How to pay off $20,000 in debt AND save $80,000 by working in Korea

Save AND eat awesome Korean snacks... it's a good life
Quality of life, delectable snacks AND savings… Julie lives a good life in Korea…

Do your finances worry you?  Do you feel trapped?  Like you have to put up with a horrible lifestyle because you can’t afford to leave a job?  Do you not even have a job?

Meet my friend Julie Tillotson.  She recently told me the story of how she and her husband, Ben, pulled off what many in the United States and elsewhere consider financially impossible by thinking and acting internationally.  Her story should inspire us all to realize that there are always better options out there if we are willing to be adventurous.

Below are my interview questions and her answers:

 1) What was it that triggered your decision to move to South Korea?

Financial insecurity and restlessness.  Having repatriated to the US after completing university and getting married in the UK, Ben and I were searching for jobs and living with my parents (Thanks Mom and Dad!).  After filling out 60+ job applications, we only managed to get part-time temp jobs with zero benefits.  Wanting to be self-sufficient and passionately wanting to travel, EFL (English as a foreign language) jobs in Korea offered that and more: free plane tickets, free housing, medical insurance, pension and full time work experience.

2) How much do you make per year?

My salary has been between 20,000-35,000USD* per year depending on the job and exchange rates.

*These figures do not include housing, pension or other benefits that vary from job to job.

3) How much is it possible to save per month?

Between 800-1000USD on a reasonable starting salary, more if you are super motivated.

4) Please elaborate on the school and other debt that you were able to pay off as well as the money you were able to save.

Unfortunately, I had a credit card run up to 20,000USD from school bills and emergency use while unemployed. It took 11 months for us to pay it off by each contributing 800-1000USD per month.  Over the next 3 years we saved a total of 80,000USD.  We used the money to do MA degrees in the UK without needing student loans.

Julie and Ben
Julie and Ben

5) What is your advice to people that are considering going to Asia to find work and financial stability?

A. Research! Customs, culture, and work environment are always more different than most expect. Familiar concepts such as contracts, employee/employer relationships, and set work responsibilities can be shockingly different to the unprepared.

B. Documents first!  It’s up to you and only you to have your work visa documents in order.  With criminal background checks it can be a waiting game, so don’t delay!

C. Quality photography!  It’s standard procedure to include a photo for job applications in Asia.  Professional appearance is highly valued in Asia.

6) What are the main risks in making a move similar to yours?

Stress and illness.  An international move, unfamiliar job, culture shock and contact with new bacteria and virus’ is a recipe for catching colds and flu.

7) How long do you plan on staying in Korea? Why?

Two to five years.  My job, friends and a comfortable lifestyle keep me here for now.  However, the declining birthrate in Korea will hit universities with all-time low student enrollment within 5 years, so university jobs will likely become more competitive.

8) If you were trying to sell someone on doing what you have done in Korea, what would you say?

As far as money goes, imagine what you can accomplish without paying for rent, car payment or gas. Korea has a growing economy where English teachers are in demand. Seoul is safe, has great public transportation, and there is always something fun to see or do in spare time.

With dining like this, who needs persuasion?
With dining like this, who needs persuasion?

9) What do you dislike most about living abroad?

Long gaps in seeing family and long-time friends.

10) What are your top relocation tips?

Don’t make assumptions about your host culture, take time to wrap your brain around things that initially seem strange to you.

Do make additional friends outside your workplace through volunteering, church, sports and clubs.

Do learn about local fresh produce and ingredients and create beautiful healthy meals at home.

Julie Tillotson is an American who has been living in Seoul, South Korea with her husband, Ben for the past 9 years.  She currently works at Seokyeong University in the General Education program and loves exploring the city in her free time.

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17 thoughts on “How to pay off $20,000 in debt AND save $80,000 by working in Korea”

    1. Hi Carol! I don’t know your age…but I wanted to mention, I work with some great people in their 50s and early 60s. The retirement age here is 65. Of course being young without anything to tie us down, really did make the move easier.

      1. Just a tad over…but very young at heart. Guess my adventure was teaching in the Philippines a few years ago and the fun we had traveling. Loved the people and their many cultures. Enjoy while you can.

    1. Hi Sera! We found all our jobs directly by finding them advertised online. It’s common to go through recruiters, but we were more comfortable with more direct contact. -Julie

      1. Actually, yes. My boyfriend and I have talked about teaching English in Korea. He’s korean, so it’s one of the only places he’s really interested in. The biggest problem is that I don’t yet have a bachelor’s, which is required about 99% of the time.

  1. Do they still have that rule in S Korea that you have to be American, English or Aussi or another English-speaking country to teach English? When I taught in Japan, they didn’t require that, so that was nice for me!

    1. Hi Karin, Awesome that you taught in Japan. : ) Yes, the rule you mentioned applies to the E2 visa. However, there are other visa’s available that have completely different requirements including a very recent one the H-1 which is for young people who are traveling and might want to pick up some work along the way.

    2. As far as I know that rule is still in place. But yes, Japan, Thailand and other Asian countries do not have the same restrictions..

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