How I travelled Asia for a year on a kindergarten teacher’s salary

Teachers don’t make a lot of money, especially early childhood teachers who, arguably, have a an important job towards creating a harmonious society. The foundation of well, everything happens in early childhood, so dedicated, patient, and well-trained early years teachers are necessary to incite a love for learning, for laying the groundwork that leads to a child’s later personal engagement with education.

But, although necessary, that shout-out to early years teachers is beside the point. Even with this huge social responsibility upon our hands, teachers, in general, don’t typically earn an impressive salary. My monthly income as a full-time preschool teacher in Toronto was just shy of $1800 USD. And when you consider the average cost of living in Toronto, without a partner to share living costs with, I might have had a couple hundred left over after rent that I could use either for public transit to get to work, or to purchase enough boxes of Kraft Dinner to inspire a complexion that rivals a jack-o-lantern’s.

I wasn’t quite ready to give up on teaching all together though just because of the modest income, so decidedly, I moved after a couple years exploring some different life options. I took my Western education and teaching experience to Indonesia where I committed to a two-year contract as an early years English teacher. In regards to finances and life experience it was one of the best things I’ve ever done. (If you’re interested in teaching abroad, see some exciting opportunities at https://www.esl101.com/esl-jobs)

The salary I earned teaching in Indonesia was more than what I made in Canada, and as per the conditions of my contract, the school I worked for paid my living expenses like rent and utilities. I had a disposable income comparable to that of a person earning roughly $50K per year, who also has a mortgage, car payment, etc., etc., so my leftover salary at the end of the month was pretty average. Instead of spending it on things, I used it for awesome travel escapes and otherwise saved much of it for the proverbial rainy day. As it turns out, I’ve had a year of rainy days now hopping around Asia, taking some courses, trying out some new experiences, and my two-year Kindergarten teacher cushion is still supporting me.

So, what’s the secret? It’s not just about being a good saver or living frugally. Here are some ways you can stretch your earnings out like a juicy wad of Bubblelicious bubblegum in order to travel for a long, long time.

Stay in one place a little while.

Not only does this give you a deeper sense of one place and greater insight into a culture, you can negotiate less for accommodation if you are renting long-term. Compare the average nightly cost of staying in a budget but decent hostel or guesthouse in Chiang Mai, Thailand at about $10, versus an apartment with kitchen for $150 a month. Also, I’ve discovered that getting to know a place makes it feel familiar, a bit more like home, so I’m less tempted to buy a bunch of meaningless trinkets as symbols of having been here and there and everywhere. And I feel a bit more like a local than a tourist when I rent long-term. Check out Airbnb for great long-term rentals, use Couchsurfing for the added social bonus, or take a look at networks like Workaway or HelpX that may provide room and board in exchange for work. If you’re the kind of person who likes to be on the move constantly, consider combining your travel and accommodation costs by taking overnight flights, trains, or buses to get from one place to the next.

Set a budget and record your spending.

Maybe this sounds a bit obvious but it’s tougher to keep up with than you’d expect, especially at the start when your bank balance is dotted with an attractive number of zeros. Spending is easy and sometimes automatic because everything costs money. Everyday, every time you grab a meal or a coffee or throw in a juice at lunch instead of taking advantage of free water you’re spending and it adds up quickly. Then, use the first few days in a new place as a point of reference for your average daily cost of living and stay within that limit.

Choose what really matters to you.

Experiences? Food? Comfortable accommodation? Material tokens of your travels? Whatever is most important to you is likely where you will deposit most of your money so know this off the hop and reassess it from time to time. Recently, I’ve begun spending more money on better accommodation and healthier food because a better night’s sleep and a clean body better support my health so I can continue to travel for a long time and do all the things I want to do. But of course, all this means I have less money in my budget for other things.

Stick to WIFI.

Although in most Asian countries you’ll find easy access to a SIM card and cheap data, it’s still an expense and every little bit counts. Using the free WIFI offered at cafes and restaurants means two expenses in one if you grab a coffee or juice at the same time. An added bonus is that you starve what can so easily be an addiction to your phone, and a distraction from the gloriousness of the present moment.

Eat at the local markets and BYOB.

In Asia, you’ll always find the best variety of food at the best price in the local markets–local prices that also apply to tourists! Restaurants always charge more than markets or street food stalls, and some even add on a percentage for gratuity. And, if I want to have a few drinks out one night I could easily spend $20-$30, which could get me a gazillion local bus rides or 90 bowls of the best noodle soup. So, I keep a flask filled with my favourite spirit and bring it along with me. I order one drink from the bar and keep it topped up with my own stash, always being aware of my limit and drinking responsibly of course!

Opt for the flex package.

Travelling puts you in a space where you really don’t know what will happen from one day to the next, even if you’ve planned your days for months in advance. If you’re flying, unless the flight is really cheap, add-on the flex benefits for an extra few dollars. Time and time again I’ve booked my flight in advance either because I had to in order to gain entry to a particular country or because I am simply impatient. Time and time again I’ve cancelled flights because other adventures have presented themselves and I opted to take advantage of them instead of commit myself to old plans. And I’ve lost money doing this so recently I started adding on the extra $20 or so for the flexibility that I may just change my mind… again.

Think about it.

It’s not about how much money you have but how far you stretch it. Besides saving hard and limiting my spending during those two years I worked in Indonesia, I adjusted how I travel. In short, it’s not about where I’ve travelled as much as how I’ve travelled. I’ve been to some amazing, remote tropical islands, the kind with those gorgeous turquoise and white sand beaches depicted in travel magazines. But I don’t camp out in luxury resorts drinking $20 cocktails or taking taxis to get from one place to another, I keep it comfortably simple and treat myself even once in a while.

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