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How I Saved £15,000 in 3 Years working in China

In England, unless you are sitting comfortably in a higher pay bracket, living expenses consume a large portion of your money. And these days saving money is even harder, especially if you want to live a nice lifestyle. Living in England, I always struggled to save any decent amount of money. I wasn’t extravagant, I had an old car worth a few hundred pounds, and rarely bought clothes or luxury items. My money mainly went on fairly normal things like rent, bills, and the weekend. It wasn’t until I went to China to work that all my money problems went away. Before I left, all I knew was that I would be earning less than I already was in England (around £800), but for me, it wasn’t about the money, I was happy to accept the job just for the experience alone; little did I know how far my money would go.

The Job

My year-long ESL teaching contract started in September of 2011. My new school was located about 45 minutes away from Nanjing city, in a small dusty town called Jiangpu in Pukou district. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was the first step I would take toward unwittingly saving 5,000 pounds a year. Small towns in China, just like small towns in other countries, are much cheaper than bigger cities. 

The Flat

I was offered to share a flat with a teacher who had a room available. It was in an old communist style concrete block. We were on the 6th floor, and the flat was pretty run down and old fashioned. Chinese style, it had no mattresses on the beds and a hard wooden sofa (more like a bench) in the front room. I found out that the teacher had chosen these, rather uncomfortable quarters because he “could easily afford the rent” on his own. And with me now onboard, living together meant we would shell out a mere £50 a month each. This teacher had been working in China for 6 months and had been keeping the cash from his salary in his suitcase, he had a case full.

The Bills

I later found out that there were much more comfortable places to live in. So once I had saved some money my girlfriend and I moved into a much cosier space; our rent rose to £100 each. Bills weren’t that much extra, the main expense was electricity, but even that was something around £30 a month. Trying to stay cool in the summer and warm in the winter used a fair chunk of electricity. Gas and water were barely even noticeable as expenses.

Other Expenses

When I first arrived, I had initial outgoings to buy: bed covers, towels, and kitchen utensils. But after that I spent nothing. At that time, the local supermarket didn’t have any imported food, so I was eating like a local. I bought things like rice, meat, soy sauce and other unrecognisable things to try; it was incredibly cheap to buy vegetables and fruit from the local market too. I missed certain things such as real bread and coffee, but foreign supermarkets were too far away to go for a weekly shop, and the prices on foreign imported goods in the city were vastly over-inflated.

Eating Out

When it came to eating out we didn’t have an overwhelming amount of options in our town. So we ate out in local Chinese restaurants, which was amazingly affordable. Most Chinese people eat out rather than cook in. So meals out could cost as little as a few pounds, and that’s with drinking too; beer and baijiu were the only alcoholic options. The beer wasn’t the best but at 30p per 500ml bottle, there was no complaining. On our weekends we would head into Nanjing city and splash out a bit. There, we had a large choice of restaurants that served western food and beers. This was our main expense during the three years we stayed in Jiangpu. 

The Ones Who Couldn’t Save…

Now, while this might sound like your easiest ticket to a quick save it very well could be, but at the same time, it could all be a waste of your time. Our school had other foreign teachers; who let’s just say, were more accustomed to the finer things in life. Many other teachers would arrive and easily spend all their monthly salary (even needing to borrow more!). How? Well, rather than living like a local, they would try to replicate their lifestyle from home. Unfortunately, trying to live like a Londoner in Jiangpu is very expensive. They would end up spending large amounts of money on international supermarket trips buying overpriced western food, such as frozen pizza and HP sauce, and at the end of the month, they’d have nothing to show for it.  

As time went on we began shopping for more for luxuries such as cheese and coffee, and we would go out to more expensive restaurants. Yet, even with a more expensive flat, and more outgoings I still managed to save without really trying. By getting smart about where I would spend my money, I saved a ton of money in a really short time. China is such an interesting place there is so much to see and discover, most things cost nothing or very little. Living like a local Chinese person is simple, healthy, and can save you a lot of money if you’re on a foreigner’s wage

In summary:

  1. Small town rent is cheaper
  2. Shop and eat like a local 
  3. Watch the electricity bill
  4. Drink local beer
  5. Forget about “home comforts”

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