Is Location The Greatest Key To Your Financial Freedom?

My colleague at, Scott Burns, writes one of America’s most popular syndicated money columns. 

After four decades of financial writing, many of his long-time readers are entering retirement.  Some fear they’re running out of money.  For them, Scott has a viable answer. Find a great U.S. city where costs are low.  Occasionally, he explores retiring in a low cost foreign haven.

My readers tend to be younger.  They’re building their financial resources, paying off debts, and perhaps looking for a bit of adventure along the way.  Some don’t make a lot of money.  But like Scott’s retirement advice, the right location can make all the difference.

Canadian Andreas Clesle proves the point.  He makes just $35,000 a year.  But he saves most of it.

Here’s his story:



The author, Andreas Clesle, at Bagan


How would you feel about treating 7 friends to delicious Indian food—for just $11?

What about taking an hour-long taxi ride—for just $3?

A kilo of tomatoes?  Just 50 cents.

These are a few of the perks of living in a country with a low cost of living.

I moved to Myanmar (Burma) for the mysterious allure of a country that had been shut off from the rest of the world for 50 years.  

But I wasn’t expecting to save so much money. 

Having signed a teaching contract at an international school for $35,000 a year tax free, I figured I could live well, travel, and save.

However, after adopting a pay-myself-first mentality, I blew my expectations out of the water and have saved roughly $22,000 a year.

A married couple could feasibly save $40,000 a year.



Train station market


As is the case with most international schools, my contract includes furnished housing.  And my work commute is about 27 seconds.

Each month I save $2,000.

That leaves me about $900 a month for living expenses. Here’s how my monthly costs stack up, to give you a sense of how I achieved my savings:

  • Food costs: $150 per month
  • Eating out costs: $100 per month
  • Transportation costs: $40 per month (average taxi trip is $2-$3 and usually split with friends)
  • Insurance costs: $150 a month covers my share of the premiums
  • Maid: $100 per month full-time

The part that makes my friends back in Canada really jealous is my full time maid, who does my laundry, grocery shopping, and makes lunch and dinner.

Long gone is my old staple diet of kraft dinner and shwarma.

With a bustling local market 400 meters from my door, my maid spends roughly $20 a week on groceries.

When I’m at the local supermarket I’ll pick up a few Western products, which cost roughly what they would in Canada.



The neighborhood


A meal at a local roadside stand costs less than a dollar, a nice Myanmar restaurant would set you back about $3-6 a person. 

And a meal at a good expat restaurant totals $5-$10.

Are there a couple high-end places where you can spend $30 or more a person?

Sure, but when I can get the best burger in the country at a nice Western restaurant for $10, what more do I need?

Finally, with a surprisingly good national beer, a glass of the frosty stuff at my local beer station goes for a paltry 60 cents.



Stepping out of the front door on a random Saturday


Other than that, my tastes are simple. 

I spent $400 on a mountain bike–which reduces taxi trips.  I spent a few hundred dollars on art (a soft spot of mine).

At 6 foot 5, finding clothes is difficult in a country with an average height of 5 foot 6.

But I recently got a custom suit tailored for $80 and dress shirts at $10 apiece.

When all is said and done, I usually end up with $300 left at the end of the month, leaving me with plenty for the October, December, and April holidays.

Staying at guesthouses for 2 weeks of in country travel cost me about $400 last year. 

My general rule for South East Asian travel is $30 a day, even less if you’re okay with dorm rooms.



Traditional fishermen in Eastern Myanmar


With the exception of a few new ATMs, Myanmar is a cash-based economy.

I never dig into the money I set aside (at the beginning of each month) for saving and investing.

If I near the end of the month with dwindling cash resources, I just stop doing stuff. It’s the best budgeting strategy ever.

Does everyone I work with save as much as me?

No, I have colleagues who prove no matter how low the cost of living, it’s possible to burn through money.

However, most of my money-conscious friends still save around $18,000 a year. 

While being frugal and paying yourself first are key, if you have an opportunity to move abroad, consider a lesser-known developing country.

Living in a developing country (they’re not all as cheap as Myanmar) is not for everybody. 

But it’s an adventure of a lifetime. 

And it could turn out to be one of the best financial decisions you ever make.


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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8 Responses

  1. Nikkor says:

    Great advice and great story! After visiting twice, I would love to live in Myanmar.

    For those with legit edu credentials, teaching overseas is a fabulous opportunity. My wife and I are also intl teachers and we love it.

  2. DIY Investor says:

    Interesting. I would also be interested in how Andreas invests. I tell U.S. citizens in the U.S. that it is easy for them to invest. They have great,low cost funds, great retirement vehicles, easy access to financial information (i.e. live market quotes etc.), terrific estate benefits to pass on assets etc. etc. By contrast expats need to worry about currency conversion, keeping non residency status, finding brokers whose expenses they can understand, possibly paying huge inheritance taxes to a foreign country etc.
    I chuckled slightly when I read you have friends that despite the low cost of living they find it difficult to save. I’ve come to believe there are people you could pay $10 million/year. put them in the lowest cost of living region in the world and they would still be up to their eyeballs in debt 😉

    • I guess the old adage holds true Robert: it’s not how much money you make that counts, it’s what you do with what you make.

    • Andreas says:

      Hi DIY Investor,

      I am the author of the above article. To answer your question, I invest through TD Waterhouse using a non-resident Direct Investing Account. It was a bit of a hassle to set up but now everything is working well. I know there are concerns that Canada Revenue Service could claim it is a primary tie, though I have checked with them many times. I’ve made some mistakes, such as absent-mindlessly contributing to TFSA after being designated non-resident and having to pay a penalty, but I’m getting there. While I have always been a good saver, until I moved here I was using a financial adviser with mutual funds (funds of funds no less, the worst!), not knowing any better. Moving abroad and becoming a non-resident forced to me learn on my own and I am still learning. I am sticking with Waterhouse for now, but looking at other options, including DBS Vickers and TD Luxembourg.

      • DIY Investor says:

        Thanks for the reply. One of my favorite sites for Canadian investors is the Canadian Couch Potato. I have followed on the site with interest the experience of people trying to execute “Norbert’s Gambit” to get around excessive currency conversion costs. I’d be interested in if you find a better option than Waterhouse.

  3. Jonathan says:

    So where and how does he invest his money?

  4. GPS says:

    Thanks for this article. Great story!

    Andreas, I’m wondering about the difference between a non-resident and non-domicile.
    I am Canadian domicile, but am a resident of the UK. I still have access to Canadian TFSA’s this way.

    Did you decide to give up your Canadian domicile? Did you gain any benefits that way?

  5. Scott Rousseu says:

    Sounds like you are enjoying Myanmar, Andreas. I also have friends teaching there. I can tell you that location is certainly the key to my financial independence. Living on a university campus in the UAE paying no income tax and having basically everything covered by our employers, we can save over 65% of our income, travel 2 months a year, and enjoy life every day. Can’t beat it!

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