Alternate title: how I saved over $10,000 CAD in 10 months without sacrificing good food, travel, and treating myself (a lot).
For many native English teachers in Korea, stability and a decent paycheck are major draws to the job. And with acommodations provided and a generally low-cost living, teaching in Korea is a fantastic opportunity to pay-off student loans, or to start a comfotable savings account.
I was incredibly lucky to walk out of university with no debt, so I came to Korea with a goal of saving $10,000 CAD each year. Despite a few surprise expenses like needing a new phone, laptop, and glasses, I’ve I managed to surpass my goal two months early.
Looking back, I could have easily saved a lot more than I have. But I’m still ahead of my goal for year one, and I’m increasing my goal for year two to $14,000 CAD. Recognizing that we all live different lifestyle, have different needs, and wants, here is my personal guide to how I’ve saved money over the last year.
Perhaps the most useful strategy for saving this much money has been creating a budget for myself and recording all my purchases. I made a template based on my own document that I track my spending on each month. You can download it and adjust to your own budget if you think it might be useful.
I break down my budget into different categories and adjust as needed for each month, including:
Fixed costs include things like the teachers’ association, phone and wifi, my apartment maintenance fee, and my teukgong fees.
Food of course, is groceries and eating out.
miscellaneous includes anything material, like clothing, toiletries, drinks, and books, and services, like electricity, water, hair cuts and doctor’s appointments.
Travel includes trips I take within Korea over weekends, like to Seoul or Busan. For my international trips I take over vacation, I have a different method of budgeting: “side hustles.”
First, I must point out that a lot of alternative sources of income are not permitted under the E2 visa. It’s not possible, for example, to privately tutor students. However, I’ve come across many opportunities to earn extra money that are completely compliant with my contract. For example, Taebaek is very eager to strengthen English programming in the city. I’ve earned a bit of extra cash by running extra camps, hiking programs, Model UN, and an English festival with the city of Taebaek.
All of the money I earn from these side hustles gets put towards my vacations. Through these, I paid for my 2 week trip to Vietnam and Taiwan, and will pay for my 1 week trip to Japan in a few weeks. This not only ensures I’m not dipping into my savings for travel, but also helps me put a cap on what I can spend to do so.
I often don’t use all of this budget, but I find that setting myself a slightly higher budget than necessary helps me stay committed. When I’ve set unrealistically low budgets in the past, I inevitably go over and out of frustration end up spending more money that I needed to. Moreover, staying under budget brings a lot of satisfaction that makes me want to continue.
Living Like a Local
Although it’s taken me some time for me to let go of my lifestyle and practices I brought with me from Canada, I’ve now started to settle more into a local lifestyle. Primarily, this means eating a more localized diet. In place of things like cheese, pizza, cider, and out-of-season fruit, I’ve shifted to eating more rice, potatoes, Korean soups and stews, tofu, and cheap vegetables like greens, carrots, cucumbers, and cabbage.
Cheap and delicious kimchi jjigae from scratch!
I’ve found that rather than limiting my cooking, this has allowed me to expand my culinary repertoire and enjoy a wider variety of foods. I still keep some important basics around, like peanut butter, and make some from scratch like yogurt and bread to avoid the pricey, sub-par versions available here.
I’ve always been interested in the concept of minimalism, but was never able to commit to it in any capacity. I kept promising myself I wouldn’t buy more clothes, notebooks, arts and crafts supplies, etc. Yet I continued my habits of consumption and accumulated more and more. When I had to pack my life up into two suitcases however, making changes towards minimalism became increasingly easier.
Despite an abundance of relatively cheap, decent quality goods in Korea, and the largest disposable income I’ve ever had, I probably buy less non-necessity items now than in the past. The idea of buying something only to either throw it out or leave it behind in a year has helped me save a significant amount of money. Combined with a limited amount of space to store everything, I limit things like my wardrobe and and cooking utensils to a comfortable minimum.
While it’s easy to justify needing something, especially when you have the cash for it, I keep reminding myself that I won’t be lugging much around when I travel for a few months after Korea. And if I can live without that sweater, or pair of sneakers, or knick knack until then, I can surely live without it much longer.
Now that I’ve become accustomed to only buying what I need, it’s hard to imagine consuming otherwise. I think back to the things I left behind at my parents’ house, and itch to be able to go through and purge most of it.
Also on the topic of living minimally, finding activities that are relatively low-cost, or free, is a great way to save loads of cash. Go hiking one weekend, rather than drinking and eating out. Or join/start a language exchange, rather than paying for a Korean class. There are plenty of free and cheap activities across the country that can keep you occupied any season.
Think About Currency
Part of the reason I’ve been able to save so much is because of the state of the Canadian dollar. Our dollar is so low that exchanging the stronger KRW to CAD increases the value of my money. So I keep a close eye on the dollar and send money when I know it’s low. I also avoid hoarding my money here to send back in a lump sum. Many people use this strategy to avoid paying the $20 CAD remittance fee. However, if the CAD improves, you can find yourself missing out on a lot of cash.
For other currency however, it may be that KRW is weaker and therefore you lose value when you send money home. In this case, perhaps waiting to send that money home in a larger lump sum could benefit you.
This being said, I’m no financial expert. And I have the privilege of being able to send my money home whenever I want to, not bound by student loan payments or supporting family members. So if you’re interested in using this strategy, I recommend you do a bit of reading and pay close attention to trends in your local currency and decide what works best for you.
All of these strategies have worked really well for me. I live in the most rural province of the country, Gangwon-do, so it’s easy to avoid the temptations of cities, like foreign food, shopping, expensive activities, and pricey services. But perhaps some of these simple strategies can help you pay-off student loans or start saving for the future.
What are your strategies for keeping to a tight budget?