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The night before my flight to Seoul, I was at my best friend’s house standing on a scale, bear-hugging a suitcase of books. I wanted to make sure I wouldn’t get any overage fees for my checked bags.
“What’s it say?” I asked.
I was about 15 pounds over the limit. I knew I had to repack. After about an hour, I decided to keep the graphic novels and toss the Steinbecks. I stepped back on the scale. Fifty pounds exactly. I was ready to go.
I’ve always been frugal, but during my stay in South Korea, I really put myself to the test. I wanted to both live abroad and save money.
Now, about 1 ½ years later, I’ve proved that traveling abroad and saving as much as $1,000 a month is possible. Below are some tips to keep your bank account growing, all while enjoying the best of Seoul.
1. Pick the Right Teaching Job
When I was applying for teaching jobs in South Korea, I joined Facebook groups, registered on job boards, used recruiters and applied directly to numerous schools. I lost count of how many jobs I interviewed for.
What I found is that you can expect a ₩2 million to ₩3 million (that’s $1,900 to $2,800 American dollars in the South Korean unit of money) monthly salary and 10 to 15 days of paid vacation. All teaching positions come with health care that includes dental and vision coverage. Most employers also will provide housing for free, typically very close to your school.
But if you’re like me, you want more say in your housing. That’s OK too. I opted to find a sunny loft in the “Brooklyn of Seoul,” with a rent of only ₩900,000 ($855) a month. Not a bad split between my partner and me.
Even better, your school will usually be happy to give you a monthly stipend, about ₩300,000 to ₩500,000 ($280 to $470), to pay rent if you don’t use the housing it provides.
But beware of the lowball. If your job offers aren’t somewhere within this range, haggle or apply elsewhere.
2. Adapt Your Tastes
OK, great. Housing secured. Paycheck’s in the bank. What about food?
When I first arrived, I remember scouring my local supermarket for some black beans. Turns out, they’re not very popular in South Korea. On the bottom shelf in the foreign-food section, I found a dented can. When I saw the price, I gasped.
They were ₩4,500 ($4.28). For a tiny can of black beans?
Worse, the package of stale tortillas right next to it wasn’t much cheaper. After a few more overpriced trips to the supermarket, I realized something needed to change. Mainly, my tastes.
So, I started eating like a local. I skipped the McDonald’s and Starbucks runs (which can easily cost over $15) and opted for a roll of kimbap (a rice and veggie roll similar to sushi) and an Americano (a type of espresso) from a local place to cut the price down to about $5.
(Warning: McDonald’s delivers in South Korea, and it has cheese sticks. So I won’t pretend like I didn’t take advantage of that on a few lazy Sundays.)
3. Enjoy the Simple (and Usually Free) Things Seoul Has to Offer
Visiting museums, parks, temples, mountains and monuments is a way to see the city without spending a dime.
First, avoid the bars. They’re usually for foreigners and have exorbitant prices. (The good news? Drinking openly is legal in South Korea.) Instead, grab a beer from a convenience store and sit by the Han River with friends. And if you get hungry, a delivery moped will gladly zip by to drop off some food.
Did I mention there’s no tipping in South Korea?
4. Ditch Your Car
Every day, I’m grateful I left my car behind. Why? Well, I want you to imagine New York City. Now subtract the physical size of Brooklyn but add about 2 million extra people.
Welcome to Seoul, one of the most congested cities in the world.
But luckily, Seoul has pristine public transportation. You can rent bikes, grab taxis, take subways and catch buses all on Seoul’s T-Money system. You simply buy a reloadable card at a convenience store and scan it when you want to use public transit.
In my opinion, the subway is the best option. I used it every day for work. While traffic is unpredictable, the subway is always on time. Plus, you can travel the full distance of the city for as little as ₩1,750 ($1.64).
5. Learn Some Korean
I have a general rule of thumb: if it’s in English, it’s going to cost more.
Learning a new language is always hard, especially Korean. I know many people who have lived in Seoul for years and can barely speak a word of Korean. And this is very possible if you stick to the foreigner district. But this comes at a price, quite literally.
Besides all the cultural and cognitive benefits of learning Korean, it will also save you money.
One night I remember browsing a restaurant menu. The draft list was translated into English, and the cheapest beer was ₩6,000 ($5.62). But the liquor menu was in Korean. At the bottom, they had somaek, a beer cocktail made from a better-quality beer and a shot of soju — Korean liquor derived from rice or barley.
Price: ₩5,000 ($4.68).
In a couple weeks, I’ll be heading back home to the U.S. I find myself again purging the unnecessary things I’ve collected: my Penny board, vegan festival ticket stubs, beginner Korean textbooks. Same suitcase. Same bear hug. Different scale.
But this time, if it’s a little overweight, I don’t mind. After saving $1,000 a month, I think I can splurge on the baggage fee.
Adam Hardy teaches and writes in Seoul. Sometimes he coaches North Korean refugees. Other times he helps his third-graders get Silly Putty out of their hair.
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