Reader Case Update: The South Korean English Teacher Returns

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On this blog, we have a lot of fun. We make a bunch of dick jokes, we make fun of home boners, we do a WHOLE lot of MATHING SHIT UP, and, occasionally, we change people’s lives. Hopefully for the better.

But as much as I’d like to take as much credit for these cases as I can, the truth is the only thing we can do here is trivially minor. We do some analysis, we provided a few insights, maybe suggest a few changes people could make, and that’s pretty much it. A blog post by itself does nothing. You have to actually go out there and do some with it.

And what continuously amazes me about the people we feature on this site is that they’re such smart, capable, and motivated people that they don’t just read books, get ideas, and just sit there doing nothing. They go on to actually make big changes in their lives, and the results have been amazing. We are truly humbled to have played even a small part in these people’s lives, and today I’d like to introduce one of those people.

We first met Colby Charles two years ago in this post HOW TO BECOME FINANCIALLY INDEPENDENT BY TRAVELLING. At the time, Colby was just starting off on his journey to FI in a rather roundabout way. Instead of trying to hack it in a big expensive city, he moved to Gwangju, South Korea to teach English, and because many of his living costs were covered by his employer, and the income tax rate in South Korea is so low (3%, bitches!) he immediately went from struggling to stay afloat to a 66% savings rate, and 10-15 years from retirement.

But, he admitted at the time, he wasn’t sure if staying in South Korea and teaching English was what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. So what’s he up to now? Well, why don’t we check in with him to find out!

What’s up Millennial Revolution?  Over 2 years ago I wrote a guest post on your website (SEE HERE) about how I pulled a crazy by moving to South Korea to teach English abroad, narrowly dodging homeownership, and started aggressively investing.  I thought you and many of your readers might be interested to see where I am now after continued reading of your blog and following much of the advice you promote here regarding FIRE.

Where am I, and what am I doing now?

Despite my attitude towards teaching in my original guest post I am still teaching ESL, but now I am in China!  A very different situation from where I thought I might be today based on predictions from the last post. I originally thought I’d never teach again, would move back to Canada and maybe be able to hit fire by 50 if I was lucky.

Well, I “Math’d some $#!7 up!”, took a chance and the results turned out even better than I could have imagined.  After looking into the working conditions in China and other various opportunities I learned that I could make much more money than in South Korea, keep my costs pretty much the same – if not reduce them – and have a better life simultaneously; less working hours and more vacation.  Previous to arriving in China, I still wasn’t sure I was interested in teaching but thought I would give it a try.  Once I got to China, and started working in a public school environment I realized I actually enjoy this style of teaching.

And it turns out I was able to make much, much more money.  I’m currently able to save 2-3x more money than I was in South Korea.  I was able to save about $20,000 CAD after my year in Korea.. Do the math.

And that better lifestyle I mentioned.. Jobwise, I teach about 12 hours of work a week in my China versus 30 teaching hours in South Korea. Though the reason I am able to save so much more is because I spend nearly all my free time doing side work on the evenings and weekend days.  And I get about 2-3 months vacation to travel every year.

Related: Everything you need to know about teaching English abroad in China

So now early retirement is on the table.

Last time we spoke, I was planning to move back to Canada and pursue accounting and a CPA designation.  After some more quick maths, I realized I would need to go back to school and then go through the designation process which would all take about 4-5 years, while making $30,000-40,000 a year.  After my professional designation I would start at about $50,000. And after 5 year I may be making $70,000-$80,000.

So I figure, I can work my ass off to have an office job that pays $80k by the time I’m almost 40. Or I can keep teaching, traveling 2-3 months a year and reach FIRE / 7 figures by that time. As I am currently able to SAVE the starting of a CPA professional, today.

Oh baby, thinking outside the box and taking the path less traveled.

Related: You may already have everything you want

What have I learned since we spoke last?

I’ve had the opportunity to travel to a bunch more countries since we last spoke, which has opened my eyes, humbled me and made me grateful for what I’ve been given in life.  I’ve continued to write about personal finance, study it further and read deeper into the FIRE movement.

I’ve realized it’s not necessarily about retiring as soon as possible – don’t get me wrong I am completely, and utterly jealous of your lives.  But more about building a life of your design, getting educated and being smart with your money when it comes to personal finance.  I’m still just on the beginning stages of my financial freedom journey, but I have a system in place that will help me reach my goals soon.  And I can enjoy the process because I’ve built a system that still allows me to live a good life; lots of travel, pursuing side hobbies and doing the things that make me happy when I have some free time.

I would also like to make a side note that if any of your readers have an interest in teaching abroad I am always more than happy to answer questions.  And I can help anyone that is serious about it find work teaching in Asia.

Related: Gain valuable life skills teaching ESL


That last point is especially interesting, because apparently after that last post two years ago, two of our readers ended up contacting him and Colby actually helped them find jobs doing what he’s doing! One of them is with him in Shenzen right now!

Colby, hats off to you buddy. We are so glad to hear you’re doing so well, and not only kicking ass at life, but helping other people do it too. Nothing makes us happier than when we can help someone turn their life around, and it sounds like you’re the same way too.

Colby writes on his site That Charles Life, so if you’re at all interested in teaching English in Asia as a way to become FI, check him out there.

So what do you guys/gals think? Would you be willing to travel to Asia and teach English if it meant you could retire decades sooner? Let’s hear it in the comments!

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42 thoughts on “Reader Case Update: The South Korean English Teacher Returns”

  1. Great story FIRECracker. I don’t think I’m much of a teacher, but back when I was working I was perfectly happy to move for a higher salary (and thus save more).

    Now that I’m married with kids though, this becomes a lot tougher to actually do.

    The “English teacher overseas” job is generally a single person’s game, but I do know of one person that’s moved to South Korea with his two kids to teach English.

    I’m not clear on the financial details, but I’m certain they wouldn’t have moved if it wasn’t financially worth it.

    1. Mr. Tako,

      Definitely the majority of the people out here are singles, but more and more couples and married people are coming out. Companies actually prefer couples as they are more likely to stay longer!

      So much opportunity for people if they are willing to move around to capitalize, whether that’s inside or out of your country.

        1. Wanderer,

          Couples can be placed at the same school or schools in the same district of a city. Schools generally give an option for supplied housing or allowance. Most schools provide 3,000RMB (~$600 CAD) per month for housing. An average one bedroom apartment is between 3-4000RMB in Shenzhen. So a couple can actually save from the allowance too!

  2. Wish I had thought of this thirty years ago. What a great way to think out of the box. Not a teacher, and much older now with two kids. I am afraid it’s not an option anymore…

      1. Teaching online…

        My passion would be to work independent of time and place. I tried trading for some time, but I lost most of my investments and I am back to square one. Should have known of this FIRE movement way earlier, but probably wouldn’t have listened to invest in ETF’s without learning the hard way It’s very difficult to beat the market. Maybe I should send a readers case, lots of learning materials ?

  3. FI—

    only works if the markets rise, geez. Looks like a negative yr for a balanced portfolio.

    that’ll change the retirement date……and for others, time to look for a PT job!!!

    1. You need to read a little deeper George, there is a think called the “Cash Cushion” and that is the method to ride out market down turns, nearing or in retirement.

      A crashing market, or correcting market, is what is expected in the next year or two, or maybe now, which is why a portfolio needs balance.

      FC and Wanderer weathered the 2008 crash, in style, look back and read about it. My personal belief, is you should build in the expectation of a market lull and downturn, and therefore spend accordingly, that way when it happens its no surpise.

  4. Good job Colby on all the great changes.

    Do accountants and CPAs make that little money? I always thought starting was 50k and the top 10% is around 130k.

    Either way, teaching and traveling in Asia sounds much more fun than being an accountant haha

    1. Yeah as a CPA his numbers are definatley too low but at the same time depending where he was in his education it might not be worth it as he likely would have needed to go back to do various accounting/business courses at the university level to qualify for the CPA program. Most employers pay for the CPA program itself for employees.

      1. Hey Michelle,

        What are some more accurate numbers? If ESL doesn’t pan out for me longer term accounting is still in the back of my mind. Yes, for myself I had lots of courses in the PREP section to complete before I could enter the actual CPA program. So many years of earning subpar money. Time is truly money when it comes to compound interest!

        1. Depending on what you have already – the way the CPA program works now, unlike back for the CA program is that you have a tonne more options for who you can work for and qualify (which come with a range of salaries of course). Location and industry obviously impacts that.

          I’d generally estimate $50k for just having a business degree while working towards the CPA designation (+ annual increases), but would expect to hit the $100k mark within 3-4 years post designation, so theoretically max 6 years to hit $100k in a medium city. Back when I got designated I was told the same thing, to expect $100k within 10 years of post designation, so maybe you’re looking at older data/smaller location CPA’s.

          If you were serious about it, you could do your university electives online now (Athabasca does a tonne of them, I think some you can do directly through CPA, lots of universities in Canada offer online courses as well) while working overseas right now so that you’re basically looking at say ~ 3 years of the crappier $50-$65k/year job (assuming no OT, more companies pay it lately cause great CPA’s harder to come by) and then once designated would get a bump up $$ either through staying with the organization or hopping elsewhere to something better.

          My university prof said accounting is the language of money, if you don’t understand the language who will do your talking… I think she on the right track for that as definitely understanding accounting helps to evaluate / interpret financial statements/information, but the more important university thing I got was “no one cares about your money as much as you do!!!”

          1. This is really interesting and a positive to hear. I got these numbers from a few accountants in my particular city in Canada (larger one in the prairies). I looked at taking online courses, but there’s huge fees to doing it overseas (nearly $2,000 CAD per course which is basically double). So I decided to just focus on earning out here.

            I really appreciate this information Michelle! These numbers definitely justify the couple years it would take to get the CPA if I choose to in the future. When I heard that quote about accounting being the language of money, I think that’s what actually turned me on to it.

            Cheers, and congratulations on getting the designation yourself. Side note, if you want to send me an email through my website I’d love to talk to you more about this!


            1. The other option is returning to get your CPA but then going abroad again. My husband and I are both CPAs abroad. We pay 0% income tax and the salaries are significantly higher than what you’ve estimated. Singapore, Switzerland, Hong Kong, BVI, Cayman Islands, they all pay top dollar for on shore qualified CPAs (especially if you convert to CAD at the moment). You can also do your US CPA from abroad online, it doesn’t need to be a Canadian designation by any means.

              1. Wow! Julianne, you are speaking my language. For some reason I wasn’t able to think outside Canada. This is a bit of a game changer. Thanks very much for this idea.

                Do you have any suggests for good online programs/what you did?

                1. I did my CA (now called CPA) in Canada via an audit firm fresh out of uni but I now quite a few people here who have done the US CPA. Certain states don’t require you to be resident but I haven’t looked into it myself. I’m thinking Illinois, New York and possibly Florida might be examples? There’s also the UK ACCA that I think is done online but not sure eligibility for non-UK persons. Best of luck!!

            2. I’m a CPA in the U.S. and it did take me 10 years after being licensed to hit the 6 figure mark. However, I’m a career auditor working for a global bank as opposed to working in finance or accounting. I’m also not too focused on climbing the corporate ladder as work/life balance is more important to me. I’d imagine my male counterparts or others who are more career driven are earning much more. There’s definitely money to be made in the profession!

        2. You will hate your life as a CPA with long hours, low job satisfaction, high burn out rate, etc. Your physical, spiritual, and mental health will deteriorate and you will more than likely develop numerous diseases such as obesity, alcoholism, etc. These are all counter to your personal FiRe journey.

          There’s no $ amount worth the damage said career does to you. Time is money, however health is wealth.

            1. Yes I’m an accountant (for the past 15 years). I make enough to pretend I’m rich (ie- I rack up all the debt I want) or live poorly and FiRe with FU money. I used to choose the former, now enlightened, I choose the later. The career pays well, however the long hours, high stress, unreasonable deadlines, etc. really takes a toll on your health (think FireCracker’s ex-coworker that almost died at work).

              After a few years of audit / tax or both seasons you will become a zombie, but you get to buy a bunch of cool crap to make you ‘happy.’

              One stroll through the parking lot you will see a bunch of leased BMW’s, Teslas & Mercedes. There are a couple Maseratis meticulously backed into spots far away from everyone else. Those sexy Italian slave mobiles are there every day when I get in and still there when I leave. I guess you have to buy a few new Maseratis to demonstrate your worth before you can have the privilege of buying a new Ferarri (so I’m told). I’m reminded every day about your ‘fuckoverability’ post. =D

              Glassdoor has some really good reviews on the lifestyle. I find that it can be a gripe tool so people don’t sugar coat their experiences.

    2. Thanks Phanta!

      Yes, it appears my numbers were more conservative for CPA’s, I got these from a few accountants working in a smaller city in Canada. I actually wouldn’t mind being an accountant, I do love numbers and money. But yeah, can’t beat the travel time and adventures of ESL.

  5. One thing to remember, normally to do it legally you need a degree of some kind. However did you know you can actually buy a degree online? I am interested to know if anybody ever used a fake degree to teach overseas?

    I can teach and work in Taiwan, which may be a plan, and don’t have a degree, as I am married to a Taiwanese National, I can get a work permit.


      1. Agreed, reading the post it must be a degree from an “Accredited ” University… i think by now, its easy enough to find the fakes, so don’t do it.

        cheers, I like you too…

  6. I worked as an English teacher in Japan in the late ’80s, which set me up for life. I came home with several years of living expenses saved up, which made me bolder in making other, less lucrative choices. When I moved to Europe in the mid-90s, I stashed what was left of my nest egg in a Vanguard account that automatically reinvested dividends. When I looked at it again 20 years later, after two crashes, and a bit of recovery, I saw the amount had increased 5x. This taught me about compounding and the stock market just when I needed to know it.
    I still teach English for fun.
    I was sometimes very homesick, and missed the conveniences of the USA, but I gained so much in self-sufficiency backpacking around Asia & Europe on my own & with friends made along the way. I want to do this again once my kids are out of the house, but I know it won’t be the same as when I was younger and more flexible.
    Zero regrets! Although I never made it back to the USA, as I had assumed I would!

  7. I’m not sure about the math here – the CPA numbers are way too low. In the US, a motivated but not entrepreneurial, just normal CPA should be anywhere from 150K – 200K USD annual salary after ten years of working in a major city. It is a little lower in Canada, but 80k CAD annual salary after ten years of working after college would be insane, there is just no way. The first ten years compensation is fairly predictable in public accounting. After that it really depends on what route you take and what risk you take.

    I don’t agree with the math but if this guys saves 40k to 60k CAD annually while doing something he enjoys, he’s doing great. Rock on.

  8. Hi Wanderer & FireCracker!
    I cannot thank you guys enough for publishing this blog and telling your stories. I stumbled across your blog about a year ago and have made huge strides in my journey to financial freedom. I’m not 100% free yet, but I am soooo far from where I was before I discovered you guys and the FIRE community online. Thank you for featuring Charles on this post. Back in 2008, I had just finished grad school in San Diego, CA and was hoping to make some money to fly out to Asia and teach English. Unfortunately, the financial crisis in 2008 put a halt to my plans and I had to stay in the U.S. and figure shit out. Fast forward 10 years later and I’m happy to say I’m ready to venture out to southeast Asia to teach English. Back in 2008, this goal was just something I wanted to do because I loved learning foreign languages and tutoring English but now I know I can actually use this as a tool to save more $ and at a faster rate than I would staying here in the U.S. (now in Los Angeles). Thanks again and I’m looking forward to more of your posts!

    1. Congrats for coming so far in your financial journey from where you started, Kristina! I’m proud of you! I’m also very amazed that you’re now venturing off to teach English and using geo-arbitrage to propel yourself towards FI! Feel free to write me and update me on your journey!

  9. Hello from China! Yes, it’s lucrative. Yes, you can save a ton. My spouse and I both work here as expats (he’s a teacher at an international school), international schools tend to provide even better benefits than the local Chinese schools.

    There is a trade off though. Poor air quality. Free housing but poor quality construction (mold, cracks in walls/ceilings, cockroaches, etc.). Crap health care (unless you go to the expensive expat hospital). Sketchy food quality. Not being able to communicate to meet your basic needs, unless you already speak Chinese.

    Shenzhen is better than other cities (in my opinion) because you can just walk over the LuoHu border to Hong Kong if you need a break, but depending on what city you end up in, you may find yourself spending more in order to get some of the comforts of home.

    We’ve been here 8 years, and will likely stay here at least another 4-5 years. So we know how great an opportunity moving to China can be. We also know it’s important for people to be prepared with realistic expectations.

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  11. I was in Gunsan, Korea a few years ago working for the DOD. They paid housing, utilities, and a western salary. They also moved my furniture, clothing, and vehicle. I made friends with several people teaching in Korea during that time but they didn’t make much money. Due to the U.S. government paying my housing and utilities I was able to save about 85% of my salary. My only cost was gas every couple of weeks and food. Unfortunately, it is very lonely in Korea and I decided to come back to the states. I now live in a LCOL and make a good salary working for the DOD as a Civil Servant. I’ll probably retire here in a decade or so. I save around 50% of my salary and I’ll still have a federal pension to fall back on. Gwangju was an hour or so away from where I was at.

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