How to Become Financially Independent by Travelling

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FIRECracker

FIRECracker is Canada's youngest retiree. She used to live in one of the most expensive cities in Canada, but instead of drowning in debt, she rejected home ownership. What resulted was a 7-figure portfolio, which has allowed her and her husband to retire at 31 and travel the world. Their story has been featured on CBC, the Huffington Post, CNBC, BNN, Business Insider, and Yahoo Finance. To date, it is the most shared story in CBC history and their viral video on CBC's On the Money has garnered 4.5 Million views.
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Photo credit: Roderick Eime @ Flickr

When I asked about your #1 obstacle, you gave me:

1. Debt
2. Investment Knowledge
3. Lack of money
4. Fear
5. Lack of Budgeting Skills/Tools

And now that we’ve tackled debt, investment knowledge, and fear, today we’re going to tackle lack of money.

One of things I discovered after travelling the world is that North America is HELLA overpriced! And especially since Canada now has the MOST expensive housing in the entire world, relative to salary:

housing
source: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-10-21/gen-y-should-consider-delaying-home-purchase/7951922

So no wonder my friends keep complaining that they can’t get ahead unless they make a 6-figure salary. And even the people who happen to make that salary, complain it’s still not enough “to live the good life”.

But you know what? Only looking at salary, but ignoring expenses is like evaluating a company without looking at the cost of running it.

In reality, someone making $30K/year but lives in a country that costs $14/year is WAY better off financially than someone living in Toronto making $100K, but spends every penny of it. Especially if that country’s tax rate is only 3%, most of that person’s costs are covered by work.

Where does such a magical country exist, you ask? Well, today on the Millennial Revolution, we’re going to meet a fellow Revolutionary who’s going to tell us all about it.

colby-collage

Meet Colby Charles (who writes at That Charles Life), a Canadian who escaped his 9 to 5 and 30 years of corporate drudgery by moving to Gwangju, South Korea to become an English teacher.

As a result, he managed to save $20K/year by travelling. I know friends who make $100K/year but can’t save even $10K a year, and yet Colby makes only $30K/year but manages to save $19, 200! With only a 3% tax rate in South Korea, that’s a savings rate of 66%! Which means Colby is only 10-15 years away from retirement. Nice! So without further ado, take it away Colby!

How did you find out about this opportunity?

My cousin taught in Thailand for a few years, about four or five years ago. So I’ve known about this wild opportunity for a while. I also have a buddy in the city I’m located – Gwangju. He’s been here for about 7 months now, . He kept messaging me saying what a blast it is and how much I’d love it.

I just couldn’t hold off any longer!

So you quit your job, sold everything, said good-bye to all your friends and family and moved to South Korea?! Did you kill someone? How many and where are the bodies buried?

I’m gonna’ hold off answering that last part until I look into the Korean extradition laws, haha.

Something along those lines. No one believed me at first, then said I was crazy. I mean, it is kind of crazy but inside my mind nothing else made more sense. I needed to see the world, and the ability to save around $20,000 sounded too appealing.

I didn’t sell everything..

Before I came to Korea I was selling cars. And there was a time when I was sipping on the consumer Kool-aid…

I have a car financed. I am in the process of selling it, but will be losing money through interest, taxes, and fees. It really bugs me now that I bought that car. I owe more that what the car is worth. Live and learn.

I’m going to be making some posts on my blog in the future how buying new, or even pre owned cars – luckily, mine is pre owned. I was smart enough to know at the time buying new would be a horrible idea – can be detrimental to your wealth building.

Cars are arguably a bigger sink of money than houses

You’re right, cars are the worst. Especially white vans driven by impatient assholes trying to run you off the road. GRRR *shakes fist*…

….wait, what were we talking about again?

Uh…oh right. Korea.

So what’s the requirement to be an English teacher in Korea? Do you need certifications? Experience?

Korea has some stricter requirements than other countries, and even they don’t ask for much.
You need a university degree – of any variety. Not only education related. And a clean criminal record. No experience necessary.
It’s nice because it’s really quite easy to get into, but as someone who has a business education and knew very little about teaching prior to this, it’s been a shock. Some schools are about entertainment, others are about education and performance. My school demands the latter.

Did you hear that readers? If you didn’t end up forcing yourself into STEM like me, and the job prospects aren’t looking good for you, you still have a fighting chance! Especially if you manage to live on only $14,400/year in South Korea, like Colby.

How exactly is that possible?! People easily spend that much on Canada Goose jackets and double-doubles in Toronto! (And to our non-Canadian readers, that’s Canadian-lingo for “double condos, double car”. And no, I totally didn’t just make that up.)

That’s how much I’m aiming to save over the year – not including my severance pay and pension payment, which are each equal to an extra month’s pay. So, ~$4,800. Totalling near $20,000 over the year.

I aim to live on about $800 a month. That gives me a buffer to do some traveling while I’m out here, as well as the ability to save 20 g’s. I’m planning to spend New Years in Vietnam and hopefully get to see the Great Wall of China, or Japan – since I now know I don’t need to break the bank to visit Japan. Thanks to reading Millennial Revolution!

That’s just under $10,000. Even crazier!

This is possible because your rent is covered while teaching out here. As are your flights here and home, as long as you finish your year. Really my only costs are food, a gym membership, booze and bus tickets. I also pay my utilities but those are cheap. Like $50 a month.

Taxes are about 3% – as compared to the minimum 25% in Canada. So I save a ton there also.

I don’t have a cell plan out here because wifi is so prevalent. So no big monthly phone bill. Living without a fully connected phone has been an interesting experience.

I live conservatively, but I feel I live very well. I don’t have to budget my every move that’s for sure.
I estimate i’d need to make around $50,000 a year in Canada to live and save the way I am here in Korea.

3% Taxes?! Holy shit, somehow you’re getting all those sweet government services for free! Who knew there would be so much to like about Korea? Speaking of which, what do you like the most about living in Korea and what do you miss from home?

I’m from Winnipeg so I’m used to the prairies. Korea is 70% mountains, I love seeing mountains from every direction. The food is great, the people are awesome, and public drinking is all good here. So I can buy booze at any convenience store and walk down the street drinking it. That’s nice haha.

I miss seeing friends and family everyday, but with how connected we are via the Internet I can still talk to them daily. I also really miss western breakfasts. I’m a big Eggs Benedict fan.

Western breakfasts huh? Yeah, can’t say that I feel the same way. I’ve been slurping noodle soups for the past few months and I don’t miss eggs and bacon AT ALL. Or maybe it’s the western prices I don’t miss. Who knows?

So what advice do you have for readers who would like to follow in your footsteps?

My advice for someone that’s been thinking of doing something like this, is to do it. Take the plunge. I’ve only been gone for 2 months but the personal changes I’ve had so far are profound. Really happy I went forward with coming here, it’s an amazing experience.

Anyone who is serious can follow my blog for information or contact me directly through my blog. I’m working with a brilliant recruiter who helped me through the entire process of getting a visa and finding a job. Unlike many recruiters who just place you, get a commission and you never hear from again, this company has been following up with me and offering extra help. They are great and I’ll happily set anyone up with them.

Recruiters who are actually USEFUL? REALLY?!

So once your teaching contract is up, what’s your plan? Are you planning to stay in Korea or come back to North America?

That is the big question! I think it’s too soon to tell, but I could see myself spending more time out here. I would probably move to Seoul though, it’s an unreal city.

I’m writing this on a bus back from Seoul. A few friends and I spent the weekend doing some Halloween celebrating in Itaewon, the foreigner neighbourhood. Easily the best Halloween of my life.

busy street korea

Despite running some scenarios where I could easily retire early and financially independent in 10-15 years doing this, I don’t think this is for me long term. I’d like to pursue an entrepreneurial path or potentially accounting. I really enjoy finances, and helping businesses or people with theirs would be rewarding.

We were in Seoul recently, and one of my favourite things about Korea are the Jimjilbangs (Korean Spa/bath house), but as a prude North American, it was really weird being naked in a room with all those people. What was your first impressions of Jimjilbangs?

Admittedly, I’ve yet to check out a Jimjilbang! I hear they are relaxing, and a cheap way to spend a night if you are only passing through a city. I plan to go soon. For me, I grew up playing hockey so showering with a bunch dudes doesn’t really weird me out.
I’m comfortable with myself!

Seriously dude, you have GOT to try the Jimjilbangs! For a measly $10, you get to spend a whole day at a spa! Why don’t we have such things back home?! WHY? WHY?!

Now that you’ve spent sometime living abroad, what’s the funniest or weirdest thing that’s ever happened?

Having such a culture shock from Korea I feel I don’t even know how to benchmark weird anymore. I think what I found most odd and funny is that I get stopped in the street lots and told I’m handsome by other men. Korea is a bit of a vain society and they’re very vocal about it. I’m not complaining, it’s a lovely little ego boost. I just wish more Korean women would tell me that!

That. Sounds. Weird. Hm…maybe Jimjilbangs aren’t such a good idea after all…

Okay, so what do you now know about teaching in South Korea that you wish you had known before you started?

Oh boy, where do I begin.

I wish I had known to use google maps my first day in Korea. Google Maps is a lifesaver, I don’t know how people travelled before this app. A lot more trial and error, I imagine.

I wish I had known to ask if there were any other foreign teachers at my school. I personally will never work at another school being the only foreign teacher. If I didn’t have my friend here in this city I would be having a tougher experience.

I wish I had dug deeper into my day to day responsibilities. I have to do a lot of desk warming and lesson planning. That’s actually a bit unusual for teachers to be doing the amount of lesson planning I do. Desk warming is fairly common. Desk warming is where you must stay at school even when you have no lessons. Since I have to lesson plan, it gives me time to do that though.

I also wish I had known not to buy that car.

Those are just a few of the things I wish I knew. I will be posting an article soon on what teaching is truly like and questions first timers can ask in their interviews with schools.

I’m also going to be coming out with a good piece on what living in Korea is like, in the next week or so.

Thanks for having me on guys, I love what you are doing on Millennial Revolution. If anyone wants to contact me about teaching abroad please don’t hesitate to contact me through my blog www.thatcharleslife.com.

And if you two ever return to Seoul let me know! We’ll meet up for some soju shots.

So there you have it guys! If you’re adventurous and want to travel around Asia while saving 20K/year, this gig is perfect for you.

If you want to read more about Colby’s adventures in Korea, check out his blog at www.thatcharleslife.com.

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36 thoughts on “How to Become Financially Independent by Travelling”

  1. Such a cool story. As an English major and former, the allure of teaching abroad has always been there.

    It’s probably not in the cards for us now (planning kids and whatnot) but maybe we can swing something as part of our FIRE plan. Who knows?

    One thing to remember: percentages matter and yes, saving 66% of any salary puts you on a path to FI very quickly. But the kind of FI limited if your nest egg was based on saving two thirds of a $30k salary.

    The path you & the Wanderer took (achieve FI nest egg in high COL area, then move around) gives you WAY more options and security. All roads lead to Rome of course.

    1. That’s a good point, but Colby said he’s not planning to retire. Once he’s FI, he can choose to work as little or as much as he wants. And his plan basically proves that F-U money is the real goal here, not early retirement 🙂

      Wanderer and I decided to retire but other people can choose to accomplish FI part not the RE part of FIRE, like Colby. As long as you can save and invest to become FI, you have options.

  2. Once again, the old adage holds true: It’s not what you make, it’s what you keep!

    That tax rate of 3% is pretty unreal!

    Saving more than $20k in Canada should be very possible…but then again, he’d be missing the cool experience in South Korea.

    That, I think is the key. He’s not stuck in a shitty basement apartment eating ramen every day. Colby’s saving and having a great time!

  3. That’s a great use of geoarbitrage. My brother did a similar thing living and working in China for several years after he graduated college. Even though he wasn’t making a ton, he still was able to save a ton of money simply because his expenses were so low. Similar things can be done in the US (and Canada, I imagine). I know for myself, living in the midwest of the United States means my cost of living is much, lower, as compared to my friends who insist on living on the coasts.

    1. That’s the key. When it comes to saving and investing, your expenses are just as important as your salary. Making a 6-figure salary is not really that worth much if you live in NY, Vancouver, or SF, since most of it gets eaten up by expenses. Getting a lower salary but in an inexpensive part of the world, lets you get a head much faster.

      That’s why the British couple we met in Vietnam said “we could’ve stay in Britain and got ahead SLOWLY, or move to Vietnam and already be ahead.”

  4. Good geographical arbitrage.

    Note to people with brown skin: an organisation in China wanted English teachers from the U.S. I have a Masters Degree in English Literature, among three other degrees. I was told by a recruiter (Chinese-American), “Sorry, the Chinese are specifically looking for WHITE Americans. You are qualified, but they will not accept you, ‘cos when they say ‘American’, they mean ‘white’.”

    I believe her.

    1. This is true and I’ve talked to many teachers about this. Korean school are unfortunately more interested in White teachers, there is some racism here.

      But that being said, South Africans are one of the top population of teachers; of Caucasian or African descent.

      And I’ve met many teachers of many ethnicity in all different roles from public, to private (Hagwons) and I even know a Filipino girl in the coveted University English teaching role.

    2. Oh no. So sorry to hear about that 🙁 Stupid racist assholes.

      What about other places like Japan, Korea, Malaysia? I remember reading a blog from an American American English teacher in Japan, and we recently met an AirBnB host from Tunisia, teaching English in Malaysia.

  5. I think it takes a very specific person to succeed in teaching ESL abroad on any permanent basis. For most it is treated like a gap year, where you go for a year (maybe two), make a bit of money and see a new part of the world. I’d be curious to know how many actually end up staying forever. Probably not many, hence these countries are always looking for ESL teachers and it’s generally a piece of cake to get into.

    It is almost always the same kind of person who does it as well. Usually someone young, single and recently out of school with limited job prospects at home, who sees an opportunity to travel and make a bit of cash. This is exactly what I was like when I came to Canada, but the difference is the culture here is very similar to the culture in the UK. I know if I had gone to a non-english speaking country there’s no way I’d have coped.

    I don’t think most people could hack it in the long-term as the cultural difference is just too vast once you go from being a “tourist” to becoming a resident of the country. Living in a country where the vast majority of people either don’t speak English or very poor English is very difficult in the long-term. You could probably survive on English, but eventually you would need to learn the local language to actually appreciate life there.

    I imagine he basically lives in his own little bubble at the moment of teaching, playing tourist and hanging out with his friend who told him to come over. Once this bubble is gone and he has to stand on his own two feet in a radically different country that he can barely communicate in, he will probably return home and be back to the 9-5 he so hates.

    Much respect to those that go and do it, it’s a heck of an experience I’m sure and I don’t think I could hack it. Coming to Canada on my own at 24 was tough enough, so going to a non-English speaking country must be insane. I don’t think for most people this is really a long-term solution. If he says he would be in the same boat financially by earning $50k a year here, that’s pretty attainable (it’s actually basically the average wage in Canada), especially for somebody with a degree. He could easily move from Winnipeg to a city with better job prospects if need be.

    I guess the point I’m making is yes, he could live and work in Korea and retire in 10-15 years, but I highly doubt he will want to as the cultural difference is far too vast.

    1. You talk like learning a new language is this impossible thing. While not easy, it’s definitely possible, and people do it all the time – just look at all the immigrants who come to Canada from Asia and Europe.

      I think we English-speakers are especially guilty of believing that it’s strange and foreign to be in a place where our native language isn’t widely spoken. If you’re open to interacting in the language of your new home, I think you can start picking up basics pretty quickly, even if you won’t be perfect.

      My parents did it when they came to Canada from Switzerland in their 20s, and my sister did it when she moved to Spain from Canada at 23 (and to a lesser extent for the year she spent in Asia before that). I haven’t really moved anywhere, but am still conversational in two languages other than English, and started to pick up basic Spanish phrases upon spending a few weeks in Peru. Just take classes and put yourself in situations where you’re forced to talk to people in your new language. Most will appreciate your effort and try to help you.

      1. I’m not saying learning a new language is an impossible thing (though English speakers tend not to bother for the most part) it’s more so the cultural aspect. Very, very few English speaking westerners desire to live in non-English speaking countries because of the cultural barrier. I don’t know a single person who has moved to a non-English speaking country.

        Non-English speaking people move to Canada, the US, UK, Australia etc. so frequently because they desire the lifestyle, freedoms and cultures of those countries. They’re willing to put up with the language barrier in exchange for the various luxuries and freedoms they get. I’ve never met a person that desires to live in Korea. Visit, sure, but not live.

        Are there people that do want to? Sure, there are some, but not many and for the most part I stick to what I said, the vast majority treat ESL teaching as a gap year kind of trip rather than a potential emigration.

    2. Living in Korea is definitely no easy task, I’m whole-heartedly agreeing with that. And I would say the average is probably 1-3 years. Of course there are exceptions to the rules who make a career of it. I mention this probably isn’t for me long term.

      Granted, people who retire at 30, or before 50 for that matter are exceptions to the rule in Westernized society.

      I would argue the majority of people who make a life for themselves where they grew up are also living in their bubbles. Living around the world, like you and I have, gets you out of that bubble.

    3. It is difficult to immerse yourself into a new culture, but I think it’s also very rewarding and changes you in a positive way.

      And now that more and more expats are moving to Asia, it’s also much easier to meet other expats and create your own little community. In fact, in Thailand, I would regularly socialize with other expats in ways I never would’ve in Canada. You immediately feel that connection, because you know you’re both in that “fish out of water” situation and you can bond over stuff you miss from back home.

      No solution is going to be perfect for everyone, but this is a useful alternative solution for people who didn’t take the STEM degree 6-figure salary route. It proves that you have options to save money, regardless of your degree and situation. And that there’s always room for adventure!

  6. Other than paying for school for our 3 kids (or dealing with homeschooling them!) we could definitely get by as cheap as we are in relatively low cost US of A. And we’d have a dose of different culture and a taste of different foods. Mexico might be my top pick due to proximity to the familiar US, and the short flights back home (and the food, and the low costs and the … 😉 ).

    1. I keep mentioning Asia and forgetting about Mexico and South America! I bet there are English teaching positions there too and lots of good value 🙂

  7. Yes, expenses are more in Canada, but wages are correspondingly higher, which means Pensions and Investments net a higher return. My plan is to make the money here, but spend it overseas. My wife is Taiwanese, and I have strong connections to Thailand, and Australia.

    We will probably rent out, or sell the house (depending on the market) and live in Taiwan for several months of the year. And travel to other destinations.

    Any stories on Retireee’s in any of the places you have travelled?

    cheers

    1. ” My plan is to make the money here, but spend it overseas.”

      Smart!

      And yes, we have lots of retiree stories from many of the places we visited. Like the couple from Britain who retired and moved to Vietnam (they said they had to decide between getting ahead SLOWLY in Britain or already be ahead in Vietnam. It was a no brainer and they are MUCH happier now. No plans to go back).

      We also met Jeremy and Winnie, who retired and are traveling the world with their kid. She’s Taiwanese so lots of ties to Taiwan (their son was born there).

      Then there’s also my friend’s parents who retired in China after working in Canada for 30 years, and the Canadian expat community in Cambodia.

      So we have many many expat retiree stories 😉 And not one person regrets moving overseas.

  8. Yay, Korea! Lol, Jimjilbangs scare me. I played team sports in the US and idea of public nudity still makes me uncomfortable. I heard the jimjilbang food is awesome though.

    My sister and hubby went to Korea to teach at the university level (most universities require masters degree). 12-18 hour work weeks with 4 months of paid time off. What a work life. They had a kid while over there, hospital and daycare was next to nothing. They saved a lot and got to experience many great things.

    1. “12-18 hour work weeks with 4 months of paid time off. What a work life.”

      Holy shit. With that kind of job, no need to retire at all! Don’t think you’d ever find a job like that in North America…unless you create your own.

  9. Hey FIREcracker, been lurking for a while now: love your site and I find that saving is a lot easier now that each dollar has a purpose – FIRE. (I assume the FIRE in your name means FinancialIndependenceRetireEarly?)

    Can you talk a little bit about what you have to do to pay Korean taxes instead of Canadian? Something tells me it’s not quite as simple as moving. (I’m referring to the whole mysterious process behind Canadian tax residency)

    Who should consider becoming a non-resident? Who shouldn’t? What do you and Wanderer do?

    1. I believe my school takes care of dealing with my taxes for me. And I let CRA, Health Canada and anyone else I could think of know that I would be away for the year, maybe longer.
      My understanding is you still need to file taxes as a Canadian, listing international wages. But the way I interpret is you can actually go a year or two without filing as long as you don’t owe?

      I could be wrong. Consult an accountant!

    2. “I assume the FIRE in your name means FinancialIndependenceRetireEarly?”

      Yes! Gold star!

      I’ll let Colby answer the question about the Canadian taxes in Korea. In our case, Wanderer and I are keeping our Canadian resident status. We just had to tell CRA and Health Canada that we’re travelling for a year. And during that time, we cover our healthcare costs with travel insurance.

  10. I also did the ESL teacher thing in Seoul for 2 years from age 24-26. Was a very fun experience but I wouldn’t recommend people to stay much longer than that. Treat it as a gap year where you can enjoy yourself. You can save a bit of money with the free apartment and cheap cost of living but in your mid twenties it’s good to just enjoy yourself and not live like a hermit to save 10 grand or so. Looks like this guy is enjoying himself and going to parties etc so good for him. I see others who went to korea and were so focused on saving money that they never experienced any of the fun things that come with living in a totally different part of the world. J

    Sometimes people can fixate too much on the savings part of the equation rather than the salary part of the equation. In Korea I was earning around 30k and maybe saved about 10k, I now live in Vancouver and earn about 140k and save about 40k. Remember if you earn 30k a year, the maximum amount you can save a year is…..30k.

    If you can put focus into improving your skills and salary it enables you to save a lot more also. I don’t even focus on saving that much really, just avoiding the expensive things like buying a house, bmw etc allows the cash to pile up in the bank account.

    1. Valid points. However, if a company is willing to pay you 6-figure salary, they expected you to work like crazy. Otherwise, why would they pay you that salary? This gives you NO TIME to build anything outside of work or to enjoy life. We had the fat salaries…but along with it came stress and no time to build anything outside of work.

      In Colby’s case, because he has normal work hours, low expenses, and the ability to travel, he is living a higher quality of life. And not only that, he also has time to build businesses on the side. This is why a lot of tech startups (like SimpleTax) were built overseas. People earning a 6-figure salary in North America generally would not have the flexibility and time to do this. They are too busy being trapped on the treadmill.

      That being said, improving your skills to increase your salary is never a bad idea. I’m curious as to how you went from 30K to 140K salary? Would you mind sharing your story so other readers can learn from you?

  11. Unrelated Question:

    Let’s say that markets take a huge dip following the US election (regardless of who wins). Will you take advantage and go on a buying spree to make quick return once the market inevitably buoys itself?

  12. Question for all, which is the best airline ticket site? my wife booked with Justfly.com and a friend recommends Red Tag… ?

    Reviews were not great for Justfly but the tickets were dirt cheap… (not a recommendation)

    cheers
    D.

    1. We like to use http://www.google.com/flights/ because it shows you a calendar view of the prices, so sometimes you can get a good deal just by shifting the the date slightly.

      I tried justfly and I don’t think it picks up the budget airlines. When I did a search just now, for cambodia to thailand, justfly gave me 160 for the cheapest flight, whereas google flights found one for just 60.

  13. I can answer the tax question, I have looked into this, but yes consult a Canadian Tax expert.

    You may claim offshore residence, if in fact you have no investments and property in Canada, you will have to check the CRA to answer what they mean buy this. (severe all ties
    with Canada).

    As a non Resident, you don’t have to pay Canadian Taxes,

    If you qualify, when you come back to Canada, you are exempt from claiming world income, but be careful, if you own property overseas, and sell, it is taxable when you enter Canada
    .
    My Australian buddy got nailed with this….

    cheers
    D.

  14. People should check out the JET program for teaching English in Japan. I did it over twenty years ago. It was life changing! I saved money, traveled all over Asia and discovered that I loved teaching. I am still in touch with many of my Japanese friends and have gone back to visit a couple times. This program is excellent and run by the government. It is open to people from many different countries too. https://jetprogramusa.org

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