How to Live Off of a Teacher’s Salary

Sometimes this is all we have left over at the end of the month, but that’s still something!

(or any other career you are in that is NOT about the money)

September 29, 2019

If you pay attention to education at all, you’ve probably heard that teachers are not paid a fair wage for the job that they do, and I’m not here to get into the politics, taxes and arguments on it. But I can tell you that that can cause a lot of aspiring educators to stray from the career field that desperately needs people who care for kids and their future to enter it.  Some will take the plunge into the career field anyway, but struggle to make ends meet and must work multiple jobs.  This is not ideal for so many reasons, but the biggest to me is that teachers need down time to rejuvenate their mind, body and soul so that they can give their best to their students—which means they have to have time for down time.  While many people and regulations are working diligently to provide better pay, benefits and conditions for teachers, they still need to live today with what income they have and can’t afford to wait for legislative changes or union negotiations.  Having been in the military at 18 and their pay scale, and a single mom a few years later while serving, I learned a few tricks to live well and spend little. Those techniques helped me after separating from the military as well as through 6 years in corporate America and a 13 year teaching career that have helped me avoid a second job to make ends meet. I did briefly work part time jobs to save for an upcoming vacation or to get a discount on a product I was already using. 

The first and foremost thing you need to do is have a budget.  Without one, you are setting yourself up for failure.  There are all sorts of resources available from books to apps to articles, and your financial institution may even offer some options.  If you want to create your own, start by tracking your spending—either using a spreadsheet or envelopes and cash for categories.  Sometimes just seeing where you spend your money can make you realize and adjust.  I am a bit of a nerd when it comes to this, especially with a love of travel.  I will research pay and cost of living in the areas we travel to and create a budget to see if we could afford to live there.  I don’t know if that is dreaming or a hobby, but it is always eye-opening, and often surprising, to see what we could afford to do if we decided to.  The big thing is to stick to your budget.  You can always budget for those splurge items like coffee and fashion if they are important to you, just find another place to save or use it as an occasional treat.

Next, it is important to live within your means.  If you aren’t making big money, then a big house, accommodation-filled apartment complex or new car may not be the best splurge.  There are plenty of nice places to live and vehicles to drive that can be within your means.  And there is always the roommate option.  I purchased a small, older home as a single mom on a teacher’s salary for a lot less than any rent in the area.  It served me well and I was sad when our family situation resulted in selling it and doubling our mortgage.  But that was after getting married, having another child and needing to take in a family member long term, so we were able to.  This smaller home also afforded me the option of traveling since I wasn’t “house poor” and forced to sacrifice what was important to me.

Another tip to help you immensely is meal planning.  It is so easy to get takeout, go out, or just pick things up at the market when you are out, but meal planning can cut a budget by half, depending on your current habits.  A simple calendar or notepad can help with this.  We meal plan, then purchase our meats from a local meat market in bulk.  Then we break them down into portions and freeze them.  We then stock up on frozen or canned vegetables, some basic dried goods, snacks and seasonings and we are set for the month.  I have been amazed at how much this has reduced our food expenses in our household.  And we still have room in the budget for going out or ordering take out on occasion when we have those nights no one wants to cook.  I also can’t recommend a crock pot enough.  Being a teacher is so demanding that some days we just don’t feel like cooking.  Starting something early in the day to have ready when you come home can be so amazing and a huge time and energy saver.  There are tons of crock pot cookbooks available as well as website or get creative on your weekends or summers.  Snack prep can be easy and inexpensive if you can bake, and stove top popcorn is easy, cheap and way healthier than the microwave stuff. If you are a single or small family, meal or sweets share and have others prepare dishes and swap with you.  This can also give you some variety to your meals and snacks as well as teach you new recipes or open your palette.

Don’t completely eliminate what is most important to you, regardless of how tight your budget is.  Travel was an important part of my life, so I didn’t have a fancy car or home and I lived on a tight budget and planned well.  I had friends, or friends of friends, all over, so I reached out to them and made travel arrangements based on what was available.  This allowed me trips to Europe, Hawaii, California, the mountains of Georgia and Tennessee, and all over the Southeast and Northeast regions without massive debt. In fact, the few times I didn’t have cash and put it on a credit card, it was paid off in a matter of months.  Sure, we couch surfed, camped, drove and stayed in inexpensive hotels or Airbnb’s, but we have fond memories of every one of those trips, so it was worth it. Some times I had to go without a trip during a vacation time so that I could save up for something bigger, but it was worth it.

If you get gifts from family or friends for holidays, you could ask for gift cards or a payment to a bill instead of more stuff.  This may not sound glamorous but stressing about debt isn’t either.  Getting a grocery store or gas gift card or knowing that your utilities are paid for during a month can be a huge stress relief.  There may be some people who give you a hard time about this, but if you explain to them what you are doing, it could help both of you.  Regardless of what they gift you, just be grateful and be sure you wear or use it, so they know you still value them in your life. This is not something worth severing ties over.

If you must go shopping or need household or clothing items, use a list and shop secondhand or borrow if it is short term or a one time event.  There are many times you can find something gently used or in need of simple repair and can save a ton of money.  Furnishing a new place can be a huge expense you can avoid when there are many places with items you could acquire to get by until your financial status changes.  And if you need an outfit for a special event, borrow it from a friend, coworker or family member—paying for a cleaning is going to be way cheaper, and they may even have the accessories to compliment it perfectly that you can borrow, too.

I know we are talking about living off a teacher’s salary, but I don’t want to end an article on finances without stressing two final points—make room for savings and life insurance.  In the military, we started out on day one ensuring that this was set up and taken care of. All your finance gurus tell you to start an emergency fund of at least $1,000 before committing to paying off debt and I think that is a great idea.  That was the hardest financial commitment I have ever made, but I was so glad I did, and it has made my life easier.  And life insurance is also a key factor that a lot of people don’t think about it until it is too late.  They don’t realize how affordable it can be, especially at a young age while they are still healthy or if you go with a simple accidental policy or burial plan.  It’s something to think about and prepare for early so you can forget about it and rest easy, and there are so many options out there on the marketplace.  You don’t have to leave a fortune behind for your loved ones, just enough to cover your expenses and any assets you may want to leave behind.  Sit down with a professional and they will tell you more.  As an educator, you already know the importance of planning ahead and thinking about the big picture, this is just another aspect of it.

If student loan debt is the major factor that is leaving you strapped each month, start doing research.  There are several loan forgiveness programs that are out there that you may be able to work towards.  I took advantage of this one and had a chunk paid off because I worked in a Title 1 school for 5 years.  And do the same if you are looking to pursue advanced degrees to move up in your career. You can also talk to your District about loan plans, find organizations to join that can help with scholarships or payments, or talk to the loan company and see about a refinance or deferment option.  Yes, you will accrue interest and pay for way longer than intended, but it gives you time to survive now and prepare for that by paying off a car or finding a roommate to offset living expenses that you can then allocate to your loans.

Finally, cancel subscriptions and eliminate fees from your life.  You can cancel your magazines and show subscriptions easily, and possibly get a refund if you have enough time left on it (then put it in savings or on a bill!).  You can also eliminate fees by making sure your credit cards are paid in full monthly if you do use them and many bank accounts don’t charge fees if you have direct deposit.  The next step is to unsubscribe from all the advertisement emails and hide them from social media feeds, so you won’t be tempted to add them back into your life.

As hard as it may be to live off a teacher’s paycheck, there are many others that have it so much worse.  I know there are many paychecks out there that are just not livable wages in today’s economy, a sad factor that is the result of things that could be an entire article on their own.  And we cannot compare today’s lifestyle to those even 50 years ago.  Most American’s daily lives require them to have a car, cell phone or internet service in their home and trying to live without it is not an option for some.  Having a vehicle to drive is a must in most areas because of how urban sprawl has occurred and the lack of adequate public transportation outside of major cities, among other reasons.  Add to that rising insurance and fuel prices and people often find themselves in a pickle.  While car and bike share programs are growing, they are still not everywhere.  Cell phones are another factor we face as an expense that was once a luxury and, for many is a requirement because of work.  Internet is something many need for work or education and this adds to their expense.  You could investigate bundling a home phone and internet to live without a cell phone, or care for your phone and avoid contracts and always purchasing new phones.  I have inherited or bought used phones from friends that upgrade to save money.  There are some financial situations where there may not be an easy answer, so if you have those extenuating circumstances, reach out to your finance institution to talk to a planner to help—many offer this as a free service.  You can always hit the used bookstore or the library (free with a utility bill or ID showing residency!) and find financial planning books to help you out. And did you know that the local library has movie rentals and computers with internet access you can use for free, possibly avoiding those expenses ENTIRELY?

I hope that at least one of these has helped you find a way to save money and make your financial life a bit better.  Teachers do so much, they shouldn’t need to worry about there financial situation all the time.  I’d love to hear about something you have found that works well and your own personal success stories!

A basic list of our monthly expenses from our budget. We track everything in both a money program and a spreadsheet.

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