It happens like this: you’re scrolling through your WeChat moments and see that your friend just posted a fancy arrangement of three kinds of sashimi on a beautiful wood board complete with dry ice smoke effects in the background. Keep scrolling down and you see that your other friend posted a selfie with the newest Versace bag slung over her exposed left shoulder. Then you scramble through your photos looking for something cool to post but give up when the coolest thing you did this week was bought a beer at the convenience store and drank it on your couch.
Ah, the life of a twenty-something in China: constantly spending to one-up the competition. Where does it stop? How do we stop it? In a country where the youth of large cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, or Guangzhou can only afford to rent a small room with five other roommates, why is there still such a “spend liberally” philosophy dangling over their heads?
Let me explain a concept called “face” (mianzi) in China. It’s quite simple: it is essentially taking measures to build up and preserve a certain social standing among people and to show off whatever you can to outwardly convince people you are a person of some worth. A kind of Chinese version of keeping up with the Joneses.
This can explain a large part of the phenomenon where fresh college grads who make on average 4000 RMB ($594 US) per month and spend about half that on a room in a shared apartment will go out to a trendy restaurant, order a lot of photogenic food at a high price, snap lots of photos and go out for drinks afterwards. And this may be done more than once a week, every week.
The sad thing is, if you want to be in with the in-crowd, if you want “face”, you must be willing to spend.
This also goes beyond merely face and competition. If you’re a young single guy looking for love, you have to be willing to spend a lot on designer clothes, accessories and maybe even purchase a car (a luxury brand is best). Some girls won’t even date a guy who can’t afford to buy them expensive stuff.
And for girls? With the job market being fiercely competitive, they need a quick way to stand out from the sea of applicants all vying for jobs. The simplest way? Pay a few thousand RMB to go under the knife.
Pretty now? Boom. Job.
Thankfully, as a foreigner, I get somewhat of a pass. There isn’t really an expectation for me to go out, and when I am invited to dinner with Chinese colleagues (who are older than me) they are usually the ones footing the bill for me.
Still, I do experience similar kinds of pressure as well. If I want to hang out with Chinese friends, I would have to undergo the same rites of passage: following them to a trendy restaurant and paying for my share, then going out for drinks at some overpriced bar or club, all the while wearing nice, expensive clothing.
When I’m with my other expat friends, there are similar pressures as well. The view of expats over here are of people who just go to bars and get drunk. And that’s the gist of what happens. I’ve felt the pressure, in order to get more acquainted with the expat crowd, to go out and blow money on alcohol to have a jolly rockin’ time.
As a guy who really loves to save and thinks spending is a necessary evil, I’ve needed to find ways to not give in to such pressures and keep my bank account from starving.
It’s not worth it to crack the expat bar scene
Over the years I’ve developed a group of friends that doesn’t need to go out to the bar every night and drink ourselves under the table. You quickly learn that the expats at the bars are going to be a detriment to your social life and your wallet, and that the turnover rate is high. You’ll realize that hanging out with these kinds of people excessively will quickly take a toll on your wallet, and that friendships with them are fleeting.
Stick to a solid group of friends that likes to go out occasionally but doesn’t do it constantly, and try to find other ways to have fun and relieve stress. There are countless other ways to have fun that don’t feel like you’re drinking your hard-earned money away.
Don’t obsess over social media
Seeing all the amazing pictures of food and travel your WeChat friends are posting in their moments can lead to all kinds of jealousy. Yes, we all want to be like Susan who posts photos of mouthwatering sushi platters seemingly every night, but at this stage we definitely cannot afford to be doing the same thing.
Try your best not to scroll through social media and focus on what you can do for yourself, not what you can do to try and impress or keep up with other people. They have their own lives, and they have their own money and they can decide what to do with it. Our goal here is to save as much as possible by knowing what is really worth spending money on, and what is worth stashing into an investing account which will pay off later. After all, when we’re rich, sushi will still be there. But the time we should have spent saving and making money will be long gone.
Try cooking at home
Food in Asia is incredible, I know! I’m guilty of releasing my inner foodie and going out every night to try new things or just enjoy my go-to tasty meals. And it can be so hard to stop when most things are so cheap!
However, I know in the long run I’ll be doing a disservice to both my wallet and my health, and that I’m better off buying groceries and cooking food at home. I may not be the greatest cook, but at least I’m a decent financial analyst.
Set aside a small budget for entertainment
It may be tempting to party it up on the weekend because the nightlife is likely more extravagant than what we experienced back in our smaller, quieter hometowns. However, it can be dangerous when you begin to spend frivolously and ignore the budget for even just one night.
Going out for fun is an inevitability, so the best thing to do is to plan for it. Set aside a small amount of money each month for those nights you may regret the next morning.
A simple rule for an entertainment budget is that it should be 5-10% of your after-tax income. Say you make 10000 RMB per month. Your entertainment budget should then be anywhere from 500-1000 RMB per month. Since I normally only have one or two bar nights a month, my budget is on the lower end, but if you like to go out a lot, have it on the higher end. Do whatever suits your current lifestyle.
Separate wants and needs
The simplicity and convenience of purchasing things online or directly on our phones can lead to excess consumption that doesn’t really benefit us in the long run. It may be tempting and extremely easy to buy an entire set of Marvel superhero bobbleheads by pressing one button on your iPhone, but that doesn’t mean we should do it.
Since technology has made spending money so much easier, it is imperative nowadays to learn the difference between wants and needs. I’ve been there, and I can absolutely tell you that many things may feel like needs. But once we realize that most little things in life are actually wants, our ability to save money for the big things in life we really want, like a tour of Northern Europe or a down payment on a family home, becomes that much greater.
Pressures are nothing you can’t overcome by making a few lifestyle changes. After all, what you are doing is making small sacrifices now so you can reap the benefits of a huge payoff later. And if you can do it in high stress hustle-and-bustle Asia, then hell, you can probably do it anywhere. Best of luck!