On Not Saving Any Money in Korea

Korean-style Caprese Salad. made with tomatoes, mozzarella, and sesame leaves. I miss eating fresh, good food every day instead of a couple times per week.

WARNING: This post is mathematically-inaccurate, slightly boring, and generally detrimental to your TEFL soul and mine. Do yourself a favour and read this new shiny post instead (from 2013!)

From the website of my recruiter, the agency that facilitated my move to Korea:

“We know some single people who live on about $300 USD a month and others who push it easily over $1000 USD per month.  It depends on how thrifty you are and how often you go out.  $600 USD is pretty reasonable for a single person. This allows for dinners, drinks, nights out, movies, small weekend trips, etc… “

With my salary and the adjustment for the exchange rate, that should have meant about $1000 in savings for each month. Ha. Ha.

I have managed to save a grand total of $828.27 in five months in Korea. My salary is higher than any I’ve had before, I have benefits like health insurance that I’ve never independently obtained before, and I don’t even pay rent! I am living on my own and out of my parents’ basement, which is a lot better than I was able to do back in Colorado. I only have to work five days a week instead of seven. This month, I managed to finally pay off my credit card expenses for the visa process and my taxes.

Considering the dire straits many in my generation find themselves in, these should be financial achievements.

And yet my goals for Korea in terms of money are on the rocks, as the cost of living appears to be almost twice what my recruiter assumes it will be. Add to that the shitty turn the exchange rate has taken in the time I’ve been here, and instead of sending home 800 USD per month, I sent $674 this month. And even with a budget of 800.000 KRW per month, or 200.000 per week, I’ve found it hard to save anything. This month and last, I’ve decided to go a little hungry and skip eating lunch for at least the week leading up to payday rather than spend my savings.

What is happening here?

Part of it is the global economy. Everything is so volitile these days that the exchange rates on most currencies are all over the place.

Part of it is misinformation. People are basing their moving to Korea on information from before the economic crisis really hit the fan in 2008, and a lot of the teachers I know refer to things in dollars as opposed to KRW. Recruiting companies may exaggerate without knowing the true cost of living, or on purpose to attract teachers. If I stay on track, I will save about $2400 while in Korea. Certainly not nothing, but certainly less than the $8,000 I wanted to save for travel and graduate school.

Part of it is me. I like to think I’m a fairly thrifty person. I don’t buy a lot of clothes, makeup, or anything else. I spend the most money on food, and I’ll admit I’m a bit of a food snob. I can’t subsist on bags of frozen chicken purchased on G Market. I prefer whole wheat pasta to instant noodles. I like to go to the sauna each week. It’s nice to have a few beers every weekend. All of those things are normal, and supposedly a part of the “reasonable” $600 budget my recruiters talked about. And yet, the 800.000 won (which incidentally is currently worth only $705 this month) I budget is consistently not enough.

I stress about money all the time here. It feels like I’m always putting things off until my next paycheck. Recently, I’ve had to remind myself that I have to eat…that I have to be clothed. Buying essentials like clothes and food shouldn’t make me feel guilty.

Am I doing something wrong here? A lot of people manage to get by on very little in Korea and use the extra to pay off student loans or save. Yet every month I get into this crush, and feel like I can’t even buy food because if I have to dip into savings to do so, I’m failing. I wanted so much to be able to travel again after this year was up, but it’s looking less and less likely.

One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned from travel is how to change my plans to suit circumstances. Travel also reduces a person to the five basics in life (Toilet, Food, Shelter, Transport, Water). I’ve tested my limits many times, leaving me with a more informed view on just how hungry it is OK to be and just how far I can stretch a dollar.

Like I said in the previous post, I am not traveling in Korea. If I skrimp by buying frozen chicken on GMarket and stop spending any money at all on activities within Korea with an eye toward some hypothetical future trip, I’m not really living here. I would miss out on the amazing things like staying up until dawn listening to classical music with friends and wearing the Korean version of a rally cap at a baseball game.

…which is this inflated trash bag, apparently.

Living in the my present, in Korea, and actually living…that’s my real goal. And if I can’t save any money here while doing that, then it is time that goal changed.

10 thoughts on “On Not Saving Any Money in Korea

  1. Saving money is one of the hardest things for humans. We prioritize short-term needs & desires over long-term ones. If you’re saving any money at all, and it seems like you are, know that you are heads and tails above most people. That being said, I think it may be fun and informative to push the limits of how much you can save. My dad once managed to not spend a penny in NYC over the course of two weeks. (Or so he says.) Turnstyles were jumped and beans were eaten, and it was the ’70s, but I he turned out O.K. Happy trails.

    1. I left out that I often leave the house with 10.000 KRW in my pocket, and am not allowed to spend any more than that the whole day. Living in a metropolis is hard, and since at least 3.000 is going to the bus to and from work and 1.000 goes to a can of the cheapest coffee around before my shift, I’m not left with much to buy groceries/eat lunch with.

  2. Another thing to consider is where your money is going – beer, taxis, and foreign food adds up quick. It’s not uncommon for yours truly to drop 200,000 won for a weekend of traveling – train tickets, hotels, eating out, taxis or buses to destinations, admission fees, and of course that bottle of Coke along the trail…

    The biggest detail to fix off the top is simple: budget and save in KRW, not USD. 1 US dollar hasn’t equaled 1,000 won for a long time, and it’s not going on anytime soon. This might become a post on my blog….

  3. This is one of my biggest fears when I move to Korea – I need to save money … but I want to experience the culture too. I hope everything works out for you and you are able to save the money you would like to save!

    1. Hi there!

      I wrote this piece a long time ago, back in the time when saving money seemed too hard. With a few sacrifices and less traveling in country, I’ve been able to save quite a bit. It’s not as much as my recruiter told me before moving here, and it’s not as much as I hoped for, but it’s not insignificant.

      I suggest a six-month Pay the Bills, Play on Weekends period followed by hard saving if you want to do it in one year. Making your own food is a great investment as well.

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