Life in Korea: living cheaply to save won

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Author’s note: ‘Life in Korea’ posts are written with the newer expats among us in mind. If you have a more experienced view to offer, comments are wide open.

Life in Korea doesn’t have to be expensive – in fact, people can live quite cheaply thanks to a good salary and a low cost of living. Think about it: your three biggest expenses back home (for most) were your apartment, your car, and your food. Here in Dae Han Min Guk, your apartment is (probably) free, your car is public transportation, and your food is probably a lot cheaper than at home. Of the two million Korean won (or more) you make every month, there’s no reason why you can’t save up to half of your salary with a little bit of discipline and forethought.


One reason Korea is an attractive place to teach English is the (generally) free apartment. By itself, it’s furnished and free – saving you several hundred thousand won a month. Take what you might have spent on an apartment in your home country, and put this in the bank or set it aside from your spending money ASAP. 500,000 won a month (about $465 USD, at current exchange rates) adds up to 6,000,000 won over the one-year contract you signed. I don’t care who you are – several thousand (in US dollars) is a decent sum to have on-hand wherever life takes you next. If you’re expected to pay the rent, add the difference between what you used to spend and what you currently spend to that savings every month.Even 100,000 won a month adds up to 1,200,000 won over a one-year contract.

I get around…

That you’re not spending money on a car – and car insurance – can easily add to your savings. Even assuming a healthy traveling budget (I budget about 200,000 won a month, or a bit more if I’m really getting out and about), it’s likely a fraction of what you spent on your car, gas / petrol, and car insurance back home.  Just like the rent, add the difference between what you used to spend and what you currently spend to that savings every month.


Food – and eating out – isn’t necessarily cheap. In fact, while living in Korea this may be your biggest expense. Depending on where you live you may (or may not) have access to Western restaurants; while they’re not outrageously overpriced, I dare say you didn’t come to Korea to eat Pizza Hut. Save those for special occasions, dates with your significant other, and the times when you really just want a greasy pizza. This doesn’t condemn you to 1,000 won rolls of gimbap and borderline undrinkable bottles of soju. If you’re out to enjoy some Korean food, any number of places can serve you a perfectly good meal for 10,000 won or less – some 5,000 won or less. More often than not, a good bowl of 볶음밥 (bokk-eum-bap, or fried rice) or a plate of 돈가스 (don-ga-seu, or pork cutlet) is tasty, not spicy, and not breaking the bank. I also enjoy a Pizza School pizza (5,000 won for a pepperoni pie) about once a week or so. Unless you’re springing for the 한정식 (han-jeong-shik, or royal Korean cuisine), there’s no reason why most Korean meals should be expensive.

If cooking at home, good for you – saving money here can be somewhat difficult though. Meat does tend to be more expensive than elsewhere, and veggies and fruit have gotten a lot more expensive recently. If meat is your main course every night, try switching it up to noodles, rice, or something else every other night. Also, recognize that you’re buying for one (or perhaps two), not the entire football team. Unless the local grocery store is far away, there’s no need to buy lots of perishable foods at a time.

TGIF, eh?

Where most expats in Korea blow spend their money is the party life and the alcohol. Hey, live it up – but remember it can be done without breaking the bank. Maybe you did some pre-gaming in your college dorm room, or maybe it just needs to be cold, tan or brown in color, and consumable in mass quantities. Korean beers can’t brag about their taste, but it’s often the cheapest thing available. Those imported beers can add up quickly – at an average of 3,000 won for a local brew and 9,000 won for a Guinness, you can do your own math. Even you rum-and-Coke fans will note that basic cocktails are often as cheap as a bottled beer. Whenever a bar does specials, you’ll notice how they do them on mixed drinks (where costs are typically low) and not on bottled beer (where costs are fixed).

But what about the music? I demand to be entertained!, you say. Sure, no problem. Assuming you’ve taken in the Itaewon and Hongdae scenes more than once, you’ve begun to figure out which places offer some decent live music. Among many others, Club DGBD is one of my favorites in Hongdae; FF usually has some good shows as well. Roofers makes the rest of the Itaewon scene look dull by comparison. Paying 20,000 won (or more) to half-watch a DJ prance about a stage when you’d rather be locking eyes elsewhere never made sense to me. I have no problem dropping a manwon (a 10,000 won bill) to see a band I enjoy – especially if they’re worth seeing live.

OK, so you’re saving some money on your three biggest expenses – what else to watch for:

  • While traveling – do you really need that KTX train? It’s the fastest way there, but it’s also about twice the price of other options. The Saemaeul or Mugunghwa trains will save 20%-50% off of a KTX.
  • While at home – the standard mindsets towards electricity and gas make sense. Unplug your unused electric stuff. When summer kicks in, avoid running the A/C non-stop – try those clear things called windows for some air circulation. You might even prop your door open on the really hot days – so what if your neighbors peek in curiously? They’d stare anyway.
  • While out and about – those carbonated beverages add up. Try the bottled water – or fill up at any number of water sources along the way. The tap water won’t kill you either, for the record – I drink it on a daily basis.

Readers: where do you spend more money than you thought you would? Any money-saving tips?

Creative Commons License © Chris Backe – 2011
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

This post was originally published on my blog, Chris in South Korea. If you are reading this on another website and there is no linkback or credit given, you are reading an UNAUTHORIZED FEED.



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