What Living in China Taught Me About Money

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It’s always a big change when you move to another country, especially when you head off to the developing world. I lived abroad in China for six years, and that period of my life opened my eyes up to a very different way of life and culture around money and finances.

Here are three lessons I learned that can help you revamp your relationship with money and save, no matter where you live.

Save, Save, Save

China is renowned for its personal saving rate, which is the highest in the world. Chinese households save between 34-53% of their income, while Americans save 2%.

The main reason for the high savings rate is not cultural, although that is part of it. Chinese people don’t like to carry debt, and often make large purchases such as cars or houses completely in cash. Even nowadays, credit cards are just beginning to become widespread, and cash is king. As a foreigner, I didn’t have access to credit, and lived entirely on a cash budget.

But the bigger reason is structural: China doesn’t have a strong safety net, and people are only a generation or two away from poverty. The shared cultural experience of being a poor, developing country is very strong. Even now, after thirty years of economic growth, there are many people who are still poor. People have also lived through very tumultuous times as China has changed, and the fear of not having enough for the next downturn is pervasive.

Living in China, I was strongly influenced by this attitude. I couldn’t have taken on debt even if I wanted to, and I saved like I was retiring in a few months. I took public transportation, rode my bike, cooked at home, and saved, saved, saved. At one point, I was saving 66% of my salary. While I was making an upper-middle class salary for China, I also worried about not having enough, just in case.

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Do We Really Need Stuff?

In China, I was considered rich for two reasons. I’m Chinese-American from Hong Kong, and the fact that I hold an American passport often had people asking me if my family was rich because we’d had enough to leave. I never quite knew how to answer that question.

The other reason was that I just had a lot of stuff. I had less stuff than my American counterparts, but much, much more compared to my Chinese peers. When I moved out of one apartment and into a new one, my new landlord actually complained that I had too much stuff.

In Beijing, there was one period of time when I lived in an apartment next door to my landlord’s (not the same ones who complained), a middle-class couple with great jobs working at a major Chinese bank and on the 2008 Olympic Committee. When I went to pay my rent, they would invite me into their home. Compared to my stuffed apartment next door, they lived very simple lives. They barely had any furniture. Their large living room held a television and a dining table. That was it.

Between my two landlords, I questioned my own need to have stuff. Do I really need it, or do I just want it? Am I simply being influenced by advertising and cultural messages around consumption? It can be hard to see the signal for the noise when we are bombarded constantly with the message that we need to buy. China was a respite from that constant need to buy.

Wealth is Relative

In the United States, the culture of consumption means that we express ourselves through what we buy and what we wear. Although this attitude is also expanding to China with the rise of the middle class, there are still large parts of China where people simply don’t have the funds to “express themselves” in this way.

When I first started teaching English in the industrial city of Changchun, China, one of the most striking differences was simply my clothing. But not in the way I dressed. Many Chinese people, and particularly my students, didn’t change their clothes constantly the way we do in America. They would wear the same clothes every day. In Changchun, I saw people in only one or two outfits in the entire time I knew them. A memorable moment came when a student told me, “We think you’re rich because you change your clothes every day.”

That’s a moment I often think about now in the United States. Even now, after an economic downturn, Americans are in the global 1%. What is true wealth? I don’t believe it lies in being able to wear a new outfit every day. What I appreciate now about living in a developed country is very different from before I left. No wonder my Chinese counterparts thought I was rich just because I was American: it feels like a privilege to live in a place we can take for granted clean running water, blue skies, and the rule of law.

However, returning to the U.S. also meant returning to a way of life centered around consumerism. Having experienced a very different way of life, I find it hard to tap into our cultural narrative of needing to consume.

What about you? Have you experienced another way of thinking about money? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Image Credit steveritchie

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  • Judith Rudge

    Anazing blogpost. I mean really. Thank you for sharing this 🙂

    • Fiona Lee

      Thank you!

  • Lisa Kovac

    Fascinating, thanks for sharing!

    • Fiona Lee

      Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed it!

  • Claire Murdough

    I love this post Fiona! Great insight.

    • Fiona Lee

      Thanks! I’d love to hear your thoughts on this too since you also lived in Beijing. 🙂

  • Kerri

    Actually, I live in China, too, and I definitely agree with the mentality of the people who are poor. However, I work with and have friends who are all middle class or rich Chinese. They do “save,” but it is a façade, as well. There are Chinese making a maybe 30,000 USD a year buying homes in Beijing for 500,000 USD. They go way into debt. Also, they buy cars and go into debt, too. However, like many Americans, they don’t count this debt. Credit cards are not the only debt. If you have a mortgage, guess what? You are in the 0 balance until you pay that baby off. While they often borrow money from family, they also borrow from banks to buy such goods. I also know of parents selling their homes completely to help pay for the home of their children. Thus, in the end, many people do not even hold onto something they own. I am against buying property anyway, but it just seems they pass the load around. I’ve found that I actually end up saving more from my American culture than they do because I am not under the pressure from family to buy a house, buy a car, etc. etc. as a status symbol.
    Also, I work for a Chinese business, and Chinese businesses are overrun with fraud and Enron-like practices. You’re right. It is only a matter of time before they can fall and be poverty stricken. So now they just take the fraud money here and invest in the US to build their nest egg.
    So in the end, I would say that it is the poor that are the most admirable in terms of money.

    • Fiona Lee

      Yes, agree completely with your points, especially regarding the mortgages and the insane cost of real estate. The culture of rich and middle-class Chinese is quite different from the poor in China, especially as there is more of an emphasis nowadays on consumerism.

      Having said that, the US is a world leader in consumption culture–you might not have the pressure to buy a house or a car, but there are other pressures to spend when you’re a consumer first, a citizen second.

  • Wow! I never really thought of it this way. In all honesty, I grew up money poor and material middle-class. This was because my grandmother was/is a hoarder and my family has always followed suit. So, they’d spend all their money on getting “stuff” but all it did was sit around and collect dust.

    My husband and I are different but we still fall into the “keeping up with the Jones'” trap. I know there are many cultures overseas that have developed similar relationships with money (save, save, save) but it’s difficult for any American to admit when they have that type of relationship with money.

    I wonder… how does one break from the stigma of being “cheap” if they are not spending loads of money on stuff?

    • Fiona Lee

      It depends on individual people, of course, but a lot of folks are proud of being frugal and brag about it. And sometimes there isn’t a lot of choice in that: I’d have conversations with elderly ladies at the market who were upset when the price of lettuce doubled in price from 1 RMB to 2 RMB (at the time in 2011, that was a difference from about 12 cents to about 25 cents). Up until very recently, the average Chinese salary PER YEAR was about 100USD.

      It also used to be that there are also other ways of “showing status” rather than buying stuff: investing in your kids’ education and holding banquets come to mind. On the other hand, there’s a reason that fakes are so popular in China–all of the status without the spend.

      I will say that to Kerri’s point below, all of this is changing very rapidly, especially in major cities like Beijing and Shanghai. But there are plenty of people still who aren’t living the middle-class lifestyle (the Chinese Dream) that is getting so much press nowadays.

  • W Stephen Long

    excellent insight and interesting point of view. I tend to agree with your opinions as an American continuing my journey here in Beijing.

    • Fiona Lee

      Thanks Stephen! Would love to hear your own experiences too–I’m sure things have changed a lot since I left in 2011.

  • David A Hofer

    You guys are all on to it, you deserve a round of applause!
    You are actually doing the one thing so few do – you are reflecting on your behaviour. You have taken control. You appreciate you are not an automaton.
    And that is THE way to step over the trap of unnecessary or excessive consumption (in all its guises) and the false happiness it provides.
    p.s. This was not an over night learning for me – it has taken years! Lol.

  • Kamau Eversograteful Akinlabi

    Awesome article and observations. I too have lived out of the country and watching the way of others outside of the country allows you be more grateful and more aware of wastefulness. It really doesn’t matter how much you save, but get and stay in the habit of saving. Thanks for the story!

    • Glad you liked the article! Thanks for stopping by to comment.

  • Anton Nguyen

    I totally feel you on this! I a Vietnamese-American living in Viet Nam right now and also teaching English. I have the EXACT same thoughts! I won’t be returning home until after Tet, but I hope to bring the same attitude you did about consumerism.

    Great post!