I publish the Educator on FIOR interviews to show all the ways educators are taking charge of their financial lives. No matter when they start, what position they work in, or their end goals, they’re all making progress toward financial independence.
Today, JJ shares his experience working at an international school. I know you’ll enjoy this one.
Tell us about you.
I’m in my mid-40s and currently living in Tokyo, Japan where I teach middle school Humanities at an international school. I also teach an elective about economics and personal finance for middle schoolers. My students are a combination of ex-pat kids from the States and elsewhere, children of mixed Japanese-Western backgrounds whose parents wish for an “international” education, and some Japanese students who maybe lived in an English-speaking environment when younger and wish to continue that style of education instead of trying to integrate back into the Japanese system.
I have been working here for twelve years and it is my first K-12 job. My experience is not the norm — most teachers here are “on the circuit,” meaning they might be at one international school for five years or so, then on to the next one, and so on. My school is very well-respected in the international school world, so I was a bit fortunate to find a place here and stick, without having to work my way up the ladder.
Prior to becoming a teacher, I was a graduate student in Geography. I got my Ph.D. in 2010 and was doing my dissertation research in Tokyo when my wife (who is Japanese) got a job at this school. I was a less than committed graduate student who was looking for a career change when I did a few substitute teaching jobs and found that I really liked it. I got hired part-time to teach some electives (the economics class and a film class), then got my teaching certificate, and was hired full-time in social studies a bit later.
I started graduate school in geography to study international development, though later changed to an urban studies focus. I came to graduate school after brief service in the Peace Corps. I taught health education, especially HIV/AIDS prevention, in Zimbabwe in 2001 though my service was cut short when the leader at that time, Robert Mugabe, turned against international development organizations and it became no longer safe to stay.
In my early 20s, I taught conversational English in South Korea and Japan, so I guess that was my first experience with teaching. I worked throughout college, and my job in my final year was as an English-language tutor for ESL students, many of whom were from Japan, Korea, or Taiwan. I befriended some of my students at that time, and one from South Korea suggested I go there to teach. I had a lot of student loans to pay back (or at least it seemed to me to be a lot at that time; the typical student loan burden would be much higher now), so I went there for 18 months and managed to pay off most of my $20,000 of debt. From there, I went to Japan as a member of the Japan Exchange Teaching program and taught at a high school for two years.
On the personal side, my wife and I have two kids – an eighth-grader and a second-grader. They are both bilingual, and we are long-term stayers in Japan because it was important for my wife and I that our kids felt both American and Japanese instead of one or the other. I try to get to the gym regularly, watch a lot of NBA basketball in my downtime, and follow a number of personal finance blogs and podcasts. This one, One Million Apples, Choose FI, Early Retirement Now and Fire Drill are my favorites.
(Ed note: All great choices and among my favorites too!)
What do/did you like most about working in education?
It’s a bit of a cliche, but it really is all about the kids. Eighth graders can be challenging at times, of course, but spending my day with them helps keep me feeling young, is always interesting, and is rewarding. You see a lot of growth, and through all the moans and groans of 13 and 14 year olds about homework or swim practice or whatever, you sometimes get a glimpse of their appreciation for your help with their development. There is something about that age group that resonates with me, especially. I coach 5th graders and 6th graders at times, and don’t feel the same connection. I interact with high schoolers as well, and find them to be a whole other species. Maybe it’s because my true maturity level is around 14 myself!
What do/did you like least?
As for least…well, 10% of parents are truly wonderful to deal with, another 89% you never hear from one way or the other, but then that 1% of monster parents is probably the hardest part to deal with. I’ll leave it at that.
What is your Why of Financial Independence?
My “Why of FI” is long-standing, though for most of my 20s and 30s I had it in mind subconsciously, and just recently I have started trying to put it in words. Here it goes: I want to be FI so that I can make decisions about my life based on “want to”not “have to.”
I don’t hate my job at all; in fact, quite the opposite. I want to be able to retire early, for sure, but I am doubtful at this point that I would want to – I like the day-to-day, the school is where all my friends are, I get twelve weeks off a year for travel, my wife and kids all love the school we are at. There are so many reasons to love it.
But at the same time, I have to work now because I have college to save for, two mortgages, and not quite enough saved up (yet) to really be at the JL Collins “FU Money level.” I’ll likely stay at this school until my younger child graduates from high school here because she loves it and the tuition (for which I get a substantial discount) is so high that I likely couldn’t afford it on my own. So, I have eleven more years.
I am on the FI path to be at my goal when she is graduating, but I don’t expect anything materially to change the moment I hit my number. Instead, I am looking for that change of mindset when I go to work and know that it’s a choice I am making, and nothing binds me anymore.
- FI Curious – Just learning and becoming interested in financial independence
- Future FI – On the path, but still learning. Destined for financial independence!
- FI Success – Financially independent!
I am “Future FI” – on path to be there by the end of those eleven years I mentioned, or else pretty close to it by then. Interestingly, I probably could be at the number a little sooner if I did more coaching after-school and invested the stipends. Last year, I made the decision to drop two of the three sports I was coaching (thereby losing out on about $3,500 in stipends per year) because I realized that I wasn’t really enjoying it and had been doing it mainly as part of my desire for FI. Thus, I was in this ironic situation where I was doing things with a “have to” mindset so that I could get to the “want to” situation a little faster. I decided to drop them, recognizing that I was losing out on income but also getting closer towards the true goal.
Share any financial numbers you are comfortable sharing:
I am about halfway towards my FI number (1 million in retirement savings, both houses paid off — or, more accurately, additional low-risk investments equivalent to the outstanding balances– and a decent chunk saved for each kid for college), though I expect the second half of getting there to be faster than the first. Of course, the math of a compounded rate of return is the main reason, and working our way up the salary scale are also factors. In addition, over the past decade, some of our savings have gone towards purchasing our homes: the first one near the school, and the second a vacation home up in Nagano prefecture, site of the 1998 winter Olympics. After building it and furnishing it with a lot of capital going out the door, we are starting to see great returns on it from renting it out in the ski season. If we maintain the same numbers as last winter, we’ll make in four months the amount needed to pay the mortgage for 24. Our interest rates are very low (less than 1%), so obviously we don’t pay it off early, and instead put those towards our retirement account in Japan (their version of an IRA). We also recently bought a new car and paid cash, so now we plan to have that car for the next decade or so.
As for investments, I have about 50% in US stocks, 20% in international stocks, 10% in alternatives (7% real estate, 3% commodities/gold) and 20% in bonds. My portfolio may be a little over-complicated for some tastes, but I kind of like fiddling with it, if I may be honest. I am a devoted Vanguard customer, and when Vanguard funds aren’t available (like in my Roth IRA for some asset classes), I look for similar low-fee, broad-based index funds. I plan on shifting my portfolio to more bonds as I get older, following a formula of my age minus 25 in bonds.
Tell us about your path to FI.
What are your successes/wins?
On the specific level, I landed a great job, though I would say that has less to do with anything intrinsic that I brought to the table and more to being in the right place at the right time. That has been my #1 win, but things could just have easily turned out some other way and my path to FI would have been much harder. Another win has been the vacation home – we thought about getting something cheaper that wouldn’t have had the possibility to rent out, but eventually made the decision to buy in a more desirable place for prospective renters, and we are now seeing the benefits. I have also been pretty good about avoiding debt in the first place and, in those cases of finding myself in debt unavoidably (such as when I was a grad student), I have been pretty good at managing it and cutting my spending to tackle it aggressively. I was doing credit card surfing and credit card reward hacks way before I ever heard the terms.
What are your challenges?
On the challenges side, I would say I can find myself trying to “catch up to the Joneses” at times. After my Peace Corps service, I had a strong “nesting” desire – I wanted a nice couch, a house with hardwood floors, a decent car, the whole works. I look back and think that I gave too much credence to the idea that having the right things was a part of my happiness. Even recently, I found myself buying a very expensive TV mainly because a good friend of mine had one. He was right – it was a great TV with deep blacks and rich colors. But it broke recently (after getting a good six years out of it) and when I had the chance to replace it with another TV, this one a 4K model that would be the new top of the line, I woke myself from my haze, went to Costco and bought a much lower quality one for about 25% the cost. The thing is I don’t think I’m sophisticated enough to know the difference, and the cheaper one is good enough. I should tell myself that more often and catch myself when I feel the pull of materialism for its own sake.
What is your long-term goal? Do you have a FI target?
Yes, I have the target I mentioned, but really my sense of retirement planning is determined more by younger child’s year in school rather than the number. She will graduate in 2030, and at that time, I will most likely have enough that work would be optional, even if I am short of my nominal goal. I have the know-how and the experience of living cheaply to know that my wife and I could move to Vietnam or Thailand and thrive on $1500 a month, so if in 2030 we feel like walking away, we easily could.
Our long-term post-”have to” goal is to do long-term AirBNB or perhaps house exchanges/house-sitting in various places. We could maybe spend a month in Austria, for example, followed by a month in Slovenia, then come back to Japan for a month or two, then off to Bali for a month and then Malaysia, and so on. We have both been to a lot of places already, so there is not much more that we feel we really need to see from a tourist’s point of view, but we’re both eager to get to know some places in greater depth. We both like slow travel, so we envision just hopping around, staying at an apartment and then trying to get a sense of daily life wherever we go. I’ll take language classes, my wife will do yoga, we’ll both take cooking classes, and we’ll just try to focus on getting to know some very specific places.
If you become financially independent will you:
- Retire early?
- Continue to work in education? (How/why?)
- Do something different?
This question is already answered elsewhere, so I’ll just kind of skip it. In short, though, we’ll see what it’s like when we get there. I could go teach at another international school, but that’s probably less likely than just staying at this one and then traveling in the summers to wherever it is that I might want to teach. In 2030 when my daughter graduates, everything is on the table and where I work and what I do won’t be a money-driven decision.
Tell us about a short-term goal you’re working towards.
Great question – I am a habitual micro-goal setter and have about ten small goals I’m working on at any one time. One that I made three years ago that is still on my daily goal list is avoiding refined sugar, and I am pretty good at that. I have broken that rule when traveling (we went to South Korea recently and I felt it my culinary duty to try everything!) but I have been good otherwise. I am also working on going to bed at 11 – I’d say I’m about 50% successful with that. One I just started was to be able to do 100 pull-ups within 30 minutes. I started at 35 about two weeks ago and add one per day, with the goal of getting to 100 by Christmas. I’m really happy with my progress; it is amazing what adding just one rep per day can do.
Who/what inspires you?
My favorite bedtime story as a kid was The Little Engine that Could so when I think about that question, I gravitate towards people or movements that just keep chugging along, doing their best, and advancing little by little. I have to remind myself of that since, actually, my natural inclination is often to give up too soon. I am so analytical and so realistic that I often talk myself out of things because I assess the difficulty as too great before I even try. I admire the people who don’t worry about and just move forward. Gandhi is a personal hero of mine, and in terms of contemporaries, Greta Thunberg, the protestors at the Keystone pipeline, and other young people involved in protesting inaction on climate change are extremely admirable for me, even as I see how my own behavior falls short. When I grow up, I hope I can be as wise and compassionate as some of the young people today.
What’s something you want to say to other educators about financial independence?
I guess it would be to consider teaching internationally. It’s not for everybody, but I would really recommend getting out there on the international school job market and seeing what’s out there. I would say that financial independence may be a bit more achievable for teachers working on the international circuit and would encourage people to give it a thought. It seems like on FI podcasts, the number one thing people say they will do once they reach FI is travel — I say, why not do both at the same time? For younger teachers at the start of their careers, it can be a great way to jumpstart your savings and/or pay off debt. For those later in their careers, or maybe those who are 90% of the way to FI, it can be a nice glide path into early retirement, while letting you experience international living at the same time.
In my life in the States, there were four big expenses I had every month: taxes, health insurance, housing, and transportation. For some international schools, the school pays your local taxes and then you are exempted from US income taxes for the first $105,900 of income (for 2019 tax year), and while in some places, taxes can be higher, on average, taxes are no greater burden outside of the US compared to in. Housing is taken care of in many instances, so that isn’t often a part of your monthly planning. For transport, I know of few places where international school teachers are expected to own a car and use it to get to work. Healthcare is generally cheaper, given the US’s extraordinarily high healthcare costs. If one of the four big drivers of your spending is no worse internationally, and the other three are better, I would say your savings potential would be better.
It’s not all peaches and cream, though. One thing you become aware of in the international school circuit is that supply and demand forces are very much at work in terms of salaries and quality of life. Yes, it would be great to live and work in Barcelona, but because of that, a school there has no trouble finding teachers and can get away with pretty low salaries. Right now, salaries in India are generally quite high, and when coupled with very low living expenses, mean you could teach in New Delhi and comfortably count on $4,000 savings per month with no need to skimp on anything in your daily life. Maybe 6 or 7 thousand a month if you’re laser-focused. That has to be weighed against the catastrophically bad air pollution that is probably like smoking three packs of cigarettes a day. So, there can be trade-offs.
Keep in mind, this is a broad-brush look at things – there is so much variety in the international teaching world so it’s very hard to say definitively what it will be like. If someone were to say to an Australian teacher, “you should teach in the US,” there’d be a lot of diversity if you were talking about a rural public school in Wyoming, a fancy private school in Westchester, or a religious school in the suburbs of Atlanta, and international schools can vary in the same ways. But, I would say, register with a recruitment firm, get a feel for the market, maybe attend a fair, and see what is out there. If nothing feels right, then decline. The experience is worth the fee the recruitment agencies charge.
Where can readers reach you if they want to connect?
Readers are free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org with questions. I am actually planning on starting up a blog pretty soon, but don’t have that ready to go just yet.
Wow, thanks JJ! That was a great write-up of your financial plan and the international teaching experience. With such a clear long-term plan and short term goals, I can see why he’s been successful. The point about traveling as part of your career really resonated with me.
I can’t wait to share out JJ’s blog when he starts publishing.
In the meantime, here are some other Educator on FIOR interviews:
- Educator on FIOR 12 (One Cup of Rice) also shared her international experience as a math teacher.
- Educator on FIOR 3 (Econ Teach) also teaches a combo economics and personal finance class. And she started a blog after her interview here too!
You can find all the Educator on FIOR interviews here. Contact me if you’d like to be featured!