How I Saved $40,000 in 2 Years Working in China

So many people ask how I was able to quit my job in China and travel the world working online. Was I a super profitable travel blogger before I left China? Do I have some sort of massive inheritance? Am I living off pad thai and counting every penny? Or am I just some big liar that lives in my parents’ basement?

How to make money teaching abroad! Here's how I paid off my student loans and afford to travel the world as a digital nomad working online. I worked abroad in China and you can do it to! #china #travel #teachabroad #expat #money #digitalnomad #workonline #savemoney

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Where exactly did I get all this money to travel and live abroad, and how could I afford to quit my job and start working for myself?

Well, none of the above is true… except for the living in my parents’ basement part. I did do that for a little bit earlier this year.

I’m going to let you in on my little secret: I saved $40,000 USD in 2 years by working abroad in China. 

Not only did I completely pay off my $20,000 in student loans, but I also had over $20,000 USD in the bank when I quit my job to work for myself.

So today I’m going to teach you how you can save up a huge amount of money by working abroad, without having to sell every item you own, subsist off packaged food, and never have fun ever.

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college counselor China

Working as a college counselor

My Job as a College Counselor in China

Whenever I read articles about people saving money for travel, it’s often a saga of working multiple jobs, selling everything you own, eating cheap unhealthy meals, and never going out or having any fun ever. You need to save ALL your money for travel so that you can have fun later, once you meet your money goals.

But honestly, who wants to live like that?

For two years I worked as a college admissions consultant in Beijing making around $2,500 USD (17,400 RMB) per month after taxes. I also had a housing stipend of almost $900 USD (6,000 RMB) for my apartment in Beijing. I had free health insurance, I didn’t own a car, and I really didn’t have any major monthly expenses apart from food, alcohol, and my coffee addiction.

In the two years I worked in Beijing I managed to save $40,000 without even really trying! This is starting from complete scratch too since I was flat broke when I started my job. Seriously, I had to borrow money from my company to pay for my apartment deposit.

Great Wall Picnic

Great Wall picnic!

Saving Money in China is Easy

I will admit that for the first few months I worked in China I was still in grad school mode, and wasn’t used to having any sort of money, so I budgeted without really thinking about it. However, after about six months or so, I really started enjoying my disposable income, and rarely thought about a budget.

I bought lattes at Starbucks a few times a week. I took taxis to work when I overslept or was feeling lazy. I went out for $10 cocktails and ate nice Western food when I felt like it. I bought cute things for my apartment. I even purchased a new MacBook Air and iPhone while living in China (not by choice…).

In addition to all that, I traveled around China and the rest of Asia during my breaks. I had 20 vacation days a year to use, and I used all of them! I spent time in Hong Kong, South Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand, and Indonesia. I went home for the holidays every year and even flew back to the US for a friends’ wedding.

In short, I had a full life and rarely worried about budgeting. Of course, I didn’t go CRAZY and buy all the things, but I definitely wasn’t deprived either.

China VPN

Travel bloggers NEVER get a vacation!

A Few Extra Ways I Saved Money

While I didn’t feel like I was budgeting hard, I did do a few extra things to save money that definitely helped me reach my goals in such a short time-frame.

I Made $500 a Month on My Blog

In addition to my salary, I also made roughly $500 USD a month on my blog. While I wasn’t a hugely successful blogger, it was helpful to have a little bit of income coming in.

Yes, I was completely exhausted working a full-time job, running a travel blog, and developing an online course. But my main goal was that I would be making enough from my blog that I could feel comfortable leaving my job once my two-year contract expired.

That said, some of my friends and coworkers did have some profitable side hustles. I know people who have tutored English on the side, edited college essays for non-native speakers and helped draft immigration resumes, just to name a few.

Beijing studio apartment

My old Beijing studio

I Pocketed Housing Stipend Money

Once my company changed its policy and allowed us to retain unused housing stipend money, I immediately broke the lease on my fancy studio in Haidian, Beijing and moved into a shared apartment in the hutongs. Sure, I lost my $1,000 deposit, but I made this back in 2 months by switching to a place with $500 a month rent.

Pocketing almost half my housing stipend was a game-changer. Besides, I was able to move to a neighborhood I absolutely loved in the process. Sure, I had to manage life with FIVE ROOMMATES, but our apartment was actually huge, so it wasn’t a big deal. We also split the cost of a bi-weekly maid which really cut down on roommate conflicts.

Once I moved in with my now fiance Chris, my rent went down to around $370 a month which is less than half my housing stipend. I saved SO MUCH MONEY in those last few months, it’s actually crazy. Granted, there were four adults and a 2-year-old in a teeny tiny 2-bedroom 1 bathroom apartment, so there’s that.


I Used Public Transportation

For the first six months, I walked to work which is obviously free. After that, I  took the subway to and from work for roughly 50 cents each way. So yes, I spent $1 USD on transportation daily.

If I was feeling exhausted, I might treat myself to a taxi ride for $4 USD.

YES I Want to Teach in China!


Malatang is the love of my life.

I Shopped and Ate Local

Once I moved from away from the fancy high schools and malls to the hutongs, food got a lot cheaper too. I had my vegetable lady, where I could buy a giant bag of veggies for about $2 USD. I had a fruit shop where I’d pick up whatever was in season. I also had a meat vendor where I’d get fresh chicken and pork (the cheapest options).

If I did want to cook foreign food, I had to make a special trip to a hutong foreign grocery store where I’d stock up on luxuries like pasta, wine, cheese, and olives. Because these items were more expensive, I tended to use them as a supplement to all the fresh produce. Sure, I’d make pesto pasta, but I’d put an entire bag of spinach and a ton of cherry tomatoes in there to cut down on carbs and save myself money on noodles.

When it came to eating out, I’d only eat foreign food once a week or so. Typically it was dumplings, malatang, xinjiang noodles, roujiamo, jianbing, or some other local dish. When I went out to eat with friends, about 2/3 of the time we’d choose a Chinese restaurant. China has AMAZING food, so I didn’t feel tempted to eat expensive Western food very often.

Finally, after a few years in China, I started to learn how to get everything without spending a ton of money. For example, instead of buying pricey Western makeup or beauty products (even the drugstore brands were insanely expensive), I’d buy from Korean brands like Innisfree and Nature Republic. I’d also stock up on things like coffee when I visited Vietnam, clothes and beauty products in Korea, and I filled my suitcase with cheap stuff from the US whenever I went home.

Learn Chinese online

I bought this desk and the shelf on Taobao

I Used Taobao and Miniso

If you like Amazon you’ll LOVE Taobao. I honestly can’t believe it took me three years of living in China before I finally figured out how to use online shopping websites like Taobao and JD. Anytime I needed anything cheap for my apartment, I’d hop on Taobao and find what I needed. I bought everything from IKEA-style desks to a large metal kitchen shelf, to fake designer boots on Taobao, and it was all crazy cheap!

The best part is that China is obsessed with online shopping, so I was easily able to see which items were going to hold up based on thousands of reviews. I never bought anything on Taobao or JD that didn’t have at least 800 reviews and at least 50 photos.

Finally, if I really felt like shopping, I’d head to my local MINISO which is literal heaven containing all of the things you never knew you needed. I’d buy a cute coffee cup, a packet of Korean face masks or a little stuffed animal to add to my office collection, and never spent more than a dollar or two. MINISO is also AMAZING for Christmas shopping. You can grab so many cool things for people back home without breaking the bank.

Teach Abroad China

Enjoying Halloween with my students

So Is Teaching Abroad to Save Money Right For You?

Most of you know I’m a huge proponent of teaching abroad. I write about teaching in China all the time, and I even developed a course to help people teach abroad in China (and have an amazing time while making bank).

That said, teaching abroad is not right for everyone and I would NEVER suggest teaching abroad for the sole purpose of making money.

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Teach abroad china

Don’t teach abroad if you want every day to look like this

Don’t Teach Abroad if You Only Want to Travel

I’ve seen so many travel bloggers recommend teaching in South Korea or China as a way to save up a little cash before moving on, and I personally think this is horrible advice. You should teach abroad because you’re excited to live and work in a country, and have an incredibly immersive experience. Teaching abroad is a JOB and you should take it seriously.

If you hate the idea of staying in one place, teaching abroad is not going to be for you. Don’t force yourself to take a job in a country like China or South Korea for a year if you don’t plan on sticking it out through your contract. There are plenty of other ways to support yourself on the road, and if you really want that teaching money while traveling, you can always teach English online.

Debate Coach Beijing

Judging a speech and debate tournament through my company!

You Don’t Have to Teach English to Teach Abroad

After a few years of teaching abroad, I was a little sick of teaching basic English. I did a little digging and found work as a college counselor helping Chinese students apply to top American universities. Not only was this a new and exciting challenge for me, but the job also had a much higher salary!

If you hate the idea of teaching, don’t get a job teaching abroad. If you don’t like kids, don’t force yourself to teach them. There are plenty of other jobs in China where you can work in the education industry without actually teaching English.

Work with adults, tutor SAT one-on-one, or teach art to young students. There are plenty of opportunities if you know where to look!

Scammed in China

Hello Temple of Heaven!

What Kind of Salary Do You Need to Save Money?

The great thing about China is that the cost of living is pretty cheap. The most expensive part of living there is the rent (especially if you’re in a city like Beijing or Shanghai), and most teaching jobs will either give you a free apartment or a housing stipend to cover this.

Even with a very low salary of 5,000 RMB/month (roughly $800 USD), I still managed to save up $3,000 by the end of my teaching contract, and that was with a decent amount of travel!

Obviously, the higher your salary the more likely you are to save a ton of money by teaching abroad. But don’t forget to factor in the cost of living. Life in a second-tier city like Chengdu, Xi’an, or Hangzhou is going to be cheaper than Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen.

Personally, I wouldn’t take a job for less than 6,000 RMB per month in a smaller city, and 10,000 RMB per month in a big city. However, with a bit of negotiating and searching, you can definitely find jobs for at least 8-10k RMB/month in smaller cities and 12-14k RMB/month in the bigger cities like Beijing and Shanghai.

Want to learn how to do this? Be sure to sign up for one of my webinars, or my 3-Part Video Training Series!

Working in China

I still think China is the best

Why China and Not Another Country?

While my expertise and experience are centered around China, there are plenty of other amazing countries to chose from. Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Taiwan, and Thailand are all popular destinations for good reason.

Personally, I think China and Vietnam are by far the two best countries for first-year teachers. However, they are COMPLETELY different destinations with different work styles as well. (If you want a post covering this please let me know!)

Japan is a bit too saturated and it’s very hard to make money, while South Korea is a great place to make money, but your work-life balance won’t be as good as Vietnam and China.

Taiwan is a great destination to teach if you have at least a year of experience under your belt, otherwise, you’ll probably end up at a horrible cram school training center. However, the pay is definitely a bit better in Mainland China.

Cambodia and Thailand are also great destinations if you love Southeast Asia. However, there’s much more money to be made in Vietnam.

That said, if you’re OBSESSED with living and working in one of these countries, then go for it! Money isn’t the most important thing, and you can still (probably) save money in any of these options (except probably Cambodia, Thailand, and Japan where you’ll probably break even).

The Hoianian

We all quit our jobs in China to live in Hoi An Vietnam!

Save Money BEFORE You Quit Your Job

While the idea of quitting your job to work online or travel the world is a romantic one, and many people are open to the idea of living on a shoestring budget, I honestly wouldn’t recommend either of these life paths without money in the bank.

Imagine you’re in a situation where you really need to fly home but you don’t have the money. I know so many people who’ve spent nights crying in a hostel dorm because they only have $50 left in their bank account and they don’t know what to do.

While you can always pick up odd jobs or find a hostel gig, I always like to have money in my bank account as something to fall back on. This is especially important if you’re trying to take a blog full-time or create an online business.

I 100% recommend having a nest egg to fall back on, especially if you don’t have a steady monthly income coming in already.

Hub Hoi An

This coworking space is my new office!

Saving Up Money Allows You to Work on Your Goals

For me, $20,000 seemed like more than enough. But with all the traveling I’ve done, moving from country to country across the world, that $20,000 is down to about $6,000 now. My goal was never to dip below $10,000 but that didn’t really happen… Whoops!

But having that money in the bank account allowed me to take risks and focus on my business in a way I wouldn’t have if I was scrambling to take on freelance clients. I was able to focus 100% of my time in Vietnam last year creating my online course, which I hope will become a full-time job for me in the future.

Golden Pavilion

If you want to live in Japan you better save up

How Much Money Should I Save Before I Quit?

Well, that really depends on you and what you want to do. Since my experience is quitting my job to work online, I’m going to focus on that. But if you want to quit your job to travel on a budget, check out this post here.

Firstly, you need to consider how much you’re making per month. When I quit I was making between $500 – $1,000 USD a month, which is really not a lot, especially considering how much I was moving around. $1,000/month is fine if you’re living and moving around Southeast Asia, but if you’re spending time in more expensive countries, or jetting around the globe every few months like I was, it’s going to be stressful.

That brings me to the next point: where do you want to live? Are you going to hole up in Vietnam or Thailand, or do you want to work from home in San Francisco or Sydney? Obviously, you’re going to need A LOT more money if you want to make it work in these countries.

So basically, if you plan to work from home in Vietnam and already have a job CONSISTENTLY raking in $1,000 – $2,000 a month you can quit your job with $3-5k USD in the bank and you’ll be fine. If you’re not making much money, maybe have $5-8k saved up.

Now if you plan to be in more expensive countries and don’t have a super consistent income, I would recommend having at least $10k USD in the bank. If you want to live full-time and pay rent in an expensive country and don’t have consistent income, you’ll want at least $20k.

Just play around with your budget, where you want to live, what your current income is and how much you plan to travel. Also think about when you should be making a consistent income, and what your backup plan is if you can’t get to that income before your money runs out.

Personally, I wouldn’t be comfortable without at least $5k USD in my bank account, but I’m also the girl that hyperventilates if I can’t pay off my credit card in full every month so… yeah.

save money working in China

Are you ready to take the leap?

Do You Want to Teach Abroad in China?

Whether you want to make bank or just have an incredible adventure, teaching abroad in China is an incredible experience. If you’re interested in getting started and learning more about how you can score an awesome, high-level high-paying job in China, I highly suggest grabbing my Free Teach Abroad Training Guide that will walk you through the whole process!

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Do you want to save money and travel the world or work online? Here's how I saved 40k by teaching abroad in China! Work abroad in China for a few years and you can become location independent and work online like me! #locationindependence #travelblog #travelblogger #teachabroad #savemoney #moneytips #expat #travel

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Any questions about how I got started teaching in China, or how I made so much money working abroad? Feel free to leave a comment below and I’ll get back to you ASAP! I’m always checking for new comments and questions so if you get in in touch I’ll be sure to write back no matter when you comment!



About Richelle

Expat, traveler, and spicy food lover, I've spent the last few years living in China and traveling around Asia. In my spare time I enjoy salsa dancing, exploring night markets and stuffing my face with street food.

4 comments on “How I Saved $40,000 in 2 Years Working in China

  1. Damn that’s a great post. i am from India and have been struggling to save money for a long time. I want to travel and explore every places in India first. following your practices will surly going to help me thank you or sharing your experience.

    • Thanks so much!! Yes, teaching abroad is such a great way to save money and have an amazing quality of life. If you’re a certified teacher in India you can actually get a job at an international school and have a much better salary than I did as a college counselor!

  2. Very interesting and useful advice Richelle. I never thought about the other teaching options that could be available beside teaching English. That new co-working office looks pretty special too!

    • Hey Colin! Haha yes the Hub is awesome! It’s surprising how many non-ESL jobs there are in China. I had friends who were debate coaches, drama teachers, sports coaches, Math teachers, creative writing instructors and more. I really enjoyed moving to college counseling because I felt like I could actually use my skills and expertise more than in a traditional ESL job (the pay was much better too!).

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