Let’s Talk Money: Teaching in Korea

It’s just dandy to frolick around the world, but let’s be real, it costs money to travel. While it certainly can be expensive, there are ways to tighten the budget to travel for less money than you would pay monthly rent. One great way to see the world is to work abroad. Seeing the country as a tourist is nothing like living and participating in the society for the long-term. I wish that everyone has the opportunity to live in another culture, but also understand that it is not possible for most people in the world.

For a college-educated American/Canadian/Brit/Australian/South African/Kiwi/Irish lad, you can make a good amount of money and enjoy your life at the same time.

My experiences are from working in a public elementary school in a metropolitan city in South Korea. Salaries range if you work in a private academy, a rural area, Seoul/Busan, or at a university. I will just talk from my experiences.

Fellow Gwangju teacher, Kailyn, took this awesome photo of 1.5 million won spread out in her living room.

Fellow Gwangju teacher, Kailyn, took this awesome photo of 1.5 million won spread out in her living room.

**The current exchange rate from USD->KRW is 1179, so every 1,000 won equals 85 cents. AKA it is horrible now for Americans to send money home from Korea, so I’m out of luck right now. That’s life as an expat, I guess.

This is the table of salaries for the EPIK program.

From the EPIK website

From the EPIK website

On top of that salary, you get:

1.3 million KRW for flight allowance (another 1.3 million when you leave)

300,000 KRW for settlement allowance

100,000 KRW if you work in two schools (most people do)

–  Any extra money you get from working overtime (at least 20,000 won an hour). Some teachers do after-school classes and other special programs related to the Office of Education, but it is illegal to do private tutoring or side jobs not approved by the MOE/POE.  

Adam and I moved in together, so we each receive 400,000 KRW living allowance and pool together the money for rent. Including rent, utilities, and cleaning fees, it comes out to about 250,000 won per person, so we save 150,000 KRW per month from that. Apartments are usually cheaper – ours happens to be a bit more expensive. If you opt to have school-provided housing (which you should during your first year), then the school covers rent and you only need to pay utilities.

Additionally, some people are eligible to opt into the National Pension. Americans are able to, but unfortunately, South Africans and UK citizens are ineligible. It especially is tragic for Brits because they should pay into it, but do not get any of it back, whereas Saffas don’t even have to pay into it. So I am thankful to be an American. I put in 4.5% each month and my employer matches that 4.5%, so that’s free money building up. I recently applied for a lump sum, so I will receive it all a month after I leave. Over three years in Korea, mine comes out to about 7.4 million KRW.

You also get severance for every contract completion. Since 2012, you cannot collect any of it until you leave Korea. The severance is equal to one month’s salary for each contract you complete.

The best part is that you can save most of what you earn. Living expenses are cheap compared to western standards. The following costs are my personal ones, so other people will have different experiences. I come from a very frugal household. My parents didn’t go to college and didn’t make a lot, but they have always been extremely thrifty (almost too much), so I certainly inherited this trait from them. I also learned to be happy with less things. That being said, my spending habits are probably lower than the average person, but most of my friends are able to save a good amount while teaching in Korea while paying off student loans.

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Housing: As mentioned earlier, it’s covered. You can get a roommate and save even more money or pay extra if you want a nicer place – it’s up to you. Let’s say this expense is 0 won a month. When was the last time you lived for free other than staying at your parents’ house? Yeah.

*One thing to note is that if you opt to find your own housing, you will need to pay key money, which is about 5 million won (widely varies though). You will get it back after you move out, but need it up front*

Utilities: It largely depends on the season and your apartment building, but our utilities cost 60,000-70,000 KRW per month including water, gas, cleaning fee, electricity, internet, and elevator fee? Well, this is something special to our apartment, I guess. Most teachers live in a basic studio.

My bike cost 270,000 KRW brand new, but you can get one for less than 100,000 second hand.

My bike cost 270,000 KRW brand new, but you can get one for less than 100,000 second hand. Definitely saved money in the long-run though.

Transportation: Buses cost 1,100 won with free transfers. Taxis vary depending on where you are going and what time of day it is, but it should cost between 6,000-13,000 won within the city. For me, I ride a bicycle everywhere and rarely use the bus (it’s faster, more fun, and good exercise), so my monthly transport costs are 6,600 won.

This delicious pajeon cost 10,000 won and comes with all of these free side dishes. Split a few of these between friends and you're set!

This delicious pajeon cost 10,000 won and comes with all of these free side dishes. Split a few of these between friends and you’re set!

Food: My first year, I went out to eat with new friends often, but this year, I cook and eat home more. Adam and I keep a spreadsheet of our grocery bills, so we spend about 3,000 won per person per day (we basically only eat vegetables, beans, quinoa/lentils/pasta, oatmeal, eggs, tofu, and I make baked goods like bread and tortillas. Included in this expense is beer and wine. We also ordered from iHerb.com quite often for natural products that are expensive or nonexistent here like quinoa, oatmeal, and coconut oil. Cheap and fast shipping… seriously a lifesaver). I also pay about 60,000 won a month for school lunches (they used to be free at my old schools. Depends on your situation). Since I go out to eat maybe once a week, let’s say that’s 40,000 won a month because I like vegetarian Korean food. Western food is much more expensive and often not mind-blowingly good. 190,000 won a month.

Entertainment: Most of the things I like to do are free – hiking, biking, running, going to the park/free shows/festivals/mountains. I don’t need a lot to be entertained. Sometimes we go to the noraebang, bowling, have a few drinks out, and buy e-books. Let’s say this cost is 30,000 won.

Travel: I used to travel almost every weekend, but I haven’t been lately. Intercity buses are cheap and we used to go camping or stay at a jjimjilbang, so my weekend trips were usually between 50,000 and 100,000 won a weekend. Seoul is expensive because you want to eat all of the foods you can’t get in Gwangju. Shopping is also very in-your-face, so stay away from there if you want to save money.

Clothes: This totally depends on you. I used to shop a lot in the first year as I was overwhelmingly excited with the cute things that all fit me perfectly, but I stopped consuming in the past year and a half. I buy something I need every other month or so, mostly from Uniqlo or a local Korean shop. Also, thanks to Freecycle, I got rid of my past loved clothing and got new ones! Let’s say this evens out to 15,000 won a month. It will be more expensive if you like brand names or need bigger sizes and must go to Seoul, but for a Korean girl like me who doesn’t care about fashion much, it’s cheap.


Phone: I bought a phone from someone and took over her contract, so it costs me about 40,000 won per month for unlimited data and 300 outgoing minutes, which I rarely use. The first six months, I had a pay-as-you-go “dumb” phone that cost 10,000 won per month. It was great, but died after a few months. I would have kept on using it though. While smart phones are extremely convenient, they are addicting and end up wasting time.

There are miscellaneous expenses like new bike tires (30,000 won), fixing a bike tube (5,000 won), getting a filling at the dentist (8,000 won), PAP smear (60,000 won), new glasses (starting at 30,000 won), LASIK (1 million won. WORTH IT), ice cream on a hot day (500 won), coffee at a shop (4,000 won), donating to various causes, buying gifts for friends, taekwondo classes (20,000 won a month), rock climbing (10,000 won a day), etc. I bought a lot of my furniture and appliances from other expats who were leaving, so those were affordable and in good condition. Most things are cheaper in Korea than in America, but not always (western products, brand names, certain fruit, camping and outdoor gear).

Another extra is vacations. Twice a year, I enjoyed the school breaks by traveling to different countries. I’ve been to seven countries since living in Korea. Flights are relatively cheap, at least compared to flying to Japan ($60 USD one way) from your home country. Travel in Asia is also affordable by western standards, the exception being Japan (but it’s worth every yen! Japan is wonderful). Your vacation costs will widely vary, but I tend to travel on a budget by staying with locals, eating at local food joints, traveling via overnight bus, taking local transport instead of a taxi (this was especially fun in Manila! Interesting experience seeing the system of taking the jeepneys), and using nature, people-watching, and wandering as a form of entertainment.

For us, a week in Taiwan cost $578 USD per person including flight (we CouchSurfed most of the time and had a wonderful time with it!). We spent almost a month in the Philippines and Borneo, which cost about $1,500 per person including five flights, private cottages near the beach, snorkeling, ziplining, river boat rides, and Adam’s SCUBA certification and dives. The SCUBA ate up most of the cost, which was around $600 alone. SCUBA does not appeal to me in any way (don’t like swimming, afraid of jellyfish, get cold easily), so I opted out and enjoyed the boat rides and wandering on the sand while Adam explored the underwater world. Maybe one day, I’ll warm up to the idea! Anyway, the point is that international travel can be very affordable AND meaningful at the same time. We never felt like we were skimping out on anything just because of money. We did everything we wanted to and it still didn’t cost a fortune.

So, overall, I save about 50% my salary per month, at least $1,000 USD. Some of it I put in index funds (I’m not investment-savvy, but just know the very basics in that you need at least beat inflation), and others in savings. I’m socking away money for our future travels, graduate school, and living costs for when I might settle and am looking for a more stable opportunity.

The average American saves 4.4% of his/her salary and most do not have savings. This actually saddens me because I know there are millions of people working crap jobs at minimum wage and not being able to get by on that alone. It doesn’t make any sense. It is too expensive to live decently in America and one should not resort to slaving away at two jobs just to make ends meet while the top 1% make extraordinary amounts of money. That’s for another topic of discussion though. The point is, I am saving much more here than I probably would living in America even with my degree and experience. 

I recognize that yes, I am privileged to have grown up in a safe environment, never went hungry, went to good schools and studied hard to have secured scholarships and work to afford college to be able to work abroad like this. I didn’t have to support a family, pay for insane medical expenses, or go into ridiculous student loan debt. For that, I am grateful, and recognize that not anyone can just get up and see the world. I wish that everyone can do so, though.

Anyway, if you are thinking about teaching abroad, then go for it! Don’t hesitate to seek the many opportunities there are for you. Korea is a great starting place.

Words of caution: If you do not like kids and do not like teaching, please do yourself a favor and avoid being an English teacher. You will be miserable and will be doing a disservice for the students’ education and the parents paying the high bucks for private academies. Unfortunately, a few people come here to make money and take advantage of being a native English speaker and end up not caring about the students, just doing it for the money. Be respectful to yourself and others.

Blogging Abroad's Boot Camp Blog Challenge: Starting January 2015

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