Save money or break even teaching English in China?

How much you will be able to earn and save by teaching in China (and how much should you make in the US to save the same amount)

So, you’ve finally graduated, a degree in hand, and are now ready to start a life of work and travel. You’ve decided it might be an interesting experience to work in China teaching English; learn a new language, live in a cool city, try some new food, put your teaching skills to the test, and get paid while doing it.

All of this has led you here, to, where you look through the available job postings and see what looks to be just the right position. Perfect school, excellent hours, and ideal location: it’s everything you wanted. That is until you see the salary: $2000-2500 per month. (Please don’t believe flashy $5000 per month vacancies usually posted by recruiters — this is a salary for an experienced teacher)

Now you may see this and be thinking to yourself, “how am I supposed to live on a salary of $2000 per month?”.

If you were working in the United States, for instance, it would be a reasonable question. It would be difficult to pay for rent, food, transportation, health insurance, taxes and anything else that may come up with such a salary (especially while living in a major city). There wouldn’t be much room for a savings account or covering an emergency expense, like a flat tire or hospital bill, should one arise.

Looking at a school overseas offering a salary of $2000-3000 a month, it’s easy to convince yourself to stay and work in the United States, where it’s easy to make a higher sum per paycheck, rather than take your skills abroad.

However, in China, that same question has a completely different answer. What so many people fail to realize about living and traveling in China is how much more affordable it is than in countries like the United States.

I experienced this myself when I traveled to China in 2019. Despite being in some of the largest cities in China, it is surprisingly extremely affordable (especially if you are traveling on a budget like I was). I was able to have dinner at nice restaurants for a fraction of the cost I pay in my home city. While the traffic was a nightmare (as traffic always is), the cost of getting through the city was nothing like what I pay at home.

Throughout China, things like rent, food, transportation and more are a lot more affordable than they would be in the United States, even in the largest cities like Beijing and Shanghai. And most of the time, the quality of what you pay for is just as good as it is in the US for a fraction of the cost. It’s easy to see just how reasonable that $2000 a month salary is becoming.

To better put things into perspective, let’s compare two cities: Philadelphia and Nanjing. Both are sizable and major cities in their respective countries and are good for comparing the difference between costs in the United States and China.

So what can you expect to have to pay each month? Excluding rent and health insurance, your necessities would be like in any other city: food, utilities, transportation, and any extra activities.

🍚🥢😋 Food

As an example, let’s compare the cost of going out for lunch. According to Numbeo, in Philadelphia, the cost of an inexpensive, average meal is about $15 ($10 if you’re a thrifty spender). In Nanjing, the cost of that inexpensive, average meal is about ¥20 (at today’s exchange rate, this is a little bit less than $3). A huge difference!

🚌🚊🐪 Transportation

Purchasing power in China doesn’t just stop at food. The average cost of a monthly metro pass in Nanjing is ¥100 (about $15), compared to about $96 in Philadelphia.

🏘️🚪🛏️ Rent

The average cost of a one-bedroom apartment in the city center in Nanjing is about ¥3,545 (about $516) compared to $1,527 in Philadelphia for the same style apartment — almost triple the price! And this isn’t a localized phenomenon.

The average monthly cost of living in China is so much lower compared to the United States that with a salary of $2,000, you’ll still have plenty of money left over to put aside in a savings account. This is in part due to two of the perks provided to you by hiring schools. One of the benefits that are provided by many schools looking for international ESL teachers is accommodations.

Many schools will do one of three things: they will either provide you with an apartment, give you a housing allowance so you can rent an apartment (in addition to your salary), or they will add the expected cost of rent to your salary (leading to a higher salary). Most schools will also provide their international ESL teachers with health insurance (at no additional cost to you), saving you even more money.

Bearing in mind that in Philadelphia you would also likely have to pay rent for an apartment (an average $1,500 a month), you would need to earn a lot more to afford that same style of living — an estimated monthly total of about $3,300.


Below is a table that sums up these expenses (in dollars) based on estimates from Numbeo that compares the estimated cost of living per month in Nanjing and Philadelphia.

There’s a huge difference between the monthly cost of living in the two cities. You would have to pay about 4x as much as you would to live in Nanjing, and that’s not even taking into account setting aside any money for savings.

This gap in the cost of living is not specific to just Nanjing and Philadelphia — it can be seen in almost any comparison between a Chinese and US city.

While this is a minimalistic budget that only shows an average estimate (hence the cushion sum for additional expenses), you would still have plenty of extra money to spend and hundreds of dollars each month to put into savings, take additional trips around China, pay off some student loans, etc. Even in some of the bigger and more expensive cities like Beijing or Shanghai, $2,000 each month is plenty to live with when your employer provides accommodations. A quick google search will show you what you can expect to pay in any city you’re considering.

So, while a position teaching ESL in China with a salary of $2,000 at first may seem like it isn’t enough, the numbers speak for themselves. Not only is it doable, but you’ll have plenty of money left over to travel around your new city and take in the culture and history of China, start a savings account, pay off some of your student loans, or whatever you need some extra cash for.

Are you serious about working in China? — Let's make it official. Take a look at the list of things you should know before moving to China.

Happy travels!