Living in Korea as an expat can present some financial challenges. On one hand, you hear stories about Korea’s lower cost of living and how plenty of working expats can comfortably save up to half of their monthly paychecks to pay off debts back home or start building a nest egg. On the other, there’s no denying that living in bigger cities in Korea can be very expensive. In fact, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit, Seoul was ranked as the 7th most expensive city in the world in 2019!
While saving money living in Korea can be tricky at times, adopting practical money-spending and saving habits can help you save some of your hard-earned won. Below are 9 ways to save money living in Korea.
If you’re a resident or work in the Seoul area and rely on the Seoul Metropolitan Subway system as your primary means of transportation, check out the Seoul Subway Commuter Card which can save you at least 20,000 won per month on subway transportation fees. This discounted commuter pass can be a won-saving wallet game-changer, especially those who are constantly on the go. Find out more about how the Seoul Subway Commuter Card works, where to get it, and how you can start your savings in transportation fare today.
Using your T-Money card for transit allows up to 4 free transfers on a single ride. Transfer within 30 minutes of scanning your transit card, you can continue your journey on the same base fare of your journey.
Bask in the transit savings by planning creative routes for making quick stops on a single trip. This particularly comes in handy when running multiple errands in short bursts. I use this transportation hack to make a quick pit stop to my closest discount grocery store, drop off donation items at the nearby thrift shop, and return home all in a single ride comprising a city bus, neighborhood bus, and a hop, skip, and a jump to the nearest subway station.
Keep in mind that you can only transfer from the subway to the bus, bus to subway, and from bus to bus (without taking the same bus number). And, while your maximum of 4 transfers is free, you will be charged a little extra for distances exceeding your base distance of 10 km. That is, you will incur an additional charge of 100 won per 10 km-distance increments. For more information on transportation options, check out the Seoul Subway Guide and tips on How to navigate the Seoul City Bus System.
Take advantage of customer reward programs offered through hundreds of retailers and restaurants. Sign up is easy and can be done by downloading the respective store’s mobile app and registering with your basic information.
Once you register, you can begin accumulating membership points for every purchase that can be used as credits once a threshold is met. For example, you can start using Daiso points after saving a minimum of 50 points, which translates to a store credit of 50원. For CJ members, merchandise credit can be redeemed after 1,000 points are collected.
Many food and beverage businesses give you credits by the number of drinks and/or meals purchased. Plenty of coffee shop chains and even smaller, independently owned cafes, for example, will offer a free beverage once you’ve racked up 9 to 10 drinks. Look for these little gems of discount opportunities wherever you shop and eat.
Everyone knows you can get an inexpensive and hearty meal or snack from the neighborhood iteration of Kimbap Heaven or convenience store. But plenty other untapped dineries offer meals that won’t break the bank.
For example, try visiting university cafeterias, where most on-campus restaurants offer complete meal sets starting at 4,000 won or buffet-style dining for just 6,000 won. As college students are universally known to be strapped on cash, many restaurants and street food vendors surrounding universities offer affordable dining experiences.
Check out the street food scene near Noryangjin station, a favorite spot of Chung-Ang University students, where pancake-covered hotdogs, savory and sweet waffles, and hearty and meaty bowls of 컵밥 cup rice will set you back about 3,000 to 5,000 won. Or visit 떡볶이 타운 Tteokbokki Town near Korea University and KAIST’s Seoul campus to indulge in an assortment of spicy rice cakes starting at just 3,500 won.
In a culture where cute cafe culture reigns supreme, there is no shortage of creative and Instagram-worthy coffee shops throughout Korea. Unfortunately, the prices of your standard cup of coffee are not sustainable if you’re looking for a deal on your daily caffeine fix.
Luckily, low-cost coffee franchises are abundant and continue to pop up as more and more consumers want their hot and cold beverages to go and aren’t looking for 5,000 Americanos with picturesque views and all the doily-covered fanfare. For basic Americanos (espresso + water) starting at around 1,500 won, check out Paik’s Coffee, Mega Coffee, Compose Coffee, The Venti, and Juicy. While all these stores offer other drinks, including juices, ades, smoothies, teas, etc. at a slight premium, the prices will be much lower compared to those found in more upscale or themed cafes in Korea.
It can be intimidating to do your banking in a foreign country, but given Korea’s efficient online banking presence and a variety of products and services, it is worthwhile to explore your money-saving options.
Most Korean banks offer time-based, high-yield interest savings accounts. If you are willing to set aside a sum of money throughout a designated maturity period, often ranging from 6 months to 2 years, your savings may rack up 2% and 4% in interest at the end of the term. Check out the savings account products offered by the major banks in your area. They will often have seasonal events that include other financial or gift perks, including discounts at major retailers, semi-annual retail coupons, and gift vouchers. Check out everything you need to know about the South Korean banking system to open a savings account that’s right for you and start accruing interest today.
If you’re looking to dress to the nines for less, check out the second-hand stores peppered throughout Korea. No doubt you’ve passed by a Salvation Army Thrift Store (북아현점), Beautiful Store (아름다운가게), or a Vin Prime (빈프라임), to name a few, located in the city. These stores offer a great selection of women’s and men’s wear and accessories as well as children’s clothes depending on the locations. With pieces ranging from 3,000 won to 25,000 won, you can put together some amazing looks for a fraction of the retail prices.
If you want even steeper discounts and seek a treasure hunt, check out the flea market at Dongmyo Station (동묘앞역) near exit 3 for incredible second-hand clothing, accessories, and even food bargains. Or, if you prefer higher-end looks on a budget, check out the Top 10 Vintage Shops in South Korea to feed your inner fashionista.
If you’ve caught yourself gasping aloud at the soaring prices of produce at your grocery store, you’re in good company. Many expats are taken aback by the hefty price tags of 3,000 won for a single broccoli spear or 8,000 won for a bunch of grapes⸺ did I mention these are the sale prices?
To get your healthy dose of vegetables and other daily staples, check out the 전통시장 traditional market. Not only will you find friendlier prices, but the products will be fresher as the goods are often transported directly from the farmer/producer to the market vendor. These small shop owners also bake their own bread, make their tofu and soy-based products, rice cakes, and other delicious fares. As the meat and fish vendors also have direct relationships with local producers, they can readily offer lower prices for their goods.
Of course, if you’re not in the mood to cook with these lower-cost, high-quality ingredients, take advantage of the cheap street foods within the marketplace. From fried and salted mini potatoes and mung bean pancakes to a heaping paper basket of blood sausage, you can mix and match a variety of small plates to create a budget-friendly and satisfying meal.
Look up and visit your 전통시장 traditional market for locally produced and sourced goods as you stack up on savings. Also, be sure to check out the 10 Best Traditional Markets in Korea to experience a wide range of regional flavors and offerings of Korea’s marketplaces.
It goes without saying that Korea is brimming with fun things to do that are often laced with an element of history and culture. As for cheap thrills, most expats are already familiar with Seoul’s free museums, including the War Memorial of Korea and the National Museum of Korea, as well as admission to grand palaces, tombs, and shrines with ticket prices starting at only 1,000 won.
But did you know that you can take advantage of other activities such as free walking tours by volunteer and tourist agencies and even free Korean language education offered by the Seoul Metropolitan Government? The Seoul Global Center also offers expats free or low-cost classes and lectures covering subjects ranging from flower arrangement, painting, and traditional Korean stamp-making. Whether you are looking to roam the historical palaces as a modern-day king or queen or learn something new and inspired, the Land of Morning Calm offers many avenues to help you save money while living in Korea.