Cost of Living: Los Angeles vs. Shanghai

Shanghai Los Angeles Cost of Living

One of my biggest forms of culture shock upon moving back to the United States was cost of living.  It felt like everything in the United States was way, way more expensive than Shanghai.

In my previous post, I calculated and compared the cost of living between Los Angeles and Tokyo, and I found that living in Tokyo could actually save you 10,000 USD per year compared to life in Los Angeles. I’m a huge advocate for living abroad to not only broaden horizons, but to also save money.

So how does life in Shanghai fare when it comes to cutting costs?

First Off, Let’s Talk Salary

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Like Tokyo, the level of salary you’ll receive in Shanghai is much less than what you would make in the United States.  In fact, Shanghai’s wages look so low you’ll actually question how people in Shanghai even survive at all.  Also keep in mind, the wages listed below are real wages that my friends and I have earned, and reflect the foreigner’s salary and not the local Chinese salary.  Believe it or not, locals in Shanghai only make 7k RMB per month (1,000 USD) on average, which is considered a “high” salary.

Again, this scenario is based upon the typical salary of an English teacher in China since that is how most foreigners get their foot past the great wall.  The average salary for an English teacher in Shanghai is about 110,000 RMB per year, or roughly 22,524 USD per year. 

We all know that living in Los Angeles on 21,000 USD per year is madness, so instead I’m going to compare with the same salary benchmark we used in the Tokyo scenario, which is 35,000 USD per year.

The following scenarios are based on a single individual living in each respective city on the above wage.  An exchange rate of 1 USD – 6.3 RMB will be used for calculation.

Housing & Rent

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Housing in Shanghai is a mixed bag.  If the stars align and your luck is on the rise, then you might strike gold like myself and find a single,  3,000 RMB (500 USD) per month apartment (all utilities included) in the heart of downtown Shanghai.

Otherwise, a single bedroom apartment in downtown Shanghai will cost you.  The average price for a decent, one bedroom apartment probably averages out to about 5-6K RMB (700-850 USD) per month.  The truth is, few of us foreigners actually live alone–when I later changed apartments, I shared a 3 bedroom apartment with 2 roommates for, again, 3,000 RMB (500 USD).  If you want to save on rent, living in the outer neighborhoods of Shanghai (40 min train commute to city center) will cut your rent by at least 30%.

But hey, let’s pretend you hate roommates, you gotta live downtown, and you had crap luck finding a nice apartment–so you’re stuck paying 5,000 RMB for a single room.  A single room in Los Angeles (no roommates), on the other hand, will set you back 1,500 USD.

Monthly Shanghai Housing Costs: 750 USD
Monthly LA Housing Costs: 1500 USD

Transportation

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Now, this is where you save big.

Public transportation in Shanghai, compared to Europe and Tokyo, is dirt cheap.

The great thing about Shanghai is its condensed size.  It’s possible to get anywhere in the city center within one hour by metro.  It’s absolutely amazing.  In fact, Shanghai is smaller than Tokyo making it a lot more accessible and far easier to navigate for us foreigners (with just one look at the map, it’s easy to see that Shanghai is much more manageable than Tokyo)!

Shanghai map on the left and Tokyo on the right (and what a mess it is!)

Shanghai map on the left and Tokyo on the right (and what a mess it is!)

The metro fare in Shanghai varies by distance, but a one way trip will run you 3-5 RMB (.75 cents).

A one way bus ride in Shanghai is equal in price, panning out to about .75 cents

After hours, and when we’re just too damn lazy to take the metro, many foreigners hail a cab.  A cab in Shanghai is much more expensive than the metro, charging 13 RMB (2 USD) for the first 3 kilometers and 2.4 RMB (50 cents) for every kilometer thereafter.  Basically, to get from point A to point B within the city center of Shanghai, it will cost 30-40 RMB one way (5-10 USD).  A trip to the airport from the city center (a one hour fare) usually set me back about 200 RMB (32 USD).

So, let’s pretend you live in Jing ‘ An Temple (a hip, happenin part of Shanghai) and you had to commute to Pudong for work (not a great commute, but life happens).  The daily fare would be 6 RMB (1 dollar) per day or 120 RMB/month (18 USD).  Life is more than just work, so let’s add on another 300 RMB (46 USD) per month for leisurely travel expenses and taxi fare.

Business commute and leisurely travel combined, you’re spending about 420 RMB (65 USD) on transportation per month in Shanghai.

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In Los Angeles, having a car is essential.  Although it is (maybe?) possible to live in Los Angeles without a vehicle, your life will be utterly miserable.

Let’s pretend you found an awesome deal on a used car and you pay 200/month to pay for the car loan.  Add on another 100 USD for car insurance and 100 USD for gas (actually, gas would cost more than this but let’s pretend you drive a Prius like me) and you’re stuck paying roughly 400 USD per month for transportation.

Monthly Shanghai Transportation Costs:  65 USD
Monthly LA Transportation Costs: 400 USD

Food and Restaurant

Dumplings in Shanghai

Contrary to popular belief, eating out in China–especially Shanghai–can be costly.  In fact, it can be just as expensive as in the United States.

Here’s a quick break down of the average costs of food in China:

Cost for bowl of noodles on the street: 10 RMB (1.50)

Cost for a nice dinner out: 100 – 150 RMB (15-20 USD)

Cost for a Tsingdao Beer: 5 RMB (1 USD)

Cost for a nice cocktail: 60-70 RMB (10 USD)

If I had a bowl of noodles on the street every day, I would save an ungodly amount of money.  However, if you want to socialize and make friends, it’s simply not possible to eat street food for all of your meals.  You’ll need a nice dinner out every now and then, with a price tag of about 100 RMB (15 USD).  All in all, this price is really not that different from the United States.

Cool bars in Shanghai--for half the cost!

Cool bars in Shanghai–for half the cost!

BUT, as I also mentioned in the Tokyo post, tipping is what makes the USA much more expensive in terms of dining.  There is no tipping in China.  The service is god awful, but at least you won’t have to tip.  At all.  For anything.  (In China, there is no tipping for hair salons, massages, taxi, restaurant, bars, etc..).

Let’s take a look at your average food outing prices in L.A.

Cost for Chipotle: 10 USD

Cost for nice dinner out: 35 USD (including tip)

Cost for Beer: 7 USD

Cost for nice cocktail: 15 USD (including tip)

Like Shanghai, if we had Chipotle or McDonalds’ 1.00 menu for our meals everyday, I’m sure we would save a lot more money (unlike China, however, we’d be stuffing ourselves with fast food and get diabetes in five years).  Eating fast food everyday is a tad unrealistic so let’s throw in the costs of a few nice meals for sanity’s sake.

After returning to the United States, I was dumbfounded by the inflation of restaurant prices.  Before I moved to Asia seven years ago, it was possible to get a nice dinner and pay $40 for two persons.  Now, if the bill is under $60 for two persons, I feel like I got a ‘good deal.’  Going out to eat in Los Angeles is stupid expensive.

Plus tip.  Good god.  Tip for a $60 meal is close to $7-8 USD.  Ugh.

As for groceries…

I’m not going to break down the cost of each vegetable, but let’s just say buying fruits, vegetables and other supermarket items is way cheaper in China.

In China, I spent roughly 500-600 RMB on groceries each month (100 USD).

I spend about $400 USD per month on groceries in the USA.

So let’s pretend that we usually cook meals for lunch and dinner during the week, but go out to restaurants on the weekends and have a happy hour or two after work.

Let’s put the food/restaurant budget for Shanghai at 1,300 RMB (187 USD), assuming we spend 500 RMB on groceries and 800 RMB on going out (which is very doable in Shanghai)

For America, let’s put that budget at $700 (400 for groceries with the remainder for restaurants and drinks).  It sounds like a lot of money, but trust me, going out for $15 dollar cocktails and $30 dollar meals will add up.  Fast.

Monthly Shanghai Food Costs:  203 USD
Monthly LA Food Costs: 700 USD

So, what’s the damage?

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In Shanghai, the monthly rent of 750, transportation costs of 65, and food costs of 203 dollars will add up to costs of 1018 dollars per month (let’s just round up to 1,020 USD for short).

On the other hand, the monthly rent of 1500, transportation costs of 400, and food costs of 700 dollars will total to 2,600 USD per month.


Annual Salary in Shanghai: 22,524 USD

Monthly Cost for Expenses in Shanghai: 1,020 USD

Annual Cost for Expenses in Shanghai: 12,240 USD

Savings: 10,284 USD (not counting healthcare and taxes)


Annual Salary in Los Angeles: 35,000 USD

Monthly Cost for Expenses in Los Angeles: 2,600 USD

Annual Cost for Expenses in Los Angeles: 31,200 USD

Savings: 3,800 USD (not counting healthcare and taxes)


So even if you make a meager 22,000 USD per year in China, you will save a whopping potential of 10,000  USD per year by living in Shanghai.

CRAZY.

Remember, this is based on the scenario that you actually go out and have a social life, not live in a deluxe mansion or take taxis everywhere for your main source of transportation.  Lifestyle will greatly affect how much you actually save in each location.

Still, if you look at the cost of living in Los Angeles, the gap is definitely very wide.

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And while some of you may think: There’s no way you could make such crappy pay in Los Angeles.

Believe me.

30-35k annual salary in the Southern California is not only possible–it is a very sick reality.

Not only is Shanghai cheaper than Los Angeles, but in terms of night life, having fun, and enjoying a big city it blows Los Angeles out of the water.  While you may have to fight a crowd of people on a packed train during rush hour in Shanghai for 20 minutes tops, it sure as hell beats a 1-2 hour daily commute.. across a 15 mile (24 km) distance.

Shanghai is walkable.  Bars and clubs in the city make everything in Los Angeles look like a kiddie wading pool.  World class restaurants.  Live music.  An international community.

It’s one of the most dynamic cities in the world.

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Andy Warhol exhibit in Shanghai

Many of us have the notion that moving abroad is going to burn a hole in our pocket–but in reality, it can actually help us save more in dollars!) and discover more of the world.

Don’t forget, you can also save 10,000 by living in Tokyo as well. It’s a much cleaner, more sanitary place than Shanghai–but still, I much prefer China.

Temple in Shanghai

*As I mentioned above, healthcare and taxes are not covered in the above scenario. 

Although I don’t have the exact numbers, I know for a fact that taxes in Shanghai are much lower than in Los Angeles.  The state of California has the highest tax in all of America, much to my chagrin.  I think taxes in Shanghai might take an extra 1,000 RMB off your paycheck (156 USD) per month.  Overall, it’s not bad.

Healthcare is a toss up.  In China, healthcare is extremely affordable.  Even without insurance, you can see a doctor for less than 5 bucks and buy prescriptions for under 50 USD.  However, the quality of care in China is very, very poor.  You will be in hospital rooms with zero privacy and get many ten minutes tops speaking with the doctor.  Equipment will be old, and the facilities will be dirty.   It is not clean and sanitary like the United States.

However, in the U.S., lack of health insurance can bankrupt you, or literally kill you (some who don’t have enough money to pay for a procedure just go untreated).  Many employers will provide health insurance to employees, but this is quickly being phased out.  Fewer and fewer employers are willing to front the costs for healthcare and looking for shortcuts around providing this service.

Finally, keep in mind that Shanghai is struggling with pollution issues.  While you can save a lot of money there, no amount of money is worth the cost of your health.

21 thoughts on “Cost of Living: Los Angeles vs. Shanghai

  1. Ray says:

    I know what you mean! And wow, good job adding it all up.

    I used to live in Los Angeles, and now I’m not in Shanghai but in Shenzhen which is pretty similar. I think not needing a car is the best part. But rent is going up.

    Mostly though it’s that in first-tier Chinese cities you can choose between the modern high-end life versus cheap options. Go to that Japanese fusion place for dinner for example, or buy cheap noodles. Both are there. Averaged out having the latter options makes for an easier standard of living. All in all I still like China. No plans to come back to the States unless I get a really good job.

    Yet as for Hong Kong…

    • rubymary says:
      Profile photo of rubymary

      Yay, thanks for the comment!

      Yes, I think car costs can seriously damage your finances. I feel like its too much of a necessity here in the states. If it breaks down or needs repairs (which are always ridiculously expensive), then youe ssentially can’t go anywhere. It’s very frustrating.

      I imagine Shenzhen to be similar to Shanghai costs. Chinese people always tell me how wonderful Shenzhen is (it’s clean, new, full of business opportunities, etc..).

      I like China, too. I think you should stay put, that’s a brilliant idea (I seriously screwed up moving back to the states).

      Hong Kong is nice, but it’s sooooo cramped! It’s fun to visit, but I think the crowds there would drive me crazy (and that’s saying a lot, considering I lived in Shanghai and Tokyo!).

  2. autumnashbough says:

    Yeah, surviving in LA on an assistant’s salary was not easy. Even though I started out within walking distance, companies have a tendency to move. Frequently. Mine moved from Burbank to Santa Monica. The next company I worked for moved from Century City back to Burbank. I lived in Burbank and I was the only one turning cartwheels. 🙂

    A car will cut your commute time in half, because mass transit is terrible in LA. It’s backwards from Boston or NYC or DC. So frustrating.

    But the pollution, well, that’s a deal breaker right there. (It would have been onions, but since you survived despite hating onions, I guess I would, too!)

    • rubymary says:
      Profile photo of rubymary

      Damn your companies moved a lot! You must have had to commute all over the place!!

      I read somewhere that LA has the 3rd best public transportation system in all of the United States. It’s a very sad statistic indeed.

      I actually want to move to the east coast so I can ditch the car, but the fierce weathers and east coast attitude scare me 🙁

      Haha yeah you could totally live in China. Just remember the phrase ‘no onions’ and you’re gold.

  3. Lani says:

    Another great detailed post on the costs of living! I must say I’m surprised that Shanghai came out on top, but then again LA is hella expensive. I think our rent in Oceanside for one bedroom apt was $1500. Redonkulous!

    • rubymary says:
      Profile photo of rubymary

      Yeah Shanghai is pretty much on equal standing with Tokyo (maybe a wee bit cheaper).

      L.A., and just about every large U.S. city is redonkulous when it comes to rent. SF rent is 3k/month average right now, and if you go to cities like Boston, NYC, Chicago I think you’ll still be stuck paying 1,500 USD for rent.

      Living in Utah, however, is much cheaper (or perhaps equal) to Shanghai prices. Utah is nowhere near as hip and happenin as Shanghai, so that’s why I wanted to try and compare it to LA.

      I bet Cambodia is cheap! 😀

      • Lani says:

        Yes, ma’am. It is! But it does come down to quality of living and what you can forgive and do without. As you fully understand…to be honest, I don’t know how many people could live here, you know?

        I love Utah. I considered moving there. SLC probably has a lot more to offer than people think. Although, traffic was messy when I passed through due to road construction!

        • rubymary says:
          Profile photo of rubymary

          Yeah, I bet. Same goes for China (although I’m sure Cambodia is a lot more rough). You have to take away all those pleasantries in life, like full-time electricity and proper plumbing. I can’t imagine 95% of my friends living in China. They would run back to the states crying after one week.

          Aw, I’m glad you liked Utah!!! The more of the USA I see, the more I think: damn, Utah is great. Low crime, low cost of living, beautiful mountains and awfully nice people…. I think it’s one of the most equal states with one of the lowest rich/poor divide in the USA

          The roads are a lot better now! Come back to Utah I’ll meet you there, ha! 😀

          • Lani says:

            I’d love to come back to Utah, but I fear it’s too late for me to start over again in the US. It’s tough I’m not sure it’s worth it for this old bird, but we’ll see…expect the unexpected.

            xxoo

  4. Marta says:

    Wow, so detailed! Good job!

    I still think rent in Shanghai is very expensive (and based on what my colleagues who moved to our Shenzhen office tell me, Shenzhen is even more!), but LA is crazy! Still, it seems salaries are way higher in the States than in Spain. I don’t think any of my friends back home make 30,000 USD a year… (they are not engineers or sales managers, though. I guess they make more than that).

    BTW, cocktails in Shanghai for 60-70 rmb? Where?? The last time I went to have cocktails with a friend it was more like 90-100 rmb (in a fancy second floor bar, close to Kiitos I think, can’t remember the name). But at least there are a lot of ladies nights. Anyway, I don’t really like drinking so I don’t spend much money on alcohol xD

    Now with the currency exchange between RMB and EUR I get the feeling that many groceries and daily use products are more expensive than in Spain too. But anyway, I am saving a lot!

    • rubymary says:
      Profile photo of rubymary

      Shenzhen is more than Shanghai!? Daaaaaaaayum.

      Wow I had no idea that salaries in Europe were so low!! I’m sure it’s a lot cheaper to live there compared to the USA, though (with lower rent and no need for a car) but that’s still pretty harsh. Still, Europe is definitely more expensive than China when it comes to food and transportation.

      Somewhere I read the average salary in the US was 50k/year, but I think that’s not true–it really depends on your major. Engineers and programmers can make up 70k right out of undergrad. Liberal Arts majors like myself make squat, usually around the 35k range for big cities (but living in NYC or LA on 35k is basically poverty level). In my home state of Utah, I think 28-30k would be the average salary for a liberal art undergrad, but it’s more survivable with lower cost of living (rent in Utah is about 500-800/month, so comparable with Shanghai).

      WOW are cocktails 100 rmb now!? Or maybe I was just a cheap ass and never went to a bar nice enough to buy 100 RMB cocktails haha. My go to bar was a little place called “Chalet” on Yongjia lu. Super cheap. Kartel (near Julu lu) was also a pretty good steal. I don’t think Constellation (the trendy Japanese-style bar) in Shanghai even has 100 RMB and their cocktails were amazing.

      I’m sure Spain is more expensive than China–but you have such nice weather and great air! And tapas! And siestas! You can’t measure that in money, haha

      • Marta says:

        Uhm, I think the one I went was similar to Constellation! I bet prices are more or less the same xD

        I don’t think the low salaries is a Europe thing, more like a Spain thing (and I guess also Portugal, Greece and maybe Italy). The crisis has been the perfect excuse to pay peanuts. Look, when I started my previous job in Spain, I was getting 1,200 euros a month, but that was just because I speak Chinese. One of my colleagues, with 2 degrees and a masters, was getting barely 1,000. And my brother, civil engineer with a masters in renewable energies, I think he also got less than 1,000 when he started his job… And then politicians say things like “Young Spaniards are leaving the country because they want to experience adventures” and we feel like skinning them alive.

        (Well, I left Spain because I wanted to, but many people left because they felt underpaid and undervalued, and it is totally understandable).

        • rubymary says:
          Profile photo of rubymary

          OMG!!! 1000 euros a month!?!? That’s crazyyyyyy!!!! That’s highway robbery! No wonder there are so many Spanish (and Italians) in Shanghai! (just kidding).

          I have to say, I am a little jealous that you got a pay raise for speaking Chinese! In China my language skills were highly valued, but no one in America really cares that I speak these languages. It doesn’t boost my resume (or pay) at all and it’s very depressing.

          Well I hope you’re doing better in China, Marta! But you’ve been there for seven years (and counting! …as your blog says) so I think you quite like it there. TBH, I’m always a footstep away from jetting back to China. I miss it a lot.

  5. yueni says:

    Despite having lived in China previously (on my 1700 RMB/month stipend, free room & board the first year), this breakdown seriously puts things into perspective, doesn’t it?

    =X It’s really helping me right now on this thing that I’m working on. *fingers crossed* Seriously. Your post couldn’t have come at a better time.

    • rubymary says:
      Profile photo of rubymary

      Yeah, China *is* cheaper but cities like Shanghai can be expensive. I also think it depends on what kind of lifestyle you like–if you value having a big house, a car, and your private space then Shanghai would be a nightmare. Crowded subways, cramped apartments and people in your face all the time… yeah, totally different from America (except NYC, maybe).

      Hats off to you for living on 1700 RMB/month. I always went over my budget!

      I can’t wait to hear your plans yueni! When they come to fruition please give me an update, you’re killin me here!

      • yueni says:

        =P If it makes you feel any better, I’ll start (am starting?) a blog.

        I didn’t always keep to my budget (I supplemented it with teaching English on the side after the first couple months).

        Hope you’re having a real Thanksgiving with turkey and all the trimmings!

  6. Jason says:

    I think a more accurate method of comparing the cost of living between different cities would be to take the various categories of expenses and convert them into a percentage of one’s income.

    As an example, going by what you’ve written under the average salary section:
    a) Average salary in Shanghai per month – 110,000 RMB / 12 months = 9166.667 RMB
    vs
    b) Average salary in LA per month – 35,000 USD / 12 months = 2916.667 USD

    Now, if we compare the biggest expense (rent) using your figures:
    a) Shanghai one room rent per month as % of income – 5000 / 9166.67 = 54.545%
    vs
    b) LA one room rent per month as % of income – 1500 / 2916.67 = 51.428%

    We can see that rental is technically slightly cheaper in LA than Shanghai. Of course, that doesn’t really matter when the food, and transport bill in particular, simply eats up what little savings you’ve made.

    But my point is; try not to convert between different currencies as that can give a very skewed perspective, due to the exchange rate factor, and is one of the easiest traps to fall into when doing cost of living comparisons imo.

    P.S. Just discovered your blog through a link from a friend and it’s an excellent read, especially for someone who’s about to head to Japan soon for the first time – thanks!

    • rubymary says:
      Profile photo of rubymary

      Hi Jason! Thank you very much for the tip!

      I never thought about converting it into percentage… When you put it that way, it’s kind of alarming to see that rent in Shanghai takes up more of your income! To be fair, though, I did go out on a limb with that price. I just talked to a friend in Shanghai that lives downtown for 2,500 RMB/month (383 USD), which is EXTREMELY unheard of, but still, possible. In LA I couldn’t live in a shed for 300 USD/month.

      I know that my calculations aren’t perfect, but I just wanted to convey the message to readers of just how much it costs to live in each country while earning in each respective country’s currency. There are so many factors that could change how far your money goes (i.e., going out to drink every night or renting out an expensive flat vs. having a roommate), so perspective is key.

      Anyway, thank you so much for your comment! Next time I do a price compare I’ll keep your advice in mind.

      Let me know if you have any Japan questions! I’m happy to help.

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