How an American Earns a Living in Turkey
Mike: Who are you, where do you live, and what do you do?
Meghan: I currently live in Istanbul, Turkey, for many reasons: I studied the region in school; my fiancé is British; we can’t easily live in the States or the U.K.; Istanbul is my favorite city in the world. I work at a boutique law firm that handles a lot of international business. To be honest, I get a little angsty about my job title, as technically I am an assistant. But as the only foreigner in my office, I do a lot of different things and I feel like the word assistant doesn’t really cover it. I help translate documents, I draft and edit documents in English. I do legal research and I built a website for the firm, but I also book hotels and answer phones and write a ton of e-mails. I make 78,000 Turkish lira per year, which was around $40,000. With the exchange rate now, it’s closer to $39,000.
Mike: Is that a lot of money to earn in Istanbul?
Meghan: That is definitely a lot of money. In general, people don’t talk about salaries in my office, but I have been told directly not to let it out how much I make.
Mike: Why is that?
Meghan: I make much more than the other support staff, and from what I understand, more than some of the lawyers.
Mike: How did that come to be?
Meghan: I think a lot of it has to do with scarcity. There are not as many foreigners in Turkey, and since I speak Turkish and have a lot of experience with writing and research, I am even more specialized. There is a privilege with being a native English speaker and a foreigner that is not extended to Turks. Also, it comes down to the fact that my salary, when translated into USD, is by no means a lot of money. I mean, I was a poor grad student before this job, so it is a lot of money for me.
Mike: Tell me how you made your way to Istanbul.
Meghan: When I finished college, I wanted a job with very little responsibility and I wanted to continue improving my Turkish, so I moved to Ankara to teach “speaking classes” at a university. This was right before the financial meltdown, so there was a lot of money being thrown around to improve prestige. They had all these recent college grads from good schools in the States come and teach somewhat useless classes. I taught there for two years, then went back to the States to get an M.A. Once I decided that I didn’t want to go into academia, I thought about where I want to live, and my boyfriend at the time was still in Ankara. Istanbul was a place both of us loved and was much less daunting than trying to move to the States or the U.K.
Mike: Where did you go to school, and do you have student debt?
Meghan: I went to two highly ranked private colleges for undergrad and to get my master’s. I’m really lucky in that my parents paid for most of my undergrad, and I only have $5,000 in loans that I took out for living expenses. I paid for my master’s and negotiated a half scholarship for my first year and then got a FLAS scholarship and stipend for my second year. So I only took out loans for the first year, which came out to $21,000.
Mike: So you’ve got some loans to pay back. Do you think about them a lot at all? Or is just another bill to eventually pay off?
Meghan: I do think about them. I weirdly check the balance online once every week and dream about paying them off in one lump sum.
Mike: What are you living expenses like in Istanbul?
Meghan: My fiancé’s school pays for most of our rent, which is a godsend. Our apartment is lovely, and expensive (as most lovely things are, I’m finding) at 1,850 TL ($931) per month, but his school pays for 1,250 TL ($629) of that per month, and then we cover the rest. In terms of utilities, that comes out to around 300 TL ($151) per month. Then the other major expenses are groceries, which are about 100 TL ($50) per week, and a cleaner, which is is 200 TL ($100) per month (she comes once every two weeks and we pay her 100 TL ($50) for a full day of cleaning). Then my loans, which I have to pay in USD. I pay $500 per month in loans, which is more than the minimum, but it is very much worth it to me to pay them off as fast as I can.
Mike: Do you have credit card debt?
Meghan: Nope, I have had a credit card since I was 18 and have made sure to never carry debt. When I got my first statement, I was like, yahoo, only have to pay $25, that’s AMAZING, and then my parents sat me down and were like, “Oh no no no, that is not how it works.”
Mike: So your parents actively talked to you about money?
Meghan: Yes and no. Growing up I never knew how much my parents made or whether we were actually struggling or not. I always thought we were really poor growing up. We didn’t get a lot of new things and I heard the word “no” a lot. Plus, my parents used to argue about money. I think I thought that way because we never really had consumer items, but we traveled internationally. And later on my parents paid for private school and then college. But I remember being on financial aid and my father telling me to never tell my friends I was on financial aid. I think they are just of the generation that never talks about salary or money in general. But once I got to college, they shared more information, and now we talk about financial decisions and how they dealt with money. But I initiate a lot of those conversations.
Mike: What got you to initiate them?
Meghan: Your site!
Mike: Haha, really? Wow.
Meghan: Well, and taking out the loans for grad school. That got me thinking about smart financial decisions and whether it would make sense to take out that much in debt. I used one of those little calculators online where you put in how much debt you have (or could have) and how much you would need to earn to pay it off comfortably. Since my degree is in area studies, it’s not really the most lucrative (unless I wanted to work for a scary defense contractor — seriously, I looked at their websites and one said “We did not have anything to do with Abu Ghraib”). But the number this calculator gave back to me seemed doable. I think it was $35,000 a year? Something close to that.
Mike: And it seems to have worked out?
Meghan: Yeah, I am actually doing a job where I utilize my Turkish skills and get to research and write. But I do think about my next step after this and it’s a bit murky.
Mike: Do you have savings?
Meghan: I have an emergency fund of 2000 TL ($1,007) and then my fiancé and I are saving for a wedding. So far we’ve saved around $6,000. But now we put his paycheck each month (he gets paid in dollars) over to my account in the States and that is all going to be saved or put to the wedding. But we both like to travel, so most of savings the first year went to that.
Mike: What about retirement savings?
Meghan: I have set up a Roth IRA, but have only put $500 into it. My fiancé has an international teachers pension plan that he pays into. But he started paying into that before we were dating and it is unclear how much is actually there.
Mike: And he’s from the U.K. where saving for retirement is different.
Meghan: He’s from England. He is used to pensions that you can actually live on when you retire. So when I talk about retirement, he always is like, why? But I think I’ve convinced him that saving for retirement is important, especially if we decide to settle in the States.
Mike: Where are you planning on getting married?
Meghan: We are going to do it at my parents’ place in the States. They’ve got a big backyard and a barn (everyone is getting married in barns it seems). So we thought it would save money to have it at their place rather than book a venue in England or Turkey.
Mike: Do you share similar values when it comes to money?
Meghan: Hah, that is a good question. I am a saver, he is a spender. But we’ve come to a point where we even each other out. His philosophy is that you can’t take it with you, so might as well spend it. Whereas I’m such a puritan despite all attempts otherwise.
Mike: And he’s coming from a place where the safety net is different.
Meghan: Yeah, his mother came to visit, and she saw how many hours I work (9 a.m. to 7 p.m. each day) and she was like, “Are you sure that’s not too much?” Whereas everyone in the States think those hours are pretty good. I think we come from very different perspectives in terms of work and money.
Mike: And the hours are especially longer in the law field.
Meghan: Definitely. But I grew up with a doctor in the family, so they seem almost normal to me. Living abroad has really made me rethink how Americans view work. I’m much more critical now of this idea that your job is something you should love and be willing to dedicate all (or most of) your time to. Coming from a school with a lot of Type A individuals, there is this idea that you need to work, work, work and that you should be driven to establish yourself and make your mark in whatever field you’ve chosen.
Mike: You also graduated right before the recession, so it’s also sort of like you have to do what it takes to hold on to the limited amount of good jobs out there.
Meghan: Exactly, which is why I am happy to be currently hiding out abroad. My standard of living in Istanbul is much higher than it would be in most major cities in the States. And, god, London, we would be living in a closet if we lived in London.
Mike: Can you describe some of the costs of going out and being social?
Meghan: Eating out is relatively cheap. There are a lot of restaurants that have very good food for not much money. The expensive places are those serving foreign food and fancy places, where you’re mostly paying for the view. So dinner for the two of us at a good, but not expensive place is around 30 TL ($15). But once you start adding booze into the mix, that’s when things get expensive. There are incredibly high taxes on alcohol in Turkey, and if you are looking for alcohol that is imported, there are even more fees on it, which raises the price dramatically. So a pint of beer brewed in Turkey is between 8–10 TL ($4-$5). Cocktails are crazy expensive, usually 25 TL minimum ($12.50). A night out of drinks with friends can easily go over 100 TL ($50) for the two of us (it doesn’t help that I am betrothed to a Brit). When I lived in Chicago, I felt like I could drink a lot cheaper for a lot cheaper.
Mike: But the tradeoff was rent, I guess.
Meghan: True, though my rent in Chicago was ungodly low since I lived in a dark cupboard. Drinks in Turkey are not that expensive relatively (especially compared to New York).
Mike: Yeah, I’ve been converting those Turkish liras for everyone, and it doesn’t seem too terrible!
Meghan: Exactly! But that is this weird place we occupy. Where we live in Turkish liras and U.S. dollars and British pounds. Our expenses are much less than they would be in other places. But then when we send over money to the U.S. or England, it seems like we are not earning that much. I feel like I’m not describing this very well, but it’s a state of feeling lucky and privileged, and like we have a lot of money, and then also where it seems like it would take forever to really save up for stuff and that our expenses in other places take a large chunk of what we earn.
Mike: No, I get it. Because your future probably isn’t in Turkish liras. It’ll probably be in dollars or pounds.
Meghan: Yeah, but then there is also the state of currently living in Turkey and getting caught up in how much things cost here. Like, everyone grumbles in Turkey about the alcohol prices and it’s easy to caught up in the money woes of living here. Money is a tricky, tricky fellow. But really, we are very privileged living in Turkey and any money problems we have are not really significant.
Mike: But you’ll be living there until you figure out whether or not the States or the U.K. is where you’ll want to be some day? Or do you even think you’ll stay in Turkey for a while?
Meghan: At the moment we think we’ll eventually end up in the U.K. or the States, but the thought of finding well-paying jobs in either place is a bit daunting. So right now we plan to stay in Istanbul for at least a few more years. A lot depends on what I decide to do, since my fiancé is happy teaching and can do that most places. I somehow don’t think speaking Turkish and being a skilled researcher/writer is going to be opening a lot of doors in the States, or at least not as many doors as it opens in Turkey.
Mike: I guess what you’ve got going for you is the time to figure out your next steps.
Meghan: Yeah, you’re right. Though sometimes the time to really consider things makes me feel like I’m drowning in possibilities (but I also have major FOMO and want to try everything). But I’ve liked working in law and am taking the LSAT next month despite law school being mostly a really poor decision (especially for someone like me who doesn’t like debt). But I’m taking it one step at a time, and if I don’t get a high enough score on the LSATS I won’t apply. I wouldn’t be willing to go unless it’s a really good situation and I feel like I could work off the debt.
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