Why International Teaching Isn’t A Lucrative Gig

If you’re an international teacher at one of the world’s high paying private schools, you might initially think I’m a driveling fool for making a ludicrous claim.

But here it is:

 Most teachers at the world’s highest paying schools (such as Singapore American School, the International School of Bangkok, and Saudi Aramco) will eventually have far less money than the educators they left behind in their home countries.

They don’t have to fall short.  But most will.

Teachers at home live a back end loaded lifestyle, while many international teachers enjoy front-end loaded privileges.  Expatriate teachers, for example, often travel prolifically, live in relative luxury, enjoy higher salaries and pay lower taxes.

Like NBA basketball players, their rewards are up front.

Teachers at home aren’t exactly cash flush icons, but they enjoy back end rewards including Social Security (for Americans), Canada Pension Plan (for Canadians) and defined benefit pensions (provided by many public school systems).  Relatively speaking, expatriate teachers can suddenly become prodigal sons and daughters holding half-filled tin cups when they retire.

If you don’t pay into these programs, you won’t reap their benefits.

Sure, these national, provincial or state benefits could be shaved in the future.  But the world’s economic boat is a bit like Noah’s Ark.  The hare can’t gloat when the tortoise’s end of the boat starts sinking.

Regardless of what happens, most public school teachers have greater capacities to swim.

When John Wiley & Sons sent a copy of my book, Millionaire Teacher, to The National Post’s Jonathan Chevreau, he didn’t want to read it.  As a veteran finance writer for decades, he views public school teachers as automatic millionaires.  And he’s right.


“When a review copy of Millionaire Teacher first landed on my desk, initially I didn’t pause to look at it… From where I sit, any career teacher who makes it to age 65 is already a millionaire, since the rest of us would need $1 million of capital in order to spin out an annual $50,000 from it.

So my initial impression was that the very phrase ‘Millionaire Teacher’ was redundant.”


So…do international teachers need one million dollars in capital to float like a teacher in Pennsylvania or British Columbia? 

Nope.  They need a lot more. 

Besides their pensions, the average retired public school teacher has a few other goodies lined up as well:

  1. A mortgage-free home (and sometimes a second rental property)
  2. Between $100,000 and $200,000, or more, in investments
  3. Partial Canada pension plan payments (or its U.S.equivalent, social security).

International teachers need to create backward design models to plan for similar benefits.  And it can be done.  We can have the front end loaded thrills and the back end loaded benefits—in a different form.

But we need to follow a few important rules:

  1. Ensure that your investments are separate from your insurance policies.  Investment products that couple the two, should certainly be avoided.
  2. Don’t pay sales charges to buy actively managed mutual funds. 
  3. Save like crazy.

  You don’t want to rob Peter to pay Paul—especially when their names are synonymous with yours.

If in doubt, go back to rule #3: 

Save like crazy. 

If you’re living in a dream world, it could turn into something far less pleasant.

Andrew Hallam

I’m a financial columnist for Canada’s national paper, The Globe and Mail, as well as for AssetBuilder, a financial service firm based in Texas. I’m also the author of Millionaire Teacher: The Nine Rules of Wealth You Should Have Learned in School and Millionaire Expat: How To Build Wealth Living Overseas. My mission is to educate, motivate and inspire people on basic retirement planning and best practices for investing, using evidence-based strategies. I'm happy to comment on your questions.

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35 Responses

  1. woodes34 says:

    Sadly Accurate post Andrew!

    Most of my peers at a "preeminent" International School in Shanghai are living a life that would be considered beyond lavish at home. My wife and I are quietly smirked at for waisting our time on our two rental homes, or for keeping a small summer home in the states rather than traveling to a luxury resort for part of the summer. When I bring up the idea of investing regularly I am met with, "it's too confusing", or "I don't have that kind of extra money".

    We actually have a group who affectionately refer to themselves as the "Five Star Girls" Daily large Starbucks coffee, ten dollars salad lunches delivered to school, and two hour massages at the highest end places are their routine. I'm afraid many of these ladies are in for a five star reality check as they near retirement.

    • Woodes 34,

      Unfortunately, you're absolutely right. I think it should be the responsibility of the administration to show every international teacher the benefits they are relinquishing by teaching overseas–and then a sample plan of how they can make up the difference. The five star girls are giggling like drunks while their boat slowly fills with water–and for them, there's no land in site.

      International teachers like you won't have a problem. I know it's going to be hard, but keep throwing the five star girls bailing buckets. It's their choice what they'll do with the buckets you toss. But at least (if you'll pardon the mixed metaphor) you'll be bringing horses to water. Whether they drink it or not is up to them.

  2. Robber Baron says:

    It gets worse . . .

    Although the S. Korean government withholds national pension payments, most expatriates in here are eligible to cash-out upon departure. Instead of retirement funds, it becomes another 'bonus' for teachers, many of whom splurge rather than invest.

    The number of 65+ teachers working abroad because they can't afford to retire should be a wake up call to all.

    (Of course, some keep teaching because they love to, they can afford to volunteer or . . .)

  3. J says:


    Are you still teaching?

    Also, I have always wondered if you went over to Singapore because you had a large investment portfolio at a young age and they have very favourable capital gains taxes over there?

    I always enjoy your blog, especially as a fellow teacher. I took the other route where you can earn a higher salary and still pay into your pension by spending my first few years teaching in the far north. My wife, a nurse, and I were able to save $60K per year with our additional salaries and living extremely frugally. It definitely sets you up in the right direction.



    • Hi J,

      I actually moved to Singapore for the adventure of seeing the world. My decision wasn't a financial one.

      It does sound like you've done really well though. I'm really impressed by how much you and your wife were able to save. How long did you live up north? And where do you live now? Do you still save prolifically? Your story is pretty inspiring! And smart.

  4. J says:

    Hi Andrew,

    We are actually still up north in Salluit, Quebec. It is now our fourth year here although we missed most of the year with a newborn.

    We originally looked into working abroad, but decided on going up north as an adventure. Our plan was to work two years and travel. However, two turned into three plus a baby so now we are at 4. I think the 5th will be our last as we have accomplished a lot and the life here is more challenging than that in Montreal, where we are from.

    The whole process has put us far ahead of where we would be had I just worked in Montreal and has set us up with a ton of financial options moving forward.



    • Hey James,

      I told my wife your story and she was amazed. Out of curiosity, how much did rent cost? We're both so impressed by how much you two saved! If you ever move overseas to a place like Singapore, you'll likely save even more than that. Very few expats do, but I have a feeling that you and your wife and like my wife and I. And we can also save plenty.

      Great work! And you're right. It sure does give you more options in life when you don't become a slave to materialism

      • James says:

        Rent is $77.50 per pay, but with an additional $700 added on as a taxable benefit at the end of the year.

        Although we have been fortunate to put away so much so early in life, our savings are not that crazy.

        Combined we take home about 75K-80k per year, probably closer to 75K. Our rent is already deducted from our pay. Hydro is free (not a taxable benefit), this is part of the James Bay Agreement. So all we have to pay phone, internet, cable, food, and entertainment.

        Food is expensive (see below) but entertainment is negligible. The are no opportunities to spend money. There are no movie theatres, restaurants, etc. You are okay as you as you don't order too much off of amazon. This is by far the biggest "advantage" of living in the north. It also means that social gatherings are done at people's houses and are far less expensive.

        Our trips, $3000 round trip to Montreal, are also taxable benefits so I don't use them all.

        So in all, we take a ton of RRSPs (I count this in our savings number although I guess that money is worth less as I must pay tax on it.) which means we don't get hit with any of our taxable benefits and we get a small amount back.

        So as you can see, our rate of saving is not that crazy. I am not picking clams 😉 for food or anything of that nature. Although I am often given food by my students (arctic char, geese, polar bear, caribou) which lowers my food cost.

        Just for shock value, I will list some of the cost of food at the two general stores:

        – Pop is $2.25 (but it goes up to $4.25 in the spring).

        – Frozen pizza is $15

        – cranberry juice is $20

        – pack of grapes – $9.00

        In general, food that can be shipped on a boat, dry food, pasta, etc. is much cheaper than fresh produce. However, there is a new food subsidy program that makes healthy food not as overpriced as before. For example, milk dropped from $10 for 2L to $5.89.

        I guess this more than answers your question.



        P.S. I have a couple questions of my own:

        1. Are you still teaching or have you given this up for a career in writing?

        2. What are the salaries and benefits like at the international school compared with teaching in BC? Could you list the salary scale?

        3. How much is housing in Singapore?

        • Hi James,

          To answer your questions:

          1. Are you still teaching or have you given this up for a career in writing?

          For me, teaching is a lot more fun than writing. Although, I've been enjoying teaching half time this year, and writing on alternative days, I'll be back to teaching full time next year. I really love teaching.

          2. What are the salaries and benefits like at the international school compared with teaching in BC? Could you list the salary scale?

          Listing salary scales is always going to give misleading information because so much depends on costs of living, taxes, costs of coming back home for visits, costs of transportation etc. If you want to buy a 3 year old used car over here, a Toyota might cost you $70,000 or more.

          But you can still (if you're careful) save much more money at a high paying international school, than people typically do in Canada. Couples (with 2 kids, for example) can save much more than $60K per year. But very few of them do. Most people catch something I call "expat-itis".

          3. How much is housing in Singapore?

          My rent is $4,700 per month (roughly $4000 Canadian) but my school pays for it.

  5. AnotherReader says:


    What's your thoughts on rentals. We refinanced our properties last summer and put both on a 15 yr note. Both are renting for full payment plus a little extra. The rental allow for major (legal) tax deductions and in 15 yrs or less will be paid for in full (along with our current home). The will supply about 3.4 k per month once paid for. So with the rental income , tax deductions, and property value increase ( not great but an increase), seems to be more stable of a plan than markets which have been unstable for many years and no sign of recovery.


    • Rentals are great when the rental yields are high enough. And it sounds like you have an excellent plan in place. As for stock markets, they're never really stable (ever) but the 4% rule can be applied even when they aren't. From 1965 to 1982, for instance, the markets jumped sideways for 17 years. Yet investors still (even during that period) could have withdrawn 4% per year, indexed to inflation from a balanced portfolio of stocks and bonds. Dividends were very generous, of course, and interest rates covered the rest, in the bond department.

      The best time to add money to markets (and American real estate) are during times of duress and dismal outlooks, of course. With U.S. real estate especially in the dumps, and the stock markets going sideways, it's a great time for asset accumulators like ourselves.

  6. Darryl Stang says:

    Hi Andrew,

    While I understand and in many way agree with your perspective, there are some reflections. While living overseas people do live a luxuriant life style – above and beyond their means, they do at home as well.

    As well, many states now have done away with pensions, or their pensions have been dramatically reduced, and will continue to do so as long as our economies become more and more pinched financially.

    It is much easier to save overseas than it is at home on a teachers salary for sure. I have lived overseas for almost 20 years, and have been able to save a great deal, but it is the attitude you carry to focus on saving, and experiencing, that makes living overseas so great.

    On the side, Saudi Aramco, as I know now from personal experience as I am here now, is a clear outlier in teacher salary. Saving a $1,000,000 is no issue and can easily be done in a very short time. Maybe its for you?

    Good luck in your endevours.


  7. Hey Andrew,

    I hadn't thought of the pension angle in terms of needing a million in assets to spin off a $50k pension, but it makes a lot of sense. In this environment you'd need even more than a million, as the risk-free rate is very low.

  8. Thanks Darryl,

    I do know a teaching couple at one school who save $140,000 USD per year internationally. They're in Asia, not Saudi. Do couples usually (rarely, or never) save $140K annually at Aramco. I have heard that it's the highest paying school in the world, but I haven't yet heard of a teaching couple topping $140K in annual savings. What can you tell me. Always curious..


  9. bobbyb says:

    Hi Adam,

    Just finished your book. Have taught overseas for many years in different locales. 5 years in Vegas barely gets me vested. I just contacted Vanguard and they said only permanent residences can create an account with them. We do own property in Vegas but we are renting it out. We have UVL's, do you not recommend this? Can we change things up with Metlife and just get plain life insurance? We've taught in many places and I'd like to consolidate everything with Vanguard is this possible? We teach at the big school in Cairo at the moment, pay is good, but we still find it hard to save much, we can invest a little. But our kids school trips, 529 plans, uvl's are all taking things away. We don't travel extensively but a Christmas trip to Nepal and summer in the states even staying with friends and family is usually a 10K affair. Anyway I enjoyed the book, say hi to the Craigs for us!


  10. Frank Welker says:

    Great article. I have been internationally teaching for 10 years after leaving the US. Im actually heading to the other Singapore school (UWC) and hope to save a large chunk. But I think i will be playing catchup. If I have about 50K in stocks at the moment (age 40), diversified basically near your ratios – is it beneficial (I know it must be, perhaps the better question is how much) to try and catch up for previous follies and suffering from expat-itis?

    • Hi Frank,

      I think you should try to save quite aggressively. Yes, putting your money in U.S. and international stock indexes, with a bond component close to your age would be a good thing. But save considerably while you are here. You can still end up doing really well, and it's going to be a rewarding challenge when you see your net worth climb, thanks to your diligent savings. But as you mentioned, you are behind the eight ball a bit. All the more rewarding it will be, however, when you clear that eight ball and start working on the rest of the table.

      • Frank Welker says:

        Thanks Andrew. Having been in Singapore for almost a full year now and seeing how the economy is and how my salary plays out I’m pretty confident that you can save considerably here if you avoid some of the ‘typical’ expat lifestyle (still can’t get over the cost of cars here). Appreciate your reply. I’ve gone with DBS currently and while some fees are a bit high – the ease makes it worthwhile.

  11. David says:

    Just finished your excellent book. You rock. Ready to invest. A few questions first if I may…

    Wife and I in our first year at the best international school in Bangkok. She had no full time gig back in New York, so it was just me that walked away from a future fat pension by leaving my position after 10 years. Hoping our combined 130k here (tax and rent free) beats my single 100k salary with all the suburban expenses (mortgage, car, etc). We hope to save at least one salary here. Basically my question is: did we make a mistake? (No pressure!) Seems like it will be tough to save over 1million after sending my two little boys to college. Sometimes I feel like we should have just stuck it out back home, even though there are so many benefits to living abroad (another topic in itself). Please be honest. Thanks.

    Any US tax considerations for index funds I should know about, being that we plan to retire back in the US someday?

    Finally, you mention Vanguard Target Retirement funds in your book. Wow they seem easy. Any disadvantages vs. the standard allocation you recommended to Kris Olsen on p. 102?

    Thanks so much. You are a rare beacon of truth out there!


    • Amanda Brown says:

      Hello David!
      My husband and I are teachers — he is currently in the process of getting certified so we are living in New Orleans and will be teaching in the fall. What is it like at the school you are at? We taught a year in Saudi Arabia and decided that if he got certified (I’m already certified) that we would have an easier time finding higher paid jobs abroad. Then we will save up and buy homes to rent out and be landlords while we teach abroad. Do you both have Masters degrees? We are young and though I have over 5 years of part time teaching experience, we only have one year of full time each, and it seems to be difficult getting good positions. How do you recommend getting hired at the fancy schools abroad? I am not sure if I want to do Saudi again- or even the Middle East, would be lovely to end up in Bangkok or Singapore or something.


      • Leon says:

        Hi Amanda,
        I just read your post. I am from New Orleans (originally), left some years ago and ended up in Texas, via Atlanta and Florida. Taught in the UAE, in Abu Dhabi. Hated the school board (ADEC). Horrible, horrible experience. Stayed there two years. Many teacher leave all the time, every year. Now we are in China at a private international school. Love the people and the environment. Some of the big private schools are hard to get in, but it is all about timing and being consistent, etc. Hope you much success! Have you tried the job search fairs? Many hire from the fairs. That is one way to approach it, but there will be many many folks there trying to get in the same schools. It can be pretty competitive, but just be persistent in your endeavors. There are other schools that might not be as large as the popular schools in Singapore, Korea, Malaysia, etc that could be a good fit for you too. Just go on the internet for the countries that you want to work in, and look up the list of schools. Profile them, go to their web sites (if any), and go to the site called International School Review. You can see some comments about some of the schools that might give you a glimpse of what the environment might be like. But be careful, these will be opinions of others so take it as it is. just try to do enough research from forums, etc and take your time to decide. Best to you!


  12. Nube says:

    Hi Andrew. Great book – it's getting my husband and I to really talk about our retirement.

    One question that comes up: should we pool our money and invest together (in index funds of course), or separate and invest in different funds to build slightly different portfolios? BTW I plan to retire 6 years earlier than my husband.

    Thanks so much!

  13. Leon says:

    Hi Andrew,

    Just became familiar with your page and the dialogue of others. I am an expat teaching in China (from the US). Would like to teach in Singapore with a good curriculum and good paying. Have family of four. Taught overseas for about 4 years. In the performing arts. Any help in trying to find the “right fit” for me regarding good school for kids, and good pay? Here where I am is quite expensive. Was a bit shock about the cost of living as was told to me by some folks before we arrived. Also, I am 56. Do you for see that being an issue? I am not IB certified either but have a masters degree. Any thoughts, etc? My salary is not that competitive here.

    thanks – “EL Toro”

  14. Suzanne says:

    My only comment on this is that is would be hard pressed to find an American teacher that has not already met the requirement for Social Security’s “10 quarters” that must be paid to get the benefit. Anyone that had a job as a teenager has likely met this requirement. Of course SSA looks at your highest earning years in order to increase your benefit to the max (still not much, like $1600/mth) but this article appears to assume that those teaching abroad have not met this requirement and this lose this benefit. I just wanted to point this out

    • You are both correct, and incorrect Suzanne. Many of the Americans at Singapore American School have not yet worked their full 40 quarters in the United States.

      • Suzanne says:

        Yes, I meant 10 years (not quarters) based on 40 quarters. Let me ask you this though. In 2015, a person can earn 1 credit for around every $1,500 of taxable income they earn up to a max of 4 credits per year. There is nothing in the tax code that prevents those working abroad from purposely leaving some of their income taxable. In other words they don’t have to exclude all of it. (We do this ti get child tax credits we would otherwise lose.) Why not leave the amount needed to earn these credits taxable when those expats file each year and opt to pay into the SS system using EFTPS (Electronic Federal Tax Payment System which is free to use online.) You pay when you choose or opt to make a regular contribution. This would be a choice for those who wish to earn those credits and not risk failing to earn those credits. Just a thought.

  15. Shreya says:

    Hi Andrew,

    I wanted to ask you for some advice. I am an Indian citizen, and am currently in the U.S. as an international student, doing an M.A.T. in English. I just got my first international school job in Shanghai, and am going to become a middle school English teacher. I am 26 and will be getting a salary of around $45k- which to me seems like a huge amount after what I was earning in India.

    The first thing I did when I got the job was read your second book, recommended to me by an international teacher at ISKL, where you went to speak. It was a big eye-opener about some of the things I need to look out for. (For instance, my school has a Zurich based life insurance policy which I will definitely not be committing any money to, although I am a bit worried about how I’m going to wriggle out of it, because I did already sign the contract. I wish I had read the book before I accepted the job).

    While I am at an advantage because I don’t have to worry about the Western world’s cost of living when I retire (or go home for vacations), I still want to build up a strong portfolio and savings to secure my future. I am pretty frugal and have every intention of saving at least half my salary.

    My question is this- your book gives a lot of advice for investment to people who have already amassed some capital but there is no real information on how to get started. But you do say on multiple occasions that one should invest right from the start of their career, I’m just not sure how to begin! Especially since, much of what you talked about was for expats who are not of my nationality. I know I’m probably going to be a minority in the international teaching community for the rest of my working life- very few Indians follow this kind of career path!

    I guess I am asking you for any advice you can give, financial or otherwise, to a teacher at the start of her international school career. What were the things you would have wanted to know when you started working overseas for the first time?

    Btw, SAS is my dream school and though I didn’t hear back from the school in this round of applications, I fully intend to reapply when I have racked up a few more years of experience. I really loved your book, which explained so much so simply. (An English teacher who can explain finance terms and do mathematical calculations is indeed not something you find everyday). In fact, I asked my faculty director to make Millionaire Teacher required reading for our M.A.T. program- imagine how much beginning and preservice teachers would gain from having that knowledge right at the start of their careers! Especially since the book is far more relevant to them than it is for me, since they are all Americans and are going to be working here as teachers in public and private schools.

    Thank you for writing such a wonderful and inspiring piece of work. I look forward to hearing back from you. 🙂

  16. Chad says:

    Hello Andrew,

    One of your readers said this in the comment section:

    “There is nothing in the tax code that prevents those working abroad from purposely leaving some of their income taxable. In other words they don’t have to exclude all of it. ”

    Does this mean that if I opt to have a portion of my income taxed (if my final yearly income doesn’t exceed the earned income abroad cap), that I can then contribute to an IRA?

  17. Alfred says:

    Thank you for your insight, Andrew.

    I taught for 9 years in Colorado before moving to Colombia to teach at an IS. I did some research and discovered that PERA, the retirement program in Colorado is underfunded by billions. And Colorado isn’t alone, as many states have the same problem.

    Can teachers that are 20-30 years away from retirement like I am really depend on these vastly underfunded programs for retirement?

    • Hi Alfred,

      I have heard that Social Security is also underfunded, while others argue against that. I believe that Colorado state teachers, retiring 20 or 30 years from now, will have far more disposable income than most international teachers, when they retire. Even underfunded is better than zero funded.


  18. Katherine says:

    As an F.Y.I: in the state of California in the U.S. teachers pay into either CalStrs or CalPers, a teacher- funded retirement fund. We do not pay into Social Security and can, therefore, not draw from it when the time comes. The exception is if one worked in a non-teaching capacity and payed into Social Security at one time, but then the benefits drawn are relative to the time payed into SS. I am a credentialed, working teacher in the state of California.

  19. Candacee says:

    I am 34 and have taught abroad for 12 years, saving the best I can. Using Andrew’s advice, I invested everything I had into a diverse set of Vanguard index funds about 6 years ago. Two years ago I was able to buy a few small investment properties worth 100,000 each. I have roughly 70,000 in my vanguard funds. This school year, I hoped to save around 35,000. Some mid-year updates to my properties sapped some of my savings, and I ended up with only 21,000 for the year to put into my Vanguard funds.

    This year, I planned to use Vanguards automatic investing tool, and put away 3000 every month, in order to save 36000 for the year.

    This year, however, I also realized that I can opt to pay into social security. This will take an extra 7500 from what I was hoping to save for the year, and indeed slow my saving and investing rate over time.

    My question is- should I opt in to social security while I am working abroad, (this will mean paying social security tax for about 8 more years just to qualify) or rather save and invest aggressively to generate my own retirement fund?

    Thank you!

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