Life in New York is Tough for Me

The life in New York is tough for me. For a visitor who earns money in China (with RMB) and spend USD in New York, it is not easy. Everything seems expensive – very expensive. To get a place to settle down and to have enough food is challenge. I experienced the tough life a new comer to that city. Although I have the option to enjoy luxious trip, but I want to experience the real life of New York so we decided to cut budget as much as possible to see how much we have to spend in that city.

Shanghai is More Expensive than New York

According to a survey by CNN, if the living cost in the city of New York is a starting point with an index of 100, Shanghai is 136. I have all kinds of evidence to show you it is not true. My guess for Shanghai index should be around 20 if New York is 100.

Food is Expensive

In New York, typical dishes are among 4 – 10 USD and we spend about 20 USD very meal in Chinese restaurant. Even in McDonald’s, I have to spend 10 – 14 USD per meal. What does it mean? It is 100 – 160 RMB. This is much more expensive than the most expensive everyday meal in Shanghai. In Shanghai, 50 RMB per person in a meal is rated as good meal already and 100 RMB per person means very expensive (and often good) meal.

In McDonald’s, a No 1 Meal Suite (a big Mac, fried potato and Pepsi) cost 5.99 USD in New York while in Shanghai, it costs only 19 RMB (a little bit more than 2 USD). Additional, the price in New York does not include tax while all price in China is final with everything included. Some times the tip I pay is more than a meal I pay in China.


I won’t complain about Shanghai Metro or Bus again. Bus or Subway in New York costs 2 USD, while in Shanghai, bus costs 1 – 2 RMB (0.12 – 0.24 USD) and typical Metro ride costs 3 – 4 RMB (0.36 – 0.48 USD).


We stayed in hotels in Washington, D.C and Boston, but not in New York. We stayed in friends and relative’s house in Flushing and New Rochelle. The cheapest hotel (reasonable) I found is Hayden Hotel which costs 99 USD plus tax. I searched Shanghai Hotel in Expedia and found the hotels in Shanghai seem more expensive. Maybe the reason is, the hotels in Shanghai are always full so they don’t offer discount.


I am not willing to buy gifts in New York, especially those clothes made in China. They are much more expensive than those in China. I bought 4 T-Shirt with “I Love New York” logo at 12 USD. They are the only gift we bought.

I am the Poor in New York

I am the poor in New York. I faced the challenges I never met in Shanghai – how to take buses to save money? Where is the cheapest restaurant? Where should we stay tomorrow?

39 thoughts on “Life in New York is Tough for Me

  1. Mr. Wang,

    You can buy Pepsi from Macdonald? That is astonishing! Looks like the cartel is dismentled.

    For any revolving vistors to any city, you always find the price are unbearable due to unaccustomed to the city, should you visit New York next time, I am sure you know your ways around. I can buy lunch box from Canel Street Chinatown which is good for two meals for $3.


  2. Usually those cost-of-living indexes for expats like the one you link to at CNN, measure the cost of living in the foreign country with 100% of the comforts that one would have in America. For example, when I lived in Shanghai as an expat a few years back, foreigners had to live in those special housing areas… We lived in a 1000 sq ft house for US$5000 a month (paid by the company that sent us there)… In the US, we had lived in a 2000 sq ft home which would probably rent for about US$ 1500… so by the standards of that CNN survey, we were paying 3 times as much, for a major step down in “quality of life” (not really).

    Similarly, if you try to buy groceries only at American-like supermarkets (does the Wellcome at Shanghai Centre still exist?), and not at the Chinese markets, things could get pretty expensive. And if you would only buy foreign brand name clothes and other products, that was pretty expensive too at the time.

    Also, since Americans have a car in the US, cost of living in China probably includes a car and English-speaking driver, which, at the time, I think cars had a 100% or more gov’t markup over what they cost in the US. Sure, you could get around by taxi really cheaply, but theoretically that would be a reduction in quality of life.

    I think my family managed to save up a pretty good amount of money because we were compensated by the company as if we were living at “American standards” with all the trimmings when it wasn’t hard to live cheaply, and effectively, equally as well.

  3. Oh, I didn’t notice that that survey was from 1997… which was when I was in Shanghai… so yeah, all those things I mention are exactly why the 136:100 Shanghai to New York ratio exists… you’re very right; in reality 20:100 is not at all unreasonable for everything except for housing for foreigners (which is probably by far the biggest cost of living factor).

  4. I got the same feeling the first day I got to Boston. Everything look unaffordable for me. I lived in a dorm room which is only 2.5m x 3m, they fit a twin-size bed, a desk and a chair into it, and it costs me $450 a month. It is said to be heavily subsidized by the university. My first week in US., I lived with couple tongyi noodle I brought with me (thank god i brought some) and some bagels until I got access to a supermarket. I bought so much food in one time, things like milk, bread and veges. I was really scared that I would have nothing to eat if I didn’t do it. But when got out of the store, I found it impossible for me to take all the stuff home by hand. In the end I called a cab which costed me 5 bucks for a 5 minute drive. The driver treated me rudely which later I realized I should gave him enough tip.

    Is the american expense really that unaffordable? To answer this question, you might want to know some basic knowledge. American people earn approx. 8 times than the chinese people, but they only pay 2 to 3 times higher in living necessities (eg. food, clothes). So it’s really unfair to say the cnn survey is fraud at all. The reason makes american goods unaffordable to us is because the difference in GDP. We had weaker RMB, lower labor cost and low cost in turn. We might find it hard to consume in most of the developed countries like America, but we can enjoy really great services domestically with lower cost. Plus, country like america often finds it hard to conquer the bigger trade deficit.

    Just a little comment.

  5. People there in NYC told me renting an appartment is around 3-4k/month in downtown, so most of the people commute everyday more than 1 hour in the subway to avoid spending your lion part of your income on housing.

    I lived in Zurich, the difference between NYC and Zurich is that in Zurich, you have no other cheaper alternative for food, movie and housing: eating Chinese food is only one price in SuangLong(double dragons, one Chinese takeaway chain shop) from the prestigious Bahnhofstrasse to exotic Langstrasse, 20 Swiss(15 Euro) for one disk of “chicken chow mein”. So, JianShou, you should feel lucky if you were living in NYC, you still “can buy lunch box from Canel Street Chinatown which is good for two meals for $3.”, hehe…

  6. I live in Minneapolis, Minnesota USA. I have been reading your weblog for almost one year now and I really enjoy it. Your comments and observations about your recent visit to US have been very interesting to me. I have visited your lovely city Shanghai several times and always enjoy being there.

    My company has invited a business associate to visit us in Minneapolis for two weeks.

    He is from Shanghai and is also 27 years old like yourself. I do not think he has ever visited any other place except maybe Hong Kong. I was wondering if you can offer any advice for my visitor. He does not need to worry about hotel or transportation because my company will take care of everything. But do you have any general advice for someone who will visit US for first time? What personal items should he be sure to bring? I understand you must be very busy after your long trip and I appreciate your kind consideration to my inquiry.

    I would like to wish you and Wendy a very happy New Year!

    Best regards,


  7. Shanghai is far far cheaper to live than New York or Hong Kong (having lived in both cities for a while). In fact I find the quality of living and lifestyle to be quite high. Of course there are certain frustrations and drawbacks you have to accept with China being a developing country. But once you have the right mind set, Shanghai can be a very livable place.

  8. Jianshuo, simply comparing absolute prices does not make much sense. At least I would not say food is expensive in the States compared to average incomes of American people. Even a graduate student makes $1000+ as RA or TA per month usually, way more than those in China, let alone full-time employees. If not dining out at luxury restaurants everyday, food should not be a concern at all for most of the people with stable income in the States. As for prices charged by restaurants/fast food chains, they just cannot be as low as RMB prices/8 considering the much more expensive labor/rent/utilities/other costs.

    There is definitely no need for you to worry that “you are the poor in NYC”. Do not judge everything from the perspective of short-time visitors from poor countries. I’m sure you are among at least the top 2-3% of Chinese people income-wise. You would be in the same good shape if you live in the States.

    BTW, I was surprised that you had to spend $10-14 for two in McDonald’s. Maybe NYC’s McDonald’s did not have the 99c value menu. :)

  9. It’s very hard to compare NYC with Shanghai. You can find inexpensive amenities in both cities. If you consider looking for those family hotels in Flushing, they are very cheap.

    But if you are not familiar with the place, you won’t be able to find those inexpensive accomodations, $100 per night would be normal fare, as it appears to any non-locals. In general, I think NYC is more expensive than Shanghai. Just look at the Manhattan real estate prices, a normal high rise condos in okay neighborhood could run as high as $1-1.5 million per unit. Shanghai is far far behind this curve. So, things in NYC is supposed to be more expensive than that in Shanghai. But amazingly, one could manage to live in NYC on a Shanghai budget. This person must have lived in NYC for a while and knows the in and out of those cheap places, especially in Chinatown or Flushing.

  10. If you consider average weekly salary in manhattan is almost $1900 according to latest AM New York, not to mention OUTRAGEOUS bonus, a $20 meal is NOT very expensive. Cheap meals in chinatown just cost nothing. :-)

  11. I think mean $190K annual pay. Yes, the average pay per capita in NY is way way higher than that in Shanghai. Things are supposed to be expensive. The most noticable sticker shock would be apartment/condo pricing. It’s hard to find a nice apartment under $1 million USD there. To a NYker making the above mentioned pay,

    $20 a meal is probably nothing.

  12. Mr. Wang,

    I enjoy to read your blog. It is plain and directly from what you experienced. So many responders to your email and I echo their thought, feelings and practical experiences.

    CNN survey, actually I would say that most survey or poll are not convincing or flatly incorrect. Cost of living standard index comparison should be based on an apple for an apple. They should use more specific data to compare. You always can find inexpensive hotel with 3 star rating from internet, particularly if you have almost any kind of membership.

    With American living standard, and the average income, the food, I believe, is the almost the cheapest. Both quality and quantity are worth the money I have paid for. We went to Macdonald, Burger King perodically and always with a coupon which I havn’t notice that stuff in Shanghai. With coupon, a big Mac cost just 99 cents. A couple ordered 2 big MaCs and Add a regular french fry would cost less than $3.75 for two. If get rid of French fry, it si a little over 2 bucks. if you feel thirsty, drinkable water is free. What a deal! If you travel to Europe, you will realizes everything is extremely expensive. Just for a fast food restaurant like MacDonald, you have to pay a lot more. They even charge catchup sauce for your fries. Shanghai has variety of food, from expensive to inexpensive. I do enjoy to taste different category of food. I found that the quality is quite variable. The quantity of food is often insufficient, served with a small plate.

    Shopping is really a pleasure when you know where and when to go. All brand names are on sale at least several times a year, particularly after major Holidays and change of Seasons. The most fun part of shopping is that I have no fear to buy. If I don’t like it I could return it with a receipt for cash or even without for a future credit. Mechandise return is almost impossible in Asia, including China. For lodging, I always found a reasonable rate almost in every city. I like hotwire quite often. The only iffy is that you don’t know which hotel you will go to, but it is close to what you requests. Try it. You may like it. Hope that your trip in US is rewarding and fruitful.


  13. I’m from china I don’t agree that’ My guess for Shanghai index should be around 20 if New York is 100.’ Think about the income different that USA AND CHINA.

  14. Dong fei, I am comparing the absolute price. Please note that I am observing the life as a traveler. No relative cost-of-living was involved. The living-cost index is the absolute value since there is no way to count the relative cost because everyone’s income is different even in the same city..

  15. 2004 rankings are here:

    It depends on what the cost-of-living index is taking into account. Most are from the perspective of a Westerner considering how much one would spend if one lived elsewhere- meaning cars, upscale housing, etc are all important factors.

    London is ranked #2 this year but I lived there as a student and spent relatively little money.

    Depends on the lifestyle and it’s always easier to spend less money as a local.

  16. I agree with someone who said that comparing with the ABSOLUTE price is wrong, which means that you can not convert the merchandise price by the foreign exchange rate, here, multify by 8.25 for RMB.

    I live in New York City and commute by subway to work everyday. I also quite often travel to Shanghai for business trip. Our company has a small representative office in SH.

    If you think the salaries in the number amount (not value) in both Shanghai and New York, they are so similar in terms of the average salary. (Forget about those rich people in this fantasitic City).

    Average Salary is abut $4000-5000 (new York) and RMB 4000-5000 (shanghai). Is that OK?

    Let’s do a quick math:

    New York City ($) ;;; Shanghai (RMB)

    Subway 2 ;;; 3-5

    (anywhere, and transfer to bus free within 2 hrs in NYC, also monthly pass is $70, weekly pass $21, one day pass $7 will raise to $76 after in feb 2005. No such benefit for the regular commuter in Shanghai.)

    Food for 2 25-35 ;;; 80-150

    (For food, I mean the regular restrurants in the city, not fancy, but nice food, same compariosn in SH)

    McDonald’s 6.5 ;;; 19

    (a big Mac, fried potato and Pepsi) cost 5.99 USD plus tax (0.08625%) in New York.

    Rental 1500-2500 ;;; 1500-2500

    (based on two bedroom in the normal affordable areas.)

    Clothes 150 ;;; 1000-2000

    (based on leather jacket)

    Shoes 70 ;;; 400-500

    (based on the nice leather shoes for work)

    Apartment 300K-400K ;;; 1000K

    (for two bedroom apts)

    so on and so forth….

    The quesiton really is, do you think it is cheaper to spend on meals for 2, for 30 RMB if you earn 5000 RMB? If so, you will not say that it is TOO expensive in USA.

  17. I definately agree with Xinyu’s comments.

    You can’t compare two cities based on Absolute Price because you were a tourist in New York. It’s also ridiculous to reach the conclusion that CNN’s survey is wrong based on all your Absolute Price comparision between Shanghai and New York.

    You should know: No one lives in New York got his or her paychecks from Shanghai in RMB.


    I lived in Shanghai for more than 20 years before came to New York 3.5 years ago.

    At the beginning, I had the same feeling as you.

    It’s kind of unafforadable to live in this city because I always multiplied everything by 8. Then the prices were just crazy!

    But when i went back to Shanghai in July 2004, I made the same mistake. I divided the price of everything by 8, then everything became so so so cheap!

    That’s a wrong and confusing way to compare the living expenses of 2 cities.

    Also sometimes you will find something “made in China” in NYC are even cheaper than the same stuff in shanghai (in Absolute Price), especially after the holiday season, everywhere is on Winter Big Sale. eg. I purchased a cashmere sweater from AnnTaylor only for $40 (include 8.625% tax already) after applying all the coupons. But as I know, the same quality cashmere sweater will cost at least 600RMB. (my mom purchase two cashmere for me at Shanghai, both of them cost more than 1000RMB)

    So please don’t be too subjective.

  18. I totally agree with Xinyu too. When I first came to US, I do the math too. RMB = USD *8.

    Not any more. It does not make any sense.

    But there is something i want to mention. Take her example, you make 5000rmb, and i make $5000, . I need to pay same expenses like water, electricity as you do, other than that, house insurance, car insurance, property tax, income tax (federal and state), social security, medicare… a lot more …. while your money is after tax, pure cash…

    Not cheap to live here either.

  19. I found some objection on the view of cost. I just want everyone to note the title of this artile:

    Life in New York is Tough for *Me*

    Did I say it is tough for local New Yorkers? Definitely now. It is much easier than average people in Shanghai.

    Did I say that it will still be tough if I go to U.S. and get pay from New York one day? No. It is the feeling of a first time visitor to the city with Shanghai pay. Do you think the feeling is unreasonable?

    As the goal of this blog, I am more focused on VISITING the Shanghai from U.S. or VISITOR to New York from Shanghai… Visitor’s view is different from the expat’s view, and more different than local resident’s view. Please note the difference.

  20. Hi Guys, I am reading the above comments and I am travelling to New York for the first time and want to get some advise from your experience, such as where to stay (hostel) and what to see, how can I see NY cheaply.


  21. Did anyone factor in the taxes (Federal, State, and City taxes and Social Security) in New York City when doing the cost comparison? What about the 8.65 sales tax? Is there sales tax in Shanghai?

    No way that a two bedroom apartment costs 300-400K in New York. either the poster is quoting a statistics that’s twenty years old or he/she is citing apartment values in the Bronx (SLUM). For any decent housing, it’s about $1000 per square feet. Two bedroom is about average $900K-1.2 M in an average location! And what about those $$$$ maintenance charges in those apartments after you have bought it? Oh, forgot to state the property taxes (State and County).

    Also, let’s not forget the tipping cost (15%) for a meal in New York. Do not ever forget TIPS in New York!

    What about the security cost? Do women feel safe taking the $2 subway late at night in New York? And if not, what do they take? Taxi, which is about average $8 – $12 per trip, plus tip.

    So, please factor these costs in your analysis

  22. In Shanghai, sales tax is included in the price. So no one is really aware of the existence of tax. You just pay whatever labeled on the product.

  23. Shanghai isn’t cheap. I am a former expat in NYC and a current expat in Shanghai (I’m Canadian).

    A night out at a nice restaurant in NYC would be around $20-70USD per person depending on what cuisine you choose.

    In Shanghai, it would cost you about 150RMB ($18 USD) to 500RMB ($60 USD).

    How do I compare this? We ate at Frankie and Johnnie’s steakhouse ( in NYC last week and we all had a glass of wine and desert. The bill came out to be about $70 a person for the best steak you can get in the world. A few days ago, I had steak with a glass of wine (without desert) at Moons (at Xintiandi) and the bill came out to be 400 RMB ($40 USD). The steak wasn’t even aged top grade beef! In NY, I could get whatever type of steak I want… ie ribeye or porterhouse. If you mention porterhouse to the steak places here, they would give you a blank stare!

    The price difference for quality isn’t that big if you want to compare apples to apples. As metioned above in other postings, average salary in NYC is 3000-5000USD. In Shanghai, it is 2000-5000RMB. If I was making USD in NYC, I could afford to eat out more often than if I was making RMB in Shanghai.

  24. Why compare steak, a western food in China? Of course that’s going to run you big bucks. Because you are paying the bulk for a western lifestyle.

    How much would it cost to have a two dishes (meat or vegetable) of Chinese food in New York Chinatown? $10 – $15, and factor in TIPS and Taxes, that’s about $20. Can one get two Chinese dishes for RMB20 in Shanghai? By the way, meat or vegetable cost about the same in New York.

  25. yeah don’t eat out. that’s one way to cut costs. seriously, eating out every meal is pretty stupid. also, if you live new jersey, it’s cheaper that new york, and takes just about as much time to get into the city. buy a subway pass. instead of spending 2 bucks a pop on a ticket, buy a monthly pass for 76.. you ticket is paid for after 36 rides…if you depend on the subway, that’s the only thing that would make sense to do… i mean two rides each time you go out, theoretically.. one there and one back.. 18 trips out. and that’s just straight there and back, that doesn’t include connecting. think before you spend. a buddy and i went to new york and lived there for two days, not knowing anyone, seeing all the sites and everything.. for $80… $40 per person. that’s 20 a day. not bad. all we did was a little homework and ate food we brought ourselves. the price for the food we brought is included. so don’t complain when you can’t manage your spending. just live smart.

  26. Nice to meet you.I’m japanese girl.I’m interesting about USA.China too.

    Next time,I’ll read your blog again.

    See you.

  27. JianShuo, very good description of the difference. I almost have the same feeling when I came to US(and NYC a few times). All those costs are very expensive relatively here and I think that is why all those companies are outsourcing their, mostly backoffice, operation to India. China could be a place to this kind of outsourcing as well given the endless supply of highly-educated people.

    Another interesting thing to notice is that China is hoarding more than 1300B foreign

    reserve right now and RMB is under pressure to appreciate. Let’s see how the economy turns out.

    The subprime related house bubble in US is bursting and I am not sure if that will affect things in Shanghai.

  28. I’ ve been in NY last year, as a tourist.

    I loved it so I’m thinking of living there for some months.

    I’ve been looking for places to stay, I’ll have to share a place of course, ’cause I want to stay in Manhattan.

    Do you have advice for me? Readers of this blog, please mail me and tell me everything you can about it.

    Thank You!!!!!

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  30. Hi i googled ‘life in New York’ as i am trying to find out what it’s like actually living in this great city (i’m thinking of visiting this summer) and i bumped into your blog. It’s a real eye opener and i’m happy to have found it cos i had no idea about any costs besides the cost of my ticket! hehehe.

    I’m a student schooling in Wales but I live in London and i always had the impression that London was buy far the most expensive town to live in most areas. But now that i have seen the cost of housing in New York i’m beginning to change my mind. I live in a flat in Bethnal Green, London and with my mum and she pays about £120/week. That should be about $260. Someons said that housing in Manhattan cost $3,000-$4,000 a year. Is that expensive, average or cheap for New York?? Can someone advice on which part i can stay cheaply for a period of one month or so and still be in a decent part of the city? Thankyou very much.

  31. Hello!

    I came across your blog today and I found it pretty interesting. I live in the U.S. and I enjoyed your ideas of where different cities are located, and you are right in that I do not know that much about China’s cities. I’ve been to Beijing, Nanchang and Guangzhou so I know where they are, but the rest is just confusing. :)

    Do you have any idea of how much money a typical farmer would earn in China? I am doing some reseach and it would be great to have an answer from someone who lives in China.



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