When I first arrived in Korea in April 2014, I was living in my overdraft with several store cards and a pretty hefty balance on my Mastercard. Students might get free education in Scotland but I spent my student years trying to live the good life. Silly spending, an addiction to Mac makeup and a fear of wearing the same outfit twice meant that saving was a foreign concept to me. However, it became my new poison as soon as I touched down in Korea.
South Korea: A Goldmine for Confused Twentysomethings
Regardless of whether or not they’ll admit it, most teachers in Korea came for the money. At least partially. Some have struggled to find decent employment after finishing university. Others like the idea of a paid gap year overseas. While some have tens of thousands of dollars of university debt that they need to pay off.
Of course, there are also the people who head overseas with the romanticised idea of finding themselves. But even they chose Korea over a tropical paradise like Thailand for a reason…
Why I Decided to Teach in Korea
My reasons for choosing Korea were complicated. I had never done the whole “gap year” thing and always worried I’d miss out. 2 years after finishing university, I decided that I needed a change. I needed a change from my career in buying and merchandising and I wanted to go somewhere different. Somewhere that wasn’t easy to get to – a place outside of Europe that Ryanair doesn’t fly to!
For most people, that big trip overseas is Thailand but, my finances were laughable. There was no way I could quit my job, go island hopping for 6 weeks and come back again.
So, that’s why I decided to go to Korea.
I could save money, get out of debt, try a new career and go somewhere different.
To be honest, I didn’t even consider being able to save much. People talked about saving money all the time and it’s something I’d never managed to do. I knew I would get free accommodation but the wages didn’t seem very high in comparison to jobs at home. If anything, I hoped to pay off my overdraft, go on holiday to Tokyo and come home with a bit of change.
I didn’t for a minute consider how much I would see or save.
One thing I would say to any British graduate confused about what career path to take is that now is a great time to teach overseas. The pound’s been weak since Brexit so saving in another currency is as sensible an idea as any!
Average Salary for an English Teacher in Korea
Disclaimer: All currency conversions have been rounded and are accurate at the time of writing. These, of course, are subject to fluctuation so double check them again before making more life changing decisions!
For first timers in Korea, you’ll realistically either be teaching at a public school or private school. Here’s an overview of how much you’ll get paid at both.
The starting salary for English teachers at private schools in Korea is 2.1 million won ($1865/£1420) per month. These days, there are sneaky recruiters out there who’ll try and scope out teachers for 2 million but I’d advise you to steer clear of these jobs.
Private schools are also known as hagwons and get a pretty bad reputation. Sketchy owners are known for being in it for the money and they have few qualms about the well-being of their teachers or the standard of education on offer.
However, not all hagwons are the same. My experience teaching at a hagwon was nothing but positive. My school had a great curriculum which made teaching easy and a fair, honest owner.
Hours are long- you might teach 30 hours per week and have admin and lesson planning to do on top of that. But, the salary is higher than that of a public school.
Public schools are generally the more popular option because, even though the pay is less, holidays are better and job security is higher.
A first-time teacher in a rural area can expect to get paid 2 million won ($1780/£1355) per month. If you want to teach in a big city like Seoul or Busan, you’ll only get 1.9 million won as these jobs are highly sought after.
Public school teachers generally have fewer classes to teach and more desk warming hours than they know what to do with. If you’re like me: used to working hard while you’re at work and enjoy being busy, you’ll find this mind numbingly boring. (Or, you’ll do what I did and start a travel blog so you have another job to do every day!)
Personally, I’d recommend any budding teachers to do their homework and find a good hagwon. You can read my guide on how to find a job teaching English in South Korea here.
Extra Benefits for English Teachers in Korea
Teachers at private schools in Korea will get their flight paid for, them either in advance or 6 months into their contract. As per my request, my recruiter arranged for my school to book mine in advance for me so I never had any upfront costs.
When I finished my contract, I asked my director to give me money to book my own flight rather than letting her find one for me. This was perfect as I was travelling around Asia and didn’t have to come back to Korea to fly home.
Public school teachers, on the other hand, are given their flight money in the form of an entrance allowance a few weeks into their contract. This is a lump sum of 1.4 million won ($1,250/£950) which you can easily make some profit on if you’re good at finding cheap flights! I found a flight from Barcelona to Seoul for £200 and pocketed the rest! When you leave the country, you’ll get another 1.4 million won as an exit allowance. (Again, find a cheap flight and pocket the profit!)
Teachers at both public and private schools get a single, furnished apartment. This could be a tiny studio or it might be a spacious 2 bedroom flat. I’ve been middle ground both times but learned to love living in a small space. Having an apartment is non-negotiable so don’t let anyone trick you into thinking otherwise.
Public school teachers get 300,000 won in their first month to help them to settle in. There’s no equivalent of this for private school teachers but just remember that they usually get paid an extra 100k per month which works out more over the course of the year than this one off payment.
In your last month teaching in Korea, you’ll get an extra month’s salary on top of your wage. The golden goodbye!
How Much Money Does it Cost to Live in Korea
How much you spend living in Korea, depends completely on your lifestyle. You can stay in every night, eat ramen, get fat, see none of the country and go home with most of your salary. You might not make a whole lot of memories but you’ll have a good enough start up fund for your new life!
On the other end of the spectrum, you can go out every weekend, drink $10 craft beers in Itaewon, exclusively eat western food, travel extravagantly and save nothing. But, you’ll definitely have a year worth remembering!
My spending habits were middle of the line. I opted for local restaurants when dining out, only ate Western food as a treat when I went to big cities, spent my weekends hiking or travelling modestly and bought all my fruit and vegetables from the ladies on the street. There were a few months where I spent only 500,000 won ($445/£340) but, for the most part, I would spend around 1 million won ($890/£680) per month.
Here’s a breakdown of how much I would spend in an average month.
1 x Large IHerb Delivery: 75,000 won
Weekly fresh produce: 25,000 won x 4 = 100,000 won
Eating Out (around 8 times per month) = 100,000 won
Total Food= 275,000 won per month
Weekend Trips = 300,000 won
Other (Cinema etc) = 100,000 won
Inner-city Travel (including the bus to school) = 40,000 won
Total Entertainment = 440,000 won per month
Sim Only Data Package = 35,000 won
Electricity = 20,000 won
Gas = 10,000 won
Total Bills = 155,000 won per month
Tax & Pension
Tax = 70,000 won
Pension = 95,000 won
Total Tax and Pension = 165,000 won
Overall Total = 1,035,000 won ($920/£700)
How Much Can you Save in a Year
So, if you are spending 1,035,000 per month, that’ll leave you with 1,065,000 won to save.
If you manage to put this by every month, your base savings will be 12,780,000 won.
However, chances are you’ll want to escape the country a couple of times. Private school teachers generally get a 5-day long break in Summer and Winter. Some are lucky and get a week long break but I wouldn’t count on it. Flights overseas usually cost under 400,000 won so all in all, a trip of this length should cost around 750,000 won. But let’s bring that up to 1 million won just to be on the safe side. (Anything you don’t spend can go back in the saving kitty!)
I advise putting aside 2 million won for trips overseas- with the intention of bringing home some change. That will leave you with at least 10.8 million.
The final part to add on is the cherry on the cake- your severance money.
Teachers in Korea get an extra month’s wage at the end of their contract which pads out your savings nicely.
10.8 million + 2.1 millon = 12.9 million won. ($11,500/£8,750)
If you work in public school, you’ll also get the extra settlement payments and have the chance to make some profit off your return flight home. Even though you didn’t get paid as much month on month, the total should be almost the same.
Americans also get their pension back at the end of the year and this can be quite a sizeable sum. Us Brits, have to cry into our tea because our pension has completely disintegrated into thin air. Booo hooo.
12.9 million won ($11,500/£8,750) is a significant amount of money to have saved- it’s enough to get a deposit for a flat, go on a cheeky RTW trip or do a Master’s. And the best thing about it is, saving in Korea means you’re able to do some travelling and live a pretty comfortable lifestyle while getting that cash together.
Ever since going to Korea, I’ve been able to do all of these things:
- Pay off every single bit of debt to my name
- Travel to Japan 5 times
- Spend a long weekend in Beijing
- Take a weeklong trip to Taiwan
- Holiday in The Philippines for 2 weeks
- Travel the length and breadth of South Korea
- Backpack around India (twice) and Sri Lanka
- Spend 2 long weekends in Kuala Lumpur
- Do a yoga teacher training course in India
- Take 3 trips home
- Spend 2 weeks in Europe
- Visit South Africa for 6 weeks
And now, I still have enough left over for a rainy day while I’m living as a digital nomad and travelling in Latin America. I would never have been able to do all of those things while paying rent in The UK and, for that, I’m truly grateful for the time I spent in Korea!
How to Get a Job Teaching English in Korea
If teaching in Korea is something you’re interested in, the best thing to do is get your TEFL. There’s fierce competition for teaching jobs in Korea these days since a lot of public school positions are being downsized. Although it’s not always an official requirement, a TEFL is the best way to stand out from the crowd.
I can’t imagine what my life would be like if I hadn’t taken the first step and started teaching in Korea. If this lifestyle is something that you’re interested in, you’ve got nothing to lose. Even if you just try it for a year, your old life will be there for you to go back to. You’ll never know if you don’t give it a try!
For more inspiration:
- How to Get a Job Teaching English in South Korea
- Why you Should Consider Teaching English Abroad
- Living in Korea on Less Than $500 per month
- How to Travel in Korea and Still Save Money
- Ultimate Guide for Female Expats in Korea
- How to Pack for a Year in Korea
- Clean Eating in Korea
If you’ve got any queries at all about life in Korea, please leave me a comment and let’s get chatting.