A group of us had an interesting discussion on social media some weeks ago about teacher salaries and teacher lifestyles. Most of the contributors were teachers, but not all.
Putting that 30,000 baht a month ‘poverty line’ existence aside for a moment, the burning question was this - what baht figure, or more to the point what kind of lifestyle, should a Western expat teacher be aiming for in Bangkok (and I stress that this is only Bangkok we are talking about)
Where is the dividing line between achieving what you deserve or just surviving and seriously going without? And keep in mind we are only concerned with a ‘moderate expat lifestyle’ here. This is not glamorous living or a ‘champagne lifestyle’ by any stretch. We shouldn’t confuse the word ‘moderate’ with ‘middle-class’.
We should also exclude those teachers who are qualified to teach at ‘proper’ international schools. We already know how good their salary and benefits packages are.
The following are what I would consider to be the essential components and ‘affordables’ of a moderate Western expat lifestyle. You should be comfortably able to afford;
1) An annual trip home
You should be able to fly home once a year to see family and friends. This expense would of course include a return flight ticket and spending money. By all means stay at your parents’ or a friend’s house when you get there (even if it means kipping on the sofa to keep accommodation costs down) but that doesn’t mean poncing off them for the entire duration of your stay. You should have enough spending money to treat friends and family to the odd meal out and be able to put your hand in your pocket for a round of drinks in the local pub.
(I ran this blog topic past a trusted friend before anyone else had the chance to read it and he raised an interesting point - ‘when does an expat become an expat?’ The dictionary definition of expat (short for ‘expatriate’ of course) is ‘someone who does not live in their own country’. But surely someone who is only going to live abroad for one or two years won’t have to meet the expense of returning home for a family visit - or is less likely to. It’s certainly a fair point)
I would also add that no one wants to be the teacher who doesn’t have the funds necessary to return home when a family emergency crops up. I’ve worked with plenty of those guys in the past.
2) A place to call home
I haven’t rented an apartment in Bangkok for over 15 years so I’m a little out of the loop, but talking to expat teachers on social media, the general concensus seems to be that you’ll need to spend at least 8,000 baht a month on rent for a flat in a serviced apartment building with decent facilities, but figure on maybe 10-12,000 baht a month if you want to be near a sky-train station. Then of course there are utility bills to be factored in on top.
Living a moderate expat lifestyle means not having to live in one of those awful buildings where Thais share four to a room, cook in the corridors and beat each other up after a Saturday night drinking session.
3) Shopping basket
When it comes to filling the weekend shopping trolley, there are certain prohibitively expensive things that I won’t buy on principle – cheese being one of them. But that doesn’t mean you want to be brushing flies off chicken pieces at some open-air market. You should always be able to fill your basket with the odd treat or ‘taste of home’.
4) Weekends away
You should be able to drop 10-15,000 baht on perhaps a long weekend at the beach or a national park, where some quirky boutique hotel might set you back 3,000 baht a night plus a couple of low-cost flight tickets with Nok Air. And you should be able to do this several times a year.
Thailand is a huge country with some beautiful places to see once you can tear yourself away from the Pattayas, the Phukets and the Hua Hins.
5) Weekend eating out
You might survive comfortably during the week by cooking at home, using the school canteen picking up some Thai food or eating in a food court – that’s great! - but you should be able to splash out at the weekends and have a break from your culinary routine. The selection of restaurants in Bangkok seems to get bigger and bigger. Recently, Tex-Mex giant, Taco Bell, opened their first outlet in downtown Bangkok resulting in quite an online food frenzy. Why should others have all the fun (if only to sample the dining experience once) and not you?!
6) A coffee break
I think the cost of a cappuccino and a slice of cake in your average Bangkok coffee shop is nothing short of scandalous but you shouldn’t be depriving yourself of the pleasure whenever the fancy takes you.
7) The boring but essential stuff
A decent annual health insurance package (accepted at all hospitals) and membership to a modern gym with up-to-date equipment are both essential, to me anyway, and I'm betting they are for a good few other folk as well.
Right, it’s time for that well worn (or could that be worn out?) expression ‘to live like a Thai’ to rear its ugly head, because a number of expats will say ‘well, I didn’t come to Thailand to live this kind of lifestyle’.
What kind of lifestyle? We are only talking moderation here.
I’m yet to meet a single expat who has managed to maintain a ‘Thai lifestyle’ in Bangkok for more than a few months unless it’s out of sheer necessity. ‘Living like a Thai’ will always wear you down in the end. I just don’t think it’s in our DNA.
My best Thai friend (a smashing fellow called Ben) earns in the region of 35,000 baht a month, and his girlfriend brings another 20K into the household. We have regular, lengthy conversations on the topics of money and the cost of living in the capital. I know what Ben can and can’t afford each month, how much travelling he can do, the room he rents and the neighborhood he lives in. He seems happy enough with his lot - but he’s Thai. His day-to-day existence is certainly not for me, nor for any other Western expat I would imagine.
Finally, there is always going to be the question of ‘well, how much does this moderate Western expat lifestyle cost. What is this magical figure we should be aiming for?’
It’s a difficult question to answer if only for the reason that some people are far better at managing money than others, but if you pushed me for an answer, I would say around 60-70,000 baht a month. Any less than that in Bangkok and there’s every chance you are going without. It’s becoming an expensive place these days.
Schools and employers take note!