How to Live on a Budget in Shanghai


We're often asked questions like the following:

How much should I save before coming to shanghai?

How much should I expect to spend?

What is the cost of living in Shanghai?

It's complicated to answer, because everyone's standards, situations and capabilities are slightly different. This article will be short and sweet, and focus on the low budgets. 

Let's start with the BARE MINIMUM. The one fairly inflexible cost (once you’re set on an apartment, at least) is Rent. 

Rent: $425/month for a shared apartment (flatmates), found in advance. 

So, THAT is what you should set aside. Once you have that accommodation settled, the rest is totally flexible and based on your style of living or situation. If you’re going to live on the cheap, you’ll need to find some alternatives until you’re making a more stable salary.

There's a little flexibility here if you don't want to live downtown, but let's face it- if you're not going to live downtown, don't live in Shanghai.

So, you’re probably saying “I just need a number, how much do I need to save for a month of living in Shanghai?”

Here you go: $800. That’s the minimum cost of living for a foreigner or new arrival coming to Shanghai.

I’m not saying it’ll be easy to live on this. But it’s definitely possible, and we’ve all met people who have done it. It evens out close to the equivalent of 2500RMB for rent and 2500RMB for daily expenses.

So now let’s talk about living on the cheap:

Rent in Shanghai ( Pretty Affordable!)

Where can someone find a good deal on rent? Well, it’s safe to say that locals know the loopholes to finding a better priced apartment, but for us laowai we usually turn to SmartShanghai’s housing section.

Run a search under “Shared Apartments” for the various parts of Shanghai to live in, then message the person who made the listing. It should be pretty easy to distinguish between agencies (which should be rare to list shared apartments) and individuals looking for roommates. 

Eating in Shanghai (...Think Like a College Student!)

One of the great things about living in Shanghai is that it can be almost as cheap as you want it to be. $1 bowl of noodles? You can find it. [note: not encouraging eating $1 noodles, but hey, when the budget calls for it…] Convenient stores are everywhere, and you’ll find a 7-11, Family Mart or Lawsons within a few minute walk of wherever you’re staying, where you can find some meals for $2-3.

Cooking-in is definitely a much-used option by those who not only want to live a bit more frugally, but also put together a healthier meal. You can buy enough veggies, meat and rice in the local markets to cook multiple meals and it’ll run you around $2-5 total. Seriously.

Drinking & Nightlife (...Will Cost You)

Shanghai has a vibrant nightlife scene, but nightlife and alcohol will cost you. With an average drink price always creeping further up towards $7, and solid cocktails hitting $12 minimum, your budget will take a huge blow here.

So if you’re budget is cramped, simply check out the aforementioned convenient shops to grab dollar beers. Avacado Lady has import wine for sale at $7-12/bottle, not a bad deal either!

An alternative to drinking out is having a BYOB house party. Just be considerate to your neighbors and security guards.

Another one is simply skipping traditional nightlife and going on a bike ride or finding a club to join.

Subway and Buses (...Skip the Taxis!))

Getting around Shanghai is incredibly easy, just check out our guide on navigating Shanghai’s subway system. Taxies can be SO tempting, as they are inexpensive compared to many western countries. However you’ll pay a fraction of the price if you just utilize the extensive Shanghai subway. You’ll pay $.50 each way to work, coming in at $5/week.

Fun Things to Do (...Without Dropping RMBs!)

You’ll need to take some losses here and ignore some of the many costly activities Shanghai has to offer. Concerts, day trips, some exhibitions, and more.

We have you covered, though, with a quick guide on free things to do in Shanghai.

Another option is buying an inexpensive or second-hand bicycle. Expect to spend $80-100. Riding around the city is one of the pleasures of living in such a varied, historical area. If the pollution is not particularly bad, you can spend an entire day just riding…anywhere. Throw a map in your backpack and go!

When put into these perspectives, Shanghai is not nearly as expensive as some publications and ratings make it out to be.


About the Author
Author: Mike

Mike is SmartIntern's co-founder and a 6-year Shanghai resident. With beginnings in the Midwest, USA, he brings a sense of midwestern hospitality to the SmartIntern team. You'll be likely to spot Mike riding a bike through Xuhui district, grabbing a cocktail at Arcade, and dropping into Ippudo for a hearty bowl of Japanese Ramen. 

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