On Saving Lots of Money in Korea

I miss my old Korean neighborhood, the Gok.
I miss my old Korean neighborhood, the Gok.

About one year ago, I wrote a post titled “On Not Saving Any Money in Korea.” I encourage you to check it out for a reality check if you are currently considering moving abroad to do TEFL, currently living in South Korea as an English teacher, or interested in my bank account. Sorry, phishers. There’s only a screenshot without any info.

The post is almost wholly negative. I griped about the cost of living in South Korea. I griped about the possible inflation of saving possibilities by TEFL recruiters. I griped about how expensive the visa process was. I griped about my projection that I would only save about $2400 total during my year in Korea.

And guess what? I was wrong. Wrong. Wrong wrong wrong.

I miss my old apartment, too!
I miss my old apartment, too!

I blame my apparent lack of maths skills for the miscalculations, but there are other factors at work. As it happens, that post is one of the most-read ones on this blog. It consistently shows up in the top ten posts on the left there, and it seems that quite a few people are interested in the topic. In the interest of not being one of the many (MANY) out of date TEFL in Korea blogs out there silently sabotaging potential teachers’ dreams with incorrect and scary-sounding information, I want to correct that post with this one.

Some of what I wrote last July is true. Exchange rates are generally shitty, no matter which end I find myself on (I’m finding this to be especially true as I prepare to move to the UK for graduate school, and my tuition keeps fluctuating literally thousands of dollars based on the ups and downs of the market.). The global economy is still getting dragged through the mud somewhat, don’t let the talking heads deceive you. I still have semi-expensive tastes in food and clothing. And above all, saving money is hard work, no matter where one happens to find themselves. But the crux of the article, that it is difficult/impossible to save money in Korea while teaching is flat false.

At the end of my time in Korea, I had a little over $11,500 in the bank.

Yeah, that’s a shitload of money. My calculations were off by almost 500%, if I did my maths correctly this time. I was able to put away almost $7,000 in the months after I told the internet I wasn’t saving any money in Korea. Almost exactly the $1000 a month promised by my recruiter before I came over. Whoops. Perceptions can be wrong!

I miss those kiddos most of all!
I miss those kiddos most of all!

After I completed my contract, I received even more cash injections into my bank account. I got $4,000 in severance and my final paycheck (I left just after we’d all been working our asses off in the Winter Intensive schedule and got a little overtime). Last, but certainly not least, I got my pension money back at the end on March. Already in India for over a month, I suddenly saw $1,800 show up in my bank account.

Furthermore, I paid almost no taxes this year. Because I earned almost all my income in Korea for 2012 and the US has awesome tax treaties with the ROK, I was exempt from paying federal and state taxes. I paid taxes in Korea (around 3% of my income…that is ridiculously low), but I got to write off everything else as non-taxable income. US citizens who teach in Korea for two years or less are able to take advantage of this kickback. It’s a pretty huge one.

And now, it looks like at the end of the summer I will have almost exactly that $8,000 I wanted in the bank from the original post. Even with traveling in India for 2 months. Even with a month in England. Even though I’m only working part-time this summer.

Shit! My financial situation turned out way better than predicted!

I may need to keep this in mind as I as I lay awake at night regularly worrying about graduate school finances and apply for an exorbitant amount of loan money. Hmm.

Despite the awesomeness of my finances post-Korea, a few words of caution. The over-arching theme of that July 2012 post remains important; don’t make the experience of living in Korea suffer for the hypothetical payoff of traveling or graduate school after the contract ends.The Incredibull India experience certainly brought that home.

Far too many teachers I met in Korea spent a lot of time indoors playing MMORPGs and eating instant noodles as their only sustenance. Surprisingly many of these folks eventually ended up staying on for multiple years after the initial drive to travel turned into a desire to plant roots, meaning that the fabled travel for which they were sacrificing just never happened. Then again, everyone has their own financial preferences and circumstances. I know of several teachers in Korea who had moved abroad in large part to afford health insurance, or to pay off student loans. It would be harder to save as much as I did if those were concerns.

Circumstances also change. Last July, I thought I’d be living in the States again for graduate school. After the application process went slightly differently than planned, I’m moving abroad again (and getting a visa AGAIN). I’m also in a long-term committed relationship, which was in its infancy last summer. We can share resources and effort, and I’m not in this alone. My finances have to adjust to the new realities that come up. DSCN1994

Bottom line: It is definitely possible to save a lot of money teaching in Korea. Don’t let my old, mathematically-inaccurate, and pessimistic article discourage you.

As a final note: I am always thrilled to talk to those who want to get a TEFL career started, who want to travel more, or who want to study abroad. It’s part of my job, but it’s also my passion. Contact me today with your questions. I promise to get back to you quickly.

9 thoughts on “On Saving Lots of Money in Korea

  1. Fantastic post very insightful, and great blog, its really been useful as I near the end of my degree in England and look for a well paid teaching adventure… I think I have settled on Korea!! Just bearing in mind though, would you expect to be able to save $1000 with little teaching experience? I have a few months worth, an English degree and will have a TEFL. I don’t know how high on the pay scale that would put me?! And also, how easy is it to meet other Westeners/travellers? Can the city be lonely? I’m from London but feel that Seol and other huge cities would be so much more intimidating – and I consider myself a city girl…I just havent experienced cities as large as the ones in the US or Asia! Any help/tips greatly appreciated! Georgina x
    Tweet: @georginalawton

    1. Hi there!

      I highly suggest that you take a look at my other posts about TEFL in Korea, since they have the most information. I have a section about getting a visa to teach in Korea, what my apartment looked like, how teaching actually is…it’s all at the top of the page under “Travel Korea” pulldown menu.

      As far as the money situation goes, I think it’s likely your English degree and TEFL will help. Most teachers make the same salary regardless of whether they have experience teaching. I had a fair bit, having taught in Chile, but I believe I made the same as most teachers with a TEFL certificate. It really depends on the school, and having a master’s or teaching degree will make a bigger difference.

      It is extremely easy to meet other teachers in most Korean cities. There is a large English teaching population (relatively speaking), and there are even organised travel groups like Adventure Korea and Wink that bring large groups of waygookin (foreigners) together. That’s even how I met my partner! There are lots of Facebook groups, Meetups, and foreigner-filled bars to meet your group of friends. Koreans are also welcoming and a lot of fun to hang out with. Definitely hang out with them, too!

      If you are from London, Seoul will be no problem. Most of the city is not particularly busy, and you’ll learn quickly which areas are crowded (Namdaemun Market is almost always nuts). I currently live in London, and I’d say Seoul is comparable in ‘feel’ to the City itself, or the areas around Liverpool Street. It’s very easy to get around with public transport, and the Seoul Subway is one of the best in the world (and far more roomy than my beloved Tube). I’m now a city girl, but I lived in a tiny town for most of my life…Seoul was an adjustment, but mostly very fun. Not to mention SAFE. You almost never have to worry about pickpocketing or any kind of violence, contrary to many cities in the US.

      Please message me again (either here or on Twitter) and let me know if you have more questions! Korea is a great place to live and work, and I love helping people to get there!

      1. Hey there Coleen, sorry for the delay in response too. Had some Uni exams!

        Thank you soooo much for your insight I can’t tell you how useful your blog and your posts are.

        I think I am looking to go to South America first. Have applied for a few teaching positions there with the British Council. If I hear nothing back then it’s off to Korea! But I plan to do both continents at some point.

        What are you currently up to in London? Are you all travelled out now?!



      2. Haha! ‘All travelled out,’ no. Never. I’m in London for an MA and to be in the same country as my partner, who is from here. In a way, it’s still travelling for me since I’m new to the UK.

        Going to South America first is a good idea, in my opinion. It isn’t as easy to handle as South Korea in some ways, and it’s not as easy to make money there. Of course it depends on where you are and with what programme etc.

        Korea is a great place to go once you need to get some serious money after travelling a long time. More than a year on, I still have a little bit of my Korea money in the bank (even after travelling six months of the year in 2013!).

        Good luck, and please don’t hesitate to contact me if you have questions!


  2. Great post thanks, I am considering the move to Korea and your information helped answer some questions.

    1. Do let me know if you have any specific questions. I spend a lot of my time helping people to go abroad. There is a contact form that goes straight to my email on the ‘About’ page.


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