You’re interested in becoming a teacher but have heard all of those rumors about teachers making peanuts. And so you wonder, do teachers make enough money to live comfortably? Yes, in general, K-12 teachers in the U.S make enough money to live comfortably depending on how they are accustomed to living. Other factors at play include standard of living, geographic location, family status, and level of frugality. The idea for this article originated from a conversation I had with a sophomore student at a local university. She was majoring in architecture but thinking of switching to teaching before the start of her junior year. Her hesitation stemmed from the fear of not being able to properly take care of herself, her life, and future family on a teacher’s salary.

This post is a response to that sophomore college student and all of the aspiring teachers who have the same concern about the ability to live comfortably on a teacher’s salary.


*Disclaimer: This post represents my opinions and experiences and are for educational purposes only. I am not a financial advisor, and this post does not represent formal financial advice. My career as an elementary education teacher started back in 2002. With a first-year teacher starting salary of $34,500/yr. and no Master’s degree, I wasn’t doing too shabby for a 22-year old, brand-spanking new teacher. I lived modestly and did well for myself. Fast forward many years later. The year I decided to take a break from teaching, I was making around $62,000 a year. By that time, I had 15 years of teaching experience under my belt and a “passion” Master’s degree. Not so bad, I guess. In fact, my husband and I were primarily living off of that one income, and we never struggled. He was working part-time, making very little and also finishing up his teaching alternative certification program. But we were living pretty comfortably (for our standards). Nothing fancy, just the basics. Compared to salaries of other 4-year degree professions, teachers are at the bottom of the totem pole. I get that.

Teacher salaries not being comparable to other 4-year professions isn’t the issue here though.

The ability of teachers to live comfortably on what they make is.

Living comfortably on a teacher’s salary is a mindset.  And that’s what’s important for you to understand.
Understanding the relationship between teacher salary and living comfortably begins with taking a look at an individual’s mindset.
You must first ask yourself, “What’s comfortable for me?”

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What’s Your Definition of Comfortable?

My first year teaching, I lived in a $500 per month, one-bedroom apartment in a worn-out part of town and drove a Honda Civic. There are people who would NEVER be caught dead in a Civic~ at any stage of life! 😋 But I was comfortable and pretty happy with that standard of living at that season in my life.

Now, what if I had compared myself to my engineer and STEM-career friends who had graduated alongside of me?

Many of their starting salaries were double my starting pay, they drove “nicer” cars plus lived in fashionable quarters. I suppose I could have let my morale go south, but I wasn’t evaluating the success of my life by comparing what they owned vs. what I owned. I had made the choice to be a teacher and knew the salary wasn’t as great as other 4-year professionals. However, I knew I wouldn’t be living in the poor house either. Plus, there were non-financial perks to my teaching job that more than compensated for pay. Summers off was definitely one of those perks!

How are You Accustomed to Living?

Are you used to owning designer clothes and jewelry? Must you take an exotic vacation to a 5-star resort a few times a year? Will only luxury, foreign-made cars please you? Is eating out in high-priced restaurants a ritual?
Having things isn’t the problem, it’s the frequency and type of things that cause issues.
You can own a Mercedes as a teacher, just maybe not the latest model or the ability to buy a brand new one every other year (once in a lifetime is a more practical reality). Stateside and foreign vacations? Yes, you can do it! I traveled a ton as a teacher! Instead of 5-star hotels, I used AirBnb, researched flight discounts extensively, did my own self-guided tours, and ate locally.

Besides family, what things are most valuable to you?

I traveled a lot, but owned a used, non-luxury car. I ate out frequently but could care less about designer clothes, bags, and shoes. I spent money on things that mattered to me and avoided spending money on things minimally important to me.  Additionally, in my day-to-day activities, I was very frugal. Think about your own financial comfort zone. Be really honest with yourself. What things do you need to be happy? Are you generally frugal and responsible with money?
If you have to have lots of high-priced material things often, then K-12 teaching may not be a good fit for you in terms of money-making potential, and that’s okay.
There are ways to have the best of both worlds. I share some solutions later in the article.

Your Financial Needs and Wants May Change As You Get Older

As you age, your needs and wants may change. You may get married, have children, decide to go back to school, desire a larger home, need to assist in the care of an elderly relative, etc. All of those factors contribute to how comfortably you live on a teacher’s salary.  The good thing is that the longer you teach, the higher your salary potential.
So at the end of the day, you must ask yourself what kind of life you want to live or are comfortable living now and in the future.
Don’t compare yourself to others and get influenced by what others’ think. If you want to keep up with the Joneses, then you’re definitely going to need to find another line of work.

Do Teachers Make Enough Money to Live Comfortably? It Depends Where You Are in the U.S

The U.S is a huge country with a very diverse economy. Teacher salaries vary state to state and there are significant ranges in pay even within a state. It is widely assumed that southern states pay less than states in the Northeast. This is not always the case, however. In my experience, bigger cities with lots of urban schools tend to pay better than schools in rural areas, regardless of state.  Cities with high costs of living tend to pay more also.
If you’re destined to become a teacher and want to maximize living comfortably, consider moving to an area in your state that pays well relative to its cost of living.
Not so long ago, I was offered an educational leadership position in Long Island, NY with a starting salary of $65,000. After factoring in cost of living, it wasn’t a good deal considering that I could make close to that (as a teacher!) where I was living at the time which had an overall much lower cost of living. Some cities are just too expensive to live comfortably as a teacher, even for those educators making decent salaries. Unless you have a dual-income household, just say NO to those cities!

Can a Single Teacher Buy a House?

Single teachers sometimes get the shaft. It’s much easier to live comfortably on a teacher’s salary when one lives in a two-earner household. So how do singles make it work, especially when it comes to purchasing a home?
As a single teacher, living comfortably is very possible, but when factoring in home ownership costs, it can soon become a nightmare!
According to the National Council on Teacher Quality, San Francisco, Washington D.C., and New York City are the least affordable places for new, single teachers to rent.  Not surprisingly, in the Northeast and West, homeownership is generally out-of-reach for single, new teachers. Moral of the story: Single teachers, beware of living in high cost-of-living areas! Housing costs will eat at your money very quickly. Remember that mortgages and rents vary within a city and state, so if you’re keen to stay in a state with a high cost-of-living, consider living in areas that are more affordable. There is help for those looking to own a home. Some banks and organizations offer “special” mortgages for teachers, but do your research. Here are a few sites to get you started: Further on I offer other practical solutions for making it work whether you’re single or not!

What Other Factors Contribute to Living Comfortably as a Teacher

  • Private vs. Public Schools
Generally speaking, K-12 public school employees are paid more than private school employees. However, there are elite, prestigious college-preparatory schools that pay just as well as public schools
  • Family Status
Do you have a partner with which you share expenses? Have children? Having a spouse who also works is beneficial to living comfortably as teacher. Two similar incomes as educators are surely better than one. Adding kids to the mix affects finances significantly, so you’ll have to be much more creative in making a comfortable lifestyle for your family and yourself if you have children. Here’s a great article about how one family lives a good life on a small income. There are many great take-aways!
  • Money Discipline
How responsible are you with money? Do you buy just what you need or feel a desire (even a little) to keep up with the Joneses? (Remember, they’re broke!) Being able to stretch a dollar is an art. If you have the discipline to buy only what you can afford and live within your means, you’ll be fine living comfortably on a teacher’s salary.

Living Comfortably as a Teacher ~ Look Around You

Take a look at all the teachers around you. How are they living? They have cars, apartments, houses, and kids. Maybe they eat out or take a vacation (even if it’s in-state; sounds good to me!) every now and then. Growing up, my teachers certainly weren’t broke or didn’t appear to be. They didn’t exude richness either. And that’s okay.  They seemed healthy and happy. From my limited observations, they carried on a normal life, had the basic necessities and maybe a few “nicer” things. If that sounds good enough for you, then living comfortably on a teacher’s salary shouldn’t be that big of a deal.
Be honest with yourself. If you have a rich palette and want the “finer” things in life on a regular basis, go another route. You can always consider the teaching profession later on in life.

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9 Practical Solutions for Living Comfortably as a Teacher

1. Start Small

If you’re really intent on being a teacher, then do it! Just start small. Lease a studio apartment or buy a starter home; buy an affordable, used car;  use clothes that are well-made but reasonably-priced; and make eating out an event that only happens during special occasions. Most importantly, be smart with your money. Educate yourself about teacher finances and ways to make your money and time work for you.

2. Consider Roommates

This option is definitely not for all! Aside from college, I’m not a fan of roommates. I did it once while teaching and HATED it! However, that’s me. What about you? Maybe you don’t mind and actually love the idea! Live in an expensive city but just gotta have that apartment? Having a roommate or two helps tremendously with finances. If you’re lucky enough to room with someone whose clean, trustworthy, and respectful of your space, go for it!

3. Live with Your Parents

Until you’ve saved enough to meet your housing goals (or whatever other financial goal you have), this is a decent option. It’s not the cool or “grown-up thing” thing to do, but you know what? While your colleagues and friends are struggling to make the bills, you can be saving those coins! It’s only temporary, right?!

4. Get Married

There are potential financial benefits to marriage.  If you’re in a two-earner household, living on a teacher’s salary is not so hard. Don’t just get married though for the financial benefits. That could lead to even more issues! 😕

5. Start with An Apartment

All of your friends and colleagues are buying homes, so you think that’s the next step for you too. While monthly rents can be more expensive than mortgages, there are factors that people don’t often discuss when it comes to home ownership. Once you buy a home, you fill it up with stuff, maintain it, fix something, maintain it, maintain it (repeat once again). The cycle goes on and on. Don’t fall into the trap of being house-poor. Save your money until you can put about 20% down.

6. Take on a Side Hustle

There are ways to make extra money as a teacher, and that side income can help you live comfortably as a teacher. Some educators create new businesses from their side hustles. Options that you can start sooner rather than later include tutoring and teaching kids or adults online at EnglishFirst. Profitable options that may take a little longer to build include becoming an educational consultant, blogger, and/or freelance writer.

7.  Be Willing to Move

Open to the idea of moving to another state? Your paycheck generally goes further in places with lower costs of living. To get the most bang for your buck, stick to major cities, as school districts in big cities tend to pay more. And don’t assume the southern United States are always the lower paying options or high-paying places like Long Island, NY are the answer. TONS of factors are at play, so as always, do your research, and take a look at your personal circumstances.

8. Teach in International Schools Abroad

Living abroad in very low-cost countries definitely helped me save more money, but frugal habits were still needed. When I talk about teaching abroad, I’m not referring to teaching ESL. Working in international schools with U.S ties is of what I’m speaking. These schools can be great opportunities not just for your career but also for your finances. There’s too much information about the subject for me to cover in this post, but check out my article about teaching overseas in international schools. A financial perk to working in “American” or international schools overseas is that you can exclude part of your earned income from U.S taxes if you choose.  Over time, those saved coins add up!

9. Be Patient

As an educator, you’ll probably be paid according to a salary schedule. With time, you’ll move up in earnings on the pay scale. In the meantime, see if your school or district gives stipends for in-demand certifications such as bilingual.  Extra duties like coaching or sponsoring extracurricular activities often reward educators with supplemental pay, so check that out too. If you really want to earn more money, consider a master’s degree in leadership or another education-related field that yields a higher paycheck.

Conclusion

Do teachers make enough money to live comfortably?
Yes, educators absolutely do and can live well if they play their cards right and have the proper mindset. It’s all about perception and what you value.
But if after reading this article you don’t think teaching is the best choice for your circumstances, that’s great too! It’s good to know what you want vs. don’t want now compared to later when you’ll probably feel too invested to make an exit. I hope this article gave you some insight into the potential lifestyle offerings of a K-12 teacher. You can lead a fabulous life indeed!

What’s your opinion about living comfortably on a teacher’s salary?

~Missi

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