What Do the Chinese Spend Money On?
Four years ago I wrote about some money habits of Chinese people. Most notably I said that Chinese people have a very high savings rate. Some readers have asked me what Chinese people are saving for. Recently I just made another trip to China, and I would like to share some of my observations on the subject of how Chinese people spend their money currently.
First of all, I should clarify that I am writing from the point of view of a upper-middle-class urban Chinese family that makes around $1,000 to $2,000 a month. There are many extremely wealthy Chinese people, and there are countless Chinese people who are much poorer. Their spending habits may be vastly different. (See also: How Your Last Name Affects Your Spending Habits)
Housing prices have zoomed out of control in the last decade, and the government has made efforts to cool the market. Prices have come down since 2009, but most young people still are not able to afford a house without help. In my hometown of Yangzhou, apartments are selling for about 400 to 600 yuan per square foot. This means it would take an upper middle class family eight to ten years of savings to buy an 1,000 square foot apartment in cash in Yangzhou. In larger cities like Shanghai, apartments generally cost over 1,000 yuan per square foot, so it is much harder to pay cash.
Those who take a mortgage in China are called "fangnu," which means house slave. Another slang for mortgagees is "woniu," which means snail, because they are weighed down by their shelter. These people generally are extremely frugal with everything in their lives, but they spend a large percentage of their income on their mortgages. Additionally, mortgages are all adjustable in China, and the government can raise or lower the rates at will. So when people can pay cash they will do it because they just don't like the uncertainty. Upper-middle-class families generally try to provide housing for their sons once they get married, and including a new condo as a wedding gift pushes the cost of some weddings into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Chinese public schools are not free through the 12th grade. Parents usually have to start paying for high school, or if they want to go out of their predefined district they can do so by paying. When it comes to college, many upper-middle-class parents prefer to send their children abroad because they believe foreign colleges provide a more solid education. Additionally, there are many college students without jobs now in China, so a foreign degree gives a person an extra edge in the job search. Some parents actually sell their houses to fund these international students, but others simply pony up decades of savings. There are student loans in China, but they are very rare, so most people pay for college with cash.
Cars are very expensive in China if you consider the initial cost and the cost of upkeep. First of all, all imported cars cost two to three times the list price in America due to taxes and other markups. So a car that is about $30,000 new in America can cost $60,000 to $90,000. That makes a car almost as expensive as an apartment. There are cheaper, China-manufactured alternatives to import cars, but Chinese people prefer to buy import Audis and BMWs because they say that the quality of the cars made in China isn't as good. Since they're spending such a big chunk of money, they would rather buy something nice. In addition to the initial cost of the car, there are steep costs for car registration in some cities to help curb congestion. In Shanghai it costs on average $10,000 to just register a new car, and registration is done by a monthly lottery. After you get the car and start driving, you will find that practically all the highways have a toll of around 10 cents per kilometer (16 cents per mile). Even with these costs, more and more cars are getting on the road.
The common thread that I saw in China is that Chinese people are still very frugal in their daily lives, but many people are saving up for that one big thing. Another notable thing is that Chinese parents pour everything they have into their children even after their children are adults. Ultimately, Chinese and Americans all want to live better lives, but the difference is that most Chinese people don't reach that higher standard of living on borrowed money. Sometimes I don't know if the Chinese method is smart or naive, because it seems that so many Americans get what they want without saving for years, and it is not that hard to get rid of debt through legal maneuvers.
What do you think? Is it silly to save for purchases in your life when you can just finance everything?