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Chinese Yuan | © faungg's photos/Flickr
Chinese Yuan | © faungg's photos/Flickr
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A Budget Guide to Living in Beijing

Picture of Jim Boyce
Updated: 17 February 2017
Beijing can be an incredibly expensive place to live, particularly when it comes to rent. A Global Cities Business Alliance study last year ranked it last in terms of wages versus affordable housing. Here are four ways to stretch your renminbi in China’s capital.
Beijing can be expensive but there are ways to stretch your renminbi. | © James Whatley / Flickr
Beijing’s skyrocketing cost of living means being smarter about spending. | © James Whatley / Flickr

Live cheaper

City center housing is prohibitively expensive, with one-bedroom units starting at about US$1,000 and often doubling in popular areas such as Sanlitun and Workers Stadium. Living further away, in areas such as Tongzhou, will likely mean more commuting time and fewer amenities, but a far lower rent, typically below 4,000 renminbi (US$585) for that one-bedroom unit. Many people also find more value living in the hutongs, the narrow alleyways that define Beijing, or by sharing a place and paying several thousand renminbi per month for a room.

Travel cheaper

A car is an expensive and time-consuming proposition in Beijing, given everything from the scarcity of parking spaces to the countless traffic jams. Taxis are an option, priced from a reasonable 12 renminbi (US$1.7), but there are even cheaper ways to go. Subway rides start at 2 renminbi (US$0.30) on a system that already has 550 km of tracks and is set to grow further. Bicycles and scooters are inexpensive, although the risk of theft is relatively high, and there is always the potential for accidents; the budget-conscious can also get to know the bus routes. With a little research, you can get around the city cheaply and easily.

The subway is cheap and has 550 km of options. | © Akuppa John Wigham / Flickr
The subway starts at 2 renminbi and has 550 km of options. | © Akuppa John Wigham / Flickr

Eat cheaper

Those with a penchant for imported cheeses, choice cuts of beef, and rare single malts will no doubt find Beijing expensive. But cheaper fare is not hard to find. Local restaurants offer delicious good-value food: ask friends for recommendations or check out venues that are busy. A quick snack of jianbing, a large pancake coupled with egg and sauces, sprinkled with pickled vegetables and scallions, and wrapped around a crispy fried cracker, costs less than a dollar on the street. Wet markets are ubiquitous in Beijing and provide cheap vegetables and fruits, while neighborhood supermarkets can supply dry goods such as noodles and rice to allow for home cooking. When hankering for Western food and drink, check out the ubiquitous happy hours found throughout town and the many restaurants with weekday half-price deals on everything from burgers and burritos to pizzas and steaks.

Relax cheaper

You can easily spend a great deal of cash drinking 100 renminbi (US$15) martinis and going out to the poshest restaurants. For those on a budget, decent imported wine is available from 50 renminbi (US$7) at the many Jenny Lou’s and April Gourmet venues in the city, while the truly hard up can get a bottle of baijiu—China’s potent national spirit—for less than a dollar. An afternoon spent drinking local beer, eating kebabs, and chatting is relatively cheap. And there are plenty of ways to relax for free, whether by visiting art districts such as 798, wandering through the old alleyways (hutongs) in search of something new, or enjoying the parks and all of the people-watching opportunities they afford, whether it be senior citizens with their pet birds, groups doing tai-chi, or kite fanatics weaving their creations through the sky.

There is plenty of fun places to visit for free in Beijing. | © drnan tu / Flickr
The 798 Art Districts is good for an afternoon of free fun. | © drnan tu / Flickr