How Much Money Do You Need as a Student in Taiwan?

As reliable as death, taxes, and typhoon season, every few months I was introduced to a student who wished they brought more money to Taiwan. 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. Others don’t, but should.

Some banks: “Only the very newest U.S. $100 bills.” (ABC News)

Here’s why. Money solves problems. 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. Tuition is due at the beginning of the semester, but the university provides your scholarship at semester’s end. Health insurance doesn’t cover as much as it says in the welcome book. 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 models are broken because of old, partial, and incomplete information.

Budget預算 (yùsuàn)
Cash現金 (xiànjīn)
Foreign Currency外幣 (wàibì)
Convert (money)兌換 (duìhuàn)

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. 🤑🤑.

A few of the ways school estimates miss the mark.

Outdated BudgetsPrices for basics changedSimple meals are more expensive than 4 years ago
Partial accountingHousing estimates based on school calendarDormitory contracts are one-year
ContextHousing prices don’t reflect average rent in the areaEstimates assume a best-case scenario with flatmates, a little further away
Local vs. Foreign PricesMany discount programs require a Taiwan ID numberTaiwanese love bragging about a good deal, which is not the usual price
Incomplete CostsElectricity may be counted separately, or at a higher rate. Mattress, cleaning supplies, etc.A course might require additional spending. Printing costs, etc.
Currency ExchangeQuoting a dollar figure based on an incorrect exchange rateRates change more often than websites are updated

Three Ways to Come Up With a Basic Budget

School budgets never account for your personal life. They’re not meant to. Everyone has certain things that make them happy — count them separately.

Minimum Taiwan SalaryCost-of-Living AdjustmentIndex Spending Habits
Some estimates are below the minimum salary of $24,000 NTD / monthAny estimate below poverty level puts you in survival-mode. I don’t recommend less, and it may still be too low for Taipei, the most expensive city in Taiwan.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.

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 preferSince my family isn’t here, tapping into something familiar when things aren’t going right is immensely helpful for my well-being.

My experience is based on living near National Taiwan University in Taipei. Other areas of Taiwan will have lower living costs. Also, this is not my current budget. It’s a starting point, and you should personalize it by making adjustments.

BYOB. Build Your Own Budget. In July 2021, the exchange rate is closer to $27 NTD/1 USD, not 32/1. Sorry.

Housing. 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 a modest room in a legal dwelling, sharing a bathroom with flatmates, a place to cook food, washing machine, and a reasonably convenient location.

No one should eat 3 Big Mac meals a day. It’s an easier reference point than trying to figure out the local price of salads, grilled chicken, etc. (Humuch)

Food. $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.

Of course you won’t eat 3 Big Macs every day, but it’s easy to spend this amount at local eateries. Two tuna fish egg crepes (蛋餅) from a breakfast shop and a large coffee from 7-Eleven is around the same price. Add a piece of fruit, and you’re well over.

You can also manage to spend less, also, but I’d recommend starting higher — 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.

Advertisement for the “All Pass” to Taipei’s public transportation system. If you don’t know how to get one, show this graphic to the attendant in the station. They should know enough English to help you obtain one. (Travel.Taipei)

Transportation. $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.

Utilities. $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. At certain times you’ll use air conditioning, a dehumidifier, or heater more often.

Personal Care. 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.

Miscellaneous. Your social life, hobbies, small trips around Taiwan, 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 and service model. 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 international community needs you to be healthy and happy, more than it needs you to spend money on their event.

This article is also re-posted at All Hands Taiwan.

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