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How I Had the Best Year of My Life While Paying Off $10,000 in Student Loans

Senior ITA Advisor Cassie Wells discusses how she had the best year of her life & paid off $10,000 in student loans while teaching English in South Korea.

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When I first heard about teaching English abroad, I unknowingly filed it under my “things I wish I could do if I made more money” tab in my brain. There it would sit, or so I thought, with other charming files like “becoming Beyonce” and “buying an island and filling it with stray dogs/cats”.  What I didn’t know at the time, was that it is actually possible to teach English abroad even if you don’t have oodles of cash lying around.

Yes, even me, a Midwesterner who had never been overseas with big student loan payments. I was able to have one of the best years of my life teaching English in South Korea and I was even able to get my act together financially by saving money and paying off $10,000 in student debt. Who would’ve thought, right?!

Many recent college graduates and those that have graduated in the last decade have student loans (according to most experts total student debt in the U.S. now exceeds $1.2 trillion!). Being able to keep up with my dreaded monthly student loan payments while teaching abroad was one of my biggest concerns.

The good news is, there are options. If your student loan payment is low enough, you could pay them in advance, before departure. For those with thousands and thousands of student debt, this simply isn't an option. If you, too, have student loans to pay and are thinking of teaching English abroad, the first thing you need to do is call your loan provider and ask them about your options. Depending on your lender and type of loan, you may be able to lower your monthly payment, defer your payment, or maybe you’ll be like me and not have any options but to pay them on time! Either way, you shouldn't be deterred from following your dreams of living abroad & traveling the world!

Make great money teaching English in South Korea

If you want to travel the world and still be able to take care of things back home, YOU CAN. There are many countries looking to hire TEFL certified teachers and they’re even willing to pay you a generous salary that allows you to do more than just make ends meet. In many countries, you can actually save money at the end of every month.

I personally was able to save about $1,500 each month after living expenses in South Korea.  A lot of people ask if I was eating cold noodles every night and never leaving my apartment in order to save that much. Nope. I cooked at home a few times a week and the rest of the time I went out to local restaurants. I went out with friends, took cabs, shopped a lot because everything in South Korea is adorable, and I even had cable. 

When I wanted to take a last-minute weekend trip, I’d go. When I wanted to spend a week in a Buddhist temple, I bought a bus ticket and hoped I wouldn’t accidentally swear in front of a monk. I really loved not having to budget as much as I did back home. Saving money each month was important to me, though, so I always had that as a goal in my mind.

Being able to save money every month and take care of my student loans back home was awesome, but things just got better for me with teaching in South Korea. On top of the generous monthly salary, I was also given free round-trip airfare to and from the US as well as a furnished studio apartment for the year, rent-free. Mind blown.

This made my start-up expenses quite low and made the decision to start my adventure there even easier. It also made me happy to know that I could afford to take trips while teaching abroad. One of my favorite travel memories was spending the holidays with my coworkers on the beaches of Vietnam. I had always wanted to visit, but it was so far away from my home in the US. From South Korea, it was just a 3.5-hour flight! You could visit China, Japan, Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia… all just a short flight away!

Get TEFL Certified and teach English in South Korea

Having fun & making friends is one of the best parts of teaching English overseas. When you’re not singing in karaoke rooms with your friends or eating strange things on a stick, you’ll want to know how to manage your student loans and bills back home. Most teachers will set up bank accounts where they’re teaching and wire money home to their US account every month or so. Sending an international money wire usually costs a small fee, but it was worth it to be able to stay on top of my finances at home. I would then use online bill pay to make the payments when they were due.

One suggestion, which you can do with what you will, is to avoid auto bill-pay if possible. Having your payments drafted automatically is a good idea, in theory, but you might learn the hard way that things don’t always go as planned (like I did). When I first moved to South Korea, I had it set up so that my student loans would be drafted from my US account on the 5th of each month. This was just fine at first, but then one day I went to my Korean bank to send a bank wire to find that it was closed for a holiday I wasn’t aware of. 

This delayed my funds being transferred to my US account in time for my loan payment. I called my bank and got everything straightened out, but decided that due to the curve balls that come your way while teaching abroad, it might be best to give myself some leeway if I could.

I can’t write this article without mentioning the best part of my experience… teaching English! Before teaching abroad, the thought of being in front of a classroom of students made me want to run for the hills. I knew I would be teaching children and I also knew that children can smell your fear. Then I remembered that despite popular belief, I was once a child, myself. After a few months of teaching at my private language academy, I was dubbed ‘Crazy Cassie Teacher’, a title that still brings me a sense of honor.

I was the teacher with candy, stickers, games, music, English storybooks, and flashlights (for when we would pretend we were reading at a campfire, of course). They were excited for class. They were excited to learn. They were improving their English and having a good time doing so. I think I had more fun than my students!

Pay off student loans by teaching English in South Korea

Teaching English abroad can take you on new paths in life - and you can get paid for it too! Over the course of a year, I was not only able to pay off over $10,000 in student loan debt, but I was able to experience life in a beautiful country that quickly became a second home.

I learned many valuable skills that translated back in the US and walked way with a deeper sense of appreciation for just about everything. Student loan debt or other financial obligations, as it turns out, does not have to be the end of the world. I’m still figuring out this island for stray cats and dogs thing, but I’ll get there.


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