Before I came to Korea, I always wondered what the real financial situation would be like. I heard varying stories, but by and large I always heard that people could live cheaply and save some money. Now that I'm closing out my first year I can actually speak to what income and expenses for the average ESL teacher will be like. I also made a 2 part video on my Youtube Channel that also breaks down the basics of what my own personal finances are like.
Income as an ESL teacher is pretty straight forward. It is based on a payscale through EPIK (English Program In Korea), or given Provincial Office of Education. In my case, it is the Busan Metropolitan City Office of Education (BMCOE) in lieu of EPIK. I'm not sure why it's dealt with separately, but they are really the same program. I was trained in the EPIK orientation, but I receive my pay from the BMCOE.
For the official job description, requirements and pay grades under the BMCOE, please follow the link below and download the MS Word document on the page. It is the same as EPIK.
2011 BMCOE Job Description and Payscale
You are also eligible to be tax-exempt for the first two years of teaching. This is a very nice thing! To qualify for this exemption, you must provide a Residency Verification from the IRS (or similar agency if you're not from the USA). You need to submit a Form 8802 to request the documentation.
As I mentioned in another post, if you should decide to stay another year, there are financial benefits. If you stay within the same province, the 1.3 million won exit allowance that you would normally receive to fly home, now becomes a renewal bonus and gets bumped to 2 million won. You also get an additional two weeks paid leave if you renew your contract.
This is all in addition to the salary severance bonus you receive upon satisfactory completion of your contract. The bonus is equal to 1 month's salary.
For example, if your salary is 2.1 million won, you receive that as your salary severance bonus as well as the 2 million won renewal bonus. That's 4.1 million won, which at the time of writing this blog is just under $3,540 USD. That's a nice "thank you" from Korea for doing a good job and staying to do it again.
The old adage "it's not how much you make, it's how much you save" couldn't be exemplified any clearer than with teaching ESL in South Korea. There is likely someone to speak to every scenario regarding the financial part of life here. On one hand there are those that spend all their money. On the other, there are married couples who live together (dual income), some with residual incomes from back home, and some with other income streams while teaching abroad. They see a lot of money for teaching ESL. Life is GOOD for them (if they love Korea that is). Then there is everyone in between.
I am single with one income stream at the moment. I may be a good standard for most foreign teachers to consider for their own situation.
Expenses are usually different than back home as you won't need a car and your apartment is provided for free. Those are the two biggest income drains for anyone, and they are not present while teaching. That leaves food, utilities, transportation, and "going out" money as your big expenses. The biggest variable is the "going out" money.
School lunches are available at your school. You are required to pay (along with all other teachers at your school) approximately $50-60 per month for lunch each day. The food is very Korean and some foreigners just can't adjust to it. They end up bringing their own lunches each day. At my school, if I brought my own lunch I would still have to pay the monthly lunch fee.
I shop at two main stores for food - Costco and HomePlus. HomePlus is a Target-like department store chain all over Korea. I get the smaller things there, and I buy my chicken breast and frozen veggies in bulk at Costco.
Three or four times a month I go storming down to my favorite fried chicken joint, pizza take out, Baskin Robbins or Krispy Kreme (or all of the above) to get my gorge on. It has to be done, and those types of outings add up in addition to regular food bills. See my video about my favorite comfort foods here.
Total food bill for me varies slightly month to month, but in general it comes out to about 500,000 won or a bit less than $500.
If you plan to party - I wish you all the best! Saving is a little more difficult as you spend more nights out on the town.
Utilities for every teacher is handled differently. Some have to pay their bills separately. Some, like myself, pay all utilities in one lump sum to the landlord. My utility payment breaks down as follows:
This varies depending on whether or not you need to use public transportation to get to work each day. In my case, I am within walking distance to my school, so I don't need to consider this. In any event, to take a bus or subway train will cost you 1,100 won - less than a dollar. Taxis are very cheap in comparison to a place like NYC or any other large city. The flat fee for a cab ride is 2,200 won and that will be good for about a 5-10 minute cab ride. If you start to cover greater distances, the meter kicks in. It's still very cheap. To get half way across a city like Busan will run you around $10-15. I estimate I spend about $30-40 on transportation each month. I live close to a major shopping district called Nampo-dong and I can either walk there, bus it, or cab it on late nights. Because I live on an island without subway access, I always need to go to Nampo-dong first to catch a subway. That trip is the brunt of my travel expenses each month.
Again, every teacher is different and has different personal financial situations and obligations. I believe you can come to Korean and thoroughly enjoy yourself, all while saving between $800 - 1,000 USD per month. I think it is a reasonable goal for every new teacher to try and save between $12-15,000 per year from just the income provided by EPIK/Office of Education.
Here is the video I made about the same topic. I made this in January, about one-third of the way through my first year.
ESL, Travel, and Judo!