During my senior year of college, while most of my peers were contemplating the pros and cons of inner-city versus small-town teaching positions, I was attempting to sell my family on the benefits of teaching English in China.
Getting paid for a near-immersion experience was great, but, they wondered, was it prudent to take a job that only paid $500 a month? Even the fact that airfare, housing, utilities and visa fees were included didn’t help much.
Fast forward to 10 months after I left for China: I arrived home for summer break with $2000 cash in my purse. That was enough to win the naysayers over pretty quickly.
Saving more than one-third of one’s income is pretty impressive. It was enough to pay off more than a year’s worth of student loan payments, which meant I could afford to go back for another year of teaching and exploring China.
Considering living in China? Here’s how it can be both a great experience and a money-saving strategy.
Small Towns Offer a Low Cost of Living
Market-fresh food was available every day and to ensure freshness, and the lowest prices, most vendors preferred to sell just what’s in season. In summer, watermelon cost less than 20 cents per pound; in winter that price quadrupled.
Although the markup at restaurants is huge, I was able to eat out three to four times a week. The cost of a five-dish meal, including rice or dumplings, for two to three people ranged from about $6.50 at a small mom-and-pop shop to about $24 at a higher-class restaurant.
Most large cities have numerous entertainment options, but I ended up in a “small” city of 800,000 where the only entertainment at hand was attending an English-speaking meetup, shopping, and hanging out with friends at KFC. Even when I didn’t buy anything, shopping was a blast; at small family-run shops, you can haggle over prices. This became a form of entertainment as my teaching partner and I tried to get the best possible bargains.
I also built up an extensive collection of DVDs (about $1.10 each) to watch in the evenings since our school had an early curfew. I’m quite certain the lack of traditional entertainment options played a huge part in my being able to save so much!
Travel is Plentiful and Affordable
I only taught 20 hours a week and had weekends and public holidays off, including the month-long Chinese New Year. Traveling by bus and train are the most convenient and affordable options for foreigners in China. The two-hour train ride to Beijing cost about $4 for a regular seat, and public transportation around the city was easy and cheap.
About once a month, we’d brave the crowds and go into Beijing to visit a museum or theater. Admission varied, but I don’t think I ever paid more than $15 for a ticket. I always skipped the overpriced on-site souvenirs and hit up the Silk Street Market in Beijing when I wanted trinkets to give family and friends.
Tips to Make the Most of Your Experience Abroad
Are you a college grad who’s looking to expand your resume and world-view, while padding your wallet? A great place to learn more about teaching jobs in China is the long-running Dave’s ESL Cafe.
Once you get a job, I suggest that you:
Pay attention to local customs and emulate them
Now, I don’t mean you have to hand-wash your clothes or painstakingly barter with every single vendor at the market, but do take some time to notice how the local culture works. Not only will people appreciate the fact that you’re trying to learn local customs, you’ll have an easier time making friends and people will be willing to barter with you, or just give you lower prices right off the bat.
It’s also cheaper to live and eat like a local. By opting for a glass of soy milk and a egg and veggie flatbread sandwich ($1.50) for breakfast at the market with your students or colleagues, instead of a latte and scone from Starbucks ($11), you’ll find it easy to stash away extra cash.
Pick up some side gigs
If your teaching contract allows it, take advantage of the extra work that will invariably come your way. Education is extremely important to Chinese parents; kids as young as two years old attend classes seven days a week. If your school objects to moonlighting locally, use your spare time to do online work such as freelance writing, teaching English online, doing surveys or starting a blog.
Learn the language
I went to China knowing just a handful of words and phrases, but it won’t hurt to start learning Chinese now. You don’t have obtain college-level proficiency, but learning numbers, some basic vocabulary and expressions will take you a long way both socially and financially. People will be impressed by your skills and be more apt to treat you like one of their own rather than a rich foreigner.
Your Turn: Have you ever taken advantage of working in an area with a lower cost of living to save money or pay off debt?
Charlotte Edwards is a freelance personal finance and parenting writer whose work has appeared in Incomes Abroad, We the Savers, and My Kids’ Adventures. She’s the wife of a great penny-pinching guy, and mom of two kiddos who are learning about saving and wise spending by earning commission for housework.