6 Ways I Save Money in Korea

Earlier on in my first year I wrote a blog and made a video about the average teacher's income and expense situation here in South Korea.  I received quite a bit of feedback on both.  Many were curious how I am able to keep my expenses low and although I did my best to answer them piecemeal, I thought detailing it in a blog would be helpful for others.  My personal mantra has always been, "it's not what you make, it's what you save".  It couldn't be truer than with teaching abroad.  So to that end, here is a breakdown of the 6 main ways I am able to keep my expenses down and save money for a rainy typhoon day.

Ondol and hot water control
Cool It on the Heat - The winters are no doubt dreadful.  Even though I grew up in New Hampshire with brutal winters, the cold still gets to me.  Must be the Florida living after I moved from NH!  Or I'm just getting weak in my old age.
In general, apartments here are heated through the floors.  The systems are called ondols (온돌) and running them is not cheap.  In fact, my electric bill jumped from about $30 to over $100 when I first started using the ondol.  I once ran my bill over $125 before I realized I shouldn't run it whenever I wanted to.  At first I would run it and walk around my apartment in shorts and a t-shirt while it was 20 degrees F outside.  Then I got my bill.  Time to make some changes...

  1. Wear Layers - I changed my shorts for long johns or sweatpants.  I also layer shirts.  I wear a t-shirt, a long sleeve over it, and then a heavy sweatshirt over that.  This is bare minimum as some of the winter days get really cold.  I also wear socks.  I would wear slippers if they had any my size in Korea!  This get-up allowed me to comfortably hang out in my apartment without always running the ondol.
  2. Making the Bed - My apartment came equipped with many comforters, blankets, and sheets.  It also came with an electric blanket.  The electric blanket is the single greatest defense against the cold weather here.  I make my bed by first laying down a few blankets or light comforters on top of the mattress.  Kind of like my own homemade pillow-top.  I then lay the first sheet over the mattress and tuck it in.  Then the second sheet.  Then a blanket/light comforter.  Then the electric blanket on top of that.  Then one more light comforter on top of the electric blanket to lock the heat in.  I use some laundry rack clips to clamp the top layers together so they don't slide apart at night.  A few minutes before bed I crank the electric blanket, then turn it all the way down to the lowest level before I get under the covers.  That keeps just the right amount of heat coming without making me sweat to death while I sleep.  The perfect thing for cold nights.  And there are many of them. 

Doing these things cut my electric bill from a high of $125 to about $65-70.  Huge difference.  I now only use the ondol for one or two 30 minute blasts while I'm at home - if ever.  Only during the most extreme nights.  I actually prefer the bundled up approach now (clothing and bed), so it's a win-win.

Electric blanket and comforters

Easy on the A/C - I realized through trial and error that I can adapt to the cold a lot better than to hot summer weather.  I have to have A/C and cool conditions or I'm one grouchy person.  Here are some recommendations for staying cool without keeping the A/C on non-stop:

  1. Get a Fan - A fan can be your best friend even in the dead heat of Korean summers.  No matter how hot you are, if you simply stay in front of a fan long enough you WILL become cool.  Though just not as quickly as A/C.  Your A/C may likely have a fan feature too so that should work just the same.  If not, keep the temperature just above what you like and the A/C unit will change between fan and A/C periodically.  This is how I prefer using it.  I have a friend who blasts his A/C for a few minutes and then runs his fan to circulate the cold air.  That works very well too.
  2. Take Cold Showers - One thing I've learned over the years in martial arts is how to bring my body temperature down quickly after a training session.  To me, there is no substitute for immersion into cool or cold water.  Back home, I used to sit in my pool at night after practice until I was actually feeling cold.  Well, I don't have a pool now, so I use cold showers after practice and it helps just the same.  I also take cold showers when getting ready to go out or to work.  Taking hot showers requires turning on the water heater a few minutes beforehand and throughout your shower.  Obviously the less you use it, the lower your bill will be.  It has worked for me.
  3. Watch Your Diet - Eating the wrong foods and drinking alcohol will make you feel bloated and crappy.  Alcohol always makes you feel hotter.  Many may read this and laugh - I know, there was a time when I would prefer being hot over giving up the booze.  But now it's easy.  Just something to keep in mind.  Also, if you eat a lot of heavy foods (i.e. fried, creamy, heavy on the meat) your body works much harder to digest it which makes you heat up a bit more.  Eat healthier and you won't reach for the A/C remote as much.

School water purifer
Don't Pay for Free Water - The first time I bought bottled water and hauled it home, I knew I had to find a better and way.  And there was.  There is!  I use the filtered water from my school.  Whenever I am finished with any large, heavier plastic bottle (e.g. Gatorade) I bring it to school and fill it up with filtered water from the purifier.  After all, that's what bottled water is - filtered tap water.  I go through a lot of water because of my training so over the course of a month I figure I am saving between $30-50.

"W" for water...!

My Wahl clippers
I Cut My Own Hair - I learned how to cut my own hair about 5 years ago.  It's much easier for guys in general, and even easier for a guy like me.  I like my hair really short.  I generally give myself what's called a "high and tight".  Basically your well know military look.  Buzzed sides and back, really short on the top.  Taking it almost all the way down is the way to go for me during the summer.  It also saves me about $10 every two or three weeks.  A small gain, but the little things add up.

Social Life - I think the single greatest unnecessary drain on a foreign teacher's income is going out drinking too much.  I rarely drink at this stage of the game, but watching how frequently you go out for beers with friends can help keep some (or a lot) of the cash in your pocket.  This is a personal choice - I'll leave it up to you.

Eat In - Food will be your biggest expenditure (unless you drink), so doing it yourself is no doubt the way to go.  Shopping bulk (Costco), local markets, and general supermarkets (HomePlus here) will keep your food costs way down.  That being said, I do recommend eating out from time to time to taste some of the fantastic cuisine that South Korea has to offer.

Happy saving!

the Red Dragon Diaries

ESL, Travel, and Judo!


Re: 6 Ways I Save Money in Korea

Thanks for your tips....As a former expat, I was able to save heaps of money in my 3 years in Korea.  What you mentioned were one of the many ways I saved money.

Also, I took fewer cab rides, and if I had to stay out late, I would crash out at a friend's place.  I went out far less on the weekend nights, and spent more time during the day going to parks and other places that require less financial strings. 

I kept my domestic traveling within Korea at a reasonable range.  If I were to eat out, it would be at the local places like "Kimbap Heaven." 

With clothing and shoes, you can travel to other countries like Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam where they sell them a lot cheaper. 

Re: 6 Ways I Save Money in Korea

Yeah, to save money you have to be so uncomfortable you want to die. Thats it in summation. Crappy heating source, higher electricity prices than the US and disgusting water that you cant even drink. WHAT A GREAT COUNTRY!

Re: 6 Ways I Save Money in Korea

In Korea we  only pay 80% of the production cost of electricity. Get a grip with your "facts"...

Re: 6 Ways I Save Money in Korea

I get confused, you say you are from NH; a state with no income tax, no sales tax, and one of hte highest per capita incomes in the US. Amazing natural beauty and a good economy. Then you tout all the things that are opposite of it in korea. 10% tax on everything, higher cost of living, less pay, and less natural beauty ( A GHETTO SKYSCRAPER IS NOT BEAUTY). I wonder if you had a chance to really experiance your home state, or if you just lived with the parents and then came here, foregoing the chance to live yourself in one of the best states in the country.

Re: 6 Ways I Save Money in Korea

That is generally how I spend my time too.  Partially because I saw a longer-term plan for teaching abroad so there was no rush to travel everywhere all at once.  There are so many things to see in Busan it will take me some time to get through it all.

I am considering Vietnam as one of my options for winter vacation.  I'll have to look into some clothing there.

Thanks for the comments!


Re: 6 Ways I Save Money in Korea

I have a higher tolerance for cold weather than most people. I only had the heat on maybe once or twice last winter (and not for long) and I used an electric blanket for the really cold nights. That said, I have a lower tolerance for hot weather than most people, so I've been running the AC a lot. My electric bills have not been that bad though. It used to be like 20-30 thousand won and it went up to about 50 thousand this summer, if I remember right. I don't have a fan, but I will get one after I move into my new apartment.

As for the water... why didn't I think of that!? I'm going to be hauling bottles of water home from school every day now. I normally go through a 6-pack case a week, so that's 5-6 thousand won I can save every week.

I've been cutting my own hair since high school, so I've been saving money on that long before coming here. And I also do a lot of my own cooking. The only restraunt near me is a chicken place and thats not very healthy, so I rarely go there. There's not any restraunts in town I like either, so I pretty much only eat out when I visit the bigger cities or when I go to Songtan.


Re: 6 Ways I Save Money in Korea

It's like $7 for a men's haircut in korea (someties cheaper), which I think generally people do on average once a month... I'm all for being thrifty and saving money, which I have saved a lot of in my time in korea,... But, unless you're going straight up shaved head everytime, cutting your own hair to save $70/year doesn't make you look money savy...it makes you look like a super cheapskate.

Re: 6 Ways I Save Money in Korea

I would more than totally agree with the above comment. I mean, seriously, cutting your own hairs to save a few bucks every months? I bet you've never held to a girlfriend for more than a few months... if not weeks..

Since I'm not very rich and I have debts to pay, I do tend to be careful with my money, but I usually have enough self-esteem and self-respect to have proper grooming habits and to dress well enough not to make foreigners an even worse name in Korea. As the above person said, unless you keep your head close shaved, I don't see how you could properly and decently cut your own hairs.

Anyhow, the best way I find to save money is usually to cook home (which I'm too lazy to do most of the time) and to drink beer at home or at your friends' home (or at the local Family Mart). I find it curious when people are total scrooges on saving a few bucks here and there, but then they don't mind to spend a hundred bucks (or more) a day on a binging frenzy in the local bar during weekends.