A Breakdown on the Cost of Living in South Korea

Before I made the decision to move to Korea, I read so many blog posts on how much money people were saving while living and working in this country (here, and here)

Reading that was definitely incentive to make my way over here; live in a new country, travel to parts of Asia, AND save that much money? Sign me up!

So, in September 2014, Chris and I moved to Goyang City, South Korea (a satellite city about 30 minutes north of Seoul). Our contract, at a private English school, secured us an apartment, and a paycheck.

Going into this new adventure, we made a goal: Save as much money as possible without sacrificing on travel, food and fun. Meaning, we were not interested in eating ramen every night and spending weekends in our apartment.

We came to Korea to explore and learn and try new things and that is what we have set out to do. We aim to take an overnight trip at least once a month to somewhere outside of Seoul. We eat well and try new foods, and really explore where we live.

People often ask us if we are saving money (yes, Dad!) and so I thought it would be helpful to show others considering coming to Korea how much it costs to live here as an expat. As much as we travel and eat and live well, we still manage to put away a good chunk of change each month. We will not be leaving Korea with $17,000 saved, but we will come away with something.

How Much do you make?

It is important to start with a base, so what do we make? Our paychecks (combined) are 4.3 million won a month (2.1 and 2.2 million, respectively). After taxes, insurance and pension (which we will get back at the end of our contract) we take home 3.8 million a month combined.

Between the two of us, we have $500 a month in expenses at home: a car, a storage unit, and student loans.

In March 2015, $1 = 1,100 won

Total Money Spent for One Month in South Korea

Week 1 Week 2 Week 3 Week 4 Total
Dining Out 140,000 69,000 72,000 172,000 453,000
Groceries 85,000 98,000 84,000 93,000 360,000
Drinking 73,000 45,000 61,000 65,000 244,000
Coffee 40,000 20,000 45,000 56,000 161,000
Transportation 0 20,000 0 22,000 42,000
Medical 0 19,000 3,000 10,000 32,000
Shopping 13,000 0 0 43,000 56,000
Vacation 0 0 0 184,000 184,000
Bills 0 0 0 120,000 120,000
Totals 351,000 271,000 265,000 765,000 1,652,000

Total money spent –> 1,652,000 won = $1,524

Dining Out — 453,000 won = $411

How to Grill Meat in a Korean BBQ Restaurant

This was, not surprisingly, our biggest expense. We love going out to dinner, and it is something we knew we would be spending our money on. We typically eat dinner at restaurants between three and four nights a week, and lunch out on the weekends (we eat lunch at school during the week).

Typical Restaurant Costs

Kimbap Restaurants → 12,000 for two people

BBQ Restaurants → 25,000 for two people

Spend Less:

  • Eat at home more often
  • When you do go out, eat street food or go to kimbap restaurants
  • Avoid American style restaurants

Groceries — 360,000 won = $326

Grocery prices are pretty average when you buy foods that are in season and local. If you come to Korea and head straight for the international food aisle, your grocery bill will be significantly higher. Same if you buy fruits and vegetables that are not local (hello $19 watermelon!). We cook dinner at home three or four nights a week, and cook breakfast everyday.

Typical Grocery Costs

Carton of 30 eggs → 4,000 won

1 pound of chicken → 8,000 won

Spend Less

  • Don’t purchase meat
  • Buy essential items in bulk like rice and beans
  • Stay away from the international food aisle

Drinking — 244,000 won = $221

Makgeolli and Kimbap are top snacks to bring hiking in South Korea

This was our third greatest expense, and not too surprising. Most dinners home include beer or wine, and we like to go out and drink on the weekends. We don’t go party at clubs, but sit in bars and drink beers. Beer is not cheap, and if you want a decent brew, be prepared to shell out.

We find ourselves hanging at the craft beer bar down the block where a glass of imported IPA costs about 8,000 won. A couple of those and the bill seriously adds up! Makgeolli (rice wine) and soju are significantly cheaper than beer, but we only drink those sparingly, as they give us some serious hangovers.

Typical Alcohol Costs

Imported Craft Beer → 8,000 won

Local Beer → 2,500-4,000

Makgeolli → 2,000

Soju → 1,500

Spend Less

  • Stick to makgeolli and soju
  • Find specials when you go out

Coffee — 161,000 won = $145

Coffee Culture in South Korea is huge

This is the one area where we could spend significantly less. Coffee is not cheap, and we drink a lot of it! Typically, we make a cup of coffee in the morning at home, then buy another one (or two) at one of the coffee shops around our school. Now that the weather is warming up, we find ourselves wanting iced coffee, which is more expensive, and even more so, dutch coffee which is super delicious, but about 5,000 won for a cup.

Typical Coffee Costs

Hot Americano → 2,500 won

Iced Americano → 3,000 won

Iced Dutch Coffee → 5,000 won

Spend Less

  • Buy in bulk and make coffee at home

Transportation — 42,000 won = $38

This is fare going on our T-Money cards that gets us on the subway and bus. We travel on public transportations every weekend, and sometimes during the week, and the prices are super cheap. Sometimes I swipe my card after spending an hour on the subway and it only cost me 1,500 won. Crazy!

Medical — 32,000 won = $29

We have medical insurance which covers the doctor and dentist. Even without insurance, a visit to the doctor (or hospital as they call it here) is not super expensive: during the month of March I got a wisdom tooth pulled, it cost a whopping 7,000 won!

Shopping — 56,000 won = $50

We don’t do a ton of shopping. This total included a necklace, some headbands, a shirt, a few things for the apartment, and…jenga.

Vacation — 184,000 = $166

Jindo Miracle Sea Festival - South Korea

This month we headed to the southern tip of the country to the Jindo Miracle Sea Festival. The trip was organized through an expat travel group and included transportation, accommodation, entry to the festival, special boots, and two meals.

*The food and drinks we bought ourselves were included in the monthly food and drink totals, not the vacation total.*

Bills — 120,000 won = $108

Each month a bill gets taped up on our door for utilities. This includes electricity, water and gas. It is typically around 100,000 for the month then another 20,000 for the internet.

So How Much Do You Have Leftover?

Based on this math, we have an excess of 2,148,000 won = $1,981. Subtract the $500 in expenses we pay each month, and we are saving $1,481 each month.

This is the average amount, every month is a bit different, sometimes we go on longer trips and need to buy plane tickets. Sometimes we spend more money on things we need, like new contacts – $100. Sometimes unexpected expenses come up, like a new dental crown -$400.

To top it all off, at the end of our contract we receive our pension (which should be about 1,500,000 won each) plus severance pay (equal to one month pay) plus our security deposit (800 won). So we will be leaving with extra on top of what we save.

Let this breakdown of our expenses serve as a baseline. We don’t actively put money away. We explore everything about this country; we travel, we eat, we drink. Plain and simple, we live well.

Bottom Line?

It is very possible to save money while living and teaching in Korea, all while paying off debts and exploring this amazing country. If your school includes an apartment, the cost of living in South Korea is very affordable. You may not be able to save as much as some recruiters and previous expats say, but you should be able to put a good chunk of change away!

Do you live (or lived) in Korea? Were you able to save money?