Readers' Submissions

Living Within My Means Part 2

  • Written by Sawadee2000
  • September 6th, 2010
  • 23 min read


Is everybody still awake out there? Well, after a looooong introduction in part one of this submission, it’s time to finally discuss my financial situation here in Thailand. I suppose a good place to start is to talk about what I realistically expected to do here. I was only in my mid-fifties when we arrived in Lampang. There were (and I hope still are) many years ahead of me. Was I planning to lounge around all day with a cold beverage in my hand? That may very well be some people’s dream life, and I am certainly not going to stand on some mountain top and pass judgment on how to live. Personally though, and I emphasize the word personally, I would be bored to tears without something meaningful to do. My father may no longer around, but I can almost hear him saying, “Get up off your butt and do something!”

Okay dad, I got the message! I did actually have a plan, although it was perhaps a little bit sketchy around the edges. My wife and I talked about the possibility of opening a small restaurant. Specifically, I imagined an ice-cream parlor/malt shop with a 1950’s theme. Picture a white and black checkerboard floor, red leather banquettes, a juke box playing Elvis, and cute waitresses in poodle shirts and saddle shoes. Picture honest to goodness home made ice cream confections, cakes, pies and cookies. Picture a smiling Sawadee standing inside his impeccably clean shop, greeting customers and ringing up the cash register. This little tableau sounded just fine, and it might have actually worked out that way…except for the minor inconvenience of having a major heart attack only a few months after arriving in Lampang. While resting and recovering from surgery, even the thought of all the work that would be needed to start my modest confection emporium was enough to make me exhausted. Anyhow, even from a mostly supine position, I had plenty to occupy my time, namely the construction of our new home.

In the first piece I ever penned for this website, I described the epic tale of the ups and downs of building a house in Thailand. I only want to touch briefly here on how much we spent. We were extremely fortunate to find a crew of genuinely talented builders, who were happy to be paid only for their labor, and let us buy all of our own construction material. We still have a loose-leaf binder with receipts for every blessed brick, bag of cement, stick of wood, and all the myriad bits and pieces that went into Bahn Sawadee.

My wife, ever the shrewd bargainer, made certain that she always got the best deal possible, while I wisely stood far in the background. There was simply no way my Thai wife was going to accept inflated “Farang prices” on anything! Adding up all the numbers, our lovely home cost, including land, about 3.5 million Baht. This included a small forest’s worth of teak, a ceramic tile roof (as opposed to the typical cement “tiles”, and top of the line German and Swiss appliances. I could have spent much less money if I had built things the way my wife wanted, but I considered this to be the very last house on this earth that I would ever live in. I didn’t need (or want) extravagance. I did however want a comfortable place that looked nice and was well built. I think I succeeded. <Let me verify that Barn Sawadee is a wonderful home that is beautifully built in a style that both foreigners and Thais would likeStick>

I should mention at this point that I was keeping most of my money back in my U.S. bank. There it sat quietly earning a modest 6% interest. I knew my money was safe. If, and this was a very big if, the bank went under, my money was backed up by the FDIC. Barring Armageddon, my money would be there whenever I needed it.

Before moving to Thailand, I filled out a stack of international bank transfer forms, so I could simply call my banker and have them wire money into my Thai bank account as needed. Given Thailand’s instability, I think it is tempting fate to keep any more in Thai banks than you have to. Call me paranoid, but given the fact that I’ve had two Thai insurance companies go belly up on me, I’d rather be safe than sorry!

Okay, we built a lovely home. We also bought a new Toyota Vigo 4×4. We didn’t owe anyone a single baht. The question still remained, how were we going to earn a steady amount of money? We still had plenty in the bank, but that was set aside for the future. Without a revenue stream at least equal to our expenses, over time our monetary reservoir would slowly but surely evaporate.

To be honest, I never even knew about the prospects of teaching English here. It simply never dawned on me that as a native speaker (with a degree in education) I might be in demand. It wasn’t too long after arriving in Lampang though, before neighbors began tapping on my door asking me if I might tutor their children. Step by faithful step I found myself on the path to become what I am today: a full time English teacher. If you’ve read many of my submissions, you have a pretty fair idea how that’s worked out!

Today though, I won’t regale you with tales from the classroom. Instead, I’d like to fit the financial aspect of my work into the overall picture of my income and expenditures.

Let’s start with income. The base salary of a qualified native English speaking teacher at my school is 30,000 baht. This is for 12 months a year. If I want to take the annual two month holiday, I still get paid. For the past three years I have gotten, and will continue to get in the future, a 1,000 baht per month raise each year. Each Christmas and Songkran I get a 5,000 baht bonus. For teaching a month of “summer school” I get another 15,000 baht. The school offers a monetary a few monetary perks, such as paying for my yearly visa and work permit and giving me a 50% discount on my son’s tuition. They also pick up the cost of a round trip airline ticket every few years. I think I may take advantage of that next year.

I do a bit of tutoring after school and on the weekends which brings in 8,000 – 10,000 baht a month.

That about covers what I earn as a teacher. We own, or rather I should say my wife owns a large piece of agricultural land in Buriram. We have been letting her family use it to grow sugar cane, in exchange for 50% of the yearly profits. This brings in at least 50,000 baht.

That’s it for income. Oh, I forgot to mention my wife’s Thai massage business. I estimate that she earns between 6,000 and 8,000 per month. She takes great offense when I ask her what she’s earned, so I don’t bother anymore. < Given the way she wants to know what you earn this raises my eyebrows, to say the leastStick> I recently told her she could be earning much more, if she did even a modest amount of advertising. Living in a residential area, not too many people except our neighbors are likely to wander in. Some signs along the road outside of our moo-bahn have brought in some additional business, but more needed to be done if she was serious about wanting more money. I finally convinced her to let me design a colorful and informative brochure about the various massage services she offers that I could hand out at school. After only a few days, the results have been impressive. Many teachers have already called to make appointments.

May I digress here for just a moment? Thais really do need to start thinking “outside of the box”! For example, take two ice cream shops around the corner from each other. Shop number one has an old dirty sign in the window that reads “Ice cream 10 baht”. BTW, the shop looks waaaay overdue for a cleaning, and there are flies buzzing around the counter. There are a few rickety old tables and chairs. The person serving at the counter is wearing an old stained apron and has a scowl on her face. The term ice cream needs to be taken with a grain of salt, as it is probably ice milk…and is full of chemical additives. Shop number two is sparkling clean and smells fresh. A sign in the window proudly proclaims. “Homemade ice cream made daily using all natural ingredients”. The shop is colorfully decorated and the woman at the counter is wearing a spotless white apron and welcomes you with a 1000 watt smile. If the price was exactly the same, which establishment would you choose to patronize? I told my wife that since every aspect of her massage experience is far superior to other places saying “Thai Massage", she really needed to be proactive in promoting herself. Hopefully she will someday benefit for a lousy few hundred baht investment!

In another two years I can begin collecting Social Security. I will not be getting a huge amount of money. For the nearly six years I’ve been here in Thailand, I haven’t paid a dime into the system. Still, the minimum I will collect each would be the equivalent at the current exchange rate to over 21,000 baht. When this money kicks in, my financial situation will be greatly enhanced. But that is still in the future. Let’s stay in the boundaries of the here and now.

Having covered the cash flowing into our coffers let me run down the list of expenditures. The place to start is with utilities. When I tell most ex-pats living here how much I spend for electricity, they do a double take. I average 4,000 – 5,000 baht a month, except for November through February, when it drops to about 2,000. No, Sawadee is not running every light in the house 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. I do however have A/C in our bedroom, and I don’t hesitate to crank it up. I can put up with the heat and humidity during the day, but I absolutely demand a cool room at bedtime. My wife also uses A/C in the room she uses for massage. In addition to our washing machine, which is in constant use, we have an electric clothes dryer, which is also tumbling around as well. My wife does her cooking outside using a gas burner or charcoal. I on the other hand use both my electric stove and oven. Add in whatever electricity is consumed from lights, TV and our computer, and you have a relatively large bill at the end of the month. So be it. While I am not wasteful, unless circumstances force me to cut back, I intend to keep sending my electric meter spinning at its current rate.

What else is on my monthly utilities list? Our water bill is minimal, no more than 200 baht, and that’s with us both using a lot of water. Drinking water is also not very much. We go through several 5 gallon jugs at 12 baht per container…and there are sturdy lads to carry the jugs in.

Our internet expenses have actually gone down over the past few years. We started out with TOT, which charged about 1,500 baht for extremely low bandwidth. Our download rate was less than 1 Mb! Now we use 3BB, and for 590 baht we get 5 Mb, which is good enough for me.

We have satellite TV service from True Visions, which sets us back 1500 baht. This is for the middle tier service. I don’t need anything other than Discovery, National Geographic, The History Channel, CNN and BBC. My wife is always trying to convince me to get rid of the service, but I notice that she enjoys some “educational” fare to supplement the rubbish on Thai TV. I also want Sam to have a portal to the outside world. I don’t mind him watching cartoons, but it warms my heart to see him watch something like Animal Planet!

As far as telephone service, we do have a landline, but we rarely use it. I’ve asked my wife why she wants it, but she says it only costs a small amount, and it is good to have for emergencies. For her such an emergency would be running her phone card down to nothing, and then proceeding to do the same to my phone card…and then not feeling like running down to 7 Eleven to buy a new card. I rarely use my mobile phone. I just am not much of a talker on the phone. A 100 baht DTAC card will last me a long, long time.

That’s it for utilities. My wife pays all of our bills online from a separate account she has set up. I was a little leery of doing this in Thailand. If we were ever overcharged, I imagined one hell of a fight to get it straightened out. So far though there have been no problems. I am always confident that my wife will double-check …or even triple-check everything. This gal reads over a supermarket receipt as though it were a matter of life and death, and don’t even get me started about a hospital bill! To her credit, she once found a 10,000 baht overcharge.

During the rainy season I fill up our truck twice a month, spending about 2,000 baht each time to do so. During the cool season, when I ride my bicycle around town, I fill-up only once a month. I suppose I could have saved a few baht in fuel by buying a diesel, but to be honest I hate diesel vehicles. I don’t like riding around in something that rattles like a washer on a continuous spin cycle, and I don’t like the smell of diesel exhaust. I also could have bought a truck with a manual transmission. Every car I ever owned was a standard. My wife however never got the hang of it when I attempted to teach her to drive back in the U.S. “Get your foot off the clutch when you aren’t shifting gears I pleaded”…without much success. I quickly sent her off to Dave’s Driving School, where she could learn to master an automatic. When buying our Toyota here in Lampang, I made it easy on both of us by choosing an automatic.

Every 10,000 kilometers I have our dealership service our truck. Once again, I could have saved a few baht by having Somchai change the oil…but who knows if he would choose the correct replacement filter, or use the prescribed type of oil. Because of my father’s auto parts business, I got to know many mechanics over the years. Some were excellent. Others were competent. A small number should have taking up shoe repair. Here in Thailand I think it prudent to have professionals do my maintenance. The Toyota dealership here is as modern and professional as anywhere in Farangland. A simple oil change is relatively inexpensive, depending on the recommended mileage/maintenance schedule. My wife has never understood that some parts, such as disc brake rotors and pads are designed to wear out over time, and that items such as transmission fluid, air and gas filters need to be replaced regularly. I’ve tried to explain that if you want to keep a vehicle running for the long haul, you do need to spend some money from time to time.

How much money do we spend on food each month? I’ve never really kept track, but not a tremendous amount. My wife buys fruit and vegetables from a number of markets around town, and pays for them out of money she’s earned. I shop once or twice a week at Big C for things like meat and butter, and sundry items like detergent and paper goods. I would say that I spend 3000 baht a month. Once a month I go to Chiang Mai and spend 1000 baht for bread from Jo’s Bakery to stick in the freezer.

There are always some small miscellaneous expenses to be paid, such as having the lawn cut one or twice a month. This is a pretty fair bargain at 100 baht. A monthly haircut sets me back another 100 baht. During the school week I spend 200 – 300 baht on iced coffee. I spend very little on clothing, and whenever my sandals wear out, I head over to the local Bata for another 300 baht pair.

There are a few yearly expenses that need to be planned for. Car insurance costs me about 15,000. I deliberately did not get the most expensive policy. First of all, I mentioned earlier, I’ve had two Thai insurance companies fail on me so far. Secondly, any accident I might have will probably be caused by Somchai or his sister hitting me. And as anyone who has lived here for any length of time will attest, “The Farang is always at fault!”

We have been buying medical insurance for Sam, and will continue to do so. It costs about 15,000 baht annually, and is worth every baht of it. Sam has had to go in the hospital for a number of illnesses. I of course insist that he goes to a private hospital. If we had to pay out of pocket, we would spend more than the insurance costs.

And speaking of medical expenses, now I turn to my single largest monthly personal expense…medicine. I am currently taking seven different drugs daily. Luckily some of them are available in generic form. Still, I spend 4,000 – 5,000 baht to keep myself ambulatory. It is a lot of money, but if I were living in the U.S. these same medications would cost me much more (no generics available)…and I would be forced to see two or three doctors every few months, simply to get refills. A simple office visit would set me back $100. Here in Thailand I can walk into my pharmacy and buy anything I want.

I’ve penned more than a few pieces about my medical adventures since moving here. Would I have made the move to Thailand if I had known the real state of my health? Believe it or not, the answer is yes. Back in America I would have had a hard time qualifying for health insurance because of preexisting conditions. Insurance companies may be heartless bastards, but they are not stupid! They make money by denying benefits, not paying for them! The cost of medical care is astonishingly high. The only way to afford it is to either be very rich…or very poor. If you are without a penny to your name, you may be eligible for government assistance. If you are middle class and are faced with a life threatening disease, you may be out of luck, even if you have insurance. There is a whole lot that insurance companies will not pay for. You may very well be forced to sell everything you own to pay hospital bills. Talk about life or death decisions. I know those of you who live in places like New Zealand, where the government provides medical care to its citizens, must be appalled that the largest economy in the world cannot take of its own people.

When we moved to Thailand, I had a substantial amount of money set aside for the future. Unfortunately I did not envision a future that included six rounds of heart surgery. The cost of world class surgery in Thailand may be less expensive than in America, but it still ain’t cheap! I have spent an extraordinary amount of money for each and every bit of surgery. I am not complaining. How can I when I’m alive and sitting here able to write this, instead of being a moldering pile of ashes under the mango tree? Having the same procedures done in the U.S. would cost triple what it did here, and have left me without a penny to my name. My bank account now may not be overflowing, but I’ve never run short of what my family and I need to live…and live comfortably.

That’s what it comes down to in the end, isn’t it? What do you need to live comfortably? I’m thankful that I need less than many other people coming to live here. You may notice than in my list of monthly expenditures I’ve not mentioned spending anything for entertainment. The fact is that I almost never go out to dinner. I’d rather eat my own damned food than eat at what passes for restaurants here in Lampang. I drink almost no alcohol, except when I go on vacation or during Songkran. This is not because I’m cheap. It’s rather that I actually prefer to drink something like unsweetened iced tea or soda water with lime. I do keep cold beer in the fridge, but it's there for when company comes by. “My God man”, someone is thinking out there in cyberspace. “What do you do for fun?” Get ready to be thoroughly bored my friends.

My idea of a good time is to stroll around the neighborhood and yak with my friends, both Thai and Farang. I frequently visit an American neighbor with a basket of food tucked under my arm. Last week I brought homemade humus and warm flatbread. Many times a number of other Farangs stop by. A nice German fellow often brings by sausages to grill. It is not unknown for me to have a beer or two. We then call to order the local chapter of The Carbon Dioxide College. That is to say we talk about just about every topic under the sun. I think we’ve managed to solve all the problems of the world several times over…at least! Sometimes I’m out by myself. Other times the entire family comes along. The women usually have their own gossip fest.

Another thing I do for fun is to ride my bicycle around the neighborhood or into town if the weather is good. Even after being here for years, I am never bored with the sights and sounds of everyday Thai life. If I am feeling up to it, I may putter around the yard.

I spend at least some time everyday reading. I brought thousands of books with me when we moved here. Some are classics that I enjoy re-reading; others are books I set aside a long time ago for “just the right time”. I enjoy browsing used books stores in Chiang Mai and Bangkok to find a few new additions to my library.

I of course spend a lot of time with Sam, either playing on the floor or reading books on my bed. Anyone who has had children knows that there is never a dull moment with a four year old running around, getting into everything, and asking a million questions!

I’m certainly not lacking for activities to keep me busy. If anything, there are not enough hours in the day to do all that I might wish. My life might not be your cup of tea, but that’s okay. I may enjoy going to Bangkok occasionally, but I could never be happy living there, despite all its attractions. For a couple of days though I’m delighted to be in “the Big City”. I generally make it down there two or three times a year to do some shopping, eat at some restaurants, and hang out with my buddy, Stick.

I should note that any trips I take are not paid for out of my school salary. I use my tutoring money to pay for any and all luxuries I want in my life. If there’s money available, I feel comfortable spending it. If not, I simply must do without until I’ve accumulated sufficient funds. That is what living within my means is all about. I don’t spend money I need for essentials on things that I can’t really afford.

I have most of the material possessions I need. That’s not to say that I wouldn’t like having a number of things. My computer is a ten year old Dell that is sadly antiquated. A few weeks ago the monitor went on the fritz and was totally unusable. Did I rush out and buy a new flat screen? No, I had the monitor repaired for 300 baht. Would I like to have a new computer? Absolutely. As long as this one is still functioning though, I simply cannot justify spending the money. Still, I consider myself fortunate to have what I do. Most of the people in the world still don’t have clean drinking water to drink. I would have to a dolt to complain that I don’t have the latest gadget.

Would I like to have more money? Well duh! Of course I would have no problem with a nice fat bank account. I would love to have money to travel throughout Asia. Still, here I am living in “exotic” Thailand, which many folks in Farangland would love to be doing.

I would love to get Sam a great big Thomas the Tank Engine train set. If I can save the money, I’ll get him one someday. He is hardly deprived though. He has plenty of books, and he is usually content to play with whatever he can dig out of the kitchen drawers…and unlike tens of millions of children, he has plenty of food, clothes, and all of his vaccinations!

I have rambled on here quite a bit. I hope it has been mildly entertaining, and perhaps informative. It is as I mentioned at the beginning, one person’s story. We all have to make decisions about our priorities, whether we choose to live in Thailand or in Farangland.

In summary, I learned at any early age to avoid debt and only spend what I could afford. During my very fortunate life, I’ve often been able to afford quite a lot. While I can afford much less now, I’ve done my best to construct an interesting and comfortable life, not only for myself, but for my family. I can honestly say that I look forward to getting up each day. Can I honestly ask for more than that? I do hope that my health will not get too much worse over the coming years. I really would like to live a few more decades! In any case, I will continue to work for as long as I possibly can. With any luck I can keep living within my means.

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Stickman's thoughts:

Very interesting and this provides a great example of how you can have a nice lifestle in Thailand without a great amount of money.