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Illustration by: Wang Siqi, design elements from VCG and Midjourney

Essential Chinese Phrases for Cheapskates

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How to talk about saving and conscious spending in the era of “consumption downgrade”

“Changing from frugality to extravagance is easy, but going from extravagance to frugality is hard,” Sima Guang (司马光), a politician from the Northern Song dynasty (960 – 1127), summarized over 1,000 years ago. Today, Chinese society is facing exactly this challenge.

In the not-so-distant past, China was noted for conspicuous consumption fueled by “tycoon (土豪 tǔháo)” mentality, ubiquitous “buy buy buy (买买买 mǎi mǎi mǎi)” culture, and the trend of “overt displays of wealth (炫富 xuànfù).” However, according to data firm Syntun, this year, sales during “618,” China’s second largest shopping festival where online and offline merchants offered deals and promotions from late May to June, declined for the first time since the event was launched in 2008.

Learn more Chinese phrases to talk about shopping:

Economists have summarized China’s new love for thrift with the term “consumption downgrade (消费降级 xiāofèi jiàngjí).” Rather than cutting out all non-essential spending, consumption downgrading is a strategy to balance cutting costs and maintaining an acceptable quality of life. Consumers may sacrifice experience, individuality, or taste to a certain degree to get the best bang for their buck. In 2018, the term was listed as one of the 10 “New Words of the Year” by the State Language Resources Monitoring and Research Center, and seems to have become increasingly popular as the Covid-19 pandemic and gradual cost of living rises in big cities gave the middle class more reason to save money. They might say:

I’m downgrading my consumption by replacing Starbucks with instant coffee.

Wǒ xiànzài xiāofèi jiàngjí le, yòng sùróng kāfēi dàitì Xīngbākè.


There are two main methods for thrift: The first is to cut out unnecessary expenses. These could include items that one buys due to the influence of marketing or a lack of critical thinking. Such goods are referred to as “智商税 (zhìshāngshuì)” or “IQ tax”—a levy one pays for stupidity.

I don’t buy luxury facial masks any more, they are pure IQ tax.

Wǒ bú zài mǎi guìfù miànmó le, nà wánquán shì zhìshāngshuì.


The second method involves finding cost-effective alternatives to expensive products. Goods that can deliver similar satisfaction at a fraction of the cost of others on the market are dubbed “平替 (píngtì, affordable substitutes).” For example, the “military coat (军大衣),” a thick cotton-padded jacket that was originally designed for soldiers, became a fashion trend on college campuses last winter as a substitute for pricy goose-down coats. Netizens even created a slogan for finding affordable substitutes, perhaps to convince themselves that they aren’t broke, just strategic:

It’s not that I can’t afford the big brands, but rather, the alternatives offer better value for money.

Bú shì dàpái mǎibuqǐ, érshì píngtì gèng yǒu xìngjiàbǐ.


The price advantage of popular alternative products can sometimes shatter the monopoly of big brands and even bring down competitors’ prices. Therefore, inexpensive goods and brands are known as “price butchers (价格屠夫 jiàgé túfū),” a complimentary term from consumers for brands with “people-friendly prices (价格亲民 jiàgé qīnmín)”:

This air conditioning brand is so cheap, it’s a total price butcher.

Zhège páizǐ de kōngtiáo zhēn de tài piányi le, wánquán shì jiàgé túfū.


Even for essential purchases, there are strategies to save money. The first one is known as “薅羊毛 (hāo yángmáo, scavenging wool), an idiom that came from an old comedy sketch referring to the act of shamelessly taking advantage of promotions, coupons, and discounts—sometimes unscrupulously. Consumers engaging in “wool scavenging” typically have an eagle eye for spotting discount strategies, cashback programs, and limited-time deals, often even joining online communities dedicated to sharing deals and price-saving strategies. Before a shopping festival, you may hear someone say:

I’ve stopped buying things lately. I’m just waiting to scavenge wool during “618.”

Wǒ zuìjìn shénme dōu bù mǎi le, jiù děngzhe “liù-yāobā” hāo yángmáo le.


Another method is “拼团 (pīntuán),” or group buying. It uses the collective power of a group to get discounts by purchasing products or services in bulk. Some online platforms facilitate group buying, setting minimum group sizes required for members to enjoy the discount. Therefore, a savvy consumer will always try to join a group before purchasing...or make their own. Before ordering food in the office, it may be wise to ask colleagues:

Anybody interested in doing a group buy for lunch?

Yǒu rén yào pīn wǔfàn ma?


Consumption downgrade has encouraged a surging secondhand market. Though some stick to buying used items at a cheap price, savvier consumers sell their unwanted possessions there as a way to recoup some of their expenditures—a tactic referred to as “回血 (huíxuè, regenerate health),” originally a gaming term meaning to recover health points or vitality. After all, earning is the best way of saving:

I sold my old computer yesterday, and have healed up a bit.

Wǒ zuótiān bǎ jiù diànnǎo mài le, huí le diǎnr xuè.


Netizens may joke about their thrifty behaviors by attributing them to poverty, but consumption downgrade has also led many to reflect on consumerism and their lifestyle choices. After all, it wasn’t long ago that their parents practiced frugality in times of hardship, and considered thriftiness common sense. Just as the Tang dynasty (618 – 907) poet Li Shangyin (李商隐) wrote once: “Having surveyed the states and homes of former sages: success comes from diligence and frugality, failure from extravagance.”

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