I would love to spend the final years of my life in Asia.
    My dream would be to live in a small town of ordinary people.
    But, it is difficult to find data such as this article on small towns.
    If anyone has advise or good ideal on this matter, you can message me ,,, xbananaandriceok@yahoo.com

    Here in the US we are having simular problems with the costs increasing and profits decreasing.
    I have been in business here since 1972, business is not very easy here.

  4. Blacksoth | April 1, 2012 | Permalink Reply

    This story makes me wonder what happens to people when they’ve been working for a while and in their 30s. It’s rough anywhere when you first start out, but what are incomes like in China when you’ve been working for a while? Do they ratchet up enough to take the sting out of paying the bills or is income growth sluggish and people wind up close to where they were even after years of work?

  5. Bob | April 11, 2012 | Permalink Reply

    The UK figures are artificially high as they do not take into the 20-40% tax that should be taken off the salaries.

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