Uprooting your entire life up into two suitcases is not exactly a walk in the park. Scrambling to get your visas ready, taking horrible passport photos, and debating whether or not to pack that bag of hot Cheetos (which you should indeed do), there is a million and one things to keep track of from the moment you fly out to the moment you finish training. Next comes the equally disorienting but exponentially more enjoyable part--settling in. A majority of the questions that I get asked relate to the cost of living and the quality of life here. The cost of living may be lower or higher than what you’re accustomed to, depending on which country you come from, and if you’re like me, had a savings account that could only muster me a couple Lotte World tickets when I arrived. However, you’re in luck. Unless you steer on the side of a constant flow of impulse buy and take-out, it’s very doable to save money while also living comfortably. If anyone is curious how I do it, you can keep scrolling through.
So how do I do it? I sold all my non-vital organs. (Kidding...for now.) One thing you should keep in mind that the start up costs can be quite high, depending on what kind of housing contract you have. Some schools pay for your rent and your place is already furnished, while others help you with a real estate agent and you choose a place together, paying out of pocket. Another thing to keep in mind is the timing of your arrival in the country and your first paycheck. Depending on the timeline of training and your first days of actually working, you may only get your first up to eight weeks later. That can be a bit challenging when negotiating all the upfront settling you want to accomplish, and also purchasing that entire set of KakaoTalk themed throw pillows that you don’t need--but then again, the heart wants what it wants.
Let me start with the costs of setting up my apartment. I pay 600,000KRW a month for rent, plus maintenance fees and utilities, which usually levels out to 700,000KRW. One thing that will surprise you is that gas, water, and electricity are incredibly cheap, especially in relation to your rent and your paycheck. I usually only pay about 6,000KRW for water, 10,000KRW for gas, and about the same, or maxing out at 20,000KRW for electric. However, starting next year I want to move to a new neighborhood, and many apartments are much cheaper and even bigger! I cook almost all my meals, all the days of the week, so this is a very big plus in my budget. Now comes the fun and also stress inducing part--furnishing my apartment. Most apartments will come semi-furnished with a washing machine, refrigerator, and stove.
Everything else I had to find out with the magic of 11street, coupang, and gmarket, all sites I recommend for affordable furniture that usually delivers within a few days, often times the same day as ordering. I know many teachers buy a simple mat on the floor which can cost about 40-50,000KRW. Add a 40,000KRW comforter and a 7,000KRW pillow or two on top of that and you have a minimalist, and also moveable haven. Although I am five feet tall, having a proper bed that’s four times my size is something I’ve learned is an integral need for myself. So I ordered what else than an elevated queen size mattress. It was the priciest thing I bought for my place, at 120,000KRW, but definitely worth it because it can sleep me and any guests I have. Also, it doubles as storage on the bottom.
The only other big purchases I made were a multilevel shelf to store kitchen appliances which cost 40,000KRW, and a sliding table that cost 60,000KRW, which was my favorite piece because it fits over my bed so I can use it as a desk, and also slide it out and stick some chairs around it for a big dinner spread. In terms of appliances-I do my best to learn how to cook on the stove, which allows me to explore more traditional techniques and foods. But I am a sucker for dips and gimmicky smoothie bowls, so I did purchase a high speed blender for 99,000KRW only after my first 30,000KRW smelled like burnt rubber after thirty seconds of use. I also bought an electric kettle for 15,000KRW and the staple, the guiding light in every Asian’s life, a rice cooker, which was only 20,000KRW and has been working smoothly for almost a year.
Another expense for me is my gym membership. They sell them in monthly, three month, and six month memberships. However, it is much cheaper when you buy a year at once, which broke down to 18,000KRW a month. Transportation can be a big money guzzler if you like to go out or take taxis everywhere, but I bought a bike from a co-worker for 30,000KRW and I make sure to squeeze the life out of the tires. Otherwise, I take the bus or the train, which amount to about 1250KRW a ride, and adds on to it the further you go. A plus is it adds on fare based on the zone, and not the ride, so if you switch between the train and the bus, it won’t necessarily cost more until you pass the zone. Living within the city, whenever I need a cab when I’m out at night it never costs more than 20,000KRW per ride. KakaoTaxi is in English now, so it makes it smooth so you’re not fighting with other people trying to cab to the 24 hour barbecue spot.
Now is the fun stuff: the food. Many foreigners complain about how expensive groceries are here, especially fruit. That is true if you’re shopping at the grocery store, where the produce is thoroughly packaged. However, I go to the local outdoor market where you can get a bundle of 10 peaches for 5000KRW, and vegetables like spinach and cucumber for 1000KRW a bunch. I also buy a carton of thirty eggs for 3500KRW which lasts me a few weeks, if I’m not attempting to cook gaeranbbang (sweet egg bread). I usually only cook vegetarian, purchasing tofu here and there, so groceries lean towards the cheaper side, about 20-30,000KRW per week. That doesn’t mean that I don’t eat out. In fact, meals hardly cost more than 10,000KRW, but that 3000KRW kimbap usually hits the sweet (and savory) spot.
Korea is also a great place to be for quality of health. National health insurance is incredibly affordable, and I’ve had teeth cleaning for 20,000KRW and a wisdom tooth pulled for 50,000KRW! If you find a massage place, especially a Thai business, many have year-long day-time specials, with a ninety minute aroma massage at 50,000KRW. My favorite thing of all is going to the Oriental Medicine clinic by my house, with many neighborhoods having them. I get weekly acupuncture and cupping therapy, each session being fifty minutes, at only 8,000KRW a session. It is one of my favorite rituals, and pretty on the pocket.
In terms of shopping, cheap, trendy clothes are a dime a dozen, from Myeongdong to the transfer between your train commute. Underground shopping centers like Gangnam and Express Bus Terminal make it easy to stay in the loop. My personal favorite place to shop is Vinprime, a chain of thrift shops that is located in places like Hapjeong, Sadang, and Jamsil station. In my free time, I don’t struggle to find plenty of festivals and street fairs that are free. Most museums have free to discounted rates at leat once a month, as do palaces, so if you put in a little elbow grease, you should be able to find something. You can follow expat Facebook groups to keep updated. In fact, this coming weekend I’m going to a Filipino Film Festival in the center of Seoul that has free admission. I also do a fair amount of park hopping. You can walk along the entirety of the Han River, or rent a bike or scooter, and snake along and you may just stumble upon an event with lots of food and music, which I have on many occasions.
All that being said, I am able to pay off my credit card debt and student loans with ease, in addition to saving enough money to fund my own backpacking trip for almost a year and a half. Although the cost of living can feel overwhelming, it’s actually a walk in the Han River park if you prioritize it.
Nico Salvador grew up in Los Angeles, California and graduated with a degree in English Literature from Brown University in 2015. Only a few months after finishing, she moved to Seoul, South Korea and worked at Chungdahm April Gwanak branch in the south of the city. She immersed herself in all that the country had to offer, from excessive dakgalbi consumption, to sweating it out in the jjimjilbang, to spending hours watching all the street artists and performers. She gained so much from the people she encountered, and grasped that one could spend their whole life in South Korea and still have something new to learn and grow from. After two years of traveling, she is moving back to create an even more abundant life of teaching and creating.