I often get asked the same question - is it possible to live in Bangkok on a 30,000 baht salary?
I'm going to go into as much detail as possible to hopefully answer this important question. And I'm certainly not going to sugar-coat things, because after all, you wouldn't want it that way.
OK, let's really drill down those numbers.
This is the amount that most of the people asking me the question will be earning - give or take a thousand or two. These days, it's very much an ‘average' teacher's salary in Thailand.
Many teacher placement agencies pay in the ball-park of 30K a month, as do most of the companies who specialize in hiring teachers from abroad for short-term teaching contracts (the latter are usually jobs for the ‘gap year' crowd)
There are of course plenty of teachers here earning far more than 30,000 baht (and plenty of teachers making less) but 30K is the amount we're going to play with.
We're not concerning ourselves here with teaching in rural Thailand, where according to many old hands, "money goes much further" and "you can live very well on 30,000" etc.
I have no experience of living and working out in the sticks so I'm in no position to judge. I've been in Bangkok for 25 years - over 80% of my adult life in fact - and for thirteen of those years I was an English teacher. Bangkok is all I know.
In all those years I spent standing in front of a whiteboard, I very rarely worked for a monthly salary. I mostly worked for language schools that paid by the hour and supplemented it with corporate work (also hourly paid)
I earned on average from 28K - 36K a month depending on the time of year and how busy the language school was.
In later years, I started to take on private students at home for a couple of evenings a week but the most I ever made in my 13 years of teaching was 46,000 baht in a single month. That felt like an awful lot of money back in about 1999 I can tell you.
But times have changed since then.
What I'm saying is that I averaged around 30-35K during my teaching career so I know what it's like to live on that amount of money - to pay rent, to feed and clothe yourself and to make annual trips back home, etc.
No two people are the same
I've constantly been fascinated by how different people handle their finances. By and large, I've always worked with groups of teachers who earned roughly the same amount of money as me each month.
And yet at every place I taught, there were always the teachers who could afford to spend the final weekend of the month away on Koh Samet - and there were always the teachers who were living on cup noodles and 2,000 baht pay advances in the final days of the month.
It's always important to keep in mind that no two people are the same when it comes to organizing personal finances.
But for every teacher, it's all about living within your means. You can't live a 50K a month lifestyle on a 30K salary. I gave this advice out to teaching colleagues many times but it would invariably fall on deaf ears. Leopards never changed their spots.
I asked some of my Twitter friends and followers how they felt about living in Bangkok on 30K a month. Admittedly some of those followers are not teachers, but they DO live in Bangkok. They still have a good feel for what it costs to live here.
Here are some of the comments (tweets)
"You're never going to be able to afford to put your kids through school or visit home"
"It must only be an existence. Not a future. Outside of Bangkok maybe doable but still not a long term plan for future stability"
"It's possible to live on 30K but have you come across the world to live worse off?"
"Let's not forget that 30K / month for a 10-month contract is actually 25K a month"
"30k is a young person's game for sure. I think we can all agree on that"
"I loved my first three months here when I made 30K. But I've steadily gone up the ladder, and couldn't go back"
"Survive? - yes. Constantly worry about money? - yes. It wouldn't be for me"
That's just a selection of the Twitter feedback we had. There were also people who said they had no trouble living on 30K a month - but they were definitely a minority.
The majority wouldn't and couldn't imagine living on that amount.
You'll be earning X times the salary of the average Thai
Taking home 30K a month, you'll be earning three times what the average Thai person earns. Or is it four times? Frankly, who cares? To me it's a meaningless comparison and always has been.
I don't care if I'm earning four times what a factory security guard makes just as I wouldn't care if I were teaching English in Somalia and earning ten times as much as a Somalian goat-herder.
A Thai person has their own standard of living and a foreigner has theirs. You don't expect to live in the lap of luxury but you DO expect to be able to afford your basic needs and a few ‘treats' on top. Otherwise, what's the point of being here?
Enjoy life by ‘living like a Thai'
Your 30K salary will go a lot further if you ‘live like a Thai'. This is another pointless argument that comes up time and time again.
Frankly speaking, when I was finding my way in the world, it was never my ambition to want to ‘live like a Thai'. And you know what? - I bet most Thais aren't that keen on living like a Thai either. Most of them would love a bit more in the disposable income department.
I'm never completely sure what living like a Thai means. Does it mean eating street-food twice a day every day and only using the public bus service to go back and forth to your 2,000 baht a month apartment? Well, that's going to be fun.
Plenty of teachers arrive in Thailand with the romantic notion that they will exist by ‘going native'. But the novelty very quickly wears off.
It's also worth mentioning that anyone who has been here any length of time will have worked alongside the Thai office girl who pulls in barely 15,000 baht a month but always has the latest smartphone, manages to run a car and still has money left over to socialize and dress well.
The numbers just don't stack up and this is because Thais often have the support of a family network. They sometimes live at home (so food and accommodation costs are zero) and when the car tax needs paying or there's a nice new handbag they've got their eye on, they can dip into daddy's big pocket.
As foreigners, we just don't have that option.
Let's analyze potential spending and living costs in a bit more detail.
Let's start off with what is surely a teacher's largest monthly expense - accommodation, be it a studio apartment, a shared room in a rented house or whatever.
Accommodation is an enormous grey area and nigh on impossible to put a figure on. I remember an old boss of mine saying that you should look to spend a third of your salary on a place to live and while I wouldn't suggest you spend 10,000 baht on rent, there's no doubt that some 30K a month teachers do.
You may be ‘lucky' and work for a school that provides free accommodation but that is not the norm in Thailand. In most cases, the teacher has to find their own place to live.
You can rent a studio apartment in Bangkok for as little as 2,000 baht a month (but such apartment buildings can often be very grim indeed) while at the other end of the scale, there is no limit to what you could pay.
But I'm going to take 6,000 baht a month as the average figure for something half-way decent. With electricity bills and other utilities on top, your final accommodation spend would come out at about 7-8000.
This leaves you with around 23,000 baht a month. That works out to just less than 800 baht a day to cover all of the expenses below.
It's not a great deal of money is it? Strap yourself in. It's going to be quite a ride!
Visa run costs
This is often an unexpected and unwelcome expense that new teachers have to accept. If a new teacher has to do a visa run to a Thai embassy or consulate in a neighboring country to obtain a non-immigrant visa, the cost of transportation, guest house, visa fees, living costs, etc can be considerable.
Sometimes the employer will shoulder all or part of the costs involved, but very often not.
Again, this is another grey area. Some people like to eat well and others will skimp when it comes to spending money on food.
Quite a number of teachers are lucky enough to receive free school lunches (or at least heavily subsidized) but that still leaves you with breakfast, an evening meal and food at the weekend to find.
You can save a fair amount of money by eating Thai street-food as much as possible (it's called ‘living like a Thai') but street-food once or twice a week is more than enough for me. I prefer to cook at home. You don't save money but you do eat better.
It's at the weekend where the teacher will likely gravitate towards the fast food joints (McDonalds, KFC, etc) or go in search of Western restaurants or better alternatives to the weekday school lunches and footpath offerings. And why shouldn't you treat yourself at weekends? If you can't afford to have a burger and fries whenever you fancy, what's the point in being here?
Let's call it 100 baht a day for food from Monday to Friday and 1,000 baht for the weekend. That doesn't sound like an awful lot to me but still amounts to 2,500-3,000 baht.
So we've fed ourselves for the month, we've put a roof over our heads and we've still got 20,000 baht left.
Getting to work
Very few teachers are lucky enough to live within walking distance of their school and well done if you do! But for most teachers, there will be public transportation costs.
Bangkok buses are cheap for sure - but you'll soon tire of standing on those in rush hour. Some teachers will opt for the mass transit systems (sky-train or subway) and some might even splash out on the luxury of a taxi, especially on a rainy October morning when you're running late for work.
Even taking the mass transit system to and from work will cost you 60 baht a day. Add 80 baht for a taxi. It really depends on your journey.
At the last school I worked for, I had to walk the five minutes from my house to the main road in order to catch a taxi (taking the bus was far too much hassle) The taxi to the sky-train station would cost me 60-80 baht depending on traffic. Then my sky-train ticket would work out at about 30 baht.
And of course I would do the reverse journey in the evening. 22 days a month. Total cost = 200 baht a day x 22 = 4,400 baht. That's just to get to work and back.
I don't think there's anything out of the ordinary about my journey to work there, but I do appreciate that it's now easier to live closer to the Bangkok mass transit systems. But I'm still going to factor in 2,000 baht a month for transportation.
We're now left with 18,000 baht of that original 30K salary.
Other supermarket costs
Ah, here we go. I've just returned from the supermarket. Let's have a peek into my shopping bags.
In terms of non-food items, I've got bin-liners, floor cleaner, shampoo, hair-conditioner, shaving gel, air freshener......need I go on? I'm not saying I buy this stuff every week but there are ALWAYS non-food items that you will need to buy.
And as my friend Laura reminded me on Twitter - "a female teacher is always going to spend a lot more than a male teacher on cosmetics, toiletries, etc"
I'm going to put a price of 2,000 baht a month on non-food items. We're now left with 16,000 baht.
If you are living and working in Bangkok without health insurance, you should stop reading immediately and sort yourself out. A serious illness or motorcycle accident could wipe out your life savings in the blink of an eye if you don't have adequate insurance.
Thailand's daily English-language newspapers often run stories of someone lying in a Thai hospital bed, unable to pay his hospital bills and relying on the generosity of friends and family back home to get him out of trouble. You don't want to be that person.
I think most employers in Thailand will arrange some sort of health insurance for their teachers - but it's very often the most basic package available. In some cases it won't cover those niggly out-patient visits, where you're not poorly enough to be hospitalized but certainly need to see a doctor.
If you want to upgrade and arrange your own health insurance cover, you're looking at at least 1,000 baht a month. However, for the majority of teachers, they take their chances with whatever the school offers. Just stay off those motorcycles!
There are so many places to see in Thailand and everybody who lives and works in Bangkok needs a break from the concrete jungle now and again. And as I've said several times already - if you can't afford to treat yourself to a weekend on a tropical island every so often, there's no point in being here.
Travel in Thailand is nowhere near as cheap as it once was. The days of the 50 baht fan bungalow right next to the beach are long gone. Very average hotels can easily cost a couple of thousand baht a night and you're always going to spend more on food, attractions and activities at ‘touristy' places
While it's impossible to put a price on the cost of a weekend away because we all have different standards of accommodation and travel, etc, I never find a short break down in Hua Hin costing me less than about 8,000 baht.
I met up with a few old colleagues recently at a pub on Sukhumwit Road. Nothing fancy, I think the beer was 80 baht a bottle. However we bought a round of drinks each, which came to 320 baht per person. Then we adjourned to the most spectacularly ordinary Indian restaurant I've ever been to, where starters, a main course and a soft drink came to an eye-watering 750 baht a head.
That was 1,100 baht spent on one ordinary night out on Sukhumwit Road. Just to re-cap, don't forget that after paying rent on your 30,000 baht salary, you are supposed to be ‘surviving' on less than 800 baht a day.
I've always maintained that on 30K a month, there is little or no room left over for ‘treats.
A coffee and a muffin in Starbucks can cost well over 200 baht.
A couple of drinks at a Bangkok roof-top bar could run you well over 500 baht.
A full breakfast at a Bangkok British pub can be 300-400 baht.
The list goes on.
It's very easy to just say ‘oh well, I'll avoid those things' - but why should you? What's the point if you can't treat yourself at least once or twice a week?
Oh, I forgot
I haven't included a category for clothing, laundry and dry cleaning. You buy clothes, you wear clothes - and clothes need to be washed. They are all expenses that need to be factored in.
The annual trip home and emergencies
In the mid-90s, I worked with a terrific British teacher named Robert. Everybody liked Robert - he was the life and soul of the teacher's room.
One day his dear Mother back in London got sick and doctors told her she had weeks to live. Robert didn't have the money to fly back home to be at his mom's bedside in her final hours. He was one of those teachers who lived a 50K lifestyle on a 30K salary. Nothing was ever stashed away for a rainy day - or a family emergency just like this one.
The situation was heartbreaking for all of us. Rob listened to his Mother die on the opposite end of a telephone line.
My own parents are well into their twilight years now - and with their health slowly deteriorating, my suitcase is always on standby to leave with me at a moment's notice.
If you never have to fly back to support a sick relative, then at least perhaps, you'll want to make the trip back home to see friends and family once a year.
Every time I go back to the UK for just a couple of weeks, plane tickets and spending money set me back about 100,000 baht. That's another 8,000 baht a month right there.
And on a final note
When I published this article for the first time, many Thai schools were breaking up for the end of term holiday. No more school for a couple of months - Hooray!
There were foreign teachers now looking forward to a lovely two-month holiday. On full pay as well! Life doesn't get any better than that. This is why we come to teach English in Thailand!
But hold on, there is a dark side. A very dark side - as one or two Ajarn Facebook page followers were only too quick to point out.
For every teacher looking forward to a semester break on full pay, there are Lord knows how many teachers facing a couple of months with no pay at all - very often, teachers who work for agencies on the dreaded ten or eleven-month contracts.
As one teacher said on Twitter - "I'm now desperately scrambling around to find summer camp work. Or how can I pay my rent?"
Not good. Not good at all.
And of course, if we do the math, a 30K a month teacher is actually only earning 25,000 baht a month if two months of the year are unpaid.
No one is saying that you can't live on a 30K salary in Bangkok. Many teachers can and many teachers do. But is it living or is it just survival? Is it just an existence?
One thing is clear - the vast majority of teachers and those expats who don't teach, but live in Bangkok, will all tell you the same thing. Living on 30K in the capital is going to be very tough indeed.
Bangkok is NOT the cheap destination it was in the early 90's when I first came here. Prices for everything have risen steadily, especially over the last five years.
There will always be those who disagree with the figures above. "I spend less than that on food" or "I don't spend that much on transportation" - but I don't think the figures are far out for the average person.
Just be aware of your figures and realise that if you are thinking of embarking on a teaching career in Thailand, you could be living in Bangkok on just 25 US dollars a day.