Andy Baxley is a Seoul-based writer, photographer, and teacher. He writes about “the new art of 20-something prosperity” at Vicenarianism.
Few people would ever consider using “Seoul” and “paradise” in the same sentence, and there’s for good reason for this. Eleven million overworked people living on top of each other in an over-polluted ocean of drab highrise apartment buildings, a mere 120 miles from the world’s best known fear-mongering, nuclear-armed man-child, hardly conjures visions of Shangri-La.
Yet, despite all this, here I am. Here we are, the Seoul English teacher expats; it’s hard to say how many of us there are, but the number easily exceeds ten-thousand, if not fifteen. Could this many people have lost their minds, or are we on to something? Many of us left gorgeous home cities to come live in this mess, but why?
Admittedly, on surface level, Seoul might appear to be a rather dismal place to live, but the reality, as we all know, is that it is anything but dismal. Yes, it is often grimy, ugly, and oppressively utilitarian by design, but it’s also a slow-boiling charmer and a tremendous heap of good, cheap fun. I didn’t tell many people this, but I disliked Seoul in a lot of ways when I first arrived in 2010. At that time I had a hard time seeing how I could possibly last an entire year here. Now, three years later, here I am lapping praise on the land of morning calm.
Essentially, my love of this city boils down to output maximization. How can I maximize output(fun/high-quality food/etc.), while minimizing input(money)? Seoul is vibrant, thriving, and above all, economical. As far as the ESL world is concerned, there is simply no better Asian city for frugal living. Sure, Phnom Penh might be cheaper, but the wages are commensurate with the low cost of living. On the other end of the spectrum are places like Tokyo, where ESL income soars, but potential for saving remains limited due to outlandishly expensive goods and services.
I make 2.4 million won/mo.(~$2,200) at my current hagwon job, and even with a $275 monthly student loan payment, I regularly manage to save well over half of what I earn. I generally aim to spend under 100,000 ₩/week (~$91), and it is rare that I fail to meet this goal.
The cost of having a good time in Seoul is largely a matter of choice. I’ve had some pretty amazing weekends here for around 50,000₩ (~$40), but I’ve also managed to spend three times that much. There are a number of pricey entertainment/dining options on offer in Seoul, but there is also an endless combination of cheap or free options as well. A 40,000₩ weekend might include two delicious restaurant meals with friends (20,000₩), an afternoon taking in horses and sun at Seoul Racecourse Park (1,000₩, plus whatever penny bets you decide to place), a Doosan Bears baseball game (10,000₩), an evening drinking makgeolli at the park in Hongdae (8,000₩), a shared taxi ride home (6,000₩), an afternoon hanging out at Olympic Park (free), and a visit to a world-class museum (free-10,000₩). I don’t know if you could possibly manage to fit that much fun into one weekend, but even if you could, you’d still come in around 50,000₩.
The high income and low cost of living in Seoul are wonderful, but they only make up half of what makes it so easy to live frugally here. Just as important, in my opinion, is the fact that most ESL teachers earn roughly the same income. There is a sense of economic equality here that I’ve never experienced in any other community. ESL teachers certainly don’t struggle financially, but we aren’t rich either. Lifestyles tend to be modest, not particularly flashy. Nobody owns a big fancy house, nor an expensive car (or any car, for that matter). There is no need to keep up with the Jones’, because the Jones’ tend to be right at your same level.
Far from being just a good time, Seoul is a magical place for a young person trying to get their feet on the ground financially. Two or three years in Korea can go a long way towards paying off student loans, saving for grad school, covering a down-payment on a house, or starting a business. Given enough time, it can even make you a millionaire. It is the intersection where frugality and wanderlust collide, a place where idealistic college grads can experience a version of the adventurous life they always dreamed of.
Despite its many flaws and blemishes, many of us cannot help but have an ongoing love affair with this city. I am amazed and grateful each day that I can live so well on so little money. Indeed, for the budget-conscious, Seoul is a paradise of sorts.