As a blogger, I've received a substantial number of emails over the past two years. The common theme among the questions I get asked can easily be guessed: money. Understandably so, of course, as money is an important part of taking a job in a foreign country. So, it is my hope that the information I have gathered from the experiences of a variety of expats in Korea (myself, my friends, and my fellow Aclipse/Chungdahm bloggers) will help answer your burning money questions...
Before I get started, here's a general disclaimer: the following information does not, of course, account for every situation in Korea. This info should be used to give you a general idea of what to expect, but remember to calculate for some differences depending on area, salary, etc. Living in Gangnam is always going to cost more than living in Suwon, just as living in Pyeongtaek will be different from living in Incheon.
That being said, let's get down to the questions...
1. Did your school help you set up a bank account?
This is a universal yes from everyone I've asked. You'll likely have to wait until your Alien Registration Card (ARC) has been processed by immigration, but there are ways around that in case immigration is moving at a slower-than-usual pace. My ARC, for example, took a little under two weeks, so when my first payday rolled around, my Assistant Branch Manager took me to the bank and got an account all set up for me!
Don't stress about this one -- someone will be there to help you out.
2. On average, how much do rent and utilities cost?
Rent is the biggest variable since it depends on location and the type of apartment you're given. From everyone I've asked -- located in Seoul, Incheon, Pyeongtaek, Daegu, and Busan -- you can expect your rent to be around or under $500. In smaller cities, you might be looking at something closer to $300, whereas in bigger cities, definitely closer to $500 or even higher. In Incheon, I pay 440,000 won per month for my single room, loft apartment. Having the loft definitely makes it more expensive than a tiny studio apartment, but all in all, it's still a good deal.
Utilities depends on the weather of your area (obviously) and also how well you manage it. In months with nice weather, your bills might be miniscule. In the middle of the summer heat, they might be over 200,000 won (roughly $200).
3. How expensive is it to get around via subway or bus?
Oh man, you're going to love this. It is so cheap. I can get from Incheon to anywhere in the greater Seoul area for under 2,000 won. The base fare is around a buck, and depending on how far you go, they might tack on a little bit more (but no more than another 1,000 won) when you get off.
Take advantage of the public transportation -- it's cheap and very convenient.
4. How much do you spend on food in an average week?
Yesterday, I stopped by the neighborhood supermarket, Lotte, for some basics. Ground pork, spinach, milk, cream cheese, sprouts, bread, and eggs. The total? Around 20,000 won. Some things are pricey here, like cheese and fruit, while others are more in line with our Western standards.
When it comes to food, it depends on how you approach your meals. It's easy to grab something quick from Paris Baguette or another cafe on your way into work. A salad or a sandwich will run around 5,000 won. Or, you can stop by a gimbap house and pick up a gimbap roll (around 3,000 won) or some bibimbap (around 5,000 won).
Before coming to Korea, I heard a lot of people tell me it's cheaper to eat out than in, and honestly, it's a 50-50 split. I manage to make cooking at home inexpensive because I've learned to cater my menus to what I can get a good deal on. Grabbing food in a restaurant is also very inexpensive though, especially if you stick to Korean food. There have been many a night when we've stuffed ourselves with Korean BBQ and the total is under 10,000 won a person!
My advice: brew coffee at home, pack lunches for work, and eat dinner at Korean restaurants. When I was on a money saving mission to afford a lengthy vacation back home, I was comfortably living on $100 a week. I've even made it by on $10 a day before!
5. What can I expect for a cellphone plan?
Cellphone plans here vary quite a bit. Some are as cheap as 30,000 won a month -- typically those are little flip or slider phones. Others, like mine, are 80,000 won a month. The way it will work if you want to get a smartphone, which is what I have, is you will be paying off the cost of the phone a little bit each month. That's why my plan is so expensive. I upgraded to an iPhone 5S recently, so I'm paying 80,000 won a month. That covers unlimited calls and texts, a generous data plan, and part of the cost of the iPhone. That's just one example, but since the 5S is a popular phone right now, I think it's a good indicator of what you can expect.
6. How much money are you able to send home each month?
Saving money and sending it home is probably a priority for most of us. After all, Korea is one of the best paying countries for ESL teachers.
To answer this question, I'll just outline my own financial situation. In Korea, I have to pay rent, utility bills, my cellphone, and my health insurance. Back home, I have around $800+ in bills to pay -- student loans, car payments, credit card payments, etc. All that considered, I am able to send a minimum of $1000 home each month. That leaves me with more than enough money to cover expenses in Korea, eat out in restaurants with my friends most nights, and do more shopping than I need to at the mall down the street. I may not be saving a ton of money due to focusing on paying down debt and enjoying my life in Korea, but I'm still living very, very comfortably.
At a minimum, you should be able to send home $1000 each month, either to pay bills or to put straight into your savings. Not bad, eh?
When it comes to sending money home, it's really simple and quick. The first time you do the transfer, you'll need the assistance of a teller, but after that, you can do it from an ATM!
Hopefully those answers are helpful! The money situation in Korea, while stressful while you're in the process of moving out here, is really quite simple and convenient.
If you have any other questions or any experiences to add to this entry, leave a comment below!
Between studying Japanese and Asian culture in university and setting her sights on a teaching career, it came as no surprise when Zannah Smreker announced that she was moving to South Korea to teach for Chungdahm Learning. In November 2011, Zannah accepted a position through Aclipse with the Yeonsu branch in Incheon, just southwest of Seoul. When she's not teaching, she keeps herself busy with exploring Korea, eating all the street food, and hunting down strange Engrish shirts. Check out her blog here for more of her adventures!