This Guy Paid Off His Student Loans… By Moving Abroad

international school
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I decided to become a school counselor after I was almost killed on 9/11.

I wanted to help kids make good choices and show them that even if they weren’t the greatest students — like me — they could still be successful. That meant leaving my financial career behind and going back to school.

I enrolled in a two-year night-school program in August 2003, financed the tuition with student loan debt and worked in construction during the day.

When I graduated in May 2005, including interest, I had nearly $80,000 in debt.

And I’d pay it all off in only four years. All it took was a move to Asia.

Becoming a School Counselor

Counselor salaries are high where I lived in Long Island, NY —

but so is the cost of living and the competition for these jobs. One counselor opening had about 300-400 applicants, so the odds that a newbie could break in were unlikely.

So I looked elsewhere, and landed my first job in South Carolina.

My first paycheck was $1,800 (net) for the month. With a student loan payment of $446, plus $550 in rent and other expenses, there was little wiggle room. My savings from my construction job dwindled quickly.

I took a second job at a beach bar, but it wasn’t sustainable for the long term. I didn’t get into education to become extravagantly wealthy, but I wanted to be able to afford to buy a house, get married and have kids someday.

Fast forward two years, and I moved to Denver, CO. I got a job at a great school and the pay was a little higher; I earned $2,700 net per month. I managed to save $200 a couple months out of the year.

But with the Great Recession in full swing, my school district’s budget did not pass and I was in danger of being laid off. I asked my friend and colleague for advice, and he told me I should get a job at a school overseas.

Working as a School Counselor at an International School

I didn’t speak a second language, and didn’t want to teach English as a second language. So how would I get a job in another country?

My friend introduced me to international schools.

“The curriculum at most of them is in English and they are just like high schools in the U.S.” he explained.

“They cater to a variety of students whose parents live and do business in that particular country. Like kids whose parents work at a U.S. Embassy or work for a big corporation with an international office.”

Then he mentioned the pay.

“You most likely won’t have to pay U.S. taxes on the earnings because you are earning it outside of the U.S. Plus, sometimes you’ll get a free or heavily subsidized apartment.”

Come again?!

I was 32 years old and had never thought about moving to another country. University of Northern Iowa was about to host an overseas recruitment fair where hundreds of international schools would recruit teachers for every grade level and discipline, and I decided to attend.

At the fair, I was offered three jobs, each in a different country and on a different continent.

After some initial hesitation, I accepted a job in Tokyo. It completely and utterly changed the course of my life for the better.

What I Made as a School Counselor in Asia

My pay in Japan was a little over $6,000 (net) per month. This is comparable to other international school salaries in Japan.

In addition to pay, the company offered a housing stipend and free flights home every other summer.

After paying my rent and keeping a chunk for everyday expenses, I put about $2,500 toward my student loan payments that first month.

I went from saving $200 per month in Colorado to saving $2,500, give or take, in Tokyo. I traveled a lot; some trips were paid for by the school and some I paid for out-of-pocket.

After three years, I moved to Shanghai, China, which had an even better compensation package: free housing, free health care, free flights home each summer, a $2,500 move-in allowance and a $1,000 yearly health allowance.

In Shanghai, I saved about $3,200 per month. I even hired a maid, like many of my colleagues had, at $3.50 an hour for three hours, three days per week.

My salary in Shanghai was $60,000, but I saved 2/3 of it. After four years, I fully paid off my $80,000 in student loans.

Total Compensation: The Secret to Saving Abroad

The cost of living in Shanghai is low. But the reason I saved so much is because just about everything I would pay for in the U.S. — a utilities allowance, personal leave, tuition reimbursement and maternity/paternity/adoption leave — was included in the compensation package.

The school paid the Chinese taxes and my relocation fees; many schools will cover the relocation fees to a certain limit. It also offered transportation to and from school on a nice coach bus. This is common with top-tier schools.

Lower-tier schools can’t provide as much, but they still offer a great deal — they want to make it worthwhile for employees to move far from the U.S.

There are other benefits to living overseas: not having a car to maintain and affordable health care.

When my friend went back to the U.S. for the summer, he found out he needed a root canal. He didn’t want to pay the $1,000 out-of-pocket expense, so he just waited to get back to Japan, where he gladly paid $75 for it.

Who Can Get Overseas Jobs in Schools?

International schools hire single teachers, teaching couples, teachers with children and even couples where only one spouse teaches.

They also need school psychologists, librarians, administrators, speech pathologists, special education teachers, technology integration experts and curriculum coordinators.

There are thousands of jobs at international schools. Here’s a list of institutions abroad.

A friend of mine recently got a job in Shanghai teaching high school science. She has one child, a non-teaching husband (who has been subbing part-time at the school) and two dogs (you can usually bring them with you).

The family is able to spend a lot more time together at night and on the weekends because the full-time maid does all the chores, some cooking and the dog walking.

This year, after a little splurging, they will be able to save $2,500 per month, not including the 10% retirement bonus at the end of the school year — on one salary!

Another colleague moved overseas with her teacher husband and two children, and they saved a small fortune — $17,000 a year — on diabetes medication they would have paid for out-of-pocket in the U.S., because it’s covered under the international school health plan. $17,000!

The Difficulties of Living and Working Abroad

Being away from loved ones is the hard part.

The time leading up to my move was filled with stress and anxiety. Many people questioned my decision, even at the last minute.

I remember getting out of the car at JFK airport and turning back to see the tears running down my mom’s face. However, I had to see this through. If I tried it and it didn’t work out, I could always come home — I was going to be laid off in Colorado, anyway.

A typical international contract is two years. If you break your contract, your odds of getting another job in the international market will be difficult.

The market is small — unless there’s a serious health issue or death in the family, cutting a contract short is highly frowned upon. Remember, schools spend money to recruit you and it’s tough to find a replacement in some locations.  

The key is to be open to different regions of the world and different countries. Every country has issues, and there are no perfect jobs or perfect schools.

Life After International Schools

Once I paid off my debt, I didn’t owe anybody anything. I also had a sizeable amount of money saved.

I traveled to more than 25 countries in the last six years, and I loved it. I was also ready for a change.

Once again, I enrolled in school — though I’m paying in cash this time around.

I’m pursuing a graduate degree in International Transportation Management and getting a 3rd Mate’s Unlimited License. When I’m done, I’ll get to drive big ships and travel the world.

I was the oldest student in my Indoctrination class at 38 years old. My nickname for the 10-day program was, affectionately, “Dad.” I passed the physical fitness test with no problem, even beating out some 18 year old kids — the same age as the students I counseled a short time ago.

It’s never too late to do anything in life.

Your Turn: Would you ever move abroad and teach at an international school?

Chris Polley is a full-time graduate student at SUNY-Maritime pursuing a graduate degree in International Transportation Management with a 3rd Mate’s Unlimited License. He will always be an advocate of getting out of comfort zones, International Schools and teaching overseas. His Kindle ebook, “Teaching Internationally: Expand Your Teaching Options While Seeing The World is available on Amazon.