If you’re curious on how to save money in Korea, here’s my experience after three years.
I’ve read so many articles about saving money in Korea, it could make my head spin. While this is going to be based on my personal experience, I also hope to paint a bigger picture of what to realistically expect when it comes to budgeting and salary.
Before I dive in, here’s a breakdown of who I am as and was during my three years in Korea. Because, often I get to the budget posts, and I realize two things:
- They’re a couple, which means that massive number in the title needs to be halved for me
- They’re a budget master who managed to live off of $100 a month on groceries (lol)
- They didn’t have any loans (bigger lol)
Anyway, so here’s where I was at in Korea:
- I’m single, so everything is based off one person
- My budgeting skills leave a lot to be desired
- I traveled plenty during my time both in the country and externally during my vacations
- I don’t drink, so I imagine I saved a ton of money not having to chip in for a bar tab
- My $50,000 loans come out to be around $500 a month and my CC minimum monthly payment was probably around $400 at one point. Over all, though, I was sending $1,000 home monthly just to pay down debt
Anyway, here’s a deep dive into how to save money!
PS: 1,000 KRW = $1 USD roughly, so 2.3 million KRW is around $2,300 USD.
How Much Money You Actually Make Teaching
**Check here for my actual guide on how to teach in Korea
South Korean Salary Tiers
There are a lot of different salary tiers in SK depending on where you work. The lowest I’ve ever heard of is 1.8 million KRW and the highest is 3 million KRW. Most people I know make about 2.2-2.5 million KRW.
EPIK has a pay scale if you want to compare provinces with experience.
My first year in Korea, I was a Level 2 and made 2.2 million. For this level, I
- lived in an “other province”
- had BA in English (this used to count but it looks like they took it away)
- I took a 120-hour TEFL course online
My second year in Korea, I became a Level 2+ and my salary increased to 2.3 million.
When I returned and taught in Suncheon, I actually qualified as a Level 1 teacher. Someone told me I’d have to start back over at Level 2 since I was coming back and essentially starting over, but my recruiter told me I could qualify. I just needed some paperwork from one of my co-teachers back in Namwon. Level 1 means my salary was 2.5 million.
The most you can make with EPIK is 2.7 million, and I believe it’s capped at that. So even if you’re here for 5 years after reaching Level 1+, you won’t get a raise. My friends who made 3 million taught at a hagwon in Seoul, and that was extremely rare.
Monthly Additions to Your Salary
There are also little things that can add up to your salary. From what I remember:
- Multi-School Bonus — if you teach at 2 schools, it’s 100,000 KRW, more than 2 is 150,000 KRW
- Rural Bonus — I think we got an extra 100,000 KRW because Namwon was considered a rural town. If I had lived in Jeonju, I don’t think I’d get that bonus
- Unique Bonus — With my job in Suncheon, I got a 100,000 KRW lunch bonus in addition to a 100,000 transportation bonus. I didn’t get the rural or multi-school bonuses I got in Namwon.
What You Get When You Arrive
When you arrive in Korea, you do get some sweet perks! Keep in mind you usually get these with your first paycheck and in a Korean bank account, so you do need to save and be able to pay for the flights and such before then!
- Settlement Allowance – 300,000 KRW
- Entrance Allowance – 1,300,000 KRW or flight reimbursement
Taken from Your Salary
Here are the things were automatically taken from your salary:
- Taxes: 3.3%
- Pension: 4.5% (you’ll get this back at the end of your contract if you’re from the US)
- Healthcare: 1.5%
So if you make 2.2 million KRW per month, you’ll get 204,600 KRW taken out:
- Taxes: 72,600 KRW 82500
- Pension: 99,000 KRW 112,500
- Healthcare: 33,000 KRW 37500
Total Paid: 1,995,400 KRW
Budget + Expenses to Keep in Mind
Here are some other expenses to keep in mind:
Internet – around 25,000 – 40,000 KRW
I think when I got my Internet in Namwon, it was around 35,000, and I was paying about mid-range. I also had a year contract and could cancel any time after that year.
In my Suncheon apartment, it was included in rent, so I actually didn’t have an Internet bill!
Phone Bill – 30,000 KRW – 60,000 KRW
I had a plan with the Arrival Store when I first moved, and it’s kind of expensive now that I look back. When I needed a new phone in April 2015, I (probably not wisely) decided to treat myself with the iPhone 6 at the time.
The iPhone is expensive here, so I was paying about 30,000 KRW/month towards the phone and 30,000 KRW/month towards a 10GB call/data plan I always managed to go over. When I left Korea in October 2016, I had to pay for the remaining months on my phone plan to cancel it.
I didn’t really have a phone bill in Suncheon since I didn’t want to commit to a two-year plan, and I had an unlocked phone. Basically, I cruised on using a tourist SIM card for a few months. I then wound up going into a phone shop and telling them I’d be there for a few months, so what kind of plan could I get? The one I got was 50,000 KRW monthly for unlimited data.
Gas – as low as 15,000 KRW and as high as 100-200,000 KRW
Your gas bill is going to vary big time depending on the season and how cold it and you get! If you’re the kind of person who gets cold in the middle of July, and you wind up north in Gangwon-do, your bill is probably going to be closer to 200,000 KRW. If you’re like me, and get hot in the middle of December and live in a slightly warmer province, your bill will be more like 70,000 KRW at the most. This is because the coziest way to get warm is with ondol heating, and that uses a lot of gas to heat the water.
Besides winter, though, the only time you’re using gas is for your stove and on water for your shower, so 15,000 KRW or less is probably what you’ll pay.
Electric – around 15,000 – 30,000 KRW
Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if your electric is even less than this! Mine got a bit high in the summer because I practically lived wrapped around my AC. I may have had it running almost 24/7 for an entire month, and my bill then was about 70,000 KRW. Most of the time though, it’s 15,000 KRW or less.
I will say, though, that my friend had one of the newer and fancier A/C units, and when she left it on a lot, it wound up being over 100,00 KRW I think.
Water Bill – around 10-20,000 KRW tops
I think we paid a communal water bill in Namwon, and it was always around 10,000 KRW or less. My friend had to pay one in Seoul, and it was a set cost. In my Suncheon apartment, it was just included in the overall rent.
Groceries – 200-400,000 KRW
Groceries are what I think bit into my budget the most (that and eating out). Even when I was consciously making decisions to eat in and meal prep, I found myself spending upwards of 50-100,00 KRW/week on items! I know I could have really buckled down and made it less, but, ugh, food!
Transportation – 50,000 KRW – 100,000 KRW
I think this overall depends on how you get around. If you’re super good and take the buses or walk everywhere, your transportation budget will probably be next to nothing. When I lived in Namwon, I walked to my schools 3/days a week and took a bus to my other two. On a good week, this meant my total transportation expense was about 8,600 KRW/week (6,000 to and from one school, 2,600 to and from the other).
However, I’m not a good morning person, so a lot of times I wound up grabbing taxis to my schools. This meant it could easily work its way up to 20,000-30,000 KRW/week if I was really bad.
In Suncheon, I couldn’t walk everywhere nearly as easily, so I had to take the bus most days. During a good week, I paid 13,500 KRW.
Realistically, though, I had maybe 2 good weeks. I wound up taking taxis to work just to squeeze in an extra 30-minutes at home, and this would cost 4-5,000 KRW one way. My transportation budget was more 25-30,000 KRW/week.
A Sample of My Budget + Expenses (April 9th – May 9th 2018)
Don’t judge me! I chose this month when I originally wrote this post because I was extra busy with travel, eating out, and goodness knows what else. This was around when the Hedgers were leaving, so I was spending a lot of time in Yeosu and I went up to Seoul, which always seems to drain my pocket.
Here’s what and when I would have been paid:
April 20th – 400,000 KRW for rent
My center paid me 400,000 KRW to put towards rent. I still don’t know why they didn’t just set it up to pay my landlord directly, which is what my schools in Namwon did, but that’s one of those things I didn’t feel like questioning.
April 25th – 2,467,500
Minus taxes, pension, and healthcare but plus lunch and transportation bonuses.
Now for the expenses:
Eating Out + Coffee: 300,000 KRW
- Most of this was me grabbing coffee or quick meals… Probably most of this was from being in Seoul for one weekend. I get foreign food in Seoul, so a typical meal winds up being 30,000 KRW or more.
- Also, I got coffee a lot in Seoul and probably a decent amount in Suncheon. I actually cut down a ton after doing the math one time and realizing I was basically spending 8-10,000 KRW a DAY just on lattes.
ATM: 170,000 KRW
- I wound up spending all this cash, so it was probably eventually divvied up into groceries, paying towards a meal I split with someone else, random shopping, and my bus card.
Groceries: 264,720 KRW
- This was actually really good for groceries! It’s probably because I ate out more than normal. My grocery bills could easily get up to 400,000 KRW for a month because I lived so closed to a Homeplus and it was very tempting to get the good stuff instead of sticking to veggies and cheaper food.
Shopping: 253,700 KRW
- In addition to me traveling a lot in April, I also shopped a bit. I made a sizable purchase at UNIQLO and H&M, but the things I brought are pretty much it for summer!
- I also had to buy contacts and a new battery charger for 80,000 KRW and 27,500 KRW, so it’s more like 353,700 KRW but I used cash for them.
Taxi: 109,900 KRW
- All my taxi rides to work or from the bus terminal to people’s apartments…
Intercity Buses/Trains: 144,600 KRW
- To be fair, I went somewhere every weekend, and the Seoul one was over 100,000 KRW on its own back and forth because I took the KTX.
Sightseeing: 8,000 KRW
- This was a 6,000 KRW entrance fee to the Sky Cube in Suncheon Bay Garden and 2,000 KRW entrance to Hyangiram in Yeosu.
Total Spent: 1,250,920 KRW
YIKES! Keep in mind that’s a super busy month. There were plenty of months I did more budget-friendly things like hiking or eating at home.
Sent Home: 1,527,064
When I was paid on April 25th, I sent 1,527,064 home immediately, but I was left with 208,478 KRW after all my trips in May. If you can tell, May 9 – May 25th is a pretty big gap to my next payday, so I sent myself 311,205 KRW back and pretty much stayed put in Suncheon!
Again, keep in mind this is an example of a “bad” spending month in Korea! If you look at it that way, it’s really not too shabby. In general, when I wasn’t traveling a lot, I tried to keep things under 1,000,000 KRW.
Big Ticket Items to Keep in Mind Towards the End
Now, here are some big bonuses or expenses you’re going to get when you leave Korea.
Leaving Korea Bonuses
- Pension – What you paid into it (4.5% each month) + a matching amount from your school. You need to apply for this separately which is a whole other thing I’ll get into when I go back and collect my pension from Suncheon.
- Severance – Worth 1 month’s pay
- Exit Allowance – I think this was 1,300,000 KRW or flight reimbursement
**If you stay for more than a year in your school, you get a 2,000,000 KRW renewal bonus. This excludes Seoul though**
Leaving Korea Expenses
You probably won’t get your exit allowance by the time you want to book your flight home. Or like in my case in Suncheon, it’ll be reimbursed instead. This means you’ll want to be prepared to be out $1,000 USD (or $400 USD if you get lucky with your flight deal) until your allowance comes.
Sending things home
Thankfully, sending things home is much cheaper than trying to ship things to Korea! You can use surface/ boat shipping, and each big box comes out to about 45,000 KRW for around 10kg. I’ve wound up sending 4 boxes home each time.
In general, I’d budget around 200,000 KRW for shipping things home. If you’re under, good on you! I am not that minimalistic.
Any pre-contract cancellations
Like I said above, I had to pay out for the months I didn’t use my phone plan, which meant like 360,000 KRW for 6 months. You may have to consider this for your Internet plan as well.
Each time I left Korea, I had Citibank, which mean I could just transfer things on the app to my US Citi bank account. It’ll be a pain to set-up because Citibank is basically only in the big cities, but it’s so much easier to use than all the other banks. I heard KEB/Hana has something set-up now, but I haven’t used them personally.
If you don’t have Citibank, you’ll want to set-up a severance account with your Korean bank. My friend did this in Namwon with Nonghyup to get her pension. Basically, when the pension office pays you, they’ll send it to that severance account which will automatically send it to your linked US bank account instead of the account you’ve probably been using in Korea.
TL;DR Though just get a Citibank account in the US and Korea!
Ways to Earn Extra Money While in Korea
Now for the fun stuff. If your Korean salary isn’t enough, there are two ways you can earn more: doing actual side hustles and jobs or being smart about credit cards and investments.
You should know, legally speaking, you’re not allowed to be working any other jobs as a teacher. It explicitly states so in your contract, and you could get kicked out ASAP if the wrong person finds out and wants to report you
Anyhow, I’m listing them below here just because I want to give a full overview of money in Korea, and I don’t want to leave this out. Just know, I don’t officially recommend doing any of the below — you’re an adult, you decide how you feel about doing them.
Private Tutoring English
I’m only adding this because I know people do it regularly, but of all the things that would be illegal on this list, this would be the main concern. From friends I’ve heard the general rate is 30,000/hr for kids and 50,000/hr for adults with it being a bit more in the bigger cities.
I know plenty of people who have started their freelancing careers while in Korea. One friend made like $10K in a year from all their different digital writing projects. They checked with their bosses to make sure it was okay and got the go-ahead since it was foreign money in a foreign bank account.
If you’re just starting out, it can feel slowwww getting started or building a portfolio. Money might also not be great if you’re new (and even when you’re not new). But, hey, if you want to pursue this, teaching in Korean with about a million hours of free time is the best place to start.
A lot of expats pick up at least a little photography while they’re living here! With the beautiful surroundings, extra money, and tons of time, it’s hard not to. Plenty of people have become full-fledged portrait photographer while living here.
I’d generally expect to charge 100,000 – 2,000 KRW for a 2-hour shoot if you’re just starting out and upping it to at least 100,000/hr of shooting. I have a friend who used to do portrait/fashion shooting in the US and charged a minimum of $125/hr. You may also have to do some collaborations with friends to build a portfolio before you start charing.
Make Money by Saving Money
None of these are make money quick schemes, but rather they’re for longer term planning.
Look into investment options
Yup, investment. It’s hard to fathom starting to invest with student loans and such, but it’s worth looking into things like Roth IRAs or even just small things like the Acorns app.
Set Up a Savings Plan in General
I mean the very least you should do is have a savings account on your bank! It’s a very small return these days, but it’s worth having some sort of savings account where you can start to store away your Emergency Fund and general savings.
Utilize Credit Cards
Now, as someone who got herself into debt, PROCEED WITH CAUTION. But if you can stay on top of your CC payments, look into getting one or two that offers points. You can make a decent amount just by using your CC to pay for things!
That, my friends, is all I know related to making money teaching in South Korea as a teacher. It’s A LOT to take in, and I’m tired just re-reading this post. But it goes to show just what a viable option teaching in SK is and how you can be smarter with your money than me. I should finish with this — I know full-on teachers in the USA who make basically the same salary with less benefits and more hours working as I did in Korea!