Tuesday, November 10, 2015

teaching internationally: what we make and what we spend

I know a lot of people think it is unseemly to talk about money and income-- especially using concrete numbers-- but I wish other international teachers would. When we were job hunting, we had no idea how to interpret the data schools were giving us. We also had no idea what was "normal" or the kinds of questions we should ask.

Since my blog is starting to become more and more popular with people looking to teach abroad, I am going to ignore the hush hush policy so many of us employ in regards to pay talk, and I will let it all hang out in order to highlight important information.

3,000,000 New Taiwanese Dollars

This is what we make annually as a married teaching couple, and yes, we are paid in the local currency, and you know what-- so are the teachers who work at the richest and "top" international school in the country. Obviously, this can have its flaws. For example, when I first moved here and today, the exchange rate was 30 NTD to 1 USD. In 2015, it was 33. In 2013, it was 29.

Why does this matter?
Here's why:

Today's exchange rate means we make roughly $100,000 USD yearly 
2012's exchange rate would mean we make $104,000 USD yearly
2015's exchange rate would mean we make $91,000 USD yearly

Ouch. Quite a difference exists between those three numbers. You need to know if you will be paid in local currency, which is actually really common, and you need to keep your eye on how it fluctuates. At the end of the day, though, this is 100% out of your control and a risk you will have to accept.

However, you absolutely control one element of this, which is deciding when to transfer money. Now that we have paid off our student loans, we never have to transfer money unless we want to. We check the exchange rate daily and wait until it is in our favor to transfer money. The only catch? We can only transfer $10,000 USD a day, so it's not like you can transfer a year's worth of money at once.  

We consider ourselves exceptionally lucky because we can save a gigantic portion of our salaries.

$400 USD per Month

Our necessities cost us about $400 each month. Here is a breakdown of our monthly averages for the things we have to pay for.

RENT: $0 monthly
GROCERIES: $200 monthly
ELECTRICITY: $150 monthly
WATER: $5 monthly
GAS (for apartment): $25 monthly
GAS (for two scooters): $25 monthly
Internet: $10 monthly

Please note the following:
  • We get free housing, and we are very pleased with it. It's a three-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment in a nice neighborhood by a lake. The school pays for our rent so we never see a bill or have to think about rent. Our rent would likely cost us $500 a month, so that is another $6,000 USD to add to our school's benefits package.
  • Utilities in Taiwan are exceptionally cheap; our water bill is often $9 USD.
  • Garbage services are free island wide.
  • Our scooter insurance is a minimal fee paid once a year. 
  • Taiwan has socialized healthcare, and we each pay about $50 USD per month out of our paychecks to receive good healthcare. Our total out of pocket expense when visiting the doctor or dentist is usually about $5 USD. 
  • We do pay taxes, but Taiwanese taxes. Annually, we lose $2,500 USD between the two of us. We do file U.S. taxes, but we file an exemption. As long as we individually earn less than $90,000 USD annually, we do not have to pay U.S. taxes. 
  • We get free airfare every summer to visit home. Our school pays for a direct flight from Taipei to Seattle on the airline of our choosing, EVA Air. That is another $2,500 USD we can add to our school's benefit package.
  • We get nearly $2,000 USD per person per year for professional development; we can use this money to pay for credits towards Sean's master degree or my clock hours. 
  • We get a $500 shipping allowance at the beginning and end of our contract. This allowance is used for extra luggage at the airport or boxes sent through the post. 
  • We get paid 12 times a year, even during the 3 months we have off.
  • All said, in addition to our salaries, our school provides us with an additional $13,000 USD in benefits between rent, airfare, shipping, and professional development funds. 
You may be looking at this list thinking what about other bills? We don't have them. We don't have cell phones, so we don't have to pay for a plan. We don't have TV, so we don't have to pay for that either. We don't have credit cards, so there is no monthly payoff we need to make. We own literally everything we have. If we wanted to, we could get by spending only $400 USD a month, which is how we paid off over $50,000 of student loans in the span on one year.

What does all of this information mean month-to-month and long term?

It means we essentially have $85,000 - $90,000 USD left over as true disposable income (depending, of course, on the exchange rate at the time we transfer money). 

Therein lies the rub for international teachers; you cannot just look at the salary a school offers and then say yes or no to a job offer. You have to factor in other things like perks and cost of living. It takes a lot of research on your end, but that research is pivotal. Looking at the salary offered in Zurich, Switzerland would make you think you were going to be rolling around in a pile of money. However, after factoring in the lack of perks like free airfare or housing coupled with a high cost of living, you may be lucky to break even. I know a person who worked at the American School of Paris, and then broke contract and left because she went into debt living there.

My salary is roughly $55,000. It's less than what I was making in America. It's less than plenty of other international schools. While it's easy to say nah, I can do better than that and then accept a position in Japan or Holland that pays more, you would actually be in a far better situation in Taiwan with my salary, so tread carefully and crunch your numbers.

Obviously, my numbers are only valid for me. I work at a mid-level school in Taiwan. Some schools pay less, some pay more. Some won't provide free housing. Some won't provide free airfare. What is true for one school in Taiwan is not true for all schools in Taiwan. However, I think if you recruit through International School Services or Search Associates, you could easily find a situation that is similar to ours.

I am not a hermit, but we intentionally live a very frugal lifestyle. I like to eat out, go to the movies, and travel too. I am not suggesting to anyone that we will definitely save between $85,000 - $90,000 USD each year we are in Taiwan, but I am saying that we could. It is a choice that we will have, and we just work at a mid-level school. Imagine those married teaching couples working at top schools.

Is that a worthwhile trade-- leaving home to become more financially secure than you could have ever imagined?

Maybe. Maybe not.

That is something you have to decide for yourself.

However, for someone like me who enjoys the adventure of expatriate life, the financial freedom I have found since moving to Taiwan is certainly a boon I am grateful for everyday.

As recruiting season is upon us, here are some questions I think you should ask before signing a contract with any international school:
1. In which currency will I be paid? 
2. Is housing provided? 
3. If not, is a stipend provided and will that stipend cover all of my rent? 
4. Will I pay taxes, and if so, at what percent?
5. What other deductions will come out of my paycheck?
6. Will I pay my own utilities? 
7. Will healthcare be provided? 
8. What kind of retirement, if any, is provided?
9. What banking options are available?
10. Do you provide airfare/shipping allowances?
11. Are there bonuses?
12. Can I see a pay scale and a pay stub for someone with my education and experience?

And the most important question to ask:
Can I speak with someone currently at your school to better understand the cost of living? 

This thread might also be a good resource, but I have learned to take everything with a grain of salt. People are looking for different things in schools and experiences, and it can be hard to read in between the lines. I know a couple moving onto their 5th international school in the span of one decade. To me, that sounds exhausting.

However, it is absolutely true that you never really know what you are getting yourself into until you arrive. 

That too is a risk international teachers have to accept.


  1. Thank youuu for this! My partner and I are thinking of teaching English next year so all the info I can get is the best!

    1. So, this is only valid for teaching at an international school. I have no idea about teaching English. I definitely think the $ and perks would be a lot less.

  2. This is an excellent posts for people who are looking into international teaching. I teach at a mid level international school in Venezuela. There are many benefits (like getting a 4% retirement match from my school), but the biggest downside is the portion that I am paid in the local currency. Even within Venezuela, the percentage in the local currency can vary from 0-50% of your annual salary, and considering that the currency becomes worth less each day, it is best to be paid in dollars. This is also a problem for my friends teaching at international schools in Colombia. Always check what currency you will be paid in!

    -Amanda at http://teachingwanderlust.com/

    1. We are kinda looking at those 25% raises as potential retirement savings. There are so many things we love about Taiwan and my school, so we are just really unsure about leaving.

  3. This is an excellent post - thank you for your transparency! My husband and I work in sports overseas, and the salaries/benefits are all over the map! We may go into international teaching eventually, and it's good to hear honest feedback. Those questions for interviews are soooooo important. And your line about Saudi Arabia had my husband and I laughing so hard! Keep up the great teaching work and enjoying your life abroad!

    1. We talked about in passing. Like, "let's move to Saudi Arabia for 2 years, make $350,000 and then move somewhere else", but, we can't really picture ourselves doing it.

  4. These are great tips! We look at the same information when choosing schools abroad.

    1. It's always such an ordeal. I dread the day we decide to leave Taiwan.