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How moving to South Korea for a year helped me pay off $16,000 of debt


In 2007, I decided to move to South Korea to pay off my credit card debt and travel the world.

While in college in Canada, I’d known I wanted to travel and live on my own. Back then, the whole concept of travel hacking and the incredible amount of travel services just weren’t available — it was still pretty pricey to hop on a plane overseas.

One of my childhood friends told me how she managed to travel to different countries, pay down her student debt, and set aside money for savings by working as a teacher an English teacher in South Korea, where she earned a salary equivalent to a teacher’s salary in the US, but with the advantage of living in a country with cheaper expenses.

After spending almost a year looking for a job as a high school English teacher in Canada, I decided to try my luck overseas. I knew that if I stuck around in Toronto, I wouldn’t have been able to afford my daily expenses while still being able to travel the world.

In August 2007, I packed my bags, finalized my work visa, and got on a plane to Seoul, South Korea.

The low cost of living enabled to me to pay off my debt and save

My friend had recommended me for a teaching position teaching English to 7-year-old children in what’s referred to as a language academy.

My one-year teaching contract, which paid me a $35,000 annual salary, included extra subsidies. For example, I was given an apartment to live in, eliminating the need to pay rent. Considering I would have paid at least $800 a month in rent in Toronto, that saved me quite a bit of cash. I also lived across the street from my school in Seoul, so I didn’t have to pay much for transportation costs.

Whenever I went to visit friends on the weekends, I would take the subway, which cost around $2 depending on distance, and taxis rarely cost me more than $10 across the city. Back in Toronto, I had a car and would commute for at least 30 to 45 minutes, which cost me hundreds per month.

I took the money I would have paid for rent and transportation and added it to my debt payments each month. Because of this I was able to pay off all my $9,000 worth of credit card debt and $7,000 in student loans in less than a year.

In terms of other discretionary spending, I ate out quite a bit. If I stuck with local restaurants, South Korea can be pretty cheap — I averaged less than $10 a day.

As for travel, I stuck to Asian countries, which turned out to be a great move because flights are much cheaper and the destinations I traveled to were even cheaper — you can eat really well in Thailand, for example, for around a $1 a meal.

After I became debt-free, I used that money to set aside for savings. Back then I didn’t have any major goals, but I was proud to say I bumped up my savings rate to about 55% — compared to nothing when I was in Toronto. In that one year in South Korea, I saved about $9,000. Throughout the years, I’ve been able to use this cash for things like investing, paying for a wedding, and having a baby.

Sarah Li Cain, pictured while living in South Korea in 2007.
Courtesy of Sarah Li Cain

Not everything about living abroad was perfect

As much as I’d love to say there are only upsides to living overseas, there are lots of downsides as well. For one, you’re still working, meaning you can’t take off and travel as you please. That meant I couldn’t go and visit family and friends, and I got homesick quite often. I also missed out on a lot of events like a dear friend’s wedding, family reunions, and road trips with friends.

It might be a bit better now, but it was a bit harder to find items I’d usually find back home, like certain brands of cereals and — get this — deodorant. When I was stressed and wanted comfort food or for someone to speak English at the post office, it wasn’t easy.

Perhaps the biggest one of all: You’re on a work visa (this is the case in most countries overseas) so your employer has more control than you care to admit. As in, if you hate working or your employer, it’s not easy to go and look for another job. In one instance a coworker had to leave the country for 30 days before his new employer was allowed to apply for a new work visa for him.

I’m also aware that not everyone has the option of moving to a place with a cheaper cost of living to pay their debt. I had the money to be able to even go in the first place, plus enough money for a plane ticket and a month’s worth of expenses in case I wasn’t paid on time. I was also single at the time, with no major responsibilities like a home or a car. Plus, I knew people who were in South Korea and a friend had recommended me for a job.

Working overseas isn’t for everyone — if you find it hard to adjust to new places or have a lot of responsibilities back home, you could find it hard. As for me, I finished my contract and loved it so much that I ended up moving to China for almost eight years, teaching at an elementary school there. I’m glad I went and it sparked my lifelong love of travel.

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