I saved $12,000 and traveled to five countries, working as an English teacher in South Korea. Before I get into exactly how I saved, let’s talk about the perks that come with teaching ESL.
- First year ESL teachers make roughly $2000-$2400 US Dollars a month.
- Free housing is included in a one-year contracts
- Health Insurance is provided
- Schools provide lunch daily
- Flight reimbursement is provided
- School handles visa fees and costs of immigration
- Bonus at the end of the contract
- Pension is provided
My first year in Korea, I traveled to four additional countries (Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia) did my fair share of exploring around Korea and enjoyed a few new expensive hobbies. I ate out every day and enjoyed daily lattes and was still able to save $12,000.
After taxes, fees and utilities were taken out of my pay each month I brought home about $1900 in base pay from my day job teaching at a private elementary school.
I made $1640 in private lessons per month on average. An average lesson is between $30-$50 per hour. Be warned, unless you go through official channels this can violate an E2 Visa agreement and can result in deportation. I did this legally by working with both schools to ensure my visa was updated. It is very common for people to do private lessons illegally under the table. If you choose to do this, be very very careful.
My end of the month take home pay was $3,540. This does not include the income that I made from blogging and freelance writing while in Korea.
Some expats I know went the route of bringing their own unlocked phone from home and getting a SIM card here in Korea for around $30 a month. Being a blogger that can’t live without my phone, I did not go this route. I opted to order my cell phone from The Arrival Store. I wasn’t willing to gamble with, not having a phone. I paid a $250 deposit and got the brand new (at the time) IPhone 5. My monthly bill is about $80 and includes data. I’m an internet junky so I’m constantly running out of data. In order to avoid this, set your phone to WiFi and save your data for when you are running around the city.
Student loans killed me in Korea. It took me a few months to realize that American teachers with federal loans are eligible for income-based repayment. After about three months in Korea, I was able to process all of the paperwork Sallie Mae needed and got my loans reduced dramatically. I highly recommend this if you have plans to teach abroad. While this is a short-term win, it may lead to higher interest payments later down the road.
Credit cards can be a lifesaver in case of an emergency, but they can also be an unnecessary monthly bill. You never know what can happen while you are living in another country and it’s always nice to have a way out if you need one. If you decide to get a credit card before coming to Korea, I highly recommend getting a travel rewards card in order to start earning frequent flier miles and points towards travel.
I don’t cook, at all. I’m a New Yorker. My kitchen at home in Brooklyn was more for aesthetics and coffee. In Korea, I ate out every day and at times had a small meal at home (read: coffee, cereal or ramen). Eating in Kimbap shops is very cheap. $2.50 for 6 pork dumplings, $1 for a kimbap roll or $4.50 for donkatsu with friend rice. All meals come with 3-6 side dishes and soup. It’s filling and delicious. If you are eating more western food it will cost you between $10-$20 per meal. I budgeted $360 a month for food, which was more than enough for a single person. Grocery shopping is a different story altogether. The price of produce and meat can be outrageous. I’ve seen a bag of 9 apples sell for $35 and once even saw a $40 mango. Just yesterday, I paid $9 for a small container of 16 strawberries. If you plan to cook, gathering the necessary spices and ingredients to set up shop is costly.
I’m not a big partier in Korea. My friends back at home will probably be shocked to learn that I only went to bars a handful of times here and I spent the entire year sober. Because I don’t drink often, my drinking total was near zero. Instead I went to dinner with friends, enjoyed tourist activities in Seoul and spent an alarming amount of time Googling “How to Monetize Your Blog”.
My total living expenses were about $1,000 per month. I could have dramatically cut costs in several different places, but I prioritized enjoying my experiences in Korea over saving extra money. Had I not spent money traveling around Asia, taking courses in travel writing and photography from Matador U and adopting my dog Bailey, I could have easily saved $20,000 or more.