Want to know the hardest part about being an expat? Well, I can’t speak on behalf of all expats, but I can speak for myself and also say that I’m aware this is a big problem for a lot of the people I know who live here in Shanghai. DAILY.
Photo by Corey Agopian on Unsplash
So what is it?
More specifically eating on a budget, or eating at home.
It might not be like this in every country (I’ve really only lived long-term in China), but it’s a common issue in Shanghai for foreigners. As a disclaimer, most people here don’t act like they’re on a budget. We tutor, we make good money, we travel around Asia where trips are extremely affordable, and we splurge regularly on nights out and weekend alcoholic brunches (is it really splurging if it’s done regularly? Haha). It pretty much seems unreal… and also like nobody ages. The expat culture seems to be the same here no matter if you’re 23 or 43.
So we have a tendency to not fully grow up. And why should we? We are responsible, get our work done (pretty well I might add), and we often put in a bit more than the required 40 hours. If we want to indulge a bit on the weekends on insanely expensive brunches, dine at western restaurants, and pay extra for imported goods, we usually do. I’ve never felt as financially secure as I do teaching in China.
Since many of us are pretty comfortable with our finances and tutor for extra cash on the side to feed our foreign food cravings and KTV addictions, a lot of us don’t actually worry too much about the upcharge we pay to have imported goods delivered to our doorstep. WE. ARE. SPOILED.
Take me for example.
I’m pretty frugal compared to a lot of people here. I re-evaluate my finances regularly and tutor more than just about anyone I know. While I am enjoying myself here, I’m making the most of it so I can pay off debt and have some savings to travel the world when I’m done teaching. These goals help keep me focused and aware of the money I’m spending.
Even so, I find myself spending $20 a night to have a mediocre meal delivered to my apartment or paying an arm and a leg to have my groceries delivered to me. Usually paying for meal delivery wins as I don’t know how to cook much and it’s easiest. I find myself ordering lunch on days when my break is longer. Or, as shameful as it is to admit, I order McDonald’s… for lunch or dinner… multiple times a week. And for what would cost me $4 in America, I probably spend about $6 on it here.
Many Thursdays, most Fridays, and probably every single Saturday, people go out. Food and drinks at the places foreigners frequent in Shanghai are usually not cheap, at least not by my standards. Then again, I’m from Ohio. And the weekend wouldn’t be complete without finishing things up with a nice brunch on Sunday. Brunch is a thing. You can ask Lisa at Adventures of a Dream Catcher.
Weekends here often range anywhere from a total cost of 400 RMB (if you’re being extra responsible) to 1,500 RMB. I actually know of people who have spent thousands of dollars, yes U.S. DOLLARS, on a weekend in Shanghai — but that’s a special case.
So what’s my point?
Many of us don’t concern ourselves with eating at home. In part because of the experience, but also because eating at home doesn’t really seem affordable, unless you’re eating Chinese food or making Chinese dishes. The groceries that most foreigners are familiar with and have experience making usually cost a lot of money, especially when purchased from the places where foreigners love to shop.
So my goal for the rest of my time here in Shanghai is to crack the myth that we can’t buy CHEAP groceries and cook the meals we know and love. I’ve always thought it would be fairly expensive to cook, and seeing as how I don’t know how to, I’ve avoided any serious attempts at meal prep. I usually get online to go shopping, fill up my cart and then freak at the price tag. close window. cue food delivery app.
After Christmas, I crunched some numbers and realized that per person, our FEAST wasn’t that expensive. It was all just estimates as we had a bit of a potluck, but it was a ton of food, ALL WESTERN DISHES.
So I continued to do some math.
On a normal day when I don’t care much about what I’m spending on food, I’ll most likely get a French Caramel Bread from Starbucks in the morning which is 18 RMB, cheap dumplings for lunch for 8 RMB and a coke for 3 RMB, ending the night with dinner that I ordered for roughly 90 RMB. This brings a normal weekday to 119 RMB for 2 (and a half) meals. 119/2.5=47.6 RMB per meal… Not to mention the extra 35 RMB I’m most likely spending on coffee as well as Starbucks, but we’ll leave that out.
When I’m feeling super cheap and I don’t know what else to eat, I’ll get ramen from the store near lunch with a bag of chips and a coke (comfort food to ease the guilt I feel for making terrible decisions about food – it’s a vicious cycle) for about 14 RMB. I’ll then spend 42 RMB on McDonald’s for dinner. Like I said, cheap day when I feel like budgeting. This is about as cheap as I feel I can get. 56 RMB a day (about 8 USD) 56/2 meals=28 RMB per meal.
If I bought chicken breasts – 19 RMB, a box of penne – 19 RMB, and, just to make things a bit more expensive, pesto sauce for approximately 40 RMB, I’d get a total of 78 RMB for at least 3 meals. 78/3 = 26 RMB per meal.
So I asked myself, would I rather have pesto chicken and pasta (one of my favorite dishes) for 3 meals a week or ramen for lunch and McDonald’s for dinner at a slightly higher cost?
I think the answer is pretty obvious. And what I’ve learned in the past few days is that I can make loads more dishes at home that I will enjoy that are significantly cheaper than even the pesto dish. If I change that pesto to something made with soy sauce, that decreases the cost of each meal to about 16 RMB each. Uhhh, what? That’s like $2!
I’m changing my lifestyle here.
Sure, I’ll splurge from time to time, but I need to control myself during the week and meal prep on Sundays. It’s time to start packing my lunches and eating better all around.
I’m going to spend the next few months researching, teaching myself to cook, and calculating just how cheap and easy it can be to cook for yourself in Shanghai, get the groceries that you want from a not-so-overpriced retailer, and use ingredients that can be found here or DIY at home to cut costs (like I guarantee I can make pesto for cheaper than it’s sold here — stick with me to find out!).
It’s going to be an adventure and a lot of hard work on my end, but I’m eager to start learning and have already taught myself two cheap dishes: lemon butter chicken with rice and broccoli, and a chicken satay with couscous. Both of these dishes cost me less than 17 RMB a meal and tasted absolutely amazing. At the end of each month, I’ll post about all the dishes I learned to make and the sources of my ideas and recipes!
I can’t wait to keep learning and sharing with those of you who might not think it’s so easy to cook for yourself in a foreign country where your normal ingredients aren’t available at the price you could get them back home.
Let me know if you have any special requests or recommendations. Looking forward to this new journey in 2018 (and to saving more money for travel)!
Until next time ♡