Bearded Badass Financial advice

First of all, I’d like to thank my recent donors. Every time someone donates to Russia Without BS, Dmitry Kiselyev sheds a tear…


In last night’s article I talked about the financial advice of Mr. Money Mustache. As one reader pointed out, it’s definitely good for long term life planning, but not so great in the short term, a sentiment I wholly agree with. Now that the economic collapse is eight years behind us, I think we can safely say that more Americans have long since begun to rethink habits such as racking up massive credit card debts or borrowing money to buy SUVs. Still, I’m sure there are many who could actually benefit from his thrifty advice.

In the past when I saw millennials bemoaning their financial situation, I thought I could perhaps offer some advice from my personal experience. The problem is, however, that much of my “success” was due to market-determined factors which had nothing to do with any kind of long-term planning or clever financial strategy. In fact, when I explain what got me so interested in Russia and compelled me to move here, I describe it as a sort of teenage delusion. In other words, a delusion happened to put me in a certain country at a time when investors from all over the world were dumping money by boatload into it, and the demand for private English teaching and TOEFL consulting was high. In fact, I actually became aware of this much later than others, and had I taken full advantage of that fact I might have saved up much more money by now. Just to give you an idea of what one could make, as recently as the spring of 2014, I was making roughly the equivalent of $600 from one client. Excluding travel time this worked out to three hours a day, twice a week. Not bad at all.

Obviously those days are long gone, and while most people would say this is driven by politics and specifically those of Vladimir Putin, one cannot ignore the influence the economy has had on Putin’s recent decision making. In other words, the market once favored Russia, then it stopped. This is why my experience doesn’t make for good financial advice. It would amount to “Find a country that is experiencing a boom right now, where there is a demand for English teachers and a small population of super-rich assholes who will pay exorbitant prices to send their precious little snowflakes abroad to study at an overpriced American university. Oh yeah, pray that country’s government isn’t a dictatorship run by a delusional man whose policies are concocted by pseudo-intellectual hacks who base their advice on real time strategy games.”

Of course the work abroad approach is not entirely useless. A TEFL-TESOL certificate to teach English as a foreign language is laughably easy to obtain. I could have got mine online without leaving the States. Most of what you actually need to know you learn on the job; if you have a natural talent for languages or just a really high command of English, you’ll do fine. The trick, however, is turning a TEFL job into a strategy for financial freedom.

As a rule, TEFL jobs don’t pay much, but they will usually pay slightly more than the average salary of the country you’re in. That being said, don’t expect to get ahead via a huge salary. What you want to look for is places that provide free accommodation or at least decent rent reimbursement. Not having to pay rent can make an otherwise paltry salary go much further.

Another advantage of teaching abroad is that some schools offer annual bonuses and flight reimbursement. One of the schools I worked for in Moscow had something like a $900 flight reimbursement per contract for teachers from the US and Canada. Since I only went back to the US one time back when I worked on contract for them, that money just went right into savings.

The best thing about working as an English teacher abroad is that you generally aren’t expected to work very long hours. This is especially true when you’ve been doing this for a few years and you don’t need any preparation time. The advantage to this is twofold. First, if you aren’t making massive amounts of money, at least you’re getting a decent salary for doing very little work. More importantly, that extra time gives you opportunities to find private clients, and that’s where the bulk of your money comes from. Eventually once you become adept enough at gathering private clients, you may be able to become fully self-employed, assuming you can handle any visa or work permit requirements that particular country might have. The time you spend working for a school to get the free accommodation and bonuses is like time you save up for your initial “capital” that will allow you to go fully freelance.

The added time also means you won’t be limited to doing one job. On several occasions I’ve been asked to do voice over and dubbing work. It’s never really reliable, but pretty much every time it was a good chunk of money for virtually no work. The first time I did it I think I spent a total of 30 minutes actually doing the dubbing work, an for that I was paid $400 in cash. Actual US dollars, that is. Of course that’s just Russia. I’ve heard English-teaching expats in China getting all sorts of acting parts in TV shows, commercials, and films, almost without looking. Foreign media producers will often need native speakers to dub commercials, films, TV shows, etc. I remember hearing about one teacher who got to dub the lead role in the Russian film Admiral, for example. I guarantee you he was very well compensated for that.  Aside from voice acting I’ve also had plenty of translation and proofreading jobs as well.

Expat communities often get a bad rap for being full of horny middle aged men and other social defectives, but in my experience there are often separate, very different expat communities which rarely overlap. Some of those communities are full of creative types who are full of plans and just looking for someone to help with some kind of project. Think Youtube channel, ad revenue, travel websites, etc. Whatever the case, you will often meet people, even from your own country, whom you would never encounter in your life at home. This broadens your experience exponentially and gives you a lot of good ideas.

I’m also by no means the only person who’s gone from English teaching into journalism. While RT’s going insane and rapidly losing its ability to attract foreigners with the promise of high, often above-market salaries, there are other options. I’m told China’s CCTV is quite generous and very accessible for people just breaking into the business, for example. China also happens to have very high demand for English teachers, by the way.

If there’s one more thing I could recommend, something I couldn’t do, it would be setting aside some money in mutual fund or similar investment before you move abroad. Add money to it while you can once you get settled in a country. This way you’ll at least have some kind of nest egg should you decide to return. Another thing I personally didn’t have time to take advantage of was the ability to study abroad. Higher education is generally cheaper outside of the US, and in some cases there are opportunities to study for free. Why not pick up a master’s while you’re working abroad?

There is a joke among TEFL teachers that it isn’t a real job. True, we all see our share of people who are doing it to fund their backpacking trek across the Old World or middle-aged men riding the loser carousel, but people who take it seriously manage to lead pretty kickass lives. For most of the time I spent working in Russia I can say with confidence that I generally made more, sometimes much more money when I worked in the States in my old job. Of course that old job was dirty, backbreaking labor in one of America’s most boring cities. Years later I might have been making as much as $1000 less per month, yet I was working maybe 15-18 actual hours a week, paying zero rent, and collecting bonuses. More importantly, I was living in a completely different country. In the States, the concept of vacation was practically unknown to me. In two years of working abroad I had visited six different countries.

Look at it this way. If you’re looking at working 40-50 hours a week for roughly $2000 a month in your American home town or making $1500 a month plus free or subsidized accommodation while working maybe half of the hours in an exotic foreign country, is that not worth the difference? In all likelihood you’ll probably be able to save more from that $1500 than the $2000-2500 you get commuting to the daily grind in the US. I realize plenty of readers may make much more than that, but I’m looking at that angry millennial who is working off their debt in Starbucks or Best Buy.

The capitalist is admired for investing his capital where it brings the most returns. Why shouldn’t workers do the same with their labor power? Take advantage of globalization. Read up on the job, research the countries, make a plan, and escape.  Go! 

Just don’t go to Russia.

3 thoughts on “Bearded Badass Financial advice

  1. jon

    What’s the going rate for private English lessons now in Moscow, if you are qualified (TEFL lol) and experienced? Here in North Spain its about 14-17 euros an hour.

    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      Before the ruble went to hell it was usually 2000RUB for 90 minutes, which in those better days was between $40-60 per lesson. Better clients would pay 2500-3000. The highest I got was 9000RUB for back-to-back 90 minute lessons with two students. It came out to 18000RUB a week, which was about $600 at the time. Good times.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s