Teaching English Abroad: Deal or No Deal?

Lately, I’ve been getting a lot of questions about teaching abroad. Specifically, where to do it and how much money you can make while doing so. Let’s be honest, when you’re thinking about making the big move, money is an important deciding factor.

Straight out of college, I decided I wasn’t going to stick around for a nine-to-five job. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! I believe most of my friends are happy with their current jobs! But, having studied abroad during my junior year in college, I was desperate to go back out into the world again and experience everything I could. So, I hightailed out of the states and landed in rural Japan. Technically, I landed in the bustling city of Tokyo and then got on a seven-hour bus ride to the rural rice paddies of Japan. While teaching English to some of Japan’s cutest kids, I also ate, drank, learned, and wandered to my heart’s content. Everything about living and just being abroad fascinated me. It still does!

During my two years in Japan, I traveled to Taiwan, China, Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, and New Zealand without my savings taking a terrible hit. Not to mention, all the traveling I did within the beautiful country of Japan! Japan, if you didn’t already know, is quite the expensive country to travel in… It’s surprising that I even managed to save some money. After Japan, I made the move to Korea and am currently teaching English again!

When friends and family see my status updates, they tell me how amazing my life is and ask how I can afford to travel to so many countries all the time. So, let me tell you what you might not know about teaching English abroad. It might be in your cards after all~

The salaries of ESL teachers around the world differ by country. According to Go Overseas, English teachers manage to “make a decent living while [teaching abroad] — anywhere from $500 a month to upwards of $4,000 — doing it.” In Japan, my average annual salary was 3.5 million yen. Based on today’s conversion, that’s about $31,000 in one year. In Korea, my current monthly salary is 2.5 million won. That’s about $2,100 per month, or roughly $25,000 a year. Curse that exchange rate!!

Now, you may be thinking, “That’s not much at all! You probably haven’t saved much!” But, you’d be wrong! In fact, I’ve managed to save close to $30,000 in just a little over two years despite living abroad and traveling extensively! To be honest, I could have saved much more had saving been my actual goal.

Let me tell you about my current situation. In Korea, most employers offer their English teachers free housing, paid airfare, and a settlement allowance to help you get sorted out when you first get here. I got all three! When you complete your contract, you will likely receive a neat bonus, typically a month’s salary! Furthermore, depending on your contract, you have the opportunity to earn some extra income by having a second or third school. You can volunteer for weekend events or summer camps and make some additional money. My province offers online teaching gigs for their teachers and you can bet I took advantage of this! With all the extra income each month, I typically make closer to $2,400 per month. Did I mention that my salary is tax-free? Which means that I keep what I make!

My monthly deductions then include the national pension (which I get back when I decide to leave, along with what my school matched), health insurance, and school fees. Additional expenses include inexpensive bills due to the lower standard of living here in Korea and my daily expenses, if any. Together, my monthly deductions and expenses cost a little over $300, which means 85% of my paycheck is going directly into my savings and investment accounts. (Make your money work for you!) Mind you, I’m also a very frugal person. For example, I don’t understand the bitter taste of coffee, nor do I really enjoy the taste of alcohol. Since I don’t use my phone much, I am the proud owner of a pre-paid SIM card and a pocket wifi box. This package costs me roughly $15 per month.

So, I might not make a ton of money compared to my friends back home, but it’s not about how much you earn! It’s about how much you save. If your goal is to save as much as you can, ask yourself these questions.

Do you keep a budget spreadsheet and make a habit to log your daily expenses? If you’re serious about saving money, it’s important to track where all of it is going!
Have you started a specific fund where you automatically tuck away a certain amount  of money right when you receive your paycheck? I’ve got one for travel!
Did you already build an emergency fund for those rainy days? Most financial advisors suggest building 3-6 month’s worth of living expenses.
Do you really need to eat out every day? Mind you, eating out in some countries can be cheaper than actually cooking meals at home! I’m looking at you, Taiwan!

Here are eight tips on how you can save money teaching English abroad! Technically, you can use these tips on saving money in general.

  1. Always pay yourself first!! This is so important! Once you get your paycheck, take a portion out and put it away. Or you can be like me. Take out a small portion and put everything else away. I take out $200 to last me for as long as possible and put the rest into my savings/investment accounts. Then, I see how long I can survive on that $200. It’s actually pretty fun! I typically still have money by the end of the month.
  2. Invest in your health! Instead of driving, maybe ride a bike, jog, or walk to work! (Unless you live miles and miles away…) Since my schools are within a 30-minute walk from my home, I opt to use my legs! I would bike to school, but I’ve been told that bicycling here in the city is quite dangerous. I choose life!!!
  3. Improve your cooking skills and start cooking more at home!! I make a weekly meal plan and stick to it for the week. My schools provide teachers with amazing lunches that only cost a little over $2. So really, my weekly meal plan only calls for dinners from Mondays to Fridays. I spend about $25 for a week’s worth of meals. On the weekends, I occasionally go out and find cool restaurants around my apartment to try, which brings me to number 4!
  4. Treat yourself! Saving money is hard work, and sometimes you can get a little overwhelmed. Take a deep breath, go out, and treat yourself to some of your favorite snacks. Every month, I choose a weekend where I actually stay at home, order Korean fried chicken (so delicious), and turn on the telly. But, only once a month because all that fried goodness can’t be good for you! Making it once a month also gives you something to look forward to after working so hard.
  5. Look for free events or activities in your area! With a group of friends or by yourself, you can attend local events and participate in fun activities without spending a dime! In my city, I look for free cultural events catering to foreigners. It’s a great way for me to meet new people and learn about Korean culture and history! Many times, there are food involved!!
  6. Cut your cable! How often do you actually watch TV? Do you find yourself spending more time on your computer and looking at cat videos on YouTube? With Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime on demand, you might consider making the switch to these cheaper streaming services to catch all your favorite shows!
  7. Split the costs! If you really wanted to cut costs even further, you can get a roommate if you have the space for one! You can carpool, split the bills, cook meals, and save money together!
  8. Use your credit cards responsibly! Get one of those nifty credit cards that have big sign-up bonus offers if you haven’t done so yet, especially if you’ve got a big trip planned soon! With the cost of flights, hotels, and activities, you’ll probably be spending a pretty penny. If you use the right credit cards, you can also rack up on miles and/or points to help pay for some of those expenses!! But please, for the love of God, pay off all your debt on time and in full. Screw that interest rate!! 

So, teaching English abroad – deal or no deal? Well, if you’re only concerned about money, it could be a great deal depending on where you go. Maybe you’re thinking about teaching in Thailand! That’s great! But keep in mind, you likely won’t earn as much as you could have in Korea or Japan. Then again, the salaries in Korea and Japan are pretty great, but if you wanted more, why not consider Saudi Arabia. There are so many countries looking for English teachers, so do your research and see what benefits there are for each country.

If you’re passionate about traveling, learning different languages, or meeting interesting people around the world, teaching English abroad is a great deal!!! Get TEFL certified, brush up on your language skills, pack your bags, and head out! Maybe I’m a bit biased since I’ve been doing this for some time now. But, teaching abroad is definitely a done deal for me! At least for now~

If you have any great tips for saving money, I’d love to hear them! I’m always looking for ways to save a little bit here or there. If you’ve taught English abroad, we can definitely share stories!! And if you’re still on the fence about making the move, I’m only a message away!


  • Lauren

    YES, I’m trying to decide between Japan and Korea… Dunno which to choose, but I love both countries! Ideally, I would want to go to both, but which one should I go to first?

    • Sharon

      Hey Lauren! You’ve come to the right place! Thank you so much for reading my article!

      I’m not sure what programs you’re looking at right now, but I assume both JET and EPIK are high on your list? Are you thinking of thinking at public or private schools? Both programs typically place teachers in public schools around Japan and Korea. I’ve read a lot of blog posts about teaching at private hagwons in Korea, but they didn’t seem like the best choice for me. 😛

      It’s difficult to say which one you should go to first. I’ve met people who first did EPIK and then switched to JET. I went from JET to EPIK myself. For me, personally, going from JET to EPIK was better for me. The EPIK interview is through Skype, so it was really simple to do from Japan. I believe the JET interviews have to be done in person, but I can’t be too sure. I heard some people had to fly back home for the interview. :/ The EPIK process also isn’t nearly as long as JET’s was. So, I decided to do the harder application first. (JET is also more competitive than EPIK~)

      I was placed in a junior high school in Japan, and it was a ton of fun! The students were super adorable. But, I also didn’t have as much responsibilities as I would have liked. I definitely helped out whenever I could, but compared to the workload I have in Korea right now, it was really different. But, it really depends on what level you are teaching. (I’ve heard teaching high school in Japan is definitely hard work!)

      Hope that was helpful! If you have any more questions, please feel free to send a message!

  • Go Finance Yourself!

    Sounds like a pretty awesome experience. I have a friend who taught English in Costa Rica for two years. He loved it!

    That’s a good list of tips you laid out. Number one is the most important to me. I was taught to pay myself first when I first started working and it’s been the biggest contributor to my financial success. Your other tips are great as well.

    Thanks for sharing!

  • Yvonne

    Great post! Love how positive and inspiring you are.
    I’m just creating a website about teaching English in different countries. It provides some basic information and job opportunities. Still working on it but the jobs are already online:
    Maybe we’ll find something to work on together.

  • Mrs. Picky Pincher

    It’s so funny because this is something I considered during college. My sister lived in Korea at the time and I had the chance to visit them–it was such an awesome place. 🙂

    I really think teaching abroad is a great way to establish yourself. My sister was friends with many American English teachers in Korea who stayed for 3 – 5 years. They were able to set up a nice nest egg and savings the entire time since many of their costs were covered by their teaching program. Heck, one guy even decided to live there permanently because he loved it so much. 🙂

  • Chris

    I don’t understand how you don’t have to pay income taxes? I thought US citizens had to pay income taxes even if they were working abroad?

  • Colin @ rebelwithaplan

    I’m teaching English in Thailand right now. It’s been wonderful but you are right that you don’t make (and save) as much here as you could in a place like South Korea. I’ve been looking at teaching in South Korea and doing it at a hagwon. The general consensus being that hagwons can be bad but if you do a bunch of research, you can find a suitable one. Plus they pay slightly higher than public schools, usually.

    I think I might go to Korea after I do my working holiday in Australia. Starting that in April!!

    • Amanda

      I wonder if you made it to Korea!! Yeah, I’ve heard that hagwons can suck, but if you do your research, you can find neat gigs! I had a friend who worked at hagwon and she loved it. She didn’t have as many vacation days though. I think EPIK contracts are more generous with vacation days. Teaching English in Thailand must have been cool!!

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