I’ve never been great with cash flow. I tried Dave Ramsey’s infamous envelopes at age 22, only to find that my brain didn’t fly into scarcity mindset when the money got low; it simply failed to notice it was getting thin, and then would ask, confused, “What the heck happened?” when it was suddenly down to a few dollars.
I was also great at pulling from unspent envelopes. For whatever reason, it didn’t register with me behaviorally in a way that altered spending.
I love Dave’s philosophy in general: spend less than you earn; the idiocy of not being able to put gas in your luxury car; and other truths. But for me, the whole “cash envelope” thing didn’t work.
Tracking things electronically does. Being the queen of overdraft fees in the past has made me terrified of seeing that negative sign in my bank account, while cash just “disappears.” In fact, cash is so fluid to me that what HAS worked is putting hundred-RMB bills aside when they accidentally drop into my hands–but more on that later.
The first time that I lived in China, the cashiers on my side of town (which had fewer foreigners than the east side of Beijing) were stymied by my debit card, even though most stores had their own debit-card readers. It only took a few times of them acting utterly confused at how to work the readers, and half the time, it not working, for me to adjust as need be to cash in 2014 and 2015. But now…
1. Electronic payment reigns supreme.
Thankfully, in the intervening years, everything has changed. Jack Ma’s Alipay and WeChat’s own advancements have made the region I’m in, as well as (now) Beijing, a largely cashless society. Rather than whip out credit cards, however, you pay with your WeChat wallet–which links directly to your bank card, and allows you to top up or withdraw at will, with no fees–or Alipay. Both methods of payment come through smart phone apps that provide a QR code–and everyone uses them. I mean everyone. The fruit stand vendor, the person making incredible dumplings, the Apple store in Hangzhou, the water delivery guy. Every. Single. Person. uses these means of payments. And they’re wonderful.
While it may be possible to link them to credit cards, I have enough trouble in the U.S. to worry about. In addition, many functions are limited for foreigners. While a Chinese friend can send international wire transfers from her Alipay app, for example, such functions aren’t available to me. Even so, we can use it to pay now–a function not allowed for expats back in 2015, when pay-by-WeChat first came around.
When I got to the step in Your Money or Your Life where you track your spending for a month (also recommended by the Frugalwoods for their Uber Frugal Month Experiment), it was easy-peasy. I had spent my entire income either on bills via money I’d sent back to the U.S., or on products and food I could look up in my apps’ records. Ta-da!!!
One of the funniest experiences was going to a place similar to hot pot where you pick out your ingredients, they put them together in a broth, and you take it to your seat to eat after it’s already cooked.
At the counter, once my portion had been weighed, I owed a whopping 17 yuan (less than $3). When I whipped out a 20-yuan bill, proud to be close to the original amount, I was shocked when the cashier’s face went blank–and she began rifling through her own purse for loose change to give us the difference! That is how reliant on electronic pay they have grown.
In fact, when friends for whom Alipay or WeChat Pay doesn’t work hand me cash now, it feels incredibly strange! I’ve taken to stuffing hundred-yuan bills in drawers at work and home as a kind of gap-stop emergency fund. For me, because that money is out of sight, it is truly out of mind–while I can access the money I have in all other accounts with the press of a finger on a screen. I probably look at my (newly restocked) savings account in the U.S. online more than I count up the yuan collecting dust in my drawers–which, for a reforming spender, is good news.
When I was in Beijing, the lines at the bank were interminable, and it took forever to transfer money in person. Annoyed, I eventually found a way to transfer money online myself–but it was just Western Union transfers, which max out at $500 apiece and cost a cool $15 a pop.
The best (cheapest and most legal) way to transfer money is still the old route–go to the bank in person, fill out forms, and wait a day.
Thanks to a school that has been around longer than my campus in Beijing had been, we were provided the documents needed and clear directions on how to transfer money back home. While it still took a couple of months, now that things are set up, it took less than an hour at my bank a week ago, and the money was in my U.S. account by the evening (my time), after I initiated the transfer at 2 PM.
There are plenty of things that can cause frustration in this whole process–for example, the amount you can transfer depends on proof of taxes paid and proof of income, and the site where you print off your tax certificate went down last month and caused frustration for many–but as long as you are “on it” and print up documents as they become available, the process of transferring money home is even faster than it was in Kuwait, from the time you show up, hand over your info, to when the money actually lands in your account.
Note: one of the reasons it’s so easy here is that I live in a smaller city with fewer foreigners. The few times I’ve been there, the bank is less busy in general than the one three times its size was in Beijing.
2. Public transportation is amazing.
In addition to the bus mentioned in an old post, their high-speed trains and subway systems are amazing–and affordable. When I started in Beijing, it was a mere yuan to go anywhere on the subway. Now, it costs anywhere from 2 to 14 yuan–a max cost of just $2. The bus to get from one city to the next is 5-6 yuan, while it’s just 1-2 RMB around town. (RMB, kuai and yuan are all the same thing.)
The high speed train runs from Hangzhou to Shanghai for around 100 yuan, and begins running all the way from where I live in Fuyang to those big cities in January.
It is important to book the right trains, but the wrong ones–run-down, not updated in the last 10 or 20 years–are even cheaper, so while rides on them may be slower and less comfortable, you will still be saving money!
In addition, the train stations are massive and can be a bit confusing…but once you get it down, MAN, it is convenient.
3. A beautiful mix of the modern and historical.
The Middle East is known for its malls, and China has them down pat, too. It also has incredible, thousand-year-old-plus gems like water towns and the famous Great Wall that will leave you simply breathless.
4. Creative takes on Western fare.
Part of living abroad is being willing to do without, but as in many countries, Western goods are making themselves known. You just have to be willing to take them in certain ways…
For example, Pizza Hut will deliver to your door…but it’s near-impossible to get a plain cheese pizza. As long as you like a lot of toppings, and the occasional black crust, you’re good to go!
One of my favorite things to do is try familiar brands with their unique twists–or at least, to notice them (I don’t actually buy a lot of packaged snacks):
The point is that while you may not find your exact treat, it can often be had in some form. And occasionally, you get lucky, as with this:
5. Local food for cheap, usually produced by/in nearby farms.
I buy a dozen or so brown, local eggs with yolks brighter than anything I’ve ever had at home (besides organic, pricey fare)–all for about a dollar. I have also had kilos of vegetables delivered with the original dirt on them from the farm. China has had issues with tainted products, so I make sure to rinse and wipe things off completely, but they’ve been fine so far. In addition, buying things in season is an easy way to make sure it’s coming from nearby.
There’s more, but for now, that’s your intro to a few nicely done things here in China. There’s plenty I will share about the downsides, but I’m a fan of outrageous optimism, and it’s nice to savor the advantages, too!