Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Korea vs. America: Finances

I've been spending a little time on Dave's ESL Cafe Korean Jobs Discussion Boards, a place full of vitriol and bile from some very pissed off English teachers living (mostly) in Seoul, but also a resource many people contemplating the big move from America (or another English-speaking country) to Korea use to get questions answered by those of us who've been around the block a bit. While I really hate the caliber of discourse on most of the forums (recently comments insisting that Korea is an undeveloped country because it is racist and that white women who are overweight are lazy and make excuses have been getting my goat, so to speak), I do feel indebted to do my service by the "newbies" to Korea as many people helped me by posting their insights about Korea back in 2007 when I was researching the place obsessively.

Someone made a comment about how Korea and America had the same cost-of-living, and I responded rather strongly, but then realized it would probably make a decent blog post.

As a teacher in the U.S. (especially now that I have my master's degree and live in the DC metro area), my salary would be more than $50,000/year (substantially more if I taught extra test-prep classes, which I sometimes did). This is about twice what I earn in Korea (Currently base salary is 2.4 million/month, plus a lot of money from the after school classes I teach and extra duties, like writing essay prompts for district contests or interviewing for high-up positions in the BOE, which at the current exchange rate works out to USD $26,000 with the end-of-year bonus), and while housing being covered in Korea makes up quite a bit of the difference (I pay less than $40/month in rent for my posh new apartment), there are still major ways that Korea's COL beats out America and makes it easier to live a good lifestyle here.

Things that are cheaper:
--Transportation: Public transit is cheap and excellent. Even if you decide to get a car or scooter, gas is more, but insurance and maintenance are WAY less.
--Health insurance: Medical costs here (unless you get cancer, which is not covered by the National Plan) are cheap, cheap, cheap. I have a chronic condition that requires 6 pills a day of one medication, 2 of another, and monthly doc visits with a specialist. My monthly medical costs? About $30--this includes my birth control pills.
--Utilities: Gas is cheap, except sometimes in winter if you blast the floor heating, and electricity is cheap, unless you blast the AC in summer. Cell phone is about the same, but high speed internet is WAY cheaper, as is cable.
--Hobbies and activities: I pay ~$80/month for DAILY tkd, in the US I'd be lucky to find a studio that did three days a week for that price. I pay $5 at my swing dance bar, in the US I usually have to pay $10-$15 for the same thing. Skiing is cheap for skiing (about $70 for rental/lift pass for a day). The only thing I've heard might be a LOT more is golfing, but I don't have that particular vice. Gyms are about the same price.
--Dining out: A decent meal out costs between $7 and $20/person, drinks included, NO TIP. Home delivery is cheap, cheap, too.
--Taxes: Comparing the 3-5% I pay here with the 30% back home? Please...

However, living abroad has taught me that there are a lot of things I thought were "necessities" that are not actually necessary, like bathtubs and clothes driers. When I come back to the U.S., I might not be inclined to pay out the behind for cable services and snazzy internet, when I will have access to those things from the library or my parents' house. I will definitely be living cheaper than I did (and I lived pretty frugally before).

I hope that helps some of you folks thinking about expenses in Korea.


  1. I also used to check out Dave's ESL Cafe before coming to Korea in 2007, but can only recall going back two or three times since starting work here. Like you said, there's simply too much vitriol there. The one thing I might recommend someone look is on the Contracts sticky - assuming it's still there - to get an idea of what should be in a contract.

    Definitely agree with you on the cost of living being in favor of Korea. Perhaps one of the reasons romano812 holds that opinion is from having a different lifestyle. Going out to clubs, eating at fancy Western restaurants, and drinking on the weekend might add up quickly -- giving a false impression about the standard cost of living.

    Related to that, on one of the Facebook groups for English teachers in Korea someone once asked if it was possible to send $10,000 back home in a year. Another group member (who has a habit of speaking like an expert) pointed out that it's pretty much impossible due to how much money one needs to spend here -- and that was 1.5 years ago, before the financial meltdown. I still can't believe they'd say it's impossible.

    I also wonder how much comes from people having no experience with jobs and/or budgets back in their home countries. That would more than likely play a big influence on how one perceives cost of living.

  2. Correction: "The one thing I might recommend someone look into is the Contracts sticky ..."

    Ah, the joys of editing part of a sentence and forgetting to change the rest!

  3. I will say that in 2007, I think the atmosphere towards women was actually WORSE, although there were also more helpful posters, such as ttompatz and kermit (recommend to newbies to do a search for those two). It's a lot more dull these days and a lot more newbies now are looking for work. I think the financial crisis made a bunch of folks initially pack up and ship out and now, unable to find work back home, many more looking for alternative options. Apparently people fresh out of college with no relevant experience are having some difficulties now finding jobs and more and more universities outside of Seoul are being able to actually enforce the requirement of having a Master's or cutting back on vacation with mandatory camps.

    I think the ESL environment in Korea will quickly come to resemble that of Japan about 6-7 years ago. And Japan is basically impossible now for people without CELTA or equivalent. Interesting world...

  4. I have to agree about many of the discussions on Dave's. It can be a useful source of information on practical matters but tends to get pretty negative.

    If I had relied on Dave's as my primary resource for what it would be like to live in Korea I'm not sure I'd be here now.



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