Late Starter to FI Series #32 – Teaching Abroad to Financial Independence

Welcome to the Late Starter to FI series!

I am a Late Starter – I discovered the FIRE (Financial Independence Retire Early) movement when I was 47. This was way later, I thought than others who seem to have it all together in their 20s and 30s.

Since I started to write about my own journey, I have discovered there are many more Late Starters like me, yay! It’s such a relief knowing I’m not alone. 

I want to share our stories, our unique perspectives and show that it is absolutely not too late for us.

So in this series, I particularly highlight those of us who start our FI journeys in our 40s, 50s and 60s. And explore questions such as ‘where do we start’, ‘can we still retire early(ish)’, ‘what are the specific challenges for us late starters’. We look at our past, not to castigate ourselves but so that you can learn from us.

Please join in the conversation in the comments below. I encourage you to share your story if you fit the profile of a late starter. You absolutely don’t have to be a blogger or podcaster to share your story. 

Please email me at or connect with me on Twitter or Facebook or Instagram.

If you’ve missed any of the previous stories, you can catch up here – Late Starter to FI series

And if you can’t wait to start on your own FIRE journey, check out my step by step ultimate starter guide, Late Starter to FIRE Action Plan.


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wooden sign Minnesota

We’ve featured many teachers in this series … who have either reached FIRE or working hard to reach FIRE.

Today’s feature, Jay and Sara, who write at Playtirement are committed teachers who took their teaching abroad – read on to see how this affected their financial independence journey.

You can also connect with Jay and Sara at Twitter and Instagram

A little about us

We are Jay and Sara; we are Minnesotans by birth who lived there much of our lives. From our earliest learning experiences in kindergarten through our graduate degrees, all happened within Minnesota.

This is also where we began our careers and spent the first 18 years of our professional lives teaching within public schools, in the cities of Mankato and Duluth.

Our lives have always revolved around a school year calendar. It’s helped us have extended time to explore and play and practice mini- retirement each summer. I like to think this time has kept us young, even though we are fast approaching the end of our 40s.

We are a couple of DINKs (Double Income No Kids), and when we had our chocolate labrador, we were a couple of DINKS-WADS (Double Income No Kids With A Dog). Being an aunt and uncle to 17 nieces and nephews gave us plenty of opportunities to watch our siblings raise children. We decided by not deciding about having kids. When we turned 40, we settled on continuing to impact the lives of children one school year at a time.

That same year in 2012, we chose to take our lives on the road to start an international teaching adventure before our roots ran too deep in one place.

We spent two years teaching abroad in Johannesburg, South Africa, and thoroughly enjoyed our first gig away from the protected wing of our birthplace. The wanderlust had just begun.

We knew we were hooked on this international lifestyle but wanted to prove it wasn’t just a fluke, so we tried one more move. In 2014 we relocated to Hong Kong to live and work on the side of the world we never stepped foot on. It didn’t take us long to realise the city offered us everything we needed in life, including woods and water. We’ve been here ever since.

Our main passion is for all things outdoors that get us moving and exploring, and travelling. Biking, hiking, trail running, backpacking, downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, canoeing, camping, and anything in between. Put us in the outdoors, and we are happy.

Jay and Sara at Cape Agulhas, South Africa

Our lightbulb moment

FIRE was never something we thought of until about five years ago. Before moving overseas, we consistently contributed to our pensions and lived the traditional middle-class lifestyle in the United States. We had a house, credit card debts, two cars, and an affinity to spending money whenever we got more of it. Like many others before us, it was an imperfect path to financial independence.

We dabbled in additional investments in our 30s after finally realising what that meant. We couldn’t afford much due to our lifestyle, so we decided to max out a Roth IRA each year, which was $5000. The process started with a financial planner through our teacher’s credit union. He was a nice man. He also had us invest in a managed fund that had fees of 1.5%. We are glad that neither that financial planner nor those funds are in our lives anymore.

Fast forward to moving overseas in 2012. We rented our house in the US and began to quickly pay down debts due to the additional benefits and compensation we received from our international school. Our school also covered our housing costs, and we paid no local tax on our salaries. It was shocking to see how our financial situation changed for the better. It was like we won the teaching lottery.

We were able to quickly kill our credit card and graduate degree debts along with paying down our mortgage. Once the debts were gone, we began saving a lot of money in a simple savings account.

$10 000. Boom! $20 000. Woohoo! $100 000. OMG! Wait, now what do we do?

At this time, we began having serious conversations with some friends about what to do with our savings. One friend turned us onto the book, Millionaire Teacher by Andrew Hallam. And voila, our FIRE life was born.

We got hooked on the mathematics of it all, and we gobbled up many more books after that, including The Simple Path to Wealth by JL Collins and the Little Book of Common Sense Investing by Jack Bogle.

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First steps on the path to FI

These books led us to an easy epiphany. Call it a duh – epiphany. We could retire before our full pension age of 66 years old. Holy schnikes!

After discovering this was a possibility, our savings rate skyrocketed to at least 50% of our salary each month. This new fiscal goal post was changing our mindset and made us take some crucial steps in our journey.

The first was to make our savings rate as high as we could get it. The second was to get our dollar bills working for us in mathematically advantageous ways. Index fund investing was calling.

Our first real index fund investment was born in January 2017. We opened up a brokerage account with Charles Schwab and tested an investment by buying $1000 in a simple total stock market index fund (SWTSX). We marvelled at the simplicity of it all.

After travelling back to the US that following summer, we rolled over all our additional investment accounts into two simple pots, a traditional IRA and a Roth IRA. Filled with a mixture of total stock and total bond market index funds, we now had three fertile grounds to watch our plants grow.

And boy, did they take off. We know the adage is “time in the market, not timing the market” but we have ridden the bull wave for the past four and a half years. It sure has been a good ride. (We know not to get too cocky, however)

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How far we have progressed ...

These past four years have also been stellar as far as thinking about our future with money. The time has helped us define our values about living even further and identify what we want to do once we stop full time work.

FIRE is not really about investing and making a bunch of money in order to sip margaritas on a beach. It’s a philosophy. It’s a paradigm shift. It’s a lifestyle. We feel so fortunate to have been given this gift of discovering the difference.

Specific challenges or advantages of starting late

We have no regrets about starting our FIRE journey this late.

We rather enjoy knowing we struggled for some years.

Beginning the path to financial independence later in life means we can identify with more people about their inabilities to save or their lack of knowledge about investing because we were also there. This helps us understand and empathise more with others on their journeys. And that’s always a good thing.

As far as doing anything differently over our years, we could have had less debt as 20 and 30 somethings by making better choices on our most significant expenses. We also know we could have saved more to take advantage of compounding interest. But there is no blame or shame in the process. We all have to start somewhere.

Jay & Sara on the Great Wall of China
Hiking on the Great Wall of China

Arriving at our FI destination

Leaving a job you love was not an easy decision. We love teaching and will miss building and working with our community of learners each school year.

However, as we enter our last year of teaching in a little over a month, we look forward to 16 extra years of financial freedom. Sixteen years we didn’t think we’d have in our lives to backpack in the mountains when we want, bicycle tour when we want, ski when we want, trail run when we want, slow travel when we want, volunteer when we want, or go back into teaching if we want.

Freedom to choose what to do whenever we want is our Xanadu.

What's next?

The last 18 months of the pandemic have been enlightening for us, albeit a terrible situation for many people. We hunkered down in the uber-safe city of Hong Kong, saved a bunch of money due to lack of travel opportunities, and tried to teach children through Zoom and a combination of a million different schedules and configurations.

We thank our lucky stars that education is a recession-proof profession. We know others cannot say the same thing.

The months of uncertainty in the world helped us make one colossal decision. The post FI journey was about to begin.

The next thing for us after one more year of teaching is yet to be determined. And that’s how we want the rest of our lives to go too.

We plan to repatriate back to the US and our great state of Minnesota for part of the year, where we will live like the Golden Girls with some friends in their spare mother in law rental apartment. Living like this will provide us the flexibility to lock the door, leave our car and do whatever the heck we want, whenever the heck we want.

Most likely, that’s going to be trail running, bicycle touring, all forms of skiing, canoe tripping, backpacking, and any other adventures we can find around the world that will allow us to continue to work hard, play hard and give back the best we know how.

That’s our version of playtirement.

Jay & Sara on top of cliffs overlooking sea
Three Capes Track of Tasmania, Australia

Back to Latestarterfire

Thank you, Jay and Sara for sharing your story with us.

I love that you’ve applied your adventuring spirit to your professional lives by venturing overseas and teaching abroad. It’s amazing how that has really catapulted your savings rate and enable you to eliminate debt and start to invest hard for your future.

It’s a good lesson that we can learn – how can we do what we do professionally to earn a better income?

We already have the skills and capabilities that we’ve built up over the years from our education and years of experience in the workforce. Instead of focusing on side hustles and having a second job, perhaps we can do better by focusing on taking our main job to the next level.

Jay and Sara, we wish you well in your future adventures … many of us dream of doing what we want when we want without regard to a work schedule … this is possible for you just around the corner. How exciting!

How can you build adventure and excitement into your main job and take it to the next level?

4 Replies to “Late Starter to FI Series #32 – Teaching Abroad to Financial Independence”

  1. Another great story from a fellow late starter. Sometimes I think it is almost better to be a late starter because its like you get a new lease on life.

    Great to hear you spent some time in South Africa, thats a whole adventure by itsef. The adventures sound fantastic, enjoy the freedom.

    1. “Sometimes I think it is almost better to be a late starter because its like you get a new lease on life.” – That is so true, Alan!

  2. I loved reading Jay and Sara’s story! They made so much progress in such a short time. Teaching overseas sounds like such a great way to get ahead. If we were younger and qualified to teach, I would LOVE to try that as a path to faster wealth building.

    It’s inspirational to learn about different paths to FIRE. Thank you for sharing, Jay and Sara!

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