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How to beat rising living costs in Taiwan: Expat finance guru

When you turn up to the vegetable market can make all the difference

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A wad of  NT$1,000 bills. (CNA photo)

A wad of  NT$1,000 bills. (CNA photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — Amid rising inflation, a weakening Taiwan dollar, and climbing housing prices, the cost of living in Taiwan, like many parts of the world, is on the rise.

This is especially true in Taipei, where the high cost of living has triggered a minor exodus of people moving other parts of the country, bringing its population to the lowest point in 23 years.

Knowing the best ways to cut down on everyday costs in Taiwan can make a big difference to your wallet right now, Steve Cummings, a personal finance guru, told Taiwan News. Cumming’s blog, The Frugal Expat, gives money-management advice specific to the needs of digital nomads, travelers, and expat communities.

Originally from Florida, Steve and his wife Sarah (from Australia) have been living in Taipei City for five years and manage to keep their combined cost of living under NT$30,000 (US$1,030) per month. They rent a single bedroom, 20 ping apartment (one ping equals 3.3 square meters) located near the heart of town for NT$18,000 per month, while they budget all remaining expenses to under NT$12,000.

They do this by cutting down on big recurring expenses, like food and accommodation, said Cummings.

Accommodation

When it comes to finding a place to live, Cummings recommends foreigners look outside of Taipei City. He says people pay a premium for renting in the nation’s capital, but salaries for most foreigners are roughly the same in other parts of the country, especially for English teaching jobs.

No matter the locale, he recommends shared housing, which can range from NT$5,000 to NT$15,000 per room in Taipei.

He also suggests learning enough Mandarin to navigate local websites for rental listings, like 591. You will get the best price on the local sites, whereas those listings in English on Facebook groups that target expats are usually pegged at an inflated rate, he adds.

Look out for jobs that offer a housing allowance too or bring it up in salary negotiations, he adds. This is a common perk for full-time English teaching positions, particularly those working in public schools.

Going out

He said drinks in bars are expensive in developed economies and Taipei is no exception. They usually charge a service fee of 10% and once you get going, you can quickly drink your week’s savings away.

The best places to drink in Taiwan, according to Cummings, are those brightly-lit ‘bars’ on every corner.

“Convenience stores are the best bars in town,” he smiled.

If drinking under fluorescent lights is not to your liking, he added, simply go somewhere quiet, like a nearby park. You do not have to rule out dining at restaurants either, but save it for special occasions, he advised.

Expat clearance sales

Expats are well-positioned to get deals from friends in the expat community, especially if they have to go back home at short notice.

Cummings said he got a free scooter when his Australian buddy left Taiwan, while his wife got a smartphone for about NT$300 from another departing expat. People often clear out a bunch of their belongings when they leave, he said, and do not have the time or know-how to put them up for sale on the local second-hand market.

Other than these farewell giveaways, expat friends might also ask you to look after their things while they are away on an extended visa run or holiday back home. He knows of a Sydneysider in Taipei who is minding a Mac Mini indefinitely while their American friend goes back stateside for a while.

Camping

For those who want to see all of Taiwan on a shoestring budget, pitch a tent at free camping spots.

Cummings advises checking some prominent websites, like blogs FollowXiaofei, that lists free camping sites. Some popular spots include natural hot springs, beaches, public pavilions “liang ting” (“涼亭”), or parks.

Cummings said he and his wife have even camped in elementary schools on several occasions, which are often open as public land.

“You just gotta be out before the kids come back the next day,” he laughed. Yunlin County has numerous free campsites, he added.

Riding a bicycle saves a lot on transport costs and the flat terrain of Taipei makes cycling easy, Cummings said. Search marketplaces on Facebook for the cheapest second-hand bikes, he suggested.

As for public transport, Cummings opts for the bus over the MRT as it typically costs less.

Food

Foreign products are overpriced due to steep import taxes, especially on things like wine, so try to lean toward a diet based on local produce, he added. Avoid chain grocers like PX Mart (全聯), Dinghao (頂好) or Carrefour and head to your local veggie market, he said.

For this, Cummings recommends becoming conversational in Mandarin. Timing is also key.

“My wife typically goes at around 11 a.m. to 12 p.m.,” he said. “That is the time when the sellers are getting tired so they are more likely to cut the price for you so they can sell off their stuff, pack up and go home.”

He suggests building rapport with the local sellers, which can bring you benefits over time. He does not recommend bargaining though.

Negotiating higher salary

Bargaining with your employer is fine and, in fact, Cummings recommends it.

A lot of expats can be sheepish about negotiating their salary, he said, especially if you are fresh from overseas, but earning more is of course a great way to increase your savings.

Cummings said he got four job offers as an ESL teacher in the first week he arrived, in Taiwan (though he had been applying while still in the U.S.). He then negotiated his salary with all of them and went with the school that gave the best offer overall.

Banks and Stocks

When it comes to managing your money, Cummings recommends keeping most of your funds offshore.

“Taiwanese bank accounts are only good for stashing away some cash, but they pay very little interest,” he added.

He said there is little point in putting your money in the Taiwan stock market either for foreigners, as he feels it is too small.

“You can buy the same big companies like TSMC, Foxconn, etc. internationally anyway, like the U.S. market,” he added.

For those who want to invest in the U.S. stock market, Cummings recommends opening an account with Interactive Brokers. For U.S. citizens there is also Schwab, which offers a debit card that gives free ATM withdrawals from anywhere in the world.

Despite recent rising costs, Cummings still thinks Taiwan is a great choice for those looking to save money and travel.

“Taiwan’s like the perfect medium,” he said, explaining that it is cheaper than Japan and South Korea, pricier than Southeast Asia, but just a couple of hours' flight from most of the rest of Asia.

“You can save anywhere from US$10 - 15K per year compared to North America,” he added.

“As long as you watch your budget,” he concluded with a smile.