This topic has not been covered as widely as it should have been. Let’s gain some insight into the high-skill visa workers’ life and see how well they live on less than $15,000 a year while saving a fortune. Most of us would be amazed to learn about living such a life here in the United States!
Every year, thousands of high-skilled and executive class temporary visa holders (H and L classes) travel to this country. Some of them stay back, apply for residency, and eventually citizenship, but, a majority go back to their home country with the money saved during their stay here in the US.
Typically, these visa workers spend 2 to 3 years in the US working for multinational corporations, mostly in Hi-tech industries.
Legally, they can only spend up to 6 years before renewing their visa. With the median household income around $67,000, these visa holders earn a lot more than that. Often their spouses work, doubling the household income.
If the worker has enough experience or holds a manager or a team leader position, their salary often reaches $150,000 or above.
Naturally, they earn way more than average Americans. Many travel here without their spouses or children to keep the cost of intercontinental flights and the cost of living in check, especially if the deputation is for a shorter term.
The two largest contributors to this flow are India and China, the two countries with perhaps the deepest family tradition. Their extended families take care of the immediate family members during this temporary foreign work assignment.
These folks are the creams of the crop in their respective countries – they are highly educated, intelligent, and hard-working people with average IQ well above the average human IQ level. They mainly work in the IT or science and technology (STEM) sectors.
Not every skilled visa worker lives a life of extreme frugality though, there are many exceptions. Still, the frugal practice is quite widespread and pretty consistent among most.
From the outside, you may like living in poverty, driving a 15-year-old car, and wearing age-old dresses. You can easily distinguish them in a crowd. They buy the cheapest of everything, from soap to salt. They don’t care what other people think about them.
Readers welcome to the world of short-term extreme frugality demonstrated by non-immigrant visa workers.
With just a couple of years of living in the US, they go back to their home country with a fortune and live life happily ever after. Often their home and car loans are paid off in full with the saved money.
They always stay in groups, with 3 to 4 people sharing a 2-bedroom apartment, and the roommates share a rental car. sometimes, they buy an almost junk car for the sole purpose of commuting to work and weekly shopping trips. They manage the household budget and expenses like professional financial experts, pinching every penny, counting every cent!
They buy bare minimal things every week, just enough to survive until the weekend. On the contrary, when they finally return to their home countries, they go back with expensive gadgets, brand-name clothes, perfumes, shoes, and accessories for their loved ones.
They cook their meals, mostly buying raw meat and vegetables and ingredients. They don’t eat out. Often they get all the cookware and other household stuff from someone ready to head back home. It’s a cycle of acquiring and giving things for free.
I know many such visa workers, some of them were my colleagues. To give you some numbers to prove my point, let’s consider the case of 4 of my co-workers. They shared an $1800 per month apartment and a $1000 per month rental car.
Considering $200 per month towards gas, their per-person cost of housing and transportation was only $750. They had a food cost of $300 per month per person, as they cooked most meals at home. Then, if you add another $150 toward entertainment and utilities, per person.
Total per person, per month cost comes out to be $1100. This is living below $15,000 a year!
Every purchase they made involved bargain hunting, from hand-me-downs to couponing to deal hunting. They spent hours browsing shopping and deal sites for freebie offers and price mistakes. They never bought costly items. The ones they did were for carrying to their home country.
Going back to the general population of visa workers again, they sleep on couches or mattresses made of comforters. They sleep on the floor. They buy very basic cookware and personal care items if they at all need to buy them. They hunt garage and yard sales. For them, it’s a passing phase of life where they only accumulate wealth.
With the money saved, they live a life of abundance and luxury back home. Now, let’s calculate their savings, if I may.
These skilled visa workers command a high salary due to their superior human capital. Now, consider a salary of $10,000 per month (an annual Salary is $120,000 is quite normal for highly skilled professionals).
After taxes and insurance, the net take-home salary comes down to $7,000 a month. With an expenditure, as calculated above, of $1100, monthly savings is $5,900. Rounding off the saving to $5,500, they manage to save $66,000 in a year. At this rate, within 3 years, they accumulate a fortune of $200,000!
Back in India (and even in China), $200,000 is enough money to buy a large house and a car with cash. With a longer stay in the US than 3 years, their retirements get secured as well. Due to the higher purchasing power of the local currency compared to that in the USA.
Before you feel that they don’t live a fun life during their stay here, they do live a fun life. It’s just that they grow richer One Cent at a Time.
They do enjoy all types of frugal fun. In just a few years, they cover pretty much all the tourist attractions, securing the lowest airfare and stay through deals and offers.
They create lasting memories of their stay here. They pick the priciest gifts for their loved ones back home. Yet, they do not even visit the cheapest of restaurants, rather they cook meals. They buy cars that barely run. They always thrift their clothes.
I am not at all against this lifestyle. once I was one of them. Before my marriage, I stayed in the US for two months on a business visa. In those two months, I saved enough to fund my marriage along with the engagement ring. It was a great relief to my retired parents who otherwise had to fund our marriage, as per the Indian customs.
These visa workers are the biggest contributors to the growth of the overall IT industry in the world. On any day, as a group, they are sharper than any other group of individuals. The philosophy of their lifestyle is delayed gratification- have pain now to experience comfort later.
The reason behind this article is to encourage self-imposed and short-term hardship. Delay gratification and living below means for a couple of years can make a major difference in your financial life.
Whether to become debt-free or to build wealth, all you need to do is control spending and exercise self-discipline, as these visa workers do.
Few things that I think can be learned from their way of living.
Have a Goal: They set a goal to save as much as possible for a home, a car, retirement, etc.
Discipline: No matter what, they never splurge or go beyond the budget. They simply stick to the set plan.
Motivation: They are constantly motivated. Each day of hardship cuts the remaining days of hardship by one. When the goal is set it’s easy to keep motivated towards saving.
Reward: Saving is no fun without a reward. They go out and see places, and tourist attractions. They buy the latest and best gadgets and take them home to own for a lifetime.
They spend on self-improvement: I know many of them learning Spanish, Salsa, Zumba, Karate, etc. They try to take maximum advantage of their stay here. Back home either these lessons are not available or are usually costlier. They almost always make good use of the community gyms.
Watch out for pitfalls
I feel that being an American going all-out into extreme frugality is not a very good idea from a long-term perspective. When constant couponing and deal seeking and delayed gratification becomes a habit they tax your personal happiness. It may cause household tensions.
So, make fun a part of a constant routine, spend on things you enjoy and have absolute tight grasp on everything else.
Temporary visa workers can even neglect small health-related issues while they are in this country. They get their annual leaves to go back home. It provides a good opportunity to access health care at a much lesser cost. You being permanently in the US do not have this flexibility. Do not let health issues unattended. If you do, you may run into a bigger healthcare cost later on.
By sowing frugality, we reap liberty, a golden harvest. ~ Agesilaus
Readers, share your opinions!
Jeremy @ Personal Finance Whiz says
I’ve never personally known a visa worker, but I think living like this is fascinating. This is the extreme example of deferred gratification. Could you imagine what would happen if the average American did this?
Heh, well first the economy would tank since no one was spending any money. But, it would practically eliminate consumer debt, drastically reduce foreclosures and savings would be through the roof.
For sure you can’t continue like this. But when you think you should be thinking towards your situation only, I can’t imagine a whole country suddenly going for delay gratification.
Robert @ The College Investor says
I’ve not run into a Visa worker, but I agree with Jeremy, that is fascinating.
thanks for your comment Robert
I know a few of these guys. They save a lot and will use the money to buy land and build a house. It’s tough for a few years, but they will be much better off once they go home.
Many lower skill workers also do the same thing in the Middle East right?
Right on the money Joe. Do this retire by 30 🙂 quickest way to retirement i guess.
I think this is an example of people who are driven. They live the other side of life and know that they have an opportunity to make a better life for themselves.
Motivated and driven. Two years of struggle and sacrifice for a life full of comfort.
Financial Success for Young Adults says
I’ve not known a visa worker personally but when I worked for a broker-dealer we used to get several come in to open brokerage accounts with their visa. I can be pretty nosy and when I would see them come in to deposit a check, I would put the check in the account and be so shocked to see that they were killing the markets! Dividend stocks, great purchases, dollar cost averaging, they were doing it all. So to add to your point SB, I think they are also taking the time to invest while they are here, which is possible to do on certain visa types.
Yes they do. When I was on Visa I did open all sorts of financial accounts, saving, stocks, options.. CDs et all.
At my company, we used to have an Indian employee who lived with 3 other friends in a 2-bedroom apartment. His monthly living expense was less than $400 every month, including groceries and utilities.
That’s freaking less than $5000 a year!
There is much to be learned from these individuals. While their way of thinking is very different than mine as an American, that’s an opportunity for someone like myself to learn.
These folks are generally highly intelligent, hardworking, cream of the crop people. I’ve encountered such people in graduate school. I remember a few whose undergrad in India was named IIT (if I recall correctly). Most of us here had no idea, but that school is the MIT of India, if not better.
Anyway, their mindset is different, and they can do some things lifestyle-wise that most people wouldn’t even consider. This fresh thinking, plus high intelligence, driving ambition, street smarts, and discipline, allows them to succeed. Some years of living low profile, and delaying gratification, can pay big rewards later.
Very good post.
You correct, IIT (Indian Institute of Technologies) is a group of colleges with the highest quality of education. In various measure certain things are even better than the standards of MIT. You have to beat 5 million other aspirants to get in to one of the 10000 available seats needlessly to say its considered to be the toughest examination in the world. I am pretty much excited as we are talking about my alma mater here 🙂 So far IIT have produced more than 50 CEOs and presidents at non Indian multinational. PEPSI, CA, SUN, Vodafone, United airlines.. just to names which are coming to my mind.
Looks like many of the fellow bloggers are used to these visa workers. I wonder why this story is un mentioned on media so far.
Miss T @ Prairie EcoThrifter says
I haven’t met anyone like this personally but I have definitely seen the good example they set. There is definitely something we can learn from their work ethic and their focus on their goals. They are very motivated and determined to do what they need to do and they don’t give up even when they are tired or face difficulty. They get down and dirty and do what they need to do. They are great teachers to many of us.
Well, you know me! 🙂
101 Centavos says
I’ve known quite a few visa workers, both in the US and abroad. Self-sacrifice is a way of life. Living apart from the family for sometimes years on end, saving up for a nest egg or to buy a home, or for their kids’ education. We in the profligate West could learn much from that example.
And you don’t have to be that frugal. You don’t have to live under 10,000, you are not in US for short term, for ever you will be in America. But. don’t spend your pay check every month.
World of Finance says
I have known many visa workers or even international students that live a similar lifestyle. Knowing these people has opened my eyes to new habits that I have implemented into my own life and have reaped many rewards due to this. 🙂 Great article SB.
Sandy - yesiamcheap says
I work for a multinational company and we trade employees all the time. We are a little different in that the company pays for their housing! Most of them leave their families at home but some come with their families. The thing is that if their wives come they usually do not work because they are not authorized for work, their husbands are. Also there tends to be a lanugage barrier or they are the main caregivers for the children.
These are the certain facts that go against them. English is being pursued as a main language in schools out there. I can find the only problem with the spoken accent.
Briana @ The Penny Hoarder says
I haven’t knowingly met a visa worker, but the idea of deferred gratification is pretty awesome. Our media makes it harder for us to take this route, showing us all the things we “need” and trick us into buying it. But if I could somehow adopt these principles, our family would be set!
Penny you put out so many articles on making bucks out of no where. I am sure you are doing great on your personal finance.
Paula @ Afford Anything says
Haha, you just described my entire family!! 🙂 I’m from Nepal, the country that’s sandwiched between China and India. Spending my childhood watching my family’s spending habits probably shaped my PF skills.
I had this doubt after seeing your Plutus award vote seeking video. Our upbringing definitely is helping us. Are you born in Nepal or by origin, a Nepali?
R S says
Visa workers from countries like India & China also come from areas where the sense of family & friends is really strong. While it may seem odd to Americans to live w/ 4 other people that are not family, Visa workers who don’t do that tend to feel lonely and isolated. They’re generally coming from places that are very densely populated, extended family sharing the same roof.. Privacy, solitary living is not the norm, nor is it comfortable for them.
You have brought an excellent point. Thanks for mentioning it. Yes a sense of being surrounded by people works here. They are not used to wider spaces.
Sound like me when I was in college.
Melissa - Just Another Girl With a Blog says
I personally don’t know any visa workers, well at least not at the status you are talking about. I know some “illegal” immigrants that pretty much do the same thing. I think we can definitely learn from this group of people. I am on am mission to pay off debt and this has definitely given me some food for thought.
The difference between illegal visa workers and skilled visa workers are on their salary. Those illegal people have no other choice to go frugal where as this group of skilled people live frugally by choice.
I know of visa workers who do this and the other category which you call illegal or out of status, they may earn much less, but their habits are basically the same, so they do accumulate a substantial amount. My brother married a lady who had overstayed her visa from a caribbean country, and through her savings they were able to buy a nice house and start a thriving business in the suburbs.
Justin | Personal Growth says
I am not surprised that workers on Visa’s are able to live on 10k a year and do it easily. Most people don’t want to be inconvenienced or sacrifice now so they can have more in the future. It takes a shift in beliefs and attitude to be able to do this effectively.
Most Americans will soon be living on $10,000 gross per year. They just don’t know it yet. My goal is just that going forward. No debt, little to no expenses, grow my own food, etc. It can be done. It’s just main stream BS, says it can’t (the 1% doesn’t want you to live off the land, and to be happy, otherwise they’d be out of business), and that you can’t be happy. I say BS to all of that. Peak oil will soon enlighten most in American, and elsewhere.
For some reason I can’t be that pessimistic. The idea of this article was to make people aware of delayed gratification.
Financial Samurai says
That is amazing if someone really can live that way, earn that much, and save $100,000 in just 2.5 years! In fact, that is inspirational!
My Indian friends all seem very frugal eg 60-70% savings rate after tax.
I think I just got a little more inspiration to save big bucks and move!
I do try to keep it within 50 – 60 saving rate. Good thing is for us its not hard. When we grew up frugality was not one of the options it was the only option.
I used to be that visa worker, and lived exactly like that, although on a much smaller salary (academic bio-medical science, entry level). And yes, having a goal and living frugally is not difficult by any stretch of imagination for me. I still practice a lot of ways from those times.
I know some of those workers. They come, work and make money and leave, and they pay taxes also on their earnings. This is similar to some immigrants workers that come from Centro America, Mexico and South America. We come to do the labor jobs and get minimum pay. We share rooms; we cook at home, and pay taxes also. Some of us come here to make money and send it back home yes after we pay the taxes. Then we stay and make our lives in the USA trying to reach the “American Dream”
This is GREAT… for other countries. U.S. companies hire foreign workers instead of unemployed Americans. The workers pay their measly 20% in taxes or so and send the rest OUT OF THE U.S. The more money that leaves this country forces more and more companies to downsize. If they had hired AMERICAN workers, the money would have been put back in to the economy, thereby STRENGTHENING U.S. employers.
I’ve worked with MANY foreign Visa workers and about 90% of them have one thing in common. Their work quality sucks. All they do is bitch about having to work and about how FEW holidays we, as Americans, enjoy unlike in their home countries. Furthermore, I’ve worked with many individuals that, somehow, claim to have achieved DOCTORATE degrees in just FOUR years – something I must call B.S. on.
I applaud these individuals for being so frugal, however, if they would spend this kind of time and effort in their own countries, they wouldn’t need to come here for work in the first place.
Marianne @ Preserving Pennies says
This is similar to what the migrant workers that work at our family farm do. They work here in Canada all summer long and then go home and, from what I hear, live like kings. I’ve always felt bad that they have to sacrifice seeing their families for half the year but it’s what they choose to do and maybe not having to work for the other half of the year and being able to spend all of their time with their families makes up for it. We certainly appreciate their choice and some of the guys have worked for us for 25 years now. In our case though, housing and transportation is provided for them.
I stumbled across this blog looking for some other info. While reading the W4 instructions i saw that couples earning less than $10,000 can claim exemption from taxes. I googled to see what jobs pay that little. I have know several people from India my undergaduate professor went to Dhaka University. Drove an old toyota, and didn’t appear flashy. A different instrutor was from Nigeria, owned a dealership, investmetn properties and a NEW Benz. There was quite a contrast, but i learned the lessons that were in front of me NOT in the text books. Diversify your life and live this way. IF i knew then what i know now, i would have continued living like a college student for the 5 years after school and avoided the debt load that is justfied by the US Dept of Education. I’d like to see a story of someone with $100,000 in student loans paying them off in cash by living in such modesty! I learned a lot from visa workers which encouraged me to start over at age 29 with a $10 an hour internship and a boat load of debt. Now, i earn over $58K and am positioned to earn over 70K by next year. It can Be done!!!
Very interested in your post, but am wondering where you got the info for the $60,000 minimum, and if it was a state-by-state thing?
Thank you so much!
Steph, thanks for the question. Here is the database where every employer has to look for the prevailing wage for the locale and the job profile. H1/L1 jobs can not be offered less than the prevailing wage. RIght now saw in my area the prevailing wage for the job of computer system analyst is $75,400
On a different note, I just saw you voted against me in the FMF March madness contest 😉 appreciate that!
Thank you for the quick response. I’m not seeing a link to the db though? And I don’t remember doing a march madness contest, but I could have! Sorry for voting against you if I did, haha.
I found this article very interesting, especially as it reminds me of a friend I had. He graduated from Wharton and his first job out of school in the early 90’s was 6 figures. But he drove a 10 year old car, moved to a cheaper city (Dallas vs. NY), rented a room from a friend and lived like this for 5 years. He pretty much pocketed 85% of his entire salary for 5 years. I think it was a brilliant move on his part, and I totally respect his decision and his choices.
This is a good post … but I had a kind of funny incident to share on this. One of my relatives is a landlord in the US. They had rented their condo to 4 Indians on H1 visa. These guys were exactly living in the way described in your post. A few days later my relative received a call from the local police & then the FBI for a routine inquiry about the tentant living in their property. Apparently it was odd for the neighbours that 4 guys were living with bare minimum “stuff” and they suspected the motives & activities that were being carried out in the apartment!!
Americans do this also (as well as those in other countries). Have you heard of the workers who went to Northern Canada to work in the oil sands fields for a few years, make tons of bank and then retire anywhere in the world they want to go?
There were top-notch consultants (such as from the Big 4 accounting firms) who went to work in Shanghai China for $1 million per year, until the China economy crashed.
You don’t HAVE to go super-frugal. And sometimes it can be more wealth-building to live comfortably well while pursuing sky-high income. I pay for massage and energy work on a regular basis, take martial arts lessons and buy organic food. My health is worth it. Also, I buy decent suits to make a good impression on my clients in New York. Not $5,000 custom Armani suits from Bergdorf Goodman, but I’ll certainly spend $750-$1000. Depends what you are doing for a profession..a C++ programmer does not need to spend money on clothing. But even as a salaried computer programmer, there is nothing that turns off a prospective buyer as fast as giving the impression of being low class.
In the end, financial success is about net worth. Whatever it takes, to build it up.
[email protected] student loan says
I am chinese and from kid my parent teach me to start saving money. Being frugal is a virtue. It is a concept that has been taught for thousands of years. The classic Chinese text Dao De Jing states that the three greatest treasures one can have are love, frugality, and generosity. Frugality is really a integral part of the Chinese culture
I have not worked with any visa employees, though I’m sure I’ve seen them riding the same bus I used to take to and from work. I lived like they do while I was in college. I wish now I had continued to live so frugally for a few years after college and saved up for the future. I have decent savings for retirement, but I could have much more from a few youthful years of self-denial.
Reuben Ho says
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thanks you very much sir!
Jessica N says
This is a great example for those living paycheck to paycheck. I hear people complaining all the time that they are broke yet they order expensive lunches at work, drive a brand new car, etc. I’m a student, I HAVE to live a frugal life and that just means I enjoy life a bit more than those who don’t. I find fun things to do for free, I rely on public transportation, I get free movie rental codes online and never pay for cable. Even the tv i have was free! One day I’ll have enough money to spend it carelessly, but until then I’ll keep counting my pennies and only eating at restaurants on special occasions. Patience is something all Americans should learn.
so in the near future with economic power shifting can American workers do the same?
Probably it’ll take another 100 years, till the currency values get swiped. This is definitely doable. Main idea is to have delay gratification.
Mrs. 1500 says
This is a great post! So many Americans only want the latest and greatest, they don’t realize that the sooner they start to save, the more they will have in retirement, and the earlier they can retire.
Mrs. 1500 says
This is a great article, thanks for posting. So many Americans want the newest thing, and don’t stop to think about how they are going to pay for it, or what they are giving up to have it. That $40,000 car is going to be worth the exact same as the $18,000 car in 10 years, NOTHING. But if you took that extra $22,000 you saved by buying the less expensive car, and invested it, you’d come out with the following (based on a 10% return and the rule of 72): 7 years, $44,000, 14 years, $88,000, 21 years, $176,000, 28 years, $352,000… and all because you bought a cheaper car when you were younger…
Mike M. says
Applying this principle to entrepreneurs makes a lot of sense. consider the entrepreneur that lives frugally for 5 years while reinvesting the profits of the business for further growth. That same business can grow to a point where it can be sold for a tidy sum, providing the entrepreneur with a nice payday.
nick howard says
I live in the UK where the national minimum wage is 6.19. I work as a chef and I am paid the NMW. I leave for work at 8 or 9am and get home at 11 or 12pm. I spend 4 hours on commuting to and from work and I work split shifts so I am not paid for 3 hours while at work (when I have a break). I spend about 15 hours a day for work (including commuting and the break) and I am paid about 30-35 pounds per day. from this I pay 80 a month for train tickets to get to work. My friend, who is also a chef is on 15000 p.a. salary and he works 70 hours a week. Neither him, nor me has any tips.
Brick By Brick Investing | Marvin says
Awesome post and so true! I have heard a lot of negative and inappropriate comments about foreign workers coming to America and living like this. Every single time I tell them that they could learn a thing or two from people like this. They come to a place where their skills are highly sought after, work hard, and save a small fortune for when they go back home. I only wish there was a similar alternative for Americans.
Jonathan Craig says
Love this post. We could all afford to be a little more frugal. Reading posts like these make me rethink my current expenditures.
John Ryan says
Very interesting post! I’m one of the workers you refer to, here on a H1B, however I’m Canadian. I studied with a lot of students during graduate school, and it was much as you describe it here. It didn’t really stand out though, the rest of us were living at near poverty levels as well! =)
This is a nice blog
I am glad you liked it
It cost American tax payers Billions each year.
Lynn, visa employees pay more per capita tax than an average American. Average American salary is $40,000 – $50,000 these people earn way more than this number. They actually help the American economy.
Dean Cahill says
I was living in Dublin for 3 years with 3 Brazilians that had visa renewals every year and it wasn’t easy at all for them, this memory got intense when reading this article, great post.
Doug Carey says
I loved this article. I work with clients who spend $300,000 a year in retirement and are projected to run out of money when they’re 80! What in the world? Many people cannot live below their means. That is always a top piece of advice I give. Live below your means and you will really help out your current situation and retirement situation.
Freelancer Website says
Hi, I’m one of those people. Frankly, I’m already used to it. The main thing is to plan your budget for the month very carefully. Take a pen, a sheet of paper and make a financial plan. First of all, determine the amount for the most necessary expenses: utilities, transportation, food. The remaining money can be used to buy clothes, furniture or set aside until better times. When deciding the question “how to spend less money to live on a small salary?”, Do not deny yourself small pleasures. However, let them be affordable for you. So, for example, you can go on a budget vacation to the sea, but you will have to forget about other purchases in the near future. Good luck!
angela musci says
I am an immigrant worker in the US on an O-1. I do not seem to be allowed to use any of the currently platforms for investing-index funds, robinhood et al. I really need some sound advice and would truly appreciate help.
Go to a bank, like Chase or BankofAmerica. Show your passport and open investment accounts with a financial adviser. That’s the only time you’re required to visit a branch. Chase and BankofAmerica (Merilllynch) provide very decent investment platform with no trading fees.
Musthafa Ullal says
Yes. High IQ, middle-class, IT professionals of India has a better life in United States than in their home country because of the political decisions. Moving to the western countries has made their life better and their thinking level has also increased. They are no more deeply rooted into superstitions.