6 Ways I Save Money in Korea

Earlier on in my first year I wrote a blog and made a video about the average teacher’s income and expense situation here in South Korea.  I received quite a bit of feedback on both.  Many were curious how I am able to keep my expenses low and although I did my best to answer them piecemeal, I thought detailing it in a blog would be helpful for others.  My personal mantra has always been, “it’s not what you make, it’s what you save”.  It couldn’t be truer than with teaching abroad.  So to that end, here is a breakdown of the 6 main ways I am able to keep my expenses down and save money for a rainy typhoon day.

Ondol and hot water control

Cool It on the Heat – The winters are no doubt dreadful.  Even though I grew up in New Hampshire with brutal winters, the cold still gets to me.  Must be the Florida living after I moved from NH!  Or I’m just getting weak in my old age.
In general, apartments here are heated through the floors.  The systems are called ondols (온돌) and running them is not cheap.  In fact, my electric bill jumped from about $30 to over $100 when I first started using the ondol.  I once ran my bill over $125 before I realized I shouldn’t run it whenever I wanted to.  At first I would run it and walk around my apartment in shorts and a t-shirt while it was 20 degrees F outside.  Then I got my bill.  Time to make some changes…

  1. Wear Layers – I changed my shorts for long johns or sweatpants.  I also layer shirts.  I wear a t-shirt, a long sleeve over it, and then a heavy sweatshirt over that.  This is bare minimum as some of the winter days get really cold.  I also wear socks.  I would wear slippers if they had any my size in Korea!  This get-up allowed me to comfortably hang out in my apartment without always running the ondol.
  2. Making the Bed – My apartment came equipped with many comforters, blankets, and sheets.  It also came with an electric blanket.  The electric blanket is the single greatest defense against the cold weather here.  I make my bed by first laying down a few blankets or light comforters on top of the mattress.  Kind of like my own homemade pillow-top.  I then lay the first sheet over the mattress and tuck it in.  Then the second sheet.  Then a blanket/light comforter.  Then the electric blanket on top of that.  Then one more light comforter on top of the electric blanket to lock the heat in.  I use some laundry rack clips to clamp the top layers together so they don’t slide apart at night.  A few minutes before bed I crank the electric blanket, then turn it all the way down to the lowest level before I get under the covers.  That keeps just the right amount of heat coming without making me sweat to death while I sleep.  The perfect thing for cold nights.  And there are many of them.
Doing these things cut my electric bill from a high of $125 to about $65-70.  Huge difference.

I now only use the ondol for one or two 30 minute blasts while I’m at home – if ever.  Only during the most extreme nights.  I actually prefer the bundled up approach now (clothing and bed), so it’s a win-win.

Easy on the A/C – I realized through trial and error that I can adapt to the cold a lot better than to hot summer weather.  I have to have A/C and cool conditions or I’m one grouchy person.  Here are some recommendations for staying cool without keeping the A/C on non-stop:

  1. Get a Fan – A fan can be your best friend even in the dead heat of Korean summers.  No matter how hot you are, if you simply stay in front of a fan long enough you WILL become cool.  Though just not as quickly as A/C.  Your A/C may likely have a fan feature too so that should work just the same.  If not, keep the temperature just above what you like and the A/C unit will change between fan and A/C periodically.  This is how I prefer using it.  I have a friend who blasts his A/C for a few minutes and then runs his fan to circulate the cold air.  That works very well too.
  2. Take Cold Showers – One thing I’ve learned over the years in martial arts is how to bring my body temperature down quickly after a training session.  To me, there is no substitute for immersion into cool or cold water.  Back home, I used to sit in my pool at night after practice until I was actually feeling cold.  Well, I don’t have a pool now, so I use cold showers after practice and it helps just the same.  I also take cold showers when getting ready to go out or to work.  Taking hot showers requires turning on the water heater a few minutes beforehand and throughout your shower.  Obviously the less you use it, the lower your bill will be.  It has worked for me.
  3. Watch Your Diet – Eating the wrong foods and drinking alcohol will make you feel bloated and crappy.  Alcohol always makes you feel hotter.  Many may read this and laugh – I know, there was a time when I would prefer being hot over giving up the booze.  But now it’s easy.  Just something to keep in mind.  Also, if you eat a lot of heavy foods (i.e. fried, creamy, heavy on the meat) your body works much harder to digest it which makes you heat up a bit more.  Eat healthier and you won’t reach for the A/C remote as much.
School water purifer

Don’t Pay for Free Water – The first time I bought bottled water and hauled it home, I knew I had to find a better and way.  And there was.  There is!  I use the filtered water from my school.  Whenever I am finished with any large, heavier plastic bottle (e.g. Gatorade) I bring it to school and fill it up with filtered water from the purifier.  After all, that’s what bottled water is – filtered tap water.  I go through a lot of water because of my training so over the course of a month I figure I am saving between $30-50.

I Cut My Own Hair – I learned how to cut my own hair about 5 years ago.  It’s much easier for guys in general, and even easier for a guy like me.  I like my hair really short.  I generally give myself what’s called a “high and tight”.  Basically your well know military look.  Buzzed sides and back, really short on the top.  Taking it almost all the way down is the way to go for me during the summer.  It also saves me about $10 every two or three weeks.  A small gain, but the little things add up.

Social Life – I think the single greatest unnecessary drain on a foreign teacher’s income is going out drinking too much.  I rarely drink at this stage of the game, but watching how frequently you go out for beers with friends can help keep some (or a lot) of the cash in your pocket.  This is a personal choice – I’ll leave it up to you.

Eat In – Food will be your biggest expenditure (unless you drink), so doing it yourself is no doubt the way to go.  Shopping bulk (Costco), local markets, and general supermarkets (HomePlus here) will keep your food costs way down.  That being said, I do recommend eating out from time to time to taste some of the fantastic cuisine that South Korea has to offer.

Happy saving!


  1. Good hints. My son mentioned living alone, he has discovered clothing is optional. Another way to save on AC.

  2. Lol – that is definitely a good option!

  3. I find your tips on cutting electric bills quite helpful. Our eletric bills always give us migraine especially during winter.

  4. Thank you. I'm glad it was helpful. Gotta save money!
    btw I added your site to my blogroll!

  5. Thank you for sharing!!

  6. Hey there! What a good looking website you run! Did you optimize your site with our own help?

  7. Yeah, the ondol is expensive. My first utility bill was pretty high, too. And I don't understand why anyone would ever pay money for WATER in a developed country. Does it not come out of the faucet…for free? I know people say "Oh, don't drink the water in Korea", but I suspect they're full of it.

  8. This winter I bought a little space heater and it works like a charm. My bill is only a little higher – nothing like the ondol. I drink the water from tap a little, and cook with it. No problems so far! (knock on wood)

  9. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Great post! One suggestion, or I should say precaution, is to buy the more expensive electric blankets that are able to decrease the electromagnetic energy. I don't think it's that much more, maybe an extra $10 to $20 on Gmarket. I was told by the director of my school that it can make men impotent. She said her uncle became impotent over the years because of using an electric heating mat. Just throwing this out there as a precautionary advice, whether you believe this or not is your choice.

  10. Just hearing you say that scares me! I actually no longer use it. I have a small space heater and great down feather comforter. No more heated blanket or ondol (heated floors). Thankfully I was unaffected for the time I did use the blanket.

  11. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Buying food in stores can be way more expensive than eating out. It depends on what you buy and where you go, but you can get an amazing restaurant meal for less than $6 USD. Groceries in Korea, especially stuff Westerners tend to like, can be extremely costly.

  12. That's very true. It's a balancing act, but if you choose the right things to buy you can save at home and still enjoy going out to eat as well.

  13. Avatar Anonymous says:

    You have one of the MOST informative sites for teaching ESL. So objective and fair. Thanks so much for doing this. I know it takes up a lot of time.

  14. Thank you. I appreciate it and I'm glad it was helpful for you. Blogging and vlogging are 2 big reasons why my time here has been great. Can't wait to finish my next project.

  15. This was very helpful , i don´t drink , so that´s a relief for me in so many ways jajaja , thanks for the video.

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