Teaching Abroad on the Debt-Free Journey: My Life in China

There’s nothing like a 10-year high school reunion to make you evaluate your life. Amiright?

You start thinking, “Have I achieved enough? Did I live up to the yearbook superlative, Most Likely to Succeed? Would that guy I had a crush on have a crush on me now?”

When I started comparing myself to classmates, I realized I had achieved a lot more than others, but I wasn’t fully satisfied. An undergrad degree from a great school, trips abroad and a master’s degree sure looked good. But my debt balance sure didn’t! Not to the tune of over $50,000.

At the reunion party in our hometown watering hole, I shared how I’d been thinking about moving abroad. Life in North Carolina wasn’t cutting it. The bills weren’t cutting it. All. Those. F*ckin. Bills. It seemed like I could never get ahead.

I didn’t have a husband, child or mortgage to really cause significant pause. I loved traveling. At this point, I had been to 9 other countries. Why not move away?

One great personality trait I love is once I get my mind set on something, I go for it.

That October in 2015—just a couple weeks after the reunion—I started volunteering with an adult ESOL class at a local community college. In December, I was an adjunct professor teaching 4 nights a week. I LOVED IT! In February, I started my online TEFL course. That’s when I learned China could be a lucrative place to teach.

In May, I accepted a job offer in China. In August, I quit my 9-to-5. On Labor Day in September, I sold my car back to CarMax to eliminate that loan and was on a plane to southern China less than 12 hours later.

My new life had begun!

Since moving to China in September 2016, I have:
– paid off more than $14,000 (26% of my total) in debt (medical bills, credit card debt, undergraduate student loans)
– saved more than $7,500
– paid nearly $6,000 for my teaching certification
– traveled to the U.S. twice, Thailand twice and Vietnam once

I’ve also met a lot of cool people and had kick-ass, priceless experiences in China and Hong Kong.

I asked folks on the ‘gram what they wanted to know about my experience. Here are answers to some of those burning questions.

Road to China Timeline Wise Woman Wallet

How do you like teaching abroad? How does it compare to working in the States?

I enjoy teaching children in China. I had only taught adults in ESOL classes for less than a year, so this was a whole new world for me. But when I look back over my life, I’ve always been teaching in some form or another. In college, I mentored high students and tutored for community service. When I joined the workforce as a writer and editor, I mentored college students.

While teaching English to the kids, I’m learning a little Mandarin and a whole lotta patience. Chinese parents are very involved and competitive. It’s understandable when you live in a country with a gazillion people. You gotta do a lot to stand out. They want the best for their kids.

What is it like being a Black woman abroad?

Check out my guest post for Love, Daring Greatly on April 9 to learn about my experience being Black, single and abroad—and being the Jackie Robinson of my kindergarten.

What type of school do you teach in?

I teach the lowest level (3- and 4-year-olds) in a 3-level kindergarten under a Canadian curriculum. All of the classes have a foreign teacher and 2 Chinese teachers. Teachers hail from Canada, England, South Africa, USA, etc. My work hours are 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. with a 3-hour lunch/nap break in the middle.

What’s your degree in and did you need any special certificates?

My undergraduate and graduate degrees are in the communications field. My second major in undergrad was Spanish. Since learning that I wanted to teach, I received my TEFL certificate through the International TEFL Academy and my Florida Educator Certification (prekindergarten-3rd grade) through TeacherReady. Many teaching jobs in China just require a bachelor’s in anything. I believe things are becoming stricter, so a teaching certification from your home country is preferred.

Where have you traveled? Have you lived in any other countries?

Before living in China, I traveled to mostly Spanish-speaking countries (Spain, Mexico, Costa Rica and Ecuador). I also hit up a few spots in Europe and Russia. All of my pre-China travel was through college study abroad programs. Before China, the longest I had been away was a semester in Spain.

Since I’ve been in China, I’ve traveled to Hong Kong, Thailand and Vietnam. I also visited the city of Beijing to walk along The Great Wall.

How do you find living in China?

I dig it. I’m pretty spoiled, to be honest. I’m at my 3rd school and 3rd neighborhood, and it’s my best setup yet. I live rent-free. My school pays my Chinese taxes, gives me a stipend for utilities and gives me a large flight allowance for trips back home. I could spend that money however I want, though. There’s no requirement to report how you spend it. I basically live in a hotel. I have a 2-bedroom apartment with a small balcony, washer, king-sized bed in the master bedroom and bathtub, which I didn’t have in my other 2 spots.

It costs only $15 USD for a housekeeper to do 2 hours of cleaning in my apartment, laundry included. It’s easy to get anything delivered–from McDonald’s to groceries. I’ve found all of my Western-friendly establishments, so I feel right at home with my friends. Restaurants offer everything from mac n cheese to tacos. I have most of the comforts of home, except specific hair and skin products I bring from the States. I live in a little bubble.

When I have to speak with Chinese folks, it’s a bit tough. I haven’t studied seriously in over a year. The language is intimidating at first, but I pick up on more things every day. I definitely face cultural differences and smog, but it’s nothing too bad. I have a great group of friends around me. That helps a lot.

What are the housing options?

For teachers, several schools will either give you a place to stay on their property or give you a housing stipend so you can find an apartment on your own. Bilingual housing agents are more than happy to assist you for a fee.

What company did you use to be placed?

My TEFL course offered great career guidance. I ended up getting connected to my 1st job in China at English First through Adventure Teaching at no charge to me.

I found my 2nd job by searching echinacities.com. A friend of mine suggested I apply to work in her school system, which is how I ended up working at my 3rd and current school.

How has living and teaching abroad contributed to your debt-free journey?

Debt Snowball as of April 2019 - Wise Woman Wallet
Debt hybrid (mainly debt snowball) progress as of April 4, 2019.

Besides what I’ve stated above (debt payoff, savings, traveling), I’ve learned about how the Chinese spend money. The rich people are stinking, filthy rich and very generous. They shop at high-end stores, travel internationally and hire housekeepers and nannies. Being around them makes me aspire for this type of financial freedom.

The folks who make less than me, like my Chinese teachers, are frugal and end up saving a lot and owning property. I admire them, too. A Chinese teacher was complaining to an Irish teacher about the cost of downloading a song for our students to use for graduation. She said, “It’s so expensive.” He asked about the cost. It was 2RMB! That’s $0.29. A quarter! That tells you about how frugal people can be. Being around folks who watch their wallets makes you do the same, too. So far, I haven’t heard of many Chinese people getting into large amounts of debt. That seems to be an American thing. LOL!

Being in China has allowed me to really focus on myself. I don’t check Facebook or my personal Instagram account anymore. That reduces the pressure to try to keep up with everyone else and their new houses, new cars and new babies. It’s been great to get in my zone and do what I love—teach and travel.

How much money do you have/make in China compared to the U.S.?

I take home $33,000 a year just from my salary. Tutoring income fluctuates but that can bring in an extra $500 in a good month.  I make a little less than what I made post-tax at my 9-to-5 in the States, but I don’t pay any major bills (rent, taxes, car note, car insurance, gas, utilities). That means my money stretch a lot farther.

Each month, I only pay a phone bill (about $20 a month for unlimited data) and anything over my utility stipend. I drive around my neighborhood on a $500 electric bike with a rechargeable battery and take public buses and the metro everywhere else. At the minimum, 80% of my check goes toward my goals and U.S. bills. The rest is for everyday expenses.

Expenses throughout 2016 to 2018Wise Woman Wallet

Are there any financial struggles in China that you hadn’t considered before you moved? How do you transfer money back home?

I struggled when I first arrived. At my 1st job, my check was going to Chinese and American bills. That sucked. My 2nd and 3rd teaching jobs offered free apartments, which greatly increased the gap between income and expenses. It’s all about the gap!

My whole time here, I’ve been tutoring on the side up to 4 days a week to bring in extra income. During my 1st year, it literally kept me afloat. The last 2 years, the extra income has been icing on the cake.

I transfer money back home through my Chinese bank. I don’t pay any Chinese fees to exchange RMB to USD. I wire transfer the money to my Capital One 360 account, which charges me $15 each transfer. The Chinese bank only charges around $6 (40 RMB). I make sure I send a large amount of money home to justify the fees.

Other folks use PayPal, use Western Union, physically take their money home or leave their Chinese bank card with a relative back home who can use it at a local ATM. That relative will then deposit the cash into another account.

Income Increases from 2016 to 2020-Wise Woman Wallet

Did you continue investing in a 401K or Roth IRA in the States?

No. I stopped investing to focus on debt payoff. Those credit card interest rates were killing me!

Do you still pay U.S. taxes on the money you make?

No. As far as I know, I don’t make enough “worldwide income” to pay taxes in the States.

What would you like to do when you return Stateside?

I’m not sure. I enjoy teaching English to speakers of other languages and teaching personal finance. I could see myself as an entrepreneur in either field.

What do you spend in a typical week?

I spent $150.35USD in a week most recently:

  • Saturday, March 30. TOTAL 172.16RMB=$25.63 USD. 7RMB for a split taxi ride with friends. 142RMB for eating vegetarian dishes at 3 restaurants on an all-day bar hop with friends. 23.16RMB to taxi from metro station to apartment.
  • Sunday, March 31. TOTAL 378.93RMB=$56.41 USD. 302.13RMB for delivered groceries. 76.80RMB for additional groceries and paper towels at a nearby store.
  • Monday, April 1. TOTAL 15RMB=$2.23 USD. 12RMB for Oreos. 3RMB online banking fee.
  • Tuesday, April 2. TOTAL 172.16RMB=$25.63 USD. 70.50RMB for toilet paper (10 rolls) and feminine products.
  • Wednesday, April 3. No-spend day.
  • Thursday, April 4. No-spend day.
  • Friday, April 5: TOTAL 271.70RMB=$40.45 USD. 220RMB for a soccer game ticket. 51.70RMB for bananas and Oreos for a friend’s game night.

Is it safe for US citizens to travel to China? What are the best months to go?

It has been safe for me thus far. You need a visa to cross the border, so plan ahead! I live in Southern China, which has a similar climate to my home state, North Carolina. A childhood friend visited me for Chinese New Year (Lunar New Year) in late January 2019. The weather was just right.

Did I answer your questions? Are you thinking about moving abroad? Let us know in the comments below. 

2 thoughts on “Teaching Abroad on the Debt-Free Journey: My Life in China”

  1. What a thorough article! My experiences pretty much line up with yours. Now when people ask I’ll just refer them here 😂 I was fortunate enough to come across someone who suggested teaching in China just before I graduated college. People are intimidated by the culture shock and the fact that salaries are lower than in the US, but the gap between salary and expenses is often quite large, especially after you get some experience under your belt.

    I’d already spent about 3 years in China by the time I started teaching in September 2017, so after the academic year I came back to the US to tutor online (that TEFL/TESOL certificate is super valuable) and study something else. I’ve managed to pay off about $15k of student loan debt so far (with some help from my mom) from teaching and it’s so freeing! 10/10 recommend

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading the blog, Sarabi! I’m glad you appreciate the thoroughness.

      My current school pays on a scale based on experience and education, so more experienced teachers could come out here and make more bank than me. Couples are doing it right by coming out here together, creating an opportunity to save or pay off debt even more.

      Kudos to you for knocking out $15,000 in debt! 👏🏾👏🏾👏🏾 If you don’t mind, please share through which company you’re doing online tutoring. Folks often wonder which companies are legit and worth their time and effort.


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