It's no big secret that teaching English in Korea is a great way to save a sizable chunk of money. I'm sure you've seen bloggers boasting about putting $1,000 USD per month into savings while working in Korea. I'm also sure this was met with a degree of skepticism and follow-up Googling. Well, this is very, very possible as a teacher in Korea. With a reasonable overall cost of living, getting by from day to day here can easily be done on the cheap, so long as you're committed to a degree of frugality and creating good habits. In my three years in Korea, I feel like I've managed my money well, so here are some money budgeting tips and tricks that I've picked up along the way.
To give some background on where I'm coming from with these bits of advice, here's my situation. On average, I transfer around $1,400 USD home each month after receiving my paycheck from Chungdahm. Now, I have bills to pay -- student loans, credit cards, and a car, so while my savings account hasn't been filling up, having this extra income has allowed me to dramatically decrease my debt.
But at what cost to my quality of life in Korea? Am I constantly scrimping and saving?
Sending home over a thousand USD each month isn't leaving me cash-poor until my next paycheck. I have enough leftover to still eat out regularly, probably do way too much shopping, and, despite making coffee at home each morning, frequently swing by a coffee shop on the way to work for an extra cup.
Instead of cutting out these arguably frivolous expenses, I look for little ways to cut costs here and there, all of which have been extremely effective.
1. Eat Korean food.
It's a given that imported foods are going to be pricey here, so don't let yourself dismiss the local fare. Some people just don't like kimchi, which is fair, but there's a lot more to Korean food than fermented, spicy vegetables. Keep trying different things and you'll find some you like.
The reason I say eating Korean food is a money-saving tip is because it's cheap. Not always, of course, but your average gimbap spot or bbq restaurant? Eating a meal there won't break the bank. In fact, the average cost of a meal at a "gimbap house" is a whopping 5,000 won (~$5 USD). You can pick up a roll of gimbap for 2,500 won (~$2.50 USD), which makes for a filling lunch or dinner. Even going out for Korean barbecue rarely costs more than 10,000 per person.
2. Buy used furniture and appliances.
As soon as you get your placement for teaching at Chungdahm, check out the Facebook groups for the area. It seems like nearly every neighborhood has a group, many of which are utilized for selling old furniture, appliances, and other apartment items. Instead of going straight to the stores to buy something new, first check out what you can pick up secondhand. I've had a lot of success with buying things from other expats, and it's definitely saved me a lot of money!
3. Use the public transportation.
I didn't believe the supposed quality and efficiency of Korea's public transportation system until I saw it for myself. In addition to that, it's also cheap. The base fare of a little over $1 USD gets you quite far, and it's rare that subway travel in the greater Seoul metro costs more than $2.
Taxis are convenient, yes, especially so for shorter distances. But if you're planning to head across the city, especially in the likes of Seoul, planning to spend the extra time on a bus or the subway will really, really save you some money.
4. Be conservative with your electricity use.
In my experience, my electric bills have been significantly higher here than what I was used to paying back home for a larger apartment or even a small house. In addition, the apartments I've lived in charge electricity usage by a particular system: each apartment has a usage allowance, and when that is exceeded, the charges double. This may not be the case for every apartment in Korea, but it's something I've had to be mindful of. Layering up in the winter and utilizing fans and open windows in the summer is how I've kept these costs a little lower.
5. Buy groceries at local markets or marts.
Finding a traditional Korean market or local grocery store near you is a great way to spend money. You'll be buying produce and meat that comes from local farmers, and they typically don't charge a premium for their goods -- unlike many of the larger grocery chains. In addition, you'll find that being a regular customer to these spots will earn you some deals and freebies, as a way for the seller to show their appreciation for your business. We often get surprising deals from our local grocery store, and I've been pleased with the bargaining I've done at the markets over a bag of apples or oranges.
6. Go grocery shopping late at night.
Be it stopping by a bakery for bread and breakfast snacks to doing all of your grocery shopping at a supermarket -- go late, ideally shortly before they close. The stores mark down anything perishable in an attempt to sell it before close rather than throwing it away. You can find some excellent deals by doing your grocery shopping this way, especially on things like meat, fruit, and veggies. Going shopping late is also quite easy for the average Chungdahm teacher, since we work until 10pm.
What tips and tricks can you recommend for saving money in Korea? 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 Songdo 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 and her Instagram for more of her adventures!