A lot of people move abroad to learn about another culture, see new places and have life-changing experiences. Other people move abroad to make money. Moving to another country for a year or two can enable you to save enough money for a down payment on a house, or a year’s worth of traveling, or the money you need to pay off your massive credit card debt.
Why go abroad?
There are many, many reasons to go to a new country if you’re trying to save money.
First of all, you get out of old obligations and spending habits like your rent, nights full of boozing and lunches out. It’s very hard to cut back on any of those things while you’re still in the same place, with the same job and the same friends. Even if you can, the amount you save every month can be depressingly small.
Second, with the economy in the U.S. and Europe the way it is, it’s not the ideal time to look for a new job, or ask for a raise. If you’re unemployed, you’ve definitely got nothing to lose.
Third, when you move to a country where the cost of living is low, you can put away $1,000 a month or more.
What do you need to know about yourself before you move?
Ask yourself a few questions to make sure this is something you can do: Do you like new places? If you don’t set up a job before you go, can you network? Will you make the sacrifices necessary to put away half your salary each month? If you’re very attached to your home comforts, if you’re shy about meeting new people, or if you pre-ordered the new iPad—moving abroad to save money is probably not for you.
Where should you go?
In general, Asian countries are probably best—Vietnam, Thailand and Korea being the top three. The first two are very cheap to live in, while the third pays well, plus, they’ll sometimes throw in a free place to live. Visa restrictions—which can be a big problem—are easier to get around in countries like Vietnam, and a quick visa run (meaning a $150 round-trip flight to Bangkok or Manila) can buy you another three months of hassle-free living. But visa regulations change all the time, so you’ll need to keep up to date on everything. The ideal situation is finding a job with a company that gets you a visa, because working without one is technically illegal. However, enforcement varies from country to country. Pick somewhere that you can live with minimal expenses, but make it a place that you wouldn’t care about leaving abruptly if a visa problem arose.
Because you’re trying to save money, a country with a low cost of living is essential. But! You need someone in that country to be able to pay you well. That’s why Asian countries are good places to work, and African countries are not so good. A country with a growing economy (Vietnam, China) means higher salaries, while a country with a stagnant economy, even if it’s cheaper than home, won’t let you save much (Croatia, Argentina). The most important factors to consider are the cost of housing and the cost of food, since these will be your two main expenses. The price of flights to and from your destination is less important because a) some companies will pay for your flights if you sign a contract, and b) if you stay just a year or two, you’ll only be buying one or two flights back home. Some countries in the Middle East offer good salaries and free places to live, but there are fewer jobs there than in Asia.
Where do you work when you get there?
You’ve got several options when it comes to employment. The first and easiest is, of course, teaching English. In some countries, just being a native speaker can get you work, but you’re going to be better off if you have a college degree (bring it with you), and a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certificate. Having some kind of teaching qualification will mean that you can get a better-paid job, but one of the weekend-long or online-only TEFL courses are usually enough satisfy a potential employer. Those are cheap and easy to complete before you leave. It’s not difficult to set up an English teaching job before you arrive in a new country (Korea and China are especially good for this), but you’ll probably have to sign a year-long contract, and the pay might not be as much as you’d get at other schools. On the other hand, you’ll start working—and saving—right away. In Korea, it’s normal for a year-long, full-time teaching contract to pay about $2,500 a month (taxes are minimal), and an apartment is often included. It’s not a fortune, but you can have a reasonable standard of living for about $1,200 (less if your housing is paid for by the school). That means you can save around $1,300 a month.
Teaching English can be tough or—more likely—boring (there’s a reason you find so many English teachers in the bars at noon). Your other option is finding work doing something else. In some countries, you’ll be able to do the same thing you’re doing at home. Start checking out job sites in cities you think you might want to live and have a look at the kind of jobs that are available. You can apply for those jobs while still at home, sure, but you’re much more likely to get an interview if you’re already there. If you think that Shanghai might be somewhere you could live for a year and you can find a number of jobs advertised that you might be qualified for, book your ticket.
So-called developing countries need people who can write website content, teach subjects like fashion design and business strategy, open the new Prada store, manage restaurants and hotels, cook French food, edit magazines, etc. There’s a real demand for people who can do this stuff, and there’s much, much less competition for these jobs than there is at home. Also, as a foreigner, you can often talk yourself into a job you’re not entirely qualified for simply by virtue of being from somewhere else. This is also a fantastic way to reinvent your career, but that’s another article.
What else do you do when you get there?
Once you’ve got your main job set up, there are several other things you can do to make money. If you’re in a country where you look different from most of the people there, companies will sometimes hire you to model, act in commercials or do voice recording work. If you’re interested in developing a career as a writer, there’s always an expat rag that’s ready to give you a chance. Always wanted to start your own photography business? Offer your services as a wedding photographer to locals with money to spare. For some people, there’s a lot of cachet in having a foreigner working for them—you can use this. Do you play violin? Give lessons to rich people’s children. Charge them $50 an hour. Do it once a week. That’s another $200 a month.
What don’t you do when you get there?
Once you’re set up with a job and a place to live, it’s very easy to get sucked into a fancy expat lifestyle. This means going to restaurants, bars and cafes where the food and drinks cost almost as much as they would at home. It means visiting fancy spas frequented by tourists. It means buying nice furniture for your apartment. If you want to save money, you can’t do this. Limit yourself to one pricey night out a week or once a month. Eat locally, go to local bars, and live in a modest apartment. This is not difficult, and it’s also a good way to get something else out of your experience besides money.
If you’ve got student loans, credit card debt or you’re saving up to buy a house, moving abroad for a bit could be the answer to your problems. You could spend five years saving $300 a month at home, or one year saving $1,500 a month abroad. People do it all the time. If you’re part of a couple, that’s $36,000. Is it easy? No. Is it fun? It can be, but you’ll still be working. Is it effective? Yes.
Nell McShane Wulfhart has been living abroad for six years and in that time saved enough money to go on vacation for about two and half of those years. Follow her on Twitter for occasional comments on life in Seoul. Photo: Flickr/jay galvin