Budget Breakdown: How I’m Spending My Money During a Semester in Shanghai

Apr 11, 2019 12:02:00 PM / by Imani Wilson

It can be easy to lose track of your spending while abroad! In this week's post, Imani sheds light on her student budget and how she manages her money monthly. She looks at how she's allocated funds for travel, food, souvenirs, and activities in Shanghai, and what is covered by your CAPA program costs.

Now that I’m about a month into my semester abroad, I’ve realized being in China this long requires you to have a handle on money and spending. For the first few weeks I was very worried that I was spending too much on food and gifts. I had made a budget before I came to Shanghai, but I feel like that didn’t help as much as I thought it would because you easily start to lose track of all your daily expenses when you’re spending in another currency. This worried me since it’s easy for me to spend a lot of money without noticing.

Bank LessonLearning vocabulary specific to what you do in Shanghai helps you get around easier. 

So, to make it easier on myself, I remembered how much money I came with and subtracted the amount I had left over after an exact month of living in China. I calculated it out so now I know I have about $700 USD per month (at most) to spend on things like travel, food, shopping, etc..., which is works fine for me. It could’ve been more if I didn’t get persuaded into going to the fake market (more on this later).


In my original budget, I planned for my largest expenditure to be on traveling throughout China. I wanted to go to Chengdu to see the pandas, to Changsha to see the mountains, and to Beijing, Suzhou, and Nanjing for various reasons. Now that I am here, I’ve noticed that I won’t have time to do much traveling. Between the classes, studying, homework, CAPA activities, it’s hard to find time to travel far, though we do have time off (a few 3-day weekends). Surprisingly, the hotels are the least expensive thing to pay for when it comes to traveling outside Shanghai. The most expensive part is usually getting there, as the plane tickets are pricey. I do have the option to take the train, which is very cheap in comparison, but tends to be time consuming and thus hard for a 3-day weekend.


Vending MachineThe snacks from the vending machine are very inexpensive compared to the ones in the US. 
A pack of Oreos costs $0.60 !

The second most expensive thing I budgeted for was gifts and food. This was the category I was most worried about. I felt that it was necessary to spend a lot of money on food to try many new things, and I assumed food would cost a lot because I usually eat a lot. I planned to cook for myself to cut down on costs, but it turns out the dining hall is very inexpensive. Most meals are less than 20 RMB which is about $3 USD. Plus, there is so much amazing (and cheap) street food! I also found that I eat a lot less in China. I don’t understand the reason, maybe it’s because I eat so much rice and/or noodles that fill me up.


The gifts are on the more expensive side of the budget. The reason being is that the gifts I am getting are from tourist sites. That said, in China, there are many options for shopping. The campus is close to the Global Harbor Mall (15-minute walk), and in the fake market (a.k.a. street markets where you can find all the knock-offs), you can get a great deal IF you know how to bargain.


Money1 Kuai/Yuan in coin and paper form. Money in China is very interesting. 

Luckily, all the CAPA activities are mostly already paid for. The CAPA program fee includes transportation by metro (subway and bus), your excursions, sometimes food, and entrance fees such as museum tickets. All other activities that I plan for (KTV, gym, swimming pools, and tours) and the transportation (taxi), I have to pay myself. It isn’t very expensive. The cost from ECNU to downtown Shanghai usually costs around 36 RMB (about $6 USD). Although the activities I mentioned can get expensive, I spent most of my free time and extra cash in the first month sightseeing and eating a lot of different food which didn’t cost much.

Chinese BankThe Industrial and Commercial Bank of China is the closest most popular bank near ECNU. 

Overall, living in Shanghai is a lot less expensive than I thought it would be. While it can be hard to keep track of the money I spend, I think that taking out the set amount of money in cash and using only that money for the month is very helpful with budgeting. In China, there are many ways to pay on the phone, such as Alipay and WeChat Pay (although you need a Chinese Bank Card in order to use it). I think it would be a lot harder for me to keep track of money if I was paying for things that way because there are more ways that I can spend it, so I’m happy to stick to cash!

Thanks, Imani!

Imani Wilson


Imani Wilson is an official CAPA blogger for spring 2019, sharing her story in weekly posts on CAPA World. A Mathematics major at Hood College, she is studying abroad in Shanghai this semester.

Imani's journey continues all semester so stay tuned.

Learn More about the CAPA Shanghai Program

Topics: Shanghai, China, Scholarships & Financing