It's way too easy to spend money in China. Everything is cheap, but so is your paycheck.
I've actually found it difficult to wrap my head around the cost of living in China. Some things seem very comparable to what I'd pay back home. Other things are exactly what I'd pay back home... which makes them seem out of proportion in this economy.
Food is pretty cheap. A meal of rice, veggies, meat, and tofu, will cost about ¥15-20 ($2-3) at the canteen. If you can survive on boiled vegetables and broth, you can eat for less than ¥10. Even at local restaurants, ¥15-20 is pretty common for a meal. Some more established restaurants might cost ¥30 ($4.50) per meal and if you have a large group dinner, maybe it could be as high as ¥50 ($7.40) per person.
When I go to McDonald's (as I do far too regularly) my Big Mac combo meal with a 5 piece chicken nugget is ¥38 ($5.53). If I add in a pineapple pie, my bill might total ¥48 ($6.99).
Nearly all fruits, vegetables, rice, and candy are sold via weight. Typically by the half-kilo (or 500g.) At the night market I can get a few apples, oranges, a dragonfruit, and some plums for ¥15.
Drinks vary in price from ¥2 ($0.30) to ¥50 ($7.40), depending on what you're after. A hard cider from Uncle Mike's Bar, is ¥30-35 ($4.50). A beer on tap might be ¥4 (0.60), though a cocktail can cost ¥60-75 ($8.50-11).
A 12oz can of Coke is ¥2.40 ($0.36), but a half liter of Coke is ¥2.80 ($0.41). If you get a glass of coke from the cafeteria, you get half coke, half ice, and it costs ¥4 ($0.59). Some tea drinks are ¥2.70 ($0.39), but bottled juices, milk tea, or coffee drinks can cost ¥6-8 ($1). Bottle coffee drinks are usually 180ml, or about 6oz. Many teas are around 300ml, and most carbonated drinks are 500ml. (Do you value your health or do you value your money? Tough call, somedays.)
I Measure Things in Meals Now
The small coffee stand on the fourth floor sells a small paper cup of coffee for ¥5 ($0.72). An Americano at Starbucks is going to run closer to ¥28 ($4) and a cappuccino is usually ¥35 ($5). A bag of ground coffee at the super marker will run between ¥40 and ¥99 ($5-$15). While that's about what I'd pay at Cub Foods or Caribou back home, I could eat lunch for a week with the same amount of money.
Oreos (especially the tiramisu flavor) are popular purchases by us westerners, though a box will normally cost around ¥18 ($2.67). It throws me, because that's the same cost as a normal lunch. A small bar of chocolate is even more expensive and a plastic bowl of Dove chocolate bars is ¥45 ($6.66) at the super market.
Travel tends to be a bit pricy. Getting on the city bus costs ¥3 ($0.43). To get from my apartment downtown is about an hour, depending on traffic. Riding to Gongbei might take 90 minutes. For the price, it's tough to beat. The same ride in a black taxi or cab could cost ¥50 to ¥90 ($7 to $13). You're not always guaranteed a seat on the bus, but it's tough to argue with the price.
The high speed rail system is really nice, but to go from Zhuhai to Guangzhou to Shenzhen costs between ¥150 and ¥200 ($21 and $29), depending on where you get your tickets and if you want to travel first class. (First class might cost $13, while standing tickets cost $10.) The Ferry to Hong Kong costs between ¥160 and ¥220 ($23 and $32). I can get a better deal if I buy at UIC, but that requires cash on hand. The bus to Hong Kong costs about half of what the ferry does. The ferry can make the trip in 70 minutes while a bus takes two or three hours.
I've been staying in hostels, hotels tend to be far too expensive on my new limited budget. It still might costs ¥100 - ¥150 for a night or two in a hostel. Thats very reasonable, only $15-$20, but it adds up quickly. A trip to Hong Kong could easily cost ¥650 (~$100).
My plan for the first few months was simply to track expenses and formulate my budget from there on out. It's been tough, since the first two paychecks had the security deposit withheld (half each month) and there was a mixup with the rent payment. Now that all of that has been sorted out, I'm optimistic about the coming months.