For just over five years, I taught English as a Foreign Language in four countries. I spent the vast majority of it flat broke, living paycheck to paycheck, and crying about those two things a lot—it certainly wasn’t anything resembling glamourous. I loved most of it though, and though I don’t teach anymore, I’m still living abroad.
I left the U.S. because I always knew that I wanted to travel, and I could not find a full-time job. Looking back, it’s clear my money management skills were laughable (“I budget by feel” is so, so stupid, and yet, I still do it to a degree—my panic attacks should not be my monetary barometer, good lord). I spent a lot of time worrying and thinking and obsessing and crying about money, but I ended up alive with all my limbs intact. So even though I am just beginning to scrape together a savings on the edge of turning 30, I think seeing the world was the better choice for me.
I graduated with no debt. I’d spent my last semester teaching at a Montessori school in Mexico City, and I was still mad at myself that I hadn’t just stayed, so I worked on a way to get back. I drove to Seattle; my goal was to spend one year there, getting my TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) certification and saving money before heading abroad to teach.
Seattle, November 2006-January 2008
Rent: $350 all-inclusive, then $480 not including bills, then free on a friend’s couch
Salary: Between $9-$17/hr
In May 2007, I spent $1,800 on my 60-hour TESOL course, including a $100 non-refundable deposit, which lasted six weeks and included, on top of the 60 class hours, a 12-hour practicum teaching Somali refugees. Throughout the year, I worked a series of part-time and temp jobs, including at the Gap, an Italian restaurant, and tutoring refugees at a community college after their ESL classes. I also worked at a Mexican restaurant, catered at Microsoft and bartended at weddings. The first place I lived had no heat; the second place I couldn’t afford to turn on the heat.
I made plenty of mistakes, money-wise, most of them stupid. So no, the savings part didn’t really happen the way I’d hoped. I continually went over my minutes plan because I had to use daytime minutes to gab to my family on the East Coast; I spent way too much money at Nordstrom Rack and vintage stores; I forgot to pay my credit card bill a few times. I also went out to eat constantly and drank outside happy hour, and paid with credit cards. I did know at least that I had to get out of debt before I left, so I made that disappear and got serious the last few months. I never felt too stressed though, since with tips I usually had a bit of cash and it made saving my paychecks easier.
One blessing in disguise was getting rear-ended by some teenager; his parents’ insurance paid out $1,500, which was exactly what I needed to get myself to Istanbul.
Flight to Istanbul: US$700
Rent: US$70 at teachers’ boarding house, taken out of paycheck
Salary: TL13/hr ($5.89/hr), raise to TL24/hr ($10.87/hr)
Benefits: Airport pick-up
I only applied to jobs that weren’t exclusively teaching children, and the only responses I got were from a school in Istanbul and another in Slovakia (or was it Slovenia?). I chose Istanbul since I could undoubtedly point to it on a map. I ignored all the red flags, including the HR person not answering any questions about work visas and then refusing to let me email any teachers about their experiences. Teaching in Mexico City couldn’t have been easier, and it was set up by friends, so I was totally out of my element trying to figure out what was what. Also, I still have trouble listening to my instincts and didn’t want to cause any embarrassment by standing up for myself.
I lasted two and a half months. This was mostly due to the schedule. Weekdays, everyone taught a morning class from 8-11 a.m., and an evening class from 7-10 p.m.. Since I taught on other end of the city, going back to the boarding house in the middle of the day wasn’t worth it, time- or money-wise. Weekend classes were four hours each, from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. and 3-7 p.m. If I was assigned Talk Time from 1:30-2:30, I had about 10 minutes to eat. I had two days off the entirety of my time there.
For all the negatives, they did pay on time. One month after I arrived, they decided to combat the incredible overturn with an TL11/hr raise. It didn’t work. Existing teachers got to keep the raise, but pay for new hires quickly went down to TL16. Dilek, the center manager, informed me through hand gestures that it was more than she was making. It was also more than practically all of my students, including one who’d been a lawyer for 20 years. Our one Turkish teacher/helper/photocopier guard made $8/hour.
During this time, I stayed in a boarding house where most of the teachers lived. Rent was US$70/month for the first three months and went up to $170 after that. Rent was taken out of my paycheck. Paycheck is not the right word—it came out of the wad of cash they handed me at the end of the month, which I then divided between my pockets and my bra, and then ran back to my room to stuff it in other pockets.
I barely spent any money at all. I only ate whatever was cheap and didn’t require cooking, and rarely went out. Hookah and the minibus were my main expenses. There was one other dude near my age at my center, an Englishman named A, and when I told him I was going to pull a runner, he told me to go home with him to England. This sounded like a good idea to me. We spent two weeks living in a 15-bed room in a hostel, touristing and making arrangements to go to England. The hostel cost a few hundred, and my money feelings started to stir. But still. I’d told myself that I’d go back to Mexico, but really had no clue, so when the line dropped, I grabbed on and didn’t let go.
I dropped US$120 on an EasyJet flight plus another $75 for overweight baggage fees and headed to England. From mid-April to mid-June, I stayed in England for free with A’s parents. This was just as the USD was worth exactly 50 pence, and the lira approximately nothing. After going on a two-week holiday through Europe (I’d never been and figured I should have some fun), staying in the cheapest hostels and buying a couple pairs of jeans on sale from Dorothy Perkins, I was low on cash. After buying a round-trip train ticket from where I was staying to south London for a job interview, I had about BP200 ($333.64). I missed my best friend’s wedding because I had no idea what I was doing with my life. The suddenness of how low I’d gotten on cash left me permanently on the edge of tears. Most of my days were spent watching reruns of Scrubs, angry that I couldn’t understand anything about English culture, and trying to figure out what to talk about with A’s parents that wasn’t politics. Then we both got the job in Bangkok.
June 2008-June 2009
Flight to BKK ~ US$700
Salary: 33,000 Baht/month (~US$1,000)
Rent: 8,500 and then 11,000 Baht (including B500 each for fridge and TV) split two ways
Benefits: Health insurance, 12 days paid vacation, 2 unpaid weeks off at Christmas, contract finishing bonus, first night stay free, airport pick-up, paid for work visa
I’ve always loved teaching adults; kids were a total chore. But teaching in Asia usually means kids, and this job in particular had so many benefits I was willing to give it a try. Since we were teaching students outside of their regular school, everyone had to work weekends. Teachers either got a Monday-Tuesday or Thursday-Friday weekend. Saturdays were 9-6 and Sundays 9-5. The biggest class size was 16, and most of the classes were elementary and middle school kids. Lucky teachers occasionally got a one-on-one or small group of high schoolers, whose lack of angst made for a pleasant surprise. The remaining weekdays were light, maybe two or three one-hour classes with one student or a small group of professionals. We weren’t required to be there when we didn’t have class.
Before starting the job, we had to get our work visas straight, which took just one visit to the immigration department. Everyone also had to go for a check-up, which just meant going to the public hospital across the street where a doctor took my temperature and, oddly, checked out the backs of my hands in detail. The staff also helped us set up a bank account as well. We started a few days after arriving.
After six months, we moved from our studio to a two-room place in the same building, which was worth the cost due to the fact that our relationship was rapidly deteriorating. When we moved, the building managers wanted another deposit. They were also under the impression that I was pregnant (nope), so I just patted my stomach a lot and they relented.
For the most part, we kept our finances separate and took turns paying for dinner, which was cheaper than cooking. We lived in an area with few Westerners, so I got to enjoy local prices and for food and massages. Going out to eat for two in the neighborhood was never more than a few bucks including beers, and I regularly went for hour-long massages that cost US$3. I was even able to save up a bit, and even better, was able to pay for all my trips straight out of my checking.
Taking advantage of the many public holidays and the cheapness of Southeast Asia, I made it to Hanoi, Cambodia, Laos, Hong Kong, Singapore and all over Thailand easily with little financial fuss. I’d finally teetotalled, which was the main source of my savings. Occasionally, though, this was offset by my penchant for picking up any clothing in my size or any beauty product that wasn’t whitening, whether or not I needed it.
I only had to use my health insurance once, when I couldn’t get rid of a cough I’d gotten in Cambodia. I went to the private hospital, where the doctor stopped her lunch to see me. I saw the general practitioner, lung specialist and got my prescription in less than an hour, and it cost me B30 (~$1). At the end of our year there, we received the contract bonus, which was another month’s pay, and I had enough money to pay for my trip home and then on to Santiago.
July 2009-Aug 2011
Flight home + to Santiago: US$1,700
Salary: P5,000/hr, then P9,000; private rates P10-20,000/hr, (~US$10, $18, $20-40)
Rent: P200,000, then P220,000 + ~P100,000 in bldg fees
Benefits: Paid for work visa, partial travel reimbursement
Santiago started off badly and only got worse. In a cloud of idiocy, I exchanged all my money at the Toronto airport, realizing too late that the shitty exchange rate and commission had left me with a sliver of what I should’ve gotten. I had to pay my USD$131 entrance fee at the Santiago airport by credit card. A had to talk me down by promising that he’d pay the deposit and rent on our new apartment until I got back on my feet. He paid for the week at the hostel and first two months rent; I paid the deposit. My boss was kind enough to give me an advance on my first month’s paycheck, which actually came in check form, and eventually, once we got ID cards, we got bank accounts and direct deposit. Our ID cards were the last step in our work visa process, and mine took about five months, which was considered somewhat quick. When we had to go get fingerprinted or stand in line for hours at the immigration office and couldn’t teach, we weren’t reimbursed.
It turned out that we wouldn’t be formally hired until we passed a practice lesson the next day. When I said I couldn’t do it until the following day as I was apartment hunting, the lady in charge made a vaguely threatening comment about how they could always find someone else. We found an apartment, we both passed the lesson. They told us when they hired couples, only one could be on contract, which meant a base pay for 60 hours of teaching a month plus extra for every hour over, and one had to just make an hourly wage. A went on contract, because—well, I can’t remember why exactly, but I do remember something about making him happy. It backfired because his students submitted so many complaints that the only way the school would keep him on was to not give him a contract and therefore reduce his hours. They wouldn’t give me one.
The job itself was pretty easy. There were a ton of extra materials at our disposal, and the syllabi were set out for us. The school only catered to businessmen and women, most of whom wanted class in their office. The downside was that they wanted classes either at the beginning, middle or end of the day all over the city, which led to long hours and awkward gaps in time that were too short to go home or sneak in a private class. It also meant traveling at rush hour. When I arrived, one journey on the metro was 420 pesos, and by the time I left it was about 600. Our partial reimbursement was 333 for every hour of class taught outside the school, and when we requested a better reimbursement, it was denied.
After a year and a bit, I changed jobs. My new teaching gig was still with adults, but with a ton more hours and infinitely more flexible. I also took on quite a few private students from my friends who’d left, and for once, I was flush. The joy didn’t last too long though since I was working 70 hour weeks. I’d been paying all the bills and building fees the whole time, which had repaid my debt to A and then some.
My biggest mistake was constantly working out the exchange rate for everything I spent, even though I was paid only in pesos. Even so, I made sure to travel a bit, and made it to the south and north of the country as well as Machu Picchu, Buenos Aires and Uruguay. And I was able to pay those off immediately, with the caveat that I didn’t go out for the next month or few months.
Again, I was lucky enough to only have to go to the hospital a few times. When I was traveling in the South, I got bit by a street dog, and within 15 minutes, I couldn’t feel my leg below the knee. I hobbled into a hospital, waited a few hours, and got my first rabies shot. It was good news that the Chilean government subsidizes these rest of the series, because I only had the cheapest travel insurance I could find. I only had to pay for the first hospital visit and shot, which was about US$100.
By the end of the year, I’d had enough of Santiago, and of A. I flew home and then to Hong Kong.
Sept 2011-July 2012
Flight home + to Hong Kong: US$1,800
Rent: $6,000 (my share)
Salary: HK$20,000/mo (~US$2,500)
Benefits: Paid for work visa, health insurance, ten days paid vacation, complimentary hotel stay for first seven days, help finding housing, airport pick-up.
This was the best and easiest teaching gig I had. Only students 16 and older were allowed to take classes. Weekdays, hours were 12-9pm, although we only taught four classes in that time. If hosting a movie night, cooking class, or quiz night, we’d usually just teach two classes and then have the activity in the evening. Saturdays were three classes and then an evening activity outside the center, like a bar night or dinner. And Sundays were reserved for outdoor activities like hikes, cooking classes, paintball, etc. Everyone got two days off a week, not always in succession, but if you asked politely and far enough in advance, they’d usually give it to you.
All the paperwork for my work visa had been submitted while I was still in Chile, and came through a few days before I was scheduled to start work. All I had to do was take the ferry to Macau and back to activate my work visa, which was around HK$300 ($38), and was not reimbursed.
After spending the first week in a hotel on the center’s dime, I found an incredible shared apartment for cheap in one of the most expensive areas of town. The only catch was that I couldn’t move in for another three weeks, so I stayed on a very generous friend’s couch. The first weekend after I starting working, I had to get a couple hundred out of my U.S. account to make it to payday, but other than that, it was a pretty smooth transition. I say pretty smooth meaning I could make it one month to the next without dying (or crying); saving wasn’t really a factor. After all, I was single, in a city I loved, and having a good time. I learned how to cook more than just Italian, which was a big money-saver. And perhaps best of all, acupuncture was included in my health insurance.
After nine months, I quit and began a better paid position at my first office job. I’ve started seriously saving. It’s been almost two years since I quit teaching. I still think about it a lot, and I’d like to work in education. My situation was by no means the worst; if I’d done better budgeting, things may have been easier. Teaching abroad takes all kinds; I worked with some who were in the middle of paying off student loans; others were simply there to chase girls and get drunk. Telling expats what you do is likely to be met with indifference at best. ESL teachers are generally poor, kind of unkempt and most likely heavy drinkers. But it’s still one of the best decisions I ever made.
Maureen St. George lives in Hong Kong. Photo: Kevin Poh