I wanted to write a post on the cost of living in South Korea because I think they can be the most helpful kind of blog posts for fellow travellers and expats. I will do my best to represent everything honestly, but keep in mind that so many of these things come down to how you choose to spend.
At the bottom you can find A MONTH IN THE LIFE OF, or my synopsis on what two people spend living a comfortable but not extravagant life in South Korea over a one month period. I find that can be a little more helpful than just all of these numbers!
For the sake of ease, if you are Canadian or American, you can generally assume about 1,000 KRW(￦) equals about $1.00 but be sure to check current conversion rates for the full picture.
Everything has been neatly rounded up or down, but it shakes out in the wash (I figure).
Street food meal: less than ￦5,000
Restaurant meal – Korean restaurant: averages ￦4,000 – 8,000
Restaurant meal – Korean BBQ: ￦10,000 per person and up
Restaurant meal – Western restaurant: ￦10,000 and up
White rice/2 kg: ￦10,000
Dry beans/1 kg: ￦5,000
Bell peppers/2 – ￦2,500
Bottle of water: ￦500 – 1,000
Fruit and vegetables are very seasonal here, and the fruit especially can be quite expensive. You can only get a handful of different fruits at any given time (if that). I listed apples and bananas because they are the most consistently available. The vegetable situation is a bit better, but you might pay for the privilege of variety.
We don’t buy meat in our household, largely because it is more expensive in the grocery stores than it is at restaurants. If you are an avid meat consumer, expect to pay more than you are used to, or plan to eat it out of the house.
APARTMENT COSTS (based on two bedroom, two person occupancy)
Rent *: free – ￦500,000 –> SO many factors here – scroll to bottom of post for a better description
Key money*: ￦1,000,000 – 20,000,000 –> again, so many factors – scroll to bottom of post for a detailed description of how deposits and rents work in Korea
Apartment/condo fees: ￦100,000 per month (this is what we pay, including garbage and doorman – it could easily vary)
Internet : ￦40,000 per month
Cell phone: ￦10,000 – 70,000 per month (cheap flip phone at the low end, smart phone at the high end) *this does not include the cost of the phone*
Gas (heat/hot water): ￦30,000 – 100,000 depending on the month (winter costs more, naturally)
Bus fare: ￦1,200 with one transfer
Train fare: ￦1,200 plus ￦200 more for each additional section
Cab fare: starts at ￦2,800 (a 30 minute cab ride might land you at about ￦20,000)
Inter-city bus (approx 2 hour trip): ￦10,000 – 12,000
Americano in coffee shop: ￦2,500 and up
Local beer in a supermarket: ￦1,500
Premium beer in a supermarket: ￦3,000 and up
Beer at a pub with English on the menu: ￦3,000 and up
Bottle of wine in a supermarket: ￦10,000 and up
Bottle of wine in a restaurant: ￦30,000 and up
This one, of course, varies the most. There are name brands like Gap, Lacoste, etc at hugely inflated prices. There are Korean brands (with bigger sizes!) like Uniqlo at mid-range prices. And there are street vendors and shops, where you can find almost anything for ￦5,000 -20,000. Granted, the quality is not going to be great. But really, the cost of clothing is not bad at all, given all the choices.
The trickier part might be finding your sizes (unless you are fortunate enough to be of teeny stature). Not to worry though if, like me, you are decidedly UNteeny. There will still be options aplenty and the hardest part will be convincing yourself that you do not, in fact, need another $5 t-shirt…or dress…or leggings…or tank or….
SAVINGS/SENDING MONEY HOME
I imagine the cost of sending money home is different for each person/bank/country. I send money back to Canada each month and it costs me, once all is said and done, roughly ￦30,000 – 60,000. That cost covers the fees that each bank charges me (my Korean bank and my Canadian bank), and what is lost in the transition from KRW to CDN. Of course the larger the chunk, the more the cost, but that gives you a rough idea.
If your job does not come with paid housing, you may need to provide a deposit, or what Koreans call “key money” before you can secure a place to rent. The deposits do not work like they do in North America. For most landlords here, the more you are willing to give in terms of a deposit, the less they will charge you in monthly rent. That being said, to find anywhere willing to come lower than ￦5,000,000 in key money is a rarity. You will, fortunately, get it all back at the end. You can think of it as a long-term savings investment!
To illustrate further, we have friends who put down ￦20,000,000 key money and now only pay ￦100,000 per month for a three story house. Yes. That’s about $100 for numerous rooms and lots of space. But that’s a lot of money they had to part with for now, as well. Other friends went the other route and paid minimal key money but pay ￦500,000 per month for rent (albeit in a sought-after neighbourhood) for a 1.5 bedroom apartment.
Each situation will be different, but if you’re coming without work, it’s best to plan for at least ￦5,000,000 key money so that you’ll be able to have more choice in your preferred accommodations.
A MONTH IN THE LIFE
The boy and I are not what you would call ‘frugal’ by any stretch of the word. We like to eat and drink comfortably. Plus, he could easily out-eat professional athletes, if you catch my drift. On the other hand, we are not out every night getting drunk (though we are IN most nights having some drinks) and we try to keep our cab rides to a minimum.
Here’s a rough idea of how it shakes out, monthly (two people and a pug in a two bedroom apartment):
Rent/bills/utilities: ￦350,000 (our housing is not entirely free, so 150,000 of this is rent)
Groceries: ￦450,000 (we order a couple of expensive, hard-to-find items online that account for some of this)
Gas for the motorbike: ￦80,000
Cell phones: ￦80,000
Cab fare: ￦80,000
If you do the math, you will see that before factoring in things like trips or weekends away, we end up spending about ￦2,200,000 on regular living expenses (or what we consider ” regular”).
It means that we can afford some trips and send money home, but we aren’t squirreling away as much as we had planned or hoped to. Granted, as I said above, we do not work overly hard at saving. We like to eat and drink and do things. If you are coming debt free and don’t have to send money home, you should be able to live very comfortably and travel and still save.
It IS worth noting that the first few months we were here, our costs were a bit higher (and those utilities really creep up in winter, too). We hadn’t found a lot of Korean food places we could eat at yet, we didn’t know where to get the cheaper groceries, and we didn’t realize how much money we could save by turning the hot water on and off each time we used it. This breakdown is after many months of figuring stuff out. If you do the ‘sorting’ a little faster, you’ll be in better shape.
Also important: the small, family-run local grocery shops tend to have less variety but their prices are usually lower than or comparable to the big chains (that might seem counter-intuitive to some Westerners, as it did to us). Do NOT under any circumstances, buy your groceries from the Lotte store…unless you want to be begging for food money by the time payday rolls around 😉
I hope that about covers it! Let me know if I missed anything or if you have any specific cost/daily life questions. I’m happy to help!