Although moving abroad all on your own can be an extremely daunting experience in and of itself, what I find holds the most people back from actually taking that first step are fears regarding whether they will be able to support themselves and reach their long term financial goals.

I can confidently say, yes, you absolutely can achieve your financial goals as an ESL teacher. In fact, I would say that teaching ESL abroad was probably the smartest thing I have ever done in order to establish long term financial security. However, this doesn’t mean it is easy to do. Like with many things in life, your path toward success in this area will come a lot easier if you plan ahead first.

In this post, I’m going to address some of the most common concerns that people have regarding managing their finances abroad, and provide an idea of how many ESL teachers are able to navigate these issues.

Money is relative

I’ve taught in several countries around Asia, and when I first moved abroad my main goal was to travel as much as possible. All I expected from my paychecks was to simply finance my travel expenses. After all, my annual income teaching ESL started off relatively low — even compared to minimum wage work I was doing in the U.S. — it seemed impossible to even consider putting any of it toward a savings account. So I figured I might as well spend it on travel and exploration instead.

However, what I soon realized was that even though I was making less compared to when I was waitressing and bartending in the States, I was actually able to put aside a decent amount of money. This was because the cost of everything in my life while living in Asia was also much, much lower than what it would have been if I were still living in the U.S.

Currently, I live in Taipei, Taiwan, and I know of many ESL teachers here who are making roughly US$25,000 annually, but are still able to comfortably pay their bills and go on one or two vacations a year. While speaking to a friend in New York about this, he was shocked. In his mind, an annual salary of US$25,000 is an unlivable wage. However, that amount of money in Taiwan allows many people to live comfortably and even put away US$500 or more a month, while the same amount of money would barely cover monthly rent in Manhattan.

Money is relative to where you are living and your circumstances, so don’t dismiss what might seem like a low-paying job in a foreign country right off the bat. You might actually end up saving more with that “low paying job” than you would if you were making an average American salary while living in a major city in the U.S.

Standard of living

Now some people might think, “Sure, people might save more money while making less in a foreign country, but surely the living situation must be horrible.”

Again, that isn’t necessarily true.

I’ve found that it has actually been a lot easier for me to find decent apartments, even luxurious ones, while living in South Korea, Vietnam, and Taiwan, than it has been when I was living in the U.S.

In general, the standard of living can be quite comfortable for relatively little in many countries around the world. And if you’re sharing an apartment with a significant other or with roommates, you can easily afford much nicer accommodations than if you were living alone. Currently, I live in a district located in the heart of Taipei City, and I pay about US$1,100 a month for a three bedroom, two bathroom apartment that has elevator access. Meanwhile, that same amount of money in Manhattan would probably only get me a studio apartment where the toilet is “conveniently” placed in the kitchen.

Saving and paying off debt

Debt — in particular, student loan debt — is a huge source of stress for a lot of college graduates. For Americans, the average person with student loan debt owes between US20,000 to US$50,000. This can seem like an insurmountable number that most people feel like they would never be able to pay off even with a steady paycheck. However, if you’re able to put aside some money teaching ESL abroad, this can make it a lot easier to pay off any debt you owe.

This doesn’t mean it will be easy; it takes discipline and patience to pay down debt. However, if teaching ESL abroad allows you to not only live comfortably, take vacations, AND put money aside to pay down loans, that seems like a much better option than working a 9-to-5 in your hometown while barely being able to put aside any money at all.

Check out this blog post by a fellow ESL teacher who decided to move abroad in order to take a break from the financial stresses of student loans, only to end up paying them all off much sooner than she expected.

Financial flexibility

Although I love how much teaching ESL abroad has afforded me the ability to travel and save money, the thing I appreciate most about doing what I do is the flexibility in my schedule. Being able to set my own hours as a teacher means I am also able to pick up side gigs and part-time jobs when I want to, which helps boost my income.

This kind of flexibility has also done wonders for my mental health, which in a roundabout way further benefits my personal finances. It is comforting to know that I have time to expand my skill set, so whenever I need a little bit of extra cash I can always rely on my experience as an educator to pick up part time work and side projects. I have worked in offices before where the job took up so much of my day that even if I wanted to deal with my financial worries by taking on extra work, I simply didn’t have the time or the mental capacity to do so.

Keeping your eye on the prize

The most important thing to remember about reaching your financial goals is you must never forget what you’re trying to achieve. Setting up a routine for budgeting your life, paying down debt, saving your money, and putting some aside for fun activities and travel takes constant discipline.

It’s also important to remember that how you should tackle personal finances might look very different from what your friends are doing, so try not to compare. Everyone’s situation and goals are unique, and as long as you are clear about your own goals and you’ve taken steps to continually move in that direction, you’re on the right track.

I hope this helped bring some perspective as to how ESL teachers can take jobs in countries that are completely foreign to them and still easily achieve their financial goals. Good luck!

Kaleigh McAdams

Teacher in Taipei
Kaleigh is from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the United States. She has traveled extensively throughout Asia and is currently teaching in Taipei, Taiwan. Her passions are mountain hikes and great food!