3 Money-Saving Tips While Living In Korea

EFL education in  Korea remains a lucrative job prospect for unfortunate liberal arts degree-holders like me.  Many jobs provide a rent-paid apartment and many cities do not require car ownership.

Many pay down their student loans, save for a down payment on a house, or to set aside a lump sum to kick-start their dreams.

Despite m already comfortable lifestyle, these are three things I do to stretch my won even further.

1 – Get a City Library Card

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Before embarking for Korea, get a library card.  If you already have one, dust it off and rummage through your memory for your PIN.

If you enjoy reading or audiobooks, a library card will be an invaluable asset as you travel abroad.

Most public libraries subscribe to a service called Overdrive.  This website permits library patrons to borrow ebooks and audiobooks directly to their Kindles and phones.  

With the Apple or Android “Overdrive” app, users can check out and reserve ebooks and audiobooks just like their paper counterparts.  Subscribers have three weeks to use the book before the digital signature expires and the book “returns” to the library.

The cost of physical books adds, especially here in Korea where English books are a scarcer resource.  However, thanks to Overdrive, I’ve devoured well over 150 books in the past 18 months – all for the meager cost of a library card.

However, I do still keep some paperbacks.  The smell does things to me :).

But bookworms can save hundreds of dollars by borrowing Kindle books from their local libraries and listening to audiobooks as they stroll down streets, clean their apartments, or cook dinner.

Speaking of dinner…

2 – Cook At Home

Woman cooking vegetable soup in home kitchen

Well, duh, Ian.  That applies to anyone anywhere in the world.  Of course, home cooking tends toward health and frugality.

But moving abroad has a way of obscuring that fact – especially for the first three months.

When I first arrived in Korea, I was astounded by the price of meals out.  Comparable meals in the States would cost 50% more. This is more true with Korean food.  In terms of Korean-Western food, the prices are often more equal.  And to top it off, we don’t have to tip.

At first, my friends and I relished in frequent mealtime meetups and unbroken banks.

But those meals do add up.

9,000 for a pork cutlet here, 10,000 for barbecue there, a 13,000 veggie buffet on Saturday, and 6,000 for Sunday kimbap all siphon my bank account in secret.

(1 USD ≈ 1,000 KRW)

When I visit my local Nonghyup Hanaro Mart, I buy several days of vegetables for 10,000 won or less.  Even though meals out are enticing, convenient, and cheap, preparing meals at home is even cheaper.

But I often find little time for cooking.  So a slow cooker became my favorite investment here.  Nowadays I wake up, chop vegetables, wash potatoes, add beans, water, vinegar, and soy sauce to a full crock pot, flip the switch, and leave for work. Total prep time: 15 minutes.  Max.

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The welcoming aroma of slow-cooked vegetables and potatoes intoxicate me as I unwind from a busy work day.  I then eat like a health-crazed hermit for the next three days. Admittedly, variety is lost when I cook this way.  But in terms of nutritional bang per unit of time, slow-cooking is dynamite.

We don’t have to be great cooks.  We don’t have to be good cooks. Just buy some produce and fresh meat and get to work.  Your body and wallet will thank you.

3 – Shop Around

If you live in a city, shopping around can help you.  I shop at four different markets for groceries:

Lotte Mart – A big-box store – great prices and variety on grains, beans, and seeds.

lotte_mart_kelapa_gadingHomeplus – Another big-box store – great per-unit prices on nuts.  This store is a bit out of my way, so I try to stock up when I go.

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Nonghyup Hanaro Mart (NH Mart) – A medium-sized national supermarket chain – best deals on fresh vegetables and tofu.  Many NH Marts supply these veggies through a “Local Food” program where the store sells locally-sourced produce. The price tags even come with the farmers’ names.

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Fruit Stand – I still don’t know the name.  It’s just a small green tent that sells fruit in bulk.  I buy 17 apples or 16 Korean melons for 10,000 won.  Fruit can be quite expensive in Korea, so this is a great deal for me.  I can keep these fruits fresh in my fridge for well over a week.

They also get my weekly business for “Fruit Fridays” at school.

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I often shop around when eating out as well.  I found an all-you-can-eat rice and vegetable restaurant for 6,000 won.  When Saturday rolls around and I have to roll back my budget, I love to pile vegetables onto a bed of rice with a bowl of soup for the same price as a Mcdonald’s combo meal.

If one lives in the countryside or islands, shopping at different stores may prove difficult.  However, the vast majority of townships have at least two supermarkets. And many small towns have old men and women hocking vegetables on street corners.  Sometimes these elderly vendors have the best produce prices of all.

And this is only the case for food.  One can shop around for other household and personal goods as well, both on-site and online (GMarket, Coupang, iHerb).

Despite the generous compensation many teachers receive in Korea, every little bit helps in terms of budgets and savings.  Many wish to pay down student loans. Others want to save for the future. And most of us want extra cash in our pocket when we jet-set to Thailand, Japan, Hong Kong, or wherever our travels take us.

These tips do not save bundles in single transactions but can accumulate into significant savings over a period of months.

Be healthy, be happy, be rich my friends.

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