Money is a big draw for ESL teachers to come to Korea. The pay can range from 1.9-2.8 million Won, depending on where you live, what experience you have, certifications, credentials, whether you work at a public school, hagwon, or university, and (in some cases) how stingy your job is. Before coming to Korea, I’d seen a blog post about someone who saved $17,000 USD in one year and I was highly intrigued. I have student loan debt and credit card debt to pay off, and while teaching in Prague and Phuket was a very fun experience, it wasn’t allowing me to make enough money to take care of my finances.
I’m approaching my 11th month of living in Korea, and I’ve been pretty good about keeping track of my monthly spending habits. I’ll admit, I’m not saving as much as I had hoped for. If you’re one of the lucky ones who got their college debt paid for, or who didn’t rack up credit card debt, then you can disregard my woes.
An important thing to note is that I didn’t factor in the fluctuating exchange rate. Currently, 1000 Won = roughly .80-.88 USD. For further reference, when I transferred 1,000,000 Won to my US account, I actually received about $843 USD. Most information I find online treats 1,000 Won = to $1.00 USD, but that’s just not been the case over the past months. However, the Canadians are actually making excellent money right now, but that’s a different story.
So let’s get into the details.
My monthly earnings: 2,500,000 Won, paid once per month. After taxes, pension, and health insurance costs are deducted, I end up with about 2,227,000 Won.
I just signed on for another year, which comes with a pay bump to 2,600,000. My friend who is a certified teacher in Texas and who arrived at the same time I did was already receiving this pay, so your credentials and experience are taken into consideration, at least for my hagwon.
Rent: Nothing. I didn’t have to pay a security deposit either, so that was nice. Plus, I love my apartment!
Utilities/Gas/Water: I get an assortment of bills and I just pay them all together at the ATM. It averages about 80,000-100,000 Won total per month. This was while using my floor heat during the freezing winter and using my AC daily during summer. I like to keep my room at a mild temperature.
Phone: 65,000 Won per month. I decided to get a cell phone plan with Olleh, a popular phone company. It’s a 2-year contract, 2 GB of data per month, unlimited phone calls and texts to local numbers, and I also paid a bit extra for insurance in case of damage, loss, or theft. It’ directly withdrawn from my Korean Citibank debit card. I didn’t pay for the phone, since technically over the 2-years I’ll be paying for it slightly every month. 2-year contracts are the norm, but I was informed that if I broke the contract, I would just need to pay a cancellation fee and pay the rest of what the phone costs, which was quoted to be about 100,000 – 200,00 Won.
Internet: I pay about 40,000 Won per month for the comfort of having a steady internet connection at home. Having WiFi at home is a necessity for me, but you could get by without it since there are many cafes that have free Wifi. I recently started splitting the bill with a co-worker who lives right next door, so I now pay half of this bill.
Food/drinks: I budget for about 500,000 Won per month, which is probably on the high end. I usually eat the free lunch and dinner provided by my school. On the days I don’t eat at school, I eat locally at little restaurants where I can get quick meals that range in price from 3,000-8,000 Won, with most meals averaging 5,000. Coffees from local shops are 2-4,000 Won while Starbucks can cost me 4-7,000 Won. I can get into further detail with food on a later blog post, but this estimate allows me about 16,000 Won per day, which I easily fall under on most days. I use the surplus to balance out the days I dine on BBQ, dakgalbi, or western foods, and even those meals still (typically) fall between 10-15,000 Won.
Transportation: I live within walking distance to my school and I don’t go out of my neighborhood much during the week, so my traveling expenses are low. An average trip on the subway costs under 2,000 Won.
Gym: I joined my local gym that’s luckily 2 blocks from my apartment. I paid 200,000 Won for 6 months. Could have been a bit cheaper if I had purchased a year-long membership. My gym is modest and it has everything I need. This is not a monthly payment, but rather a one-time upfront expense. I also had to buy new gym shoes since shoes worn outside cannot be worn inside.
This is hard to determine, since food, drinks and fun kinda blur together some nights. I’ll give a reference to some ways that I spend on entertainment. Noarebong (Karaoke rooms) and jjimjilbangs (public bathhouses) are cheap. Drinks, whether it be a daily coffee or nightly alcohol, can add up quickly. Taxi rides home aren’t terrible (about 18,000 Won from Itaewon to Dunchondong – the popular foreigner district to the area where Olympic park is ~11 miles). Soju is cheap as well, about 1-2,000 Won per bottle. Beers average about 5-7,000 Won in bars. The art classes I go to range from 10,000-30,000 Won per class. I’ve also invested in some nice art supplies and some new items for my wardrobe. I bought a ukulele and a high-quality, mirrorless camera. I’ve traveled to Malaysia and the Philippines during breaks. Needless to say, I’m living very comfortably.
Haircuts: 25,000 Won. I recently got highlights and it cost me 100,000 Won with a cut, blow dry, and style included. I go to Salon De Michel, a popular hair stylist in Itaewon.
Waxing: About 30,000-100,000 Won depending on the body part. I try not to go every month since it can be an expensive beauty regimen. When I pay 100,000 I’m getting a half leg, underarms, and bikini area wax. I go to Catch Up Waxing in Apgujeong and Itaewon.
I usually try to transfer about $500-700 USD per month to my US Citibank account. (I have a Citibank account in Korea too, and there is no fee to transfer money between my US account and my Korean account (yay!). I haven’t paid this amount towards my debts each month consistently, since traveling and a few other big purchases have come up. My goal now is to eliminate my credit card debt or, at the very least, eliminate debt on my card with the highest interest rate and reduce the other cards to a credit usage below 30%.
Once I complete my contract and leave Korea, I’ll be able to receive my severance bonus equal to one month’s salary (double this for my second year severance bonus), and I’ll receive money that I’ve been paying towards pension each month. My friend who left Korea last semester said he received about $2,200 USD from the pension office after being here a full year. So, even without actively saving, I’ll still be leaving Korea with a minimum of about $8-8,500 USD depending on the exchange rate. Not so bad!
So, this is my data and my experience so far! TEFL life ain’t so bad right now 😉