A Little Bit About Me
Hello! My name is Madelyn and I currently teach in Seoul, South Korea. I have been living in Korea for the last 8 months but have been an avid traveler for the last 10 years! Seoul has definitely won my heart and is an incredible city to be able to teach in. The food and people are amazing and I adore my students! I began my education journey 7 years ago but stepped into teaching English last April. I got TEFL certified through Premier TEFL and then embarked on their internship program soon after!
Teaching in South Korea is one of the best countries in the world to save money. The average you make compared to living costs allows a lot of teachers to save thousands of dollars by the end of their contract. Everything is fairly affordable, but there are definitely ways to save yourself even more to accomplish any financial goals you may have. Below are the 6 ways I have found to be the biggest savers during my time here!
Where to Buy Food
When I initially arrived in Korea, I did not understand why everyone kept telling me to go to the “mart”. My school is above a grocery store so for the first month, I bought all my groceries there. Then a co-worker introduced me to a traditional market down the street that sold everything at ⅓ of the price. These traditional markets are open-air shops that run all year long, even in -14 weather in the winter! They typically include fresh fruit and veggie stands, rice cake shops, fish stalls and little shops selling side dishes. You’ll be able to buy things in large quantities for really cheap. The traditional market near where I live also includes a small family-run grocery store that sells oils, canned goods and drinks. Most of these markets operate on cash so make sure you take $15-$20 with you.
If you are looking to buy alcohol, the cheapest places are either convenience stores (you can get 4 tall cans for $11) or small groceries if you are looking for beer or soju.
There are larger grocery stores you can go to if you are looking for specialty items. The biggest shops in Korea are E-mart, Home Plus and Lotte Mart. They sell everything and anything you could need but are more expensive.
If you are looking for foreign food, there are some great (and cheap) international shops in Itaewon. You can also order lots of foreign food online from Coupang (more on that below!).
TIP: Get membership cards everywhere you go. Most shops and grocery stores will have really genuine deals and point systems. You can also get coupons through your phone company for activities and groceries.
When Eating Out, Eat Local
This is the best way to save money while traveling or living in Korea! There are so many amazing Korean foods to try it’s easy to never run out of options. The average meal out in Korea is under $10 (USD) for a restaurant and under $5 for street food. Most restaurants will also have self-serve free side dishes. For my daily lunch, I typically get a massive soup with rice and 5-8 side dishes for $7 (USD). If you eat street food it can be even cheaper costings as little as $5 for a tteokbokki and a fish cake with soup!
TIP: Watch where the locals are eating. If you see a stall with a line or lots of people hanging around, it’s likely to be the best meal for your money!
Shop at Daiso
Everyone will tell you Daiso is where it is at for buying anything for your home or personal needs. Everything at Daiso ranges from $1-$5. This is where most of my kitchenware, décor, stationery and basic toiletries come from. Think of it as a supreme dollar store with options for almost every aesthetic. They have even started offering a small makeup line and hair care section. Unlike a dollar store, Daiso typically sells many name-brand items that were extras from other shops. Olive Young is a very popular beauty shop in Korea but it is a 3rd party retailer, which means they sell items from other countries and mark up the prices to generate money. I’ve found the same $30 hair treatment from Olive Young at Daiso for $3.
The one thing about Daiso is every shop can sell different things depending on the location and what is popular there. So if you are looking for something specific it is worth checking several of the larger locations. I once stumbled upon a 6-floor Daiso and spent a good hour restocking all my household needs for under $50.
Order Things Online
When you are new to a country and are still learning the language it can be hard to find specific items sometimes. Enter Coupang. Coupang is the Amazon of South Korea except with 2-day delivery! Coupang is great because you can order just about anything. When I can’t find something at Daiso I go straight to Coupang. Here are my biggest tips for shopping on Coupang:
1) You can search in English but then only items with English titles will show up. Try to translate what you are looking for on Papago first and you’ll see a lot more options.
2) Look around. There are a ton of various sellers on the platform that sell the same thing so you need to shop around a little. Although most items come with free 2-day shipping, watch for how much shipping costs.
3) Know what the little rockets mean. You’ll see some items have a little green rocket, this means it’s a fresh item sold through “rocket fresh” (usually groceries). Blue rocket is express delivery and the purple rocket means international shipping. For international shipping, you need to have a “personal custom clearance code” which is free to apply for once you have your ARC.
4) Coupang is mostly cheap for household goods, skincare and food but you can also find some good clothing on there as well!
TIP: You can only sign up for a Coupang account once you have obtained a Korean phone number and ARC and bank account. Your school will help you get these set up in the first 2-3 months but until then ask your co-workers if you need help ordering anything!
Shop in Underground Malls for Clothes and Accessories
Underground malls are the absolute best places for shopping in Korea. You can find them at almost any major train station and they are full of cute and in-style clothes. Most items will range from $5-$30, depending on the quality. I only brought a small amount of clothing with me to Korea as many of my friends told me I’d do a ton of shopping when I arrived and they were right! You can usually use your card at these shops but they will give you discounts if you pay in cash.
I should also note that many of these shops do “free size”, which means there is only one size. People in Korea are usually on the smaller size so make sure to hold things up before purchasing. Many of these shops are small so they do not have changing rooms.
My favorite underground mall is GoTo Mall at Express Bus Terminal. It is the largest underground mall in Korea at over 1 km long with over 600 stores in a large H shape. You can buy anything and everything here from flowers to clothing and household goods. Additionally, they have hundreds of shops for accessories and jewelry!
TIP: when you come out at Express Bus Terminal there is an underground mall right at the entrance, that is not GoTo Mall. You need to find the second set of stairs to go down into the large mall. You’ll see the never-ending halls in either direction and that’s when you know you are there. You’ll see people walking around in red vests and hats, they are customer service agents and can help direct you!
Take Public Transit
If you are planning to live in a larger city like Seoul or Busan, make sure you learn about their transit systems. You can always take taxis, but they become expensive quickly. It also can take a while to book in Seoul as there is a taxi shortage. For the metro and bus, in most major cities the signs will be in English as well as Korean. There are apps for each major city as well, that can help you get around.
I live in Seoul and use the Seoul Metro app (which is in English). It helps with not only planning out what trains to take but also what train car to get on to make any transfers go smoothly. The train system is extremely affordable with most trips costing $1.3 (USD). You can also purchase day-long travel cards from 1 up to 7 days. Here is a website that tells you all the details you need to know about the train and even taxi systems in South Korea!
Regardless if you are just coming for a visit or to teach abroad South Korea is a really affordable country and an easy place to save money. If you want to learn more about living and teaching in Korea be sure to check out these other great blogs:
5 Tips For Teaching English In South Korea (this link also includes a webinar!)
5 Ways to Make Friends When Living Abroad (Korea-focused)
Teaching in South Korea, A Day in My Life