Sometimes my existence (both in Korea and elsewhere) isn't that different than that of a homeless person. But unlike a homeless person I made a very conscious decision to live this way. Teaching English in Korea it is very possible to save the majority of your paycheck each month even though in comparison to the engineering salary I could be making my paycheck here is not that much. Let me outline how to save money and still have fun in Korea.
Key for Americans: $1~1000 Korean won
1. Eat Korean food
Even if I didn't love Korean food as much as I do, I would be eating it and shopping in Korean grocery stores. Yes you can get western food here, but why should I pay an arm and a leg for a nasty pizza or hamburger (not that I even ate those things in the States anyway) when I can get delicious and cheap Korean food. Same goes for groceries. I could spend a fortune for a block of cheese or I could get some of the tastiest tofu in the world for less than 1,000 won? Now, like most things I undertake I tend to go overboard on saving money. This means I will eat the SAME thing for a week if it was on sale and because I'm mortally afraid of food going bad and ultimately having to throw something away. My pantry is not chock full of snacks and spices and other random treats. It is the bare bones essentials.
2. Take advantage of free handouts
Korea is a wonderful place for sample lovers like myself. Take a stroll through the grocery store (with the intention of buying something of course ;) ) and sample the many foods that sweet little Korean ladies are advertizing. If you feel guilty about sampling and not buying don't worry. You simply shop less each time you enter the grocery store so that EVERY single day you have an excuse to enter the grocery store and take advantage of samples. And the best part is that because everything is close in Korea you don't have to worry about wasting gas money (and harming the environment) getting to the grocery store. The only unfortunate part about Korean samples is that there is always someone manning the demo booth. This makes coming back for seconds a bit awkward. I use the samples as my snacks since I generally have three meals a day plus snacks in between.
Besides samples in the grocery store there are always various church groups in public places handing out pamphlets and free stuff, usually tissues and wet wipes. Nevermind that I can't read the pamphlets, I'll take the freebies. Kamsamnida! And this leads me to number 3.
3. Replace items you might normally buy with freebies
I hate buying toilet paper. What an unpleasent thing to waste money on, but unfortunately it's a neccessity. Problem solved though! Use free tissue freebies mentioned in number two as TP! I have only purchased toilet paper twice in Korea because of these lovely free tissues! When I run road races here they also often hand out free tissues and it's usually pretty simple to snag one or two tissue packets. Score! Toilet paper dilemna solved!
4. Buy produce and other food items in a Korean traditional market
Regular supermarket produce is outrageously expensive! BUT on side streets and other areas throughout Korea you can find markets selling produce and other food products for a fraction of the cost. Some of the food I won't touch, but things that aren't super important to be organic I will buy. Check out the dirty dozen list for things you should buy organic. Tofu in the markets is way more delicious and fresh too!
5. Make Korean friends and be friendly with the teachers in your school
Koreans are very generous (and you should be in return). They will usually share whatever scrumptious (and sometimes not so delicious) snacks with you at school and often even send you home with leftovers. I have gotten whole meals this way. Also, if you invite Koreans over to your apartment they usually come bearing food or another practical item (such as paper towels or I've even heard toilet paper). Lastly, when teachers retire at your school it is customary for them to give everyone gifts and they are usually practical gifts. I have received an umbrella and towel!
6. Be a good teacher!
If your students like you there is the potential to get snacks and candy on a regular basis.
Don't do it! Well... if you must, go to the underground shopping stores where you can find super cheap clothes and shoes. These underground shopping centers can be found near many subway stations in Incheon and Seoul. Edit: Check out the awesome 1,000 won store called Daiso. Unlike "dollar stores" in the States their products are a bit "classier" and SEEM like better quality.
8. Don't turn on the heater in winter
Well this one all depends on the apartment situation but I got lucky in this aspect. My apartment is on the 7th flour of a thirteen story building. Because of this I can essentially steal warmth from the apartments above, below, and on either side of my apartment. Plus my apartment faces the sun which is unfortunate for sleeping but fortunate for heating. In Korea all apartments are fitted with floor heating. I am happy to say that I only turned on my heater once all winter (and this was in the midst of one of Korea's coldest winters on record). Now I would be lying if I said that I didn't get cold but it was a small price to pay to save money.
Now all these money saving tactics might make it seem like I never have fun (I do in fact save almost 3/4 of my paycheck every month and that includes travel expenses). So here is tip number nine.
9. Don't buy drinks at a bar
If going out for a few drinks is your thing this could get expensive even though drinks are relatively cheap in Korea. Don't buy drinks! Instead bring your own in! Requires a bit of sneaking and a big enough bag to fit the drinks but it's completely doable.
10. Limit eating out
Both when traveling and in Korea limit eating out. Eating out in Korea IS cheap BUT it still can add up if you're not careful about what you order and if you eat out on a regular basis. When traveling if you don't eat out, you WILL save massive amounts of money. Go to a supermarket or convenience store and buy and make your own food. Now I realize that eating local foods is part of the travel experience but don't eat out every single meal. It will break the bank. In Europe I just stole food from breakfast at my hostel to make a simple sandwich for lunch, then out for dinner. Unfortunately in Asia most accomodations don't include breakfast so this tactic does not work so well.
What do I do with the extra money? Pay off my stupid student loan which I am proud to say will be demolished by the end of May! The government is not going to suck interest out of me. And one last tip don't use a credit card unless you can pay in full by the time the bill rolls around. I have a hard time understanding how people fall for this one because interest is so ridiculous if you don't pay up in full.
I won't mention some of my more extreme money saving tactics. Yes, my lifestyle often approaches digging for trash but I'd rather spend my money on travel. Happy saving!