For many people, one of the biggest perks of teaching in South Korea is the opportunity to save money. Whether you’re aiming to escape the crushing thumb of your student loans or build a little nestegg from which to launch your adventure, teaching English in Korea will make it easy to do that without forcing you to become a hermit. Sure, if you wanted to be really hardcore about it, I suppose you could subsist on ramen 7 nights a week and never set foot outside your apartment, clinging to every cent like Gollum and the ring. But that sounds terrible. At least to me.
The way I see it, the whole point of living in another country is to live in that country (a.k.a. do some cool shit!). Carpe diem! Si se puede! Hakuna matata! Sign up for a weekend trip on meetup.com. Sample the local cuisine. Take a class to learn one of the country’s traditions or past-times. That being said, I totally understand the desire to have your cake and eat it too. I feel the same way. So, here’s what I’ve done to make that happen:
1. Do the math. Crunch some numbers and figure out an estimated budget, factor in how much you want to save from each paycheck, then subtract those two numbers from your monthly salary. Whatever’s left over is what you have to frolic around the world with. In my case, my bills (phone, gas and electric), groceries and social activities cost me around $500 / month. In a perfect world, I’m putting away $1,000 from every paycheck, which leaves me with about 1/4 of my $2,100 / month salary for frolicking. **Unfortunately, my upcoming winter vacation trips will eat heavily into my preliminary saving efforts, but it’ll be worth it and I think I can make up for it later on.
2. Don’t buy crap you don’t need. I guess this is applicable to life in general, but for a frugal adventurer this may be the most imporant tip of all. Unless you’re planning to put down roots somewhere for several years, learn to live without a few kitchen appliances and a full-blown wardrobe. That toaster oven is not going to fit in your suitcase on the flight home, and neither are those four new pairs of shoes. Five years from now, what will you remember more: that overrated six-speed blender you used only a handful of times and then bequeathed unto the next teacher, or the day you spent island hopping in Thailand using that same money? Mhm. My thoughts exactly.
3. Do things in groups. Going solo has it benefits, but so does traveling with other people. Whether it’s a weekend trip or a two-week winter getaway, invite a friend or a three to come with. Suddenly that pension (hotel room) that would’ve cost you $60 a night is now $15 a person. Ca-ching!
4. Suck it up and ride the bus. Public transportation may cost you more in terms of time, but your wallet will thank you. I personally don’t take cabs unless it’s late at night and the buses have stopped running. And when the weather is nice and I have the energy, I really prefer to bike where ever I’m going. Yep, that’s right. Sometimes I’m too cheap to ride the bus. Korean taxis actually aren’t that expensive, and the buses cost practicely nothing, so the savings from my efforts is minimal here. But it seems silly to pay $5 or even $1, when I can get there in basically the same amount of time, completely on my own terms, fo’ free.
5. Eat out, but eat local. About once a week I like to enjoy a nice meal out with friends, but we almost always go to a Korean restaurant. It’s reasonably priced and the portions are generous. Occasionally, for someone’s birthday or a holiday, we splurge on Domino’s or Pizza Hut, but such lavish dinners are few and far between. The same goes for grocery shopping. In a weak moment of despair and homesickness, buying an overpriced item from home is totally worth it. But in general, settle for local substitutes and things that taste the same no matter where in the world you are, like fruits and veggies.
6. Be stingy but don’t die trying. When you’re home, use only the lights you actually need. Yeah, you might start to feel like a crazy person, lurking from room to room, turning one switch off and then turning on another. But at the end of the month, when your gas and electric bills aren’t even double-digit numbers, everyone else will look like the nutjobs. That being said. Don’t make yourself miserable or sick: one cool fall evening I thought I could just wrap myself in layers and blankets instead of turning on the heat. Nnnnope. I woke up in the middle of the night with shivers and a sore throat that last three days. Lesson learned.
7. Pace yourself. Remember when I said to do some cool shit? Well, what I meant was, do some cool shit in a way that won’t break the bank. Depending on your saving goals, this may require you to pick and choose, or stagger, your activities. For example, I’m currently taking a traditional Korean painting class. When this five week course is up, I’m going to look into taekwondo lessons. Instead of spending close to $300 / month to do both of these things at once, I’m spending half that and focusing on just one activity. As a result, I’ll be able to enjoy myself more because I won’t be exahusted from overscheduling myself. And I can keep myself busy for longer, without dipping into savings funds.
8. Stay strong. If you’re as serious about holding onto your money as you are about finding fun ways to spend it, you have to stay committed. You (hopefully) developed a well thought-out plan. Now stick to it. Sometimes that means passing on a movie or another drink at the bar, which sucks. And I know, it can be hard at times to see how all the tiny sacrifices add up to big rewards, especially when the pay-off seems like forever away. But when you have big goals and a small income, every little bit helps.
So there you have it. My advice on how to save money in Korea without forcing yourself to live under a rock. I won’t pretend that this list is the be-all end-all, but it’s worked well for me so far. And if you do something else that I’ve left off the list, feel free to mention it in the comments below! Happy saving, but more importantly, happy traveling!