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.

How to Afford to Travel Like A…Broke…Backpacker…

“So, uh…how is that working financially?”

It’s the question I dread every time I tell someone about my latest transcontinental plans. The barely-veiled under questions are “How can you possibly afford to travel so much?” followed by “Why can’t you just be broke like the rest of us?”

Travel is expensive, let’s not parse words. It eats up savings and leaves my bank account coughing and sputtering. In 2011, I will spend eight months on the road. It will be the most money I’ve ever spent.

In one month, I’ll be on a plane out of the country again. I avoided telling anyone in the program I recently finished until I absolutely had to, because it causes more problems than I wanted to bring up. Even amongst experienced travelers, the simple fact that I can continue after living abroad for six months is fodder for conflict.

So how did I do it?

1)   I lived at my parents’ house for six months. The money saved on rent alone was enough to put away significant funds for travel. In my area, one pays at least $500 a month for a shared apartment, without utilities or food. Total saved over six months: $3000.

2)   I didn’t go out much. Or…at all. Or I went to the only bar in town with a $1 a shot happy hour. I reigned in my partying side quite a bit, and saved at least $25 a week compared with the summer before I seriously began planning to move to South America. Total saved over six months: $600.

3)   I started selling my clothes, jewelry, and generally getting rid of all my worldly possessions. Total earned over six months: $300

4)   I mooched. A lot. Usually only from food people brought to work to share. And my parents’ cabinets. Total saved over six months: Not sure. Hard to put a price on leftover carrot cake.

And the biggest one…

5)   I put a price on each paycheck that came in. I allowed myself $100 from each paycheck for food, unexpected expenses, and fun. That’s all. When it’s gone, it’s gone. The rest had to go into savings. And I told people about it, so I felt accountable.

Once I’m on the road, I drink very little. I stay in cheap, sometimes sketchy places. I ride local trains and busses. I survive on bread, cheese, and art. It’s not like I’m staying in a five-star hotel and dining on caviar every night.

The truth is, it isn’t easy to save for travel. It takes sacrifice. I have never owned a car. Or a house. Or a dog. I had to give up stability in exchange for the amazing opportunities to see the world. I realize that taking the extreme steps that I’ve gone to are not possible for some people, but it starts with the mentality that I am willing to sacrifice to be able to travel. And even if it starts with a morning Starbucks being swapped for homemade tea, that small step will make a difference eventually.

And don’t let anyone get confused. I am going to be incredibroke by the end of this year. To the point that I will have to take whatever job comes my way first.

But it will be completely worth it.