- Grace Arnold
The TEFL world is opening up - be ready for the change - money.
The first teaching job I ever had overseas we were paid in cash. The last Friday of the month all the employees of the school: the admin, the teachers, the cleaner, the Director of Studies, the driver, the marketing team - all of us - would line up outside The Accountant's office in a quiet and orderly queue to receive our monthly wages.
The Accountant was a hardcore woman with jet black dyed hair, teased and hair-sprayed into a kind of helmet shaped solid mass, designed to deflect blunt instruments if she was ever ambushed on the way back from the bank.
She was utterly terrifying when she fixed you with one of her 'what do you mean you have expenses' looks, but underneath the 'don't mess with me or I'll mess with you' exterior she was a genuinely lovely woman, ferociously good at her job and most of all fair - if the school owed you money, she'd fight for you and you'd get it.
We'd all stand and wait for her to call our names, then toddle in to receive our money in a crisp white envelope with silent two-handed gratitude, open it, count it out in front of her, sign the receipt of payment, get the receipt stamped, and scurry off back down the corridor to shove the envelope into your pocket before heading back to class, hoping you didn't lose it on the way back to your apartment, and hoping you'd be able to exchange what you'd saved on the way out of the country.
If you had foreign currency to exchange, there was no Forex at the bank, nope, there was a bus in the potholed, dirt surfaced car park around the back of a supermarket on the other side of the city, heavily guarded by men in mirrored sunglasses and scars down their cheeks.
You got onto the hot, sweaty bus and exchanged dollars to local currency through a metal grill with a man spitting out pumpkin seed husks onto the floor, while you prayed your mother would never find out how stupid you were being to be in this situation at all.
Times thankfully have changed in many countries, and now you can at least make a financial transaction in the comfort of a fan or air conditioning, but everywhere is different so here are some tips on handling money overseas.
- find out how and when you will be paid before you travel, also ask when you will be reimbursed for any expenses you have incurred like flights or visas, this will help you plan a budget for how much money you will need before you receive your first pay and make sure you have the right documentation with you if you need to open a bank account.
- keep receipts for everything you have paid for before arrival, a ticket stub is not enough, you will need the booking form and receipt, do not forget to keep a copy for yourself in case of disputes.
- find out about your accommodation, is it free or do you have to pay yourself? Is it an on-campus apartment or a monthly rent allowance. Many countries now use a 'six month upfront + deposit' rental system for foreign workers, if you find your own apartment on a rent allowance find out if you have to pay out the six months upfront and deposit out of your own pocket and then the school reimburses the rent allowance with your wage monthly, or does the school pay? If you're in a private rental apartment, are you the leaseholder or is the school the leaseholder? Always get someone from your school to check a rental lease before you sign it.
- check if your ATM card works with the banking system in your destination country, if you have a debit card many machines shift this to the credit card option on the screen.
- beware bank charges, for ATM withdrawals in a foreign currency, find out before you leave what charges you will incur for using your home card in another country.
- always keep a stash of money and if possible an alternative ATM card at your apartment, just in case. I personally never use a wallet, because they are so easy to lose, or target.
- some of the familiar items you see will be imported luxuries in the country you're in. If you want to live on peanut butter, burgers and granola in Asia or South America you will find your money disappears pretty quickly. Eat local, food is a cultural gateway, ask people at school, students, or neighbours, to show you where they shop.
- when you go out and about, don't flash your cash, don't be a mark, don't be that guy who has a fat bankroll of local currency and counts it in the street. If you have to take cash with you, count up before you go out and know how much you have on you, split it into separate pockets. Put it in order in your pocket and fold in two, this creates a lower 'profile' in your pocket, I always go largest notes on the inside of the fold, smallest on the outside, then you know what notes you're pulling out and how much you have left in your pocket.
- have change and small notes, a lot of the tastiest food in the world costs a matter of cents, be thoughtful, don't go to the food stand or fruit stall with a large note. This will wipe out the change the vendor needs for other customers, and if you're casually waving a note which is more than the vendor makes in a day and behaving like a high-roller, well, quite honestly you deserve any extra ingredients that end up in there.
- generosity and humility, be aware that as a foreigner you will more than likely be earning a considerable amount more than your local colleagues and people you interact with on a daily basis. Think carefully, how would you feel if you've worked at a school for many years, have degrees and Masters degrees, are fluent in at least two languages and you get less than your foreign colleagues? While having a recognised qualification, and being respectful to your colleagues will go a hell of a long way to alleviate any resentment, a generosity of spirit and the humility to ask for help, makes transitions to a new workplace a whole lot smoother.
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