My first salary after college was $18,000.
But don’t cry for me, America. In 2013, I was teaching English as a second language (ESL) in China and earning well above the average urban salary. Plus, my rent was paid for, meals were provided, and I was only expected to work a few hours a day. I could have easily saved $1,000 a month, even after splurging on nice dinners and events around Beijing.
Could have is the key phrase here. Instead, I spent every dime I made on traveling all over Asia. I told myself that I should save or use the money to pay down my student loans … but I was there for a good time, not a long time.
This is when I first noticed how different cultures have wildly different perspectives on money.
For the last seven years, I’ve lived all over the world as an entrepreneur and tech professional and have observed how culture heavily influences cash habits — and how different people navigate similar anxieties and ambitions.
My personal finance journey has led me to China, the United Kingdom, and Germany, and along the way I’ve learned about reducing my cost of living, what a “good” investment means in different countries, and upending cultural expectations. Today, I help people plan the financial implications of moving abroad with my Wander Onward business and YouTube series. I’ve found that the lessons I learned from living and working in these three countries can be applied to anyone in the United States or beyond.
What I Learned From Working in China
In 2013, my $18,000 ESL salary converted into over ¥120,000 Yuan Renminbi (RMB), which was higher than the average urban salary of ¥90,000. Many of my teaching colleagues were only making around $500 (or ¥3,300 RMB) per month. Any of these salaries paled in comparison to my wealthy Chinese friends’ disposable income. While I never found out the actual net worth of these friends, I do know they would pick me up from work in a different luxury car every other week.
There is a serious discrepancy in wages and equality in China. Unless they were independently wealthy or had a family of their own, most of the teachers I worked with lived with their parents or in a shared dormitory. At my second job in China, working in marketing at a luxury spa, the massage therapists and nail technicians lived in a shared dorm because their immediate families lived far away in neighboring provinces. Many of my Chinese colleagues were sending money home, so saving on their living space seemed to be an easy way to cut expenses.
Everyone seemed to be focused on making money quickly so they could eventually return to a more affordable region and buy a home. In China, several generations could often be found living under one roof and property ownership is valued as the main wealth-generating technique for the middle class.
The rapid industrialization of China has led to the expansion of Tuhao culture — loosely translated to “nouveau riche” — and today, China’s “crazy rich” seem to focus on pursuing passive wealth-generating ventures. This ranges from establishing production factories and international business ventures to buying or flipping commercial property. Essentially, the idea is to have your money make more money with fewer time-intensive commitments. When Uber came to China in 2014, I met many drivers who were bored but wealthy young people in super cars who only drove Uber to meet internationals and practice their English.
Both my wealthy and working class Chinese peers were natural experts in long-term financial planning. They were willing to sacrifice whatever was necessary to achieve their vision of financial freedom.
What I Learned From Working in the United Kingdom
After graduating from SOAS University of London in 2016 with a Masters in Development Studies, my next professional salary was bumped up to £33,000 GBP, or $43,400. After tax, I was left with £2,000 a month to pay for rent, transportation, food, and living costs.
£2,000 goes quickly in London, where people are known to pay anywhere from 30 to 50% of their income on rent alone. Yet even though many of my graduating peers were making much less after graduation (under £24,000), they still seemed able to live fulfilling lives. How did they do it?
After living in the U.K. for six years and working as a financial coach, it became clear to me that the U.K. is a very savings-poor society. One study found that millions of residents have less than £100 in their savings account, partly due to the cost of living skyrocketing while real wage growth stagnates. However, day-to-day living can feel manageable thanks to the publicly funded National Health Service (NHS) and budget retailers like Lidl and Primark.
Like in other countries, owning property is an important path to wealth generation in the U.K. However, this was nearly impossible in London, as the average price for a 385-square-foot, one-bedroom flat just outside the city center was over £473,000 ($622,000).
Another option to generate wealth in the U.K. is to invest in the financial markets through the Individual Savings Accounts program, which has a generous tax-free allowance of up to £20,000 per year. There are four types of ISAs: cash ISA, stocks and shares ISA, innovative finance ISA, and the Lifetime ISA. In an ISA, you do not pay tax on the interest earned nor the income or capital gains from investments. This is a critical financial resource as standard government pensions roughly pay only £134 per week.
Much like America, the middle-class in Britain is caught up in traditional wealth generation practices, which depend heavily on the perpetual appreciation of property prices. The discrepancies between disposable income and high living costs can make it incredibly difficult to lay an independent financial foundation.
During my time in the U.K., I mainly focused on debt repayment and building an emergency fund of £10,000 ($13,300). I was able to pay down $30,000 of my student loans in just over three years thanks to serious budgeting, a generous salary increase in 2018, and working as an Instagram influencer on @WanderOnwards. In 2019, I started investing through my U.K. company pension — which I was obligated to contribute to — and this started my investing journey.
What I Learned From Working in Germany
In February 2020, I moved to Germany, where the average gross earnings is around €48,000 Euro (or $57,600) per year before tax. I earn more than the average.
Here, I can spend the majority of my disposable income on wealth accumulation because the cost of living in Germany is very affordable. My main priorities are investing in the financial markets, and I plan to buy property next year with my German husband.
In contrast to the U.K., Germany is known as a cash-rich society due to a savings-focused personal finance culture. On average, German households are able to save about 10%of their disposable income, nearly twice as much as the average EU or American household. Earning a high income in a low-cost living environment allows some people to live and save decently. In cities like Berlin or Essen, you can still rent two-bedroom apartments for under €600 a month, and strong renters’ rights allow families to stay in affordable housing for decades.
When it comes to wealth generation, Germans consider property to be “concrete gold,” or Betongold. Property ownership is highly encouraged, but not popular. Out of all the OECD countries, Germany has the second lowest share of homeowners. Investing in the financial market seems to be even less popular. Instead, people invest in “insurances,” or professional money management programs, which guarantee a certain amount of interest by a target date or in case of disability. For pensions, there is a “point-based” retirement insurance in place where the government guarantees qualifying retirees a certain amount of money until that individual passes away.
The financial strategy I observed in Germany seems to be: hope for the best, but save and prepare for the worst. This prudent approach delays immediate gratification for a more comfortable and financially stable retirement.
What I Learned About Building Wealth Anywhere in the World
Traveling has taught me there is no one right way to make, save, and invest money. Every country has its own traditional beliefs and wealth generation creators.
But I did notice a couple themes across the world.
The first is to control your lifestyle costs. Whether that’s by moving to a more affordable area or tightening your proverbial “budget belt,” financial longevity starts by saving at least 10% of your income.
Second, your money should work for you. You can buy property, start a business or learn how to earn passive income. Just do whatever you need to do to ensure you’re not dependent on just one source of income.