Expats: Dealing with Finances in Asia

Personal finance is difficult for anyone, but the challenge increases the minute you cross borders. Then it becomes a tangle of currency exchanges, banking partners, and multiple tax returns. While a transition between the United States to Europe is relatively painless, making a move to Asia can undoubtedly be tricky.

Fear not! Here is what you need to know about dealing with finances when transitioning to Asia!

Finances in Asia

Personal Budgeting

Personal budgeting is important for anyone looking to make financially sound decisions. When you live abroad, the room for error shrinks. There are no friends or family to help you make it through rough patches. Personal budgeting will help you not only keep your finances under control, but also give you a month-by-month snapshot of your expat lifestyle. This makes planning for travel or other large expenses easier to figure out. As a TEFL teacher, knowing my monthly expenses allows me to plan the number of hours I need to work to break even or the extra number of hours I need to work to cover my next big adventure. To help with planning, check out my Expat Expense Packet.

I do recommend that you keep an American debit card and credit card with funds available when you make your move to Asia. This comes in handy in emergencies as well as helps with having to deal with finances back home.

Saving

I have talked about the ability to save as a TEFL teacher and expat in this post, but it goes without saying that you will not get rich from teaching abroad. The ability to save is completely in your control and it is not impossible to save. However, you will not make what you need to cover all of your student loans by teaching for a year or two. In fact, most of my savings goes into my next travel destination.

Banking

Banking in Asia can be extremely frustrating. Setting up a bank account is not difficult and I recommend you do this instead of only keeping cash on you. My paycheck is deposited directly into my account and I use my account to transfer rent straight to my landlord, no need for physical money exchange.

Currently, no American banks work with Asian banks. The only transactions that occur are for corporations or business entities. Personal banking has not yet established clear lines of banking relations. This means that you cannot use your debit card at an ATM in Asia to pull out money or deposit paychecks.

Bills/ Loan Repayment Abroad

As an expat, I still have several bills that are due back home. With a little bit of planning, this is completely manageable. After my paycheck deposits and I have checked for accuracy, I withdraw the amount of money I need to exchange (fees included) to cover my expenses abroad. I then have to go into my bank and request a currency exchange and check. After some paperwork, the request will be approved. I then have to wait a week for the check to be mailed to my bank for pick-up. From there, I mail it to a trustworthy person back home to deposit into my American checking account.

As you can tell, this leaves very little room for poor time management. However, this option is 3 to 4 times cheaper than using a Western Union to transfer money back home.

Even as a part-time TEFL teacher, I am able to make loan repayments and credit card expenses fairly comfortably.

Paperwork

To remove as much stress as possible, make sure that any paperwork is in order before you leave. Change the most important accounts to be delivered to your new address. Leave someone in charge of receiving other mail. My mother receives the majority of my mail and checks it for me to make sure that I do not get something that needs immediate addressing (such as jury duty summons). Also, collect any paperwork you will need to defer or to lower the cost of loan repayments before you move. Another smart tactic is to ‘Go Paperless’ for accounts with that option. In this way, you can receive emails instead of paper notifications.

*Nomad Notions has a great article on how to file your Taiwanese taxes as an expat in Taiwan.

Travel

Travel is one of the greatest motivations to live abroad. It can also be one of the biggest expenses. To help alleviate some of my travel expenses, I plan one to two major trips a year that are within the region. This cuts down on flight expenses. Throughout the year, I travel around Taiwan on small weekend or day trips. It is a cheap way to cure wanderlust so that I can save for larger trips.

If you are planning on moving to Asia, just be prepared that flying home is very costly. For me, it is about a month’s worth of income (and another month where I lose money from not working). So while my mom is hoping I’ll make it home soon, returning home would replace a trip somewhere else. It’s a price that expats just have to be ready to pay unfortunately.

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Common Concerns
  • What should I keep from back home?

Definitely keep one debit card and one credit card. I have used these in tight situations, emergencies, or as back up when I travel. They also help to deal with any payments that I have to make in my home currency. Plus, if you do any online work, such as freelance writing, these play nicely with PayPal and other methods of receiving payment.

  • What if I am traveling in Asia, how do I prepare?

Asian banks are very leery of American dollars, with good reasons. The best way to prepare is to bring $100 bills with you instead of smaller notes. Also, request new bills from the bank as some banks will not use older bills with certain codes (to protect from known cases of fraud or money laundering). Do not crease or bend your money! The cleaner and crisper, the better! I would also exchange a good portion of bills before you arrive so that you have some cash on hand.

Also, don’t forget to notify your banks that you are traveling and may be using your plastics abroad.

  • I can’t live abroad. I have student loans.

You can live abroad. What it takes is realistic planning. The first step is to find out how to deal with payments and deferments. Collect needed documentation and paperwork. Then stay on top of it! Check when you need to repeat the process or when payment is due.

  • I should wait to move until I have saved more.

There is some amount of saving that needs to occur before you move abroad. However, I would say enough for flights and 2-3 months of expenses. After that, if you have been taking proactive measures to set up a new life abroad, you should be just fine. There is nothing wrong with saving long term, but often we get stuck constantly trying to save and never actually committing. Don’t allow yourself the excuse of money.

  • My parents don’t want me to leave because it’s too expensive.

It might be an initial monetary investment to make the move, but moving to Asia will actually be cheaper than living at home. Yes, I do make substantially less than I would back home, but I also have a higher standard of living abroad with my foreign income. Living in the United States has many benefits but it is also fairly costly.

I know my mother was not fond of me moving abroad. I did warm her up to the idea eventually once I convinced her it would be fun to visit me. How could she argue about having her own personal tour guide and hostess?

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Trust me, choosing to live in Asia while also trying to balance finances does not have to be a dreaded nightmare! A little planning and some budgeting will make financial matters as painless as possible.

If you are planning a move to Asia or already live abroad, you can use my Expat Expense Packet to help financially budget your year.

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10 thoughts on “Expats: Dealing with Finances in Asia”

    1. I have never been to Africa so it would be hard to say. The thing with Taiwan, in particular, is that it is very well developed. So not only do I get paid less and my money goes further, but I am living in a city that still has quite a bit of public amenities.

  1. I agree. It’s pretty vital to have a bank account in Taiwan, as most people and companies prefer wire transfers. Not to mention keeping a wad of cash in your sock drawer is not the most secure option…

  2. This is great info. We have been traveling SE Asia for almost 8 weeks now and on only $1000/month (USD). It’s doable, but can be a bit scary. So many other travelers are creative in maintaining finances while traveling, to include fly-by-night ESL teaching. Your blog is inspiring!

    1. Living in Taiwan, I definitely don’t live that cost-effectively. Still, I am doing much better than if I was back in the States. Thanks for the kind words! I look forward to learning more about your SE Asian adventures!

  3. Thanks! It’s kind of the opposite situation for me where my family lives in Asia and I’m hoping to move there even though I’ve been in the US for the past 10 years. It’s not the finances that worry me but the job situation! I find that the pay is not as high as in the states and that becomes a problem financially. Thanks for your super informative post. It definitely takes guts to move across the world with no family.

    1. Moving anywhere is such a scary process, even when you do your best to get everything lined up properly. Job searching is never easy! Good luck and if you ever have any questions, I’ll do my best to help answer them!

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