Last year, elementary school counselor Nathan Schelble bought a $280,000 home in East Aurora, New York. He paid cash. It took him just three years to save the money.
No, he wasn’t running a drug business like the teacher in Breaking Bad. Instead, he and his wife, Stacie, had worked for 6 years at Singapore American School (SAS). Their nine-year old daughter attended for free.
It’s one of a few dozen international schools where teachers might be able to save as much as the average doctor or lawyer. Superintendent, Chip Kimball says, "We are committed to providing competitive salaries and benefits to attract the best faculty in the world.”
It doesn’t make sense to compare salaries at different international schools. The costs of living vary a lot from one country to the next. Some schools pay for housing. Others give generous subsidies so their teachers can fly home each year. Income taxes can be nosebleed high or surprisingly low. The more relevant question is, how much can teachers save? Some couples can put away an entire salary. The Schelbles did even better, saving about $100,000 a year.
“We traveled whenever we could,” says Nathan. “And twice each year, we flew back to see family in Buffalo, New York.” Cars in Singapore can cost $100,000 or more, so they took public transit and taxis. “We lived pretty well,” says Nathan. “We even had a full-time live-in maid.”
If you think these figures are amazing, you’re right. An annual survey from the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) indicates that the median 401(k) account balance at the end of 2013 was $18,433 and that the average balance was $72,383. And that’s after years of accumulation, not savings in a single year.
Joseph Granzow may not be as frugal as the Schelbles. But the former Iowa resident still saved plenty of money at the International School of Kuala Lumpur, in Malaysia. “ I lived quite extravagantly,” he says. “I had a maid who came to my house twice a week for half a day. I probably ate out 4-5 times a week. And I traveled during every long weekend and vacation period.” Thanks, in part, to the school’s Provident retirement plan [much like a matching 401K] the single teacher saved between $35,000 and $40,000 per year.
The International School of Bangkok (ISB) offers a similar type of incentivized savings plan. It helps Steve Perkins save about $58,000 a year at ISB. The 49-year old Canadian is a single, divorced, father of two boys, aged 12 and 14 who both attend the school. “I live the dream,” says Steve. “I have a car, a maid who cooks for me and does all the household chores. I pay her a great wage, and would consider her almost part of my family. I eat out at least once a week, and travel quite a bit.”
Of Steve’s colleagues at ISB, the most frugal couple he knows saves about $120,000 a year.
Jane Smith and her husband Joe (I changed their names to protect their identities) are among a small group of couples saving more than $100,000 per year at the Canadian International School of Hong Kong. “Most of our colleagues save less,” says Jane, a 45 year old American. “And some might be shocked to learn that there are couples with children that save this much.” Hong Kong, after all, is an expensive city.
“Our house is just 700 square feet,” says Jane. “But that’s normal for a teacher in Hong Kong.” Jane and Joe avoid expensive dining, saving it for special occassions. But like many expats, they travel a lot. “We spend summers and winter breaks at our house in Spain each year. And we take a lot of trips from there to France and Italy. We also splurge on a 4 or 5 star beach week in SE Asia every Chinese New Year.”
Like Hong Kong and Singapore, Japan can also be an expensive place to live. But teachers at the right schools can still save plenty of money. Andrew Hutton and his wife, Saki, saved $80,000 last year. He works at the Yokohama International School. Saki works at the International School of the Sacred Heart in Tokyo.
“We could have saved more,” Andrew says, “but we spent $20,000 on a wedding.”
Most of the world’s highest paying schools are in Asia and the Middle East. But no quick trip through wealth building schools would be complete without considering Saudi Aramco Expatriate Schools. Brian White and his wife, Kristine, have worked there for the past 3 years. Next year, their savings goal is $110,000.
“Last year we saved $87,000, and we splurged on some really expensive trips.” The couple, originally from Springfield, Illinois, took their five-year old son on a five-week trip to Iceland, Amsterdam, and Copenhagen. They took additional trips to Austria, Singapore, and the U.S.
“The company requires that we leave Saudi Arabia for at least three weeks a year,” says Brian. So they give us a very generous amount of money to fly home each year. Last year, our check was for $24,000.”
But even at the top international schools, there are always some who save nothing. James Dalziel, Head of UWC’s Tampinese campus in Singapore offers words to remember. "Earning a great salary can make a big difference. But the discipline to save what you make is far more important."
*All figures above have been converted to U.S. dollars
Andrew Hallam is a Digital Nomad currently living in Chapala, Mexico. He’s the author of the bestseller, Millionaire Teacher and The Global Expatriate's Guide to Investing: From Millionaire Teacher to Millionaire Expat.