Surviving Your First Month in Korea

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That first month after taking a new job in South Korea can be one of the hardest. It’s not just that you’re adjusting to a new country and a new job, but you’re also going to be living on whatever meager savings you brought with you until that magical first pay check comes in. If you’ve been responsible and saved some cash for the occasion – your $1500 or so will be more than enough. If you’re like me and come over on a whim, you might be trying to stretch $800 or so. That’s definitely doable, but here are a few tips for making that money last while still having a good time.

Most Korean jobs pay monthly, so you’re going to need to make that money last for at least four weeks. Thankfully Korea is a really cheap place to live, so with the tips below you’ll be right.

Eat Korean

The temptation to eat a lot of comfort foods from home is going to be there. I can’t blame you. You’ll be missing your friends and family and something as simple as a greasy Big Mac or a decadent meal at TGI: Friday or Outback Steakhouse is going to be your only link to home. Well, that and downloading a whole lot of American TV to watch from the comfort of your bed.

I’m not saying you can’t eat a little Western food to help with the transition, but it’s going to be infinitely cheaper to eat Korean food. A good, fresh roll of kimbap is only going to be around 1,000 won. A heaping serving of bibimbap (rice and vegetables served in a hot bowl with vegetables, meat, and pepper paste) is 4,000. Some greasy, deep fried twigim or spicy deokbokki won’t even reach the 1,000 mark.

Twigim and deokbokki might not be healthy, but they’re cheap and they’re surprisingly good

If you’re not quite ready to leap into the deep end of Korean food, you can try for some fusion – the bastard child of Western food and Korean cuisine. Places like Han’s Deli serve up curries, pork cutlets, and burritos for around 4,000 to 6,000 won. Paris Baguette and other similar bakeries (Cafe Roti is another good one) have a variety of pastries, cakes, and stranger concoctions like croissants wrapped around hot dogs or oddly sweet sandwiches. It’s not the healthiest of options, but you’ll be able to get your fill for around 1,000 to 5,000 won.

Cooking at home would seem like a logical option since it’s the cheap way to live back home, but between the difficulties in finding common ingredients and the limited cooking equipment you’re going to have access to in your apartment – it’s actually a frustrating process and not as cheap as you’d hope. That is unless you want to cook Korean cuisine.

Avoid the temptation to eat all of your meals at familiar places and you’ll save plenty of cash. You’ll also be avoiding the dreaded weight gain that so many of us experience in our first month or two in Korea. Which takes me to my next tip…

Affordable Drinking

Drinking and living in Korea go hand in hand. As I said in my entry about the Top 10 Things to Love About Korea, socializing in Korea is fueled by alcohol 80% of the time. At most foreigner bars in Korea you’re looking at around 3,000 to 4,000 won for a local draught beer. Cass, Hite, OB, and Max aren’t remarkable beers by any stretch – but they’ll get you buzzed and they’re available everywhere. An import is going to be at least 2,000 won more expensive, so avoid the temptation to slam back the Heinekens and Coronas and you’ll be able to afford a few extra beers.


My good friend Paul chugging some goju (Gatorade + soju)

Pre-drinks are another good idea if you’re trying to save some money. Every convenience store in the country is going to have a decent selection of beers on offer – and there’s also wine, a few pre-mixed options, and the ever present soju if you’d rather avoid the world’s oldest alcoholic beverage. Hell, you can even get soju in juice boxes!

Have a few pre-drinks and you’ll need a few less beers when you hit the bars, and that’s a few extra bucks in your pocket for the inevitable taxi ride home at the end of the night. Which leads me to…

Getting Around

Taxis are a cheap and ever present option in Korea. With rates starting at around 2,000 won and climbing up at a surprisingly affordable pace from there, you can get most anywhere in a city like Gwangju for 10,000 won. In Busan you’re looking at closer to 20,000 for the longer trips, and Seoul’s a different kettle of fish. If you’re in a smaller town like Mokpo or Pohang, you can get most anywhere for 6,000 won.

Sometimes a taxi is going to be your only option – especially after a night out on the piss. But if you’re keen to save some money, look at public transport. Most cities have a surprisingly good bus network that will only cost 1,000 won to get you wherever you like to go, and the larger cities will also have a subway network that you can rely on. I’ve fallen in love with Busan’s subway network, and Seoul possesses an exhaustive (and confusing) network that stretches to a lot of nearby satellite cities such as Suwon and Incheon.

In an internet savvy country such as Korea there’s always going to be a website for the local transit options, and these days most also have an English section so you’re not squinting at the hangeul and trying to figure out which stop you need to get to.

You Can Do It!

That first month can be tough, I’m not going to lie. The temptation is going to be there to binge on Western food and spend entirely too much time in your apartment. Granted, staying in and watching movies on your laptop is going to be cheaper than going out – but it’s not going to do much to cure your homesickness. Getting out to a bar or tagging along with a foreigner club might mean spending a little bit of extra money, but it’s better to be a few thousand won poorer than to be miserable and alone in your apartment.

With a bit of common sense and sacrifice, you’ll power through that first month and discover some great, cheap food options along the way. Even when my money is doing really well I still occasionally stop for an Isaac Toast (fast food style toasted sandwiches) or some cheesy dankas (cheesy pork cutlet).

And when that first, magnificent pay check comes in you’re going to be so overjoyed and flush with cash that you’ll weep tears of joy. That rough first month will be a distant memory and your bank balance will benefit from the little nuggets of wisdom you garnered during your frugal month.

Good luck!

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