4 Ways to Save Money to Pay Off Debt While Teaching English in South Korea

Can you believe it’s already August? July flew by, the second half of 2020 is well on its way and it has felt like the longest year ever, but also a blur. Back in June as I started to embark on this journey of blogging about my adventures and sharing others’ travel tales, I joined The Nomadic Network (TNN) which was started by Nomadic Matt – a famous travel blogger.

Originally started last year as a way for travelers to network all over the world at in-person events, The Nomadic Network pivoted to virtual events due to COVID. Members of our community as well as some prominent content creators, educators, writers, etc. in the travel sphere have been presenting on a number of topics over the last few months. To give you an idea, some past events I attended in June & July were:

“The Philippines: Know Before You Go” 
By Leah Arao of LA in Flight and Ticket 2 Anywhere Podcast

“How to Create Diverse, Inclusive Travel Content”
By award-winning content creator, writer, and advocate Annette Richmond of the body-positive travel community Fat Girls Traveling and Fat Camp

“How This Married Couple Has Traveled and Worked Remotely for Years”
By Carmela and Raymund of No Wrong Turns

After attending my first event – “How to Start a Travel Podcast” by Adrien Behn of Strangers Abroad Podcast – and connecting with Erica (TNN’s director), she emailed to ask if I wanted to present on life and teaching in South Korea. The thought made me nervous, but more than that I was hella excited! To be considered for an opportunity to present to events that have reached anywhere from 30-100+ people is such a blessing, AMIRITE?!

Of course I couldn’t say no, so on August 20, 2020 at 9am PST, I will be presenting on “What It’s Like to Teach English in South Korea.” My presentation is not about teaching/living there, but traveling within South Korea as well. I would love it if you’d join me – all you have to do is to hit that button below to sign up for TNN and my event. The best part is that it’s FREE and if we’re samesies then, *IF IT’S FREE, IT’S FOR MEEEE!*

Because of this event, this month I’m writing more posts about my life, traveling, teaching, and more in South Korea in addition to all the travel tales I have to share on Thursdays. And if you remember from my last post, my interview with Yo Quiero Dinero Podcast is out now! I talk about the life lessons South Korea taught me, finally choosing MYSELF instead of everyone else, and how I became totally debt free in December 2019.

Since I went into detail about paying off more debt working as an ESL teacher on half the salary I made while working in a corporate role here in the USA in my episode, I thought it would be the perfect time to write a little bit about it.

To give you a bit of context, during my four years teaching in South Korea, my salary ranged from 2,000,000 – 2,500,000 Korean won (KRW) per month. In today’s exchange rate, that’s $1675-$2095 USD. After taxes, health insurance, pension, and school lunch came out of my paycheck, my take home amount ranged from 1,700,000-2,100,000 KRW ($1,425 – $1,760 USD) per month.

That may not seem like a lot but here are four ways I made it work. FYI, I’m speaking from my experience while living in Bucheon, a fairly large city outside of Seoul, and while teaching at a Korean public school.

Following the Pay Yourself First method

I arrived in South Korea with a huge amount of debt and for the first two years, I racked up even more while only paying the minimums on my car loan, student loans, and credit cards. I wasn’t genuinely serious about paying down/off my debt until January 2018 and had close to $20,000 left to pay. That’s when I implemented this method.

Essentially, before I spent money on anything else for the month, I made sure to put money toward the non-negotiable things in my budget. (If you don’t have a budget, make one!) My monthly non-negotiables were: $1,000+ USD (more than half my paycheck) toward debt payment, utilities, groceries, phone bill, and my bus card.

After all of that, if I was also saving for travel, I was living on $250-$350 USD for the rest of the month.

Allocate any severance or bonuses toward debt

A perk of teaching English in South Korea is that after you complete your contract you either receive severance pay (if you don’t renew your contract) or a bonus (if you renew with the same school). These amounts are equivalent to about one month’s pay.

Bonuses are paid in the first month of your renewed contract but if you are staying at your school, your severance for each year isn’t paid until you leave the school. For example, if you worked at the same school for 3 years, you’d get 3 months worth of severance when you left.

However, because of where the funding for my position came from, my school paid my severance at the end of each contract. Since I renewed at the same school two times, I also got the bonuses paid at the same time – March of 2018 and 2019 when the new school year started.

Instead of spending my severance and bonuses, I allocated most of it towards extra payments on my credit cards and loans. The rest of it, I saved for traveling.

Shop for produce at neighborhood markets

While it’s easy to get all your shopping done at e-mart and Lotte Mart (kind of like the Target and Wal-Mart of South Korea) or a grocery store if you have one near you, a lot of times the produce – especially fruit – can be highly expensive.

Search for neighborhood markets/stands that sell produce. Usually (not 100% of the time), the fruits and veggies there are much cheaper than at the big stores. On some occasions, they can be more expensive, so definitely price match if possible. 

But normally I’d save a lot of money by buying from the neighborhood market/stand near my school. I’m talking about a pint of strawberries for 2,500 KRW ($2.09 USD) vs. the same pint at e-mart for 7,000 KRW ($5.86 USD).

Sometimes they even sell eggs, yogurt, and other items for cheap as well. I survived many months spending only 20,000 – 30,000 KRW ($17 – $25 USD) a week on groceries by doing this.

Eat local food when you eat out

Making your food and eating at home is of course more cost-efficient and a huge way to save money, but sometimes you just can’t help it, right? As much as possible, I tried to save eating out for weekends or special occasions only.

But those times when I just had to grab a bite out, instead of places with “foreign” food like pasta, pizza, burgers, or the like, I opted for Korean restaurants. If you hit up the local kimbap joints such as Kimbap Nara 김밥나라 or Kimbap Cheonguk 김밥천국, you can fill up on kimbap rolls for as low as 1,500 KRW ($1.25 USD) or choose from a range of filling soups, noodles, or rice plates, for 6,000 KRW ($5.05 USD) or less. Plus, you get all the banchan 반찬 (side dishes) you want!

It’s not uncommon for people to work toward paying off debt while teaching in South Korea. However, many of them harp on the fact that you have to “say no” to having a life, going out to eat, or doing fun things.

I’m here to say: THAT’S NOT TRUE.
Was it tough having limited spending money? 100% yes.
But as I mentioned in my podcast episode:

  1. Everything in moderation.
  2. It’s not about saying “no,” to everything but saying “YES,” to what really matters.

When I decided to really tackle my debt, I’d already been in South Korea for 2 years. The novelty of a lot of things wore off and I wasn’t going out as much which made it easier to save money. But prioritizing what was important and deciding to say “YES” to special occasions with friends, traveling, and living without the stress of debt is truly what made saying “no” to going out every weekend drinking or clubbing easy.

I still LIVED MY LIFE to the fullest traveling all over Asia and even visiting the USA a couple of times for my best friends’ weddings while paying my debt. So if I can do it, you definitely can too!

With wanderlust & ’til next time,


    • I also had a free apartment, but teaching at public elementary schools, the pay is likely much less than teaching at a university. Also, the salary for EPIK/GEPIK programs hasn’t really kept up with inflation, but it was all fine for me.

      Liked by 2 people

      • And then I taught there many years ago when many things were a lot cheaper. Wonder if you read my posts on Korea, especially since I hoped to get feedback on my post “Koreans: An Attempt at Understanding”.

        Liked by 1 person

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