As reliable as death, taxes, and typhoon season, every few months I was introduced to a student in Taiwan who wished they brought more money. You see, most budgets provided by schools understate what’s needed for a basic modern life. At least it isn’t a big problem. It’s just one you hate to see people have. Many students learned a few things from friends who studied here. Most bring money to pad their social lives and travel plans, because, of course they did. Others don’t, but should.
Some banks: “Only the very newest U.S. $100 bills.” Sorry, the bank teller doesn’t make the rules. (ABC News)
Here’s why. Obstacles happen, like you can’t open a bank account. Cashiers checks aren’t accepted. The bank only takes a certain kind of US $100 bill, and none that were folded. Your foreign credit card is no good. It’s time to pay tuition but the school hasn’t given you your scholarship. Health insurance doesn’t cover as much as it says in the welcome book. We could go on. Obstacles happen, and when they do, money will solve almost every one of your problems.
Now schools say budgets aren’t precise because of special needs and preferences. That’s right. Dietary comes to mind. But many of these optimistic budget models are broken because of old, partial, and incomplete information.
Why School Budgets are Off
Estimates set expectations, and most Taiwanese universities aren’t sure how to help international students. Combine these two and we have an issue. By the time some students found me, they were actually looking for a loan. 🤑🤑.
These are a few of the ways school estimates miss the mark.
Prices for basics changed
Simple meals are more expensive than 4 years ago
Partial, not full accounting
Housing estimates based on school calendar
Many dormitory contracts are one-year
Housing prices don’t reflect average rent in the area
Estimates assume a best-case scenario with flatmates, elsewhere
Local vs. Foreign Prices
Many discounts and rewards programs require a Taiwan ID number
Taiwanese love bragging about a good deal, which is not the usual price
Electricity may be counted separately. Mattress, cleaning supplies, etc.
A course might require additional spending. Printing costs, etc.
Three Ways to Come Up With a Basic Budget
School budgets never account for your personal life. They’re not meant to. Every student in Taiwan has certain things that make them happy. These should be separately counted.
Minimum Taiwan Salary
Index Spending Habits
Some estimates are below the minimum salary of $23,100 NTD / month. Any estimate below poverty level puts you in survival-mode. I don’t recommend less, and it may still be too low for Taipei.
Index your monthly budget in your home country to Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) data to find the Taiwan equivalent. I use this to compare salaries.
If you go the gym, factor in a gym membership in Taiwan. Improv. Hair salon. A Western food night. Look at the things that are part of your normal life and add them to your Taiwan budget.
Three options to build a budget for an international student in Taiwan
If you live in the dormitory, Minimum Taiwan Salary + Index Spending Habits should be enough. Cost-of-Living Adjustment is useful to transplant a comfortable life from one country to the next. But if your home country is more expensive to live, it’s easier just to bring your usual budget.
I had longer-term plans, so I developed my own budget. The goal was to create a framework for a life I’m familiar with, without assuming I can do or have everything exactly the way I prefer. Since my family isn’t here, the ability to tap into something familiar when things aren’t going right is immensely helpful for my well-being.
My Recommended Budget for a Student in Taiwan
NTD = New Taiwan Dollars
In Taipei, $12,500 NTD / bedroom in a shared flat is a fair deal (a family friend who’s a landlord shared this with me). This typically assures your own room in a legal dwelling, sharing a bathroom with flatmates, a place to cook food, washing machine, and a reasonably convenient location.
$12,000. The Big Mac Rule. When I travel, I set my food budget at the local price of 3 Big Mac value meals. In Taiwan, this is $400 / day. If you do this, at the very least, you won’t starve.
Actually, this should be more — for snacks, more fruits, an extra vegetable at meal time, sweets, coffee at study cafes, taking a friend out when they have a rough day. If you have a special diet like keto or vegan, again, money solves problems.
$1,500. In Taipei, $1,280 buys a 30-day all-access pass for the subway. Maybe you don’t need $1,280 of rides because you spend most of your time at school.
However, the pass does not include trips along the Taiwan Railway Administration (TRA) routes that go outside the city, or the Airport Express ($160). Sometimes, you need a taxi. The public bike rental system is $5 / NTD for the first 30 minutes, and an $10 / NTD more for the next 30 minutes.
$2,000. Water and electricity is usually about $1,000 / month and I have a $700 / month smartphone plan. Your building may charge more if you have a security guard or elevator. You will use more electricity if you watch a lot of television or are a PC gamer. And at certain times of the year you will use air conditioning, a dehumidifier, or heater more often.
Toiletries, visits to the doctor, haircuts. It’s hard to put a number on this because everyone goes for something different. Like, haircuts, I get $100 haircuts, most salons charge around $700 for a basic cut, and in the middle is QB House at $300.
Being a student in Taiwan ought to include many of the things that are part of your usual college experience. a social life, hobbies, small trips, and surprises you run into. Once you have your personal expenses under control, there are other professional and academic fees.
One unique bit about Taiwanese culture is bringing back treats for co-workers and classmates if everyone knows you’ve gone on a trip
My financial calculator cost $2,000 NTD. To complete an assignment, we had to go to a nicer restaurant to figure out their dumpling making process. Paying for case studies used in class, suggested readings, etc.
Memberships into student clubs or chambers of commerce. Event fees. Our year-end faculty appreciation dinner is a $2,000 ticket. It adds up.
Making Better Money Choices
General tips for saving and managing money is a future post. The key point is you will have to make some choices about what is and isn’t worth it. When you’re in college, social pressure, of course, plays a hand.
Here’s the answer to a frequently asked question. If you’re expected to attend a gathering that costs more than you can afford, don’t go. Doing what you’re “supposed to” doesn’t earn you any favor and now you’re less able to afford experiences that are important for your personal development and well-being. Those things we talked about earlier that bring *you* joy.
The expat community needs you to be healthy and happy, more than it needs you to spend money on their event.
This post first appeared on PhilipChang.org and is reposted here with the permission of the author.
About the Author
Philip Chang lives in Taiwan. Connect to Philip on LinkedIn here.