How an 8-Month Stay in China Fixed Our Money Woes

Shenzhen, China city skyline at Lychee Park.
SeanPavonePhoto/Getty Images

When I was 12, I took my first trip to France. The travel bug bit and I’ve been obsessed with seeing the world ever since.

Until only recently, however, every time I began to make travel plans, an inner voice screamed, “Oh no, how much is this going to cost me?”

Although I never regretted the experiences that came with a big trip, I couldn’t help but view travel as a drain on my bank account.

But moving to China with my husband for eight months completely changed that mindset.

How Did We Move to China?

My husband, Daniel, and I got married in October 2016. We both wanted to move abroad right away before jobs, kids or a house tied us down.

Three weeks after our wedding, we packed our bags and headed to Shenzhen, China.

There are numerous agencies that can set you up with schools or programs in China. We chose Adventure Teaching because Daniel used this company when he moved to South Korea for a year right after college.

Agencies like Adventure Teaching do have a few qualifications you must meet to apply. You must be a native English speaker and have an undergraduate degree. Your degree doesn’t even have to be in English or education! I earned my BA in communication studies, and Daniel has his BS in business and public policy.

Having a Teaching English as a Foreign Language or Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages certification can help your resume stand out to Chinese schools, but it isn’t required to apply to this kind of agency.

The best part is that using these agencies costs nothing! These companies make their money from the schools seeking teachers, not from the teachers seeking schools.

How Much Was Our Salary in China?

The agency placed Daniel and me in the same primary school, which paid each of us  $1,588 per month. This would have come to $38,112 if we had stayed for a full year.

That doesn’t sound like much, but when you consider the low cost of living in China (more on that below), we lived a surprisingly comfortable lifestyle.

Each of us also had a part-time job. For an hour per week, I gave private English lessons to a small group of 10-year-olds and earned $62. Daniel worked four extra hours per week teaching English at a private learning center, earning $176 each week.

Between our full-time jobs and easy, lucrative part-time jobs, we raked in about $4,200 per month total.

What Were Our Startup Costs?

We had to pay for our flights to and from China. We used Skyscanner to find the cheapest deals possible and paid just over $3,000 for two round-trip tickets from our home in Atlanta to China.

Adventure Teaching connected Daniel and me with a Chinese company called Seadragon. Seadragon served as a liaison between us and the school we’d been placed in. The company also helped us with practical needs, such as finding an apartment and making doctors’ appointments.

While Seadragon didn’t technically reimburse us for our flights, we each received a $1,175 bonus to cover transportation costs at the end of our eight-month contracts. Thanks to that bonus, we ended up paying only around $650 for two round-trip tickets to China.

We also had to pay three months of rent upfront. Our two-bedroom apartment cost $780 per month, so that totaled $2,340. Although Seadragon paid for our housing, we had to provide that lump sum on the front end as a security measure. Because SeaDragon paid us our housing allowance, we recouped that money in the end.

There were also various little expenses, like $29 for two metro passes and $15 per month for two phone plans.

How Did We Benefit Financially?

1. Cost of Living in China Was Low

Seadragon gave us a monthly stipend of $882 for housing, meaning we had about $100 left over to use as we pleased. No money came out of our pockets to pay rent. That’s not bad, considering the median rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Atlanta was $1,700, as of January 2017. Yikes.

Utilities weren’t included in the rent, so the extra $100 usually went toward those bills. Essentially, we didn’t have to pay for utilities, either!

During the first semester, our school provided free lunches for teachers, but that policy changed at the beginning of the second semester. From then on, each meal cost 74 cents. Still not a bad deal for a lunch that included meat, rice and two servings of vegetables.

The kitchen in our apartment left a lot to be desired, so we didn’t cook much during those eight months. (Plus, I’m an atrocious cook.) Eating out didn’t put too much of a strain on our wallets, though, because we were usually able to purchase a large, tasty meal for less than $3 per person.

2. We Could Afford to Travel

Remember when I mentioned the anxiety I experienced just thinking about travel costs?

Too often, it seems people have an “either/or” mindset. Either I can be financially responsible, save for a home and start saving for retirement early or I can travel the world and have unforgettable experiences.

Moving to China allowed me to achieve both of these valid goals.

Yes, flying from America to Asia can be expensive, but once you’re in Asia, traveling around is pretty cheap. Daniel and I bought two round-trip tickets from Shenzhen to Bangkok for only $175. Thailand is a very affordable country, so buying those tickets was our big expense for that trip.

Over the course of our eight-month teaching stint, we had the opportunity to visit Thailand, Japan and various parts of China.

3. I Had Time for My Side Gig

I won’t lie, teaching ESL in China is a pretty easy job. Yes, I was in the office 40 hours per week, but I only spent 12 of those hours teaching and three hours planning my lessons. After I was finished, I could use my office hours however I saw fit.

As a freelance writer, I spent a lot of that time building my side gig.

When I was paid for a piece via PayPal, I immediately deposited that money into our American bank account. We used that account to pay credit card bills and Daniel’s student loans, and to make automatic electronic fund transfers into our IRAs each month.

Thanks to all my free time, I was able to make enough extra money to cover all our bills back in the U.S.

4. We Set Ourselves Up for the Future

Daniel and I weren’t as financially prepared as we would have liked when we first moved to China. We had no money in savings.

After our stay in China, we now have $5,600 in our savings account. We could have squirreled away much more, but we chose to live a balanced life and explore the world instead.

I’m also about to open a savings account solely for future travels. I’ll put in just $100 to get it started.

We each contributed an extra $500 to our IRAs in our eight months in China. This was on top of our usual monthly contributions.

We brought plenty of money home with us to deposit into our checking account. Daniel starts graduate school this month, so he only works part time. Thankfully, working in China also enabled us to build a solid emergency fund in case money is tight during his first semester of studies.

Our transition to graduate school life, not to mention life back in America, isn’t looking as financially stressful as I once expected.

Are you in a place where you can pack up all your possessions and move to China? Doing so could actually give you a financial leg up!

My husband and I had an unforgettable time meeting new people, experiencing different cultures (and very different food) and traveling around Asia. And we feel much more financially stable than we did before we set out on this grand expedition.

Laura Grace Tarpley is a nomad and freelance writer who runs the blog Let’s Go Tarpley!, where she shares tips about budget travel and moving abroad. Follow her on Twitter @lgtarpley.