Who Will Save Your Seouls? (alternative title: How to Save a Bunch of Money Teaching English in Korea)

Lame title, I know, but who could resist a Jewel related Seoul pun? Not me, apparently.

When people hear that we’ve been teaching ESL in Korea, the general reaction is ‘…Uh, why?’ Of course, there are a bunch of reasons: learning to be a better teacher, experiencing a different culture, meeting rad people, etc. But for us, especially the second time around, it was, let’s face it, all about the money.

We came to Korea with the intent to work for a year and save enough to travel for 8-10 months. We ended up adding a few months to both our work and travel time– 16 months working = 12+ months traveling. Not a bad equation, eh?

Anyway, here are some basics about the financial side of teaching in Korea.

(Bear in mind that we were both pretty stingy. I spent about $25 total on clothes, and Ahi gave up his used book habit, cold turkey. You could happily spend a little more and save a little less living in Seoul. Likewise, you could certainly cut out a couple of pitchers of beer or buffet meals, and end up with a little more in the bank.)

How much should you expect to earn? For your first year, 2.2 million won ($2200USD) is fine. After that, I’d shoot for something over 2.4million won ($2400USD).  (These conversions, and all following, aren’t exact, but most people seem happy to use 1000W:1USD)

How much does ….. cost?

(We didn’t shop much, so please leave a comment if you have anything to add/correct here!)

Local beer (priorities, guys!): $12 – $15 for a 2l pitcher
Microbrew: $9 bottle/pint of draught
Can of coke: 50c – $1
Subway: $1 – $2
Coffee: $2 (cheap americano) – $6 (fancy shmancy starbucks style drinks)
Restaurant meal: $5 (bibimbap/ramen) – $18 (Indian buffet)
Bills: $30 – 40 for broadband internet, $10 (summer) – $60 (winter for power)
Gym membership: $40 (mine, anyway!)

So, how much did I actually spend? During the week, I tried to stick to a daily budget of $10. This included groceries… and, I guess, very little else. On weekends, I generally splashed out and spent around $100, which bought me a couple of meals out, plenty of beer, and sometimes a grocery stop at a foreign food market.

Add in an occasional gym payment, a very occasional shopping trip, and bills, and you get a monthly total of $800 – $1000. Ahimsa once managed to spend under $400, but I never did quite that well.

So, in summary:
Monthly spending: $800 – $1000
Monthly salary (after tax): $2,200
Savings: $1300ish per month x 16 months = just over $20,000

On top of this, almost every school will give you a bonus equivalent to one month’s salary. You may, depending on your citizenship, also be eligible for a pension refund.

So, all in all, Korea can be a pretty great place to while away a few years (or more!) and save some cashola. Here are some of our expert (ahem) tips, for saving in Seoul.

Reading a free book, hiking a free bike, carrying a free backpack. Boo yah.

Reading a free book, hiking a free hike, carrying a free backpack. Boo yah.

Tips for doing Korea on the cheap:

  • Walk. Taxis are cheap, but not that cheap. If we felt like going home at 5am, we either walked, or stayed out until the first subway.
  • Keep ‘the carrot’ in mind. The prospect of a year traveling makes you rethink every purchase. And I mean every. For awhile there, I even convinced myself that dish washing detergent was a luxury I couldn’t justify…
  •  Shop at a market/corner store over a supermarket. Emart and Homeplus are great, but the veges, in particular, ain’t cheap.
  • Eat the same thing. Every day and night. Both of us generally bought veges and tofu in bulk, and ate them over a couple of nights.
  • Freeze stuff. Veges in Korea are super seasonal. Buy them when they’re cheap, freeze them for later.
  • Hike! Hiking in Seoul is awesome and free! You might even score some free soju from a friendly ajoshi.

    My favourite of the free bikes in Jamsil. A lovely mint-green cruiser.

    My favourite of the free bikes in Jamsil. A lovely mint-green cruiser.

  • Ride a bike. You can hire bikes for a few dollars in a couple of places in Seoul. Or, better yet, track down the free bikes near Jamsil Station.
  • Go teetotal. Admittedly, we didn’t do it very often, but in booze-heavy Seoul, cutting out drinking for a week or two is sure to save you some moolah.
  • Go prepaid. Smartphones aren’t too pricey, sure, but y’know what’s even cheaper? A janky ol’ prepaid phone. We bought ours for around $50 each, and spent less than $10 a month. (Just quietly, even our 5 yr old students gave us grief for our ‘ajuma phones’.)
  • Take advantage of free music. There are plenty of buskers, festivals, and free shows in Seoul. One of our favourites is Soundbox, a band with an eclectic sound, four percussionists, and a tap dancer, who play an outdoor show most weekends in Hongdae.

    Rockdo, a rad (and, more importantly, free) outdoor music festival in Seoul, September 2012.

    Rockdo, a rad (and, more importantly, free) outdoor music festival in Seoul, September 2012.

  • Buy/acquire stuff from departing teachers. When people leave Korea, they often have more stuff to get rid of than time to get rid of it (and by ‘they’, I mean ‘I’). Which means cheap stuff for you! Check out waygook.org‘s ‘Buy/Sell/Trade’ forum, or, better yet, see if there’s a free box at your school.

So, uh, stay stingy, guys!

4 responses to “Who Will Save Your Seouls? (alternative title: How to Save a Bunch of Money Teaching English in Korea)

  1. Good tips! One thought I had, when people talk about saving money it’s always about ways to spend less, everyone seems to forget you can accomplish the same thing by making more money. In Korea the going rate for private tutors is $40-50 per hour. I did this for 2 hours a week and had an extra 400 bucks a month in my bank account. Now, technically the only way to do this legally for E-2 visa holders is to get your hagwons permission but realistically, as long as you don’t brag to your coworkers about how much money you’re making tutoring, the odds of getting caught are slim, and a lot of people do this with no problems. It’s kind of like jaywalking; it’s illegal, but not that illegal. Just don’t be stupid about it and you’ll probably be fine.

    • Good point! I should have mentioned that I did tutor for a few months, towards the beginning of my contract. An awesome way to make some extra moolah. Sadly, after my (4 yr old) student threw his ipad at his Mother’s face and dangled his pet goldfish out of the water to see it squirm, I decided it wasn’t quite worth it!

      That said, I know a bunch of people who have had great experiences with it.

  2. I lived in Korea for a year and saved HUGE chunks of money here and there. Although things have risen in price, you can still save money. And let’s not forget tutoring…

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