5 February 2017

Korean Beauty on a Budget - Survival in Korea

It's been over three years since I moved to Korea, but more than six years since discovering Korean skincare and makeup.

Here's a couple of lessons I've learned along the way on how to control my spending in Korea, how to get the products I love for cheaper and how to take advantage of being a resident instead of a tourist.

DISCLAIMER: I'm NOT affiliated with any of the brands or products mentioned. Just love me my makeup and skincare for cheap. :)

I remember the excitement of my first (uninformed) K-Beauty online purchase years ago. Of waiting for three weeks for that one package.

And then I remember going to South Korea for the first time and SPLURGING.
Back then (five years ago) online shopping wasn't yet as convenient and cheap, especially to my home country Switzerland. So of course, I had to go all-out in Korea and stock up on everything and anything. Perfectly reasonable:

  • It's all cheaper than in online shops.
  • No shipping!
  • Products that can't be found online are everywhere
  • Swatching and testing in store to prevent color mishaps make decisions easy
Really good reasons to spend a bit more, right?

Well, these reasons don't apply once you live here. Once I moved to Korea, I had to adjust my shopping habits - most of that happened subconsciously over the first year.

Suddenly, there was no time limit, and no reason to buy a lot at once.

Gradually, I learned enough Korean to find better deals than in the tourist districts.

Slowly, my perception changed from 'oh, a cream for just 20000\' to 'Heol (=Korean for 'WTF'), a cream for 20000\?!' - a combination of lower living costs and lower salaries made what once looked cheap just standard, or even expensive!

Temptation was everywhere. I had to stop myself from jumping at new products and shiny packaging all the time.

If you're in Korea for more than just a quick vacation, here are five tips to save on skincare and makeup, while still getting the products you'd wanted anyway.


While it's great fun to buy anything that catches your eye on a vacation, I did get overwhelmed trying to choose what to buy once I started living in Korea permanently. THERE'S JUST TOO MANY BRANDS. 

The easiest trick for me to stay in control of my beauty cravings was zeroing in on the brands that worked for me in the past: Brands my skin loved, brands where the formulations have never (or barely ever) disappointed me, or that fit my general price class. I made the conscious decision to ignore the rest. Yes, there's cute packaging and nice formulations and interesting colors just about everywhere - but I'll see those one day by chance, while shopping with friends or by getting recommendations. 

Brands I focus on: Innisfree (my skin loves their stuff, no allergies, no sensitivity; great products for simple makeup looks), Mamonde (their cheap sheet mask line is holy grail status for me, plus all their 'Rose' products), Sidmool (for natural skincare products like oils) and I keep my eyes on Espoir and VDL for the rare splurge on high-quality color or base makeup.

Focusing on only a couple of brands that work for your skin, your sense of aesthetic, your budget and preferences in ecology friendliness/animal ingredients and so on keeps you from impulse buying duds, makes it easy to keep track of sales and interesting releases and to accumulate member benefits... which leads us to:


As soon as you have an Alien Registration Card number, you can register for brand memberships and VIP programs. Depending on the brand, you'll get perks from higher sales (30% instead of 10% or 20%, for example) to points (that you can use to buy products in the future) to free gifts or birthday presents. Who doesn't love free stuff? 

'Greentea Club' Gifts from Innisfree I've been using up:
- A set of their super-food skincare with a Cleanser, Skin and Lotion
- A mixed bag of essences and creams and cleansers
- A small bottle of perfume

I've been on a no-buy from the beginning of November till now, beginning of February - but still got enough new products for free thanks to those memberships and by just using beauty points to buy specific stuff I've run out of. 

I'm a member of Amore Pacific (Iope, Mamonde, Laneige, Aritaum, Innisfree, Etude...) and then again specifically a member of Espoir, Aritaum and Innisfree for some extra VVIP perks. You gain VVIP (or Greentea Club for innisfree) status after a certain amount of money spent - which happened more or less automatically due to me buying skincare and makeup as gifts for whenever I went home to Switzerland. But even just the basic membership allows you to collect points, get birthday perks (extra points, 40% coupons...) and additional sale days throughout the month.

Recycling tip: Return your empty bottles and jars to Innisfree shops during their membership days to get a ton of beauty points! Returning them on normal days will still give you some points, too.

App recommendation: I downloaded the 'Beauty Point' app by accident when I actually wanted the Aritaum one. But no regrets! You get free points just for signing up, and can check the app for daily point events. 


Those sale days I mentioned? Every road-shop brand has them. Mostly over a weekend once month, with different discount rates depending on products and membership status. 

Patience is the key!

In my first year, if a brand came out with gorgeous looking lipstick colors, or new sheet masks, or just anything shiny, I'd pounce on it (as far as my wallet allowed, sigh). 
But the pattern soon became clear: A couple of weeks after a new release, those products would have an event sale, mostly a 1+1, to keep interest high after the first publicity flurry was over. 

Products that are higher up in the price range, like essences, serums and creams, don't do the buy-one-get-one-free but they will offer special sets or go on sale once a month.

  • Plan ahead, buy your pricier skincare products like creams and essences on sale days or with birthday coupons, and take advantage of the event sales for lip products, eye shadows, mascara, facial mists, sheet masks... 

  • This actually works on a smaller scale if you're a tourist, too. If you're in Korea for, let's say, 10 days, don't just buy all your things on the first day. You'll see the same stores everywhere, and at least some of your planned purchases will probably go on sale while you're in the country.


...or what I refer to as my 'hunting grounds'. Rawr!

Very likely, once you visit Korea, you'll be checking out shopping paradises in Seoul like Myeongdeong or Hongdae. There's stores of the same brands on pretty much every street.

They aren't all the same! 

Check out different stores in areas you frequent. Their product range will come in different sizes (less or more shades), new releases will arrive sooner or later and samples will be more or less generously given. 

  • Some shops seem to ALWAYS be out of swatch-ready tester products. 
  • Some shops are marketed towards tourists. Their sales assistants are mostly chosen for their language skills in Chinese and/or English, with lots of part-timers during vacation months. 
  • Large flag-ship stores will have the prettiest decor and the newest releases, but will also be the first to sell out during events. 

I chose 'my' shops after learning some basic Korean. Being able to just ask questions and get actual useful information instead of just a promotional speech was a criteria. If you like to get recommendations for colors, be careful: Choose a store where you like the staff's makeup! Seriously! There's a tendency to just recommend the lightest base makeup shade and the bestselling lipstick color, no matter if it suits you, so finding a shop with staff that knows their stuff is essential.

Perks of going to 'your' shop: You know how everything's organized, you can get to know the permanent staff, have fun chatting - and I've found they'll give you more free samples or be forgiving if you show up late to pick up your gift sets etc. 

There's also the whole 'deer in headlights' thing that can be avoided by being a regular customer: Once the local staff knows that you speak even a little Korean/won't try to ask questions in English, they lose that panicked look when you come through the door. ;)


Yes, even if you live in Korea.

There's two ways of profiting from online shopping in Korea that I want to mention:

Brand Websites: 
  • Most brands have 'online only' products that you can't find in physical stores. 
  • If you want to take advantage of sale days when you don't have time to run to a store, you can shop for discounted products online.
  • There's extra large sizes of bestseller products, or refill bags for cleansers and lotions, where you get more product for your money. Perfect if you want to re-buy your staples!
Third-Party Sellers:

Sites like the Korean gmarket, wemakeprice, ticketmonster and so on make it possible to find products at their sale price literally all the time. These third-party sellers are perfect for brands where you're not VIP member but would like to make one-time purchases. They allow you to use the site's general coupons for beauty products that are rarely on sale in their 'own' stores. These are the places where I go after limited editions (which are either sold-out or already discontinued) and get my higher-end makeup products for reduced prices. Why buy that VDL primer for 22000\ in store when I can get it for 16000\ online? 

As you can see, I love makeup and skincare. I have a kinda-beauty blog just because I want a reason to try pretty stuff and take pictures of it. But since I can't really prioritize beauty expenses (that honor goes to house payments, art supplies, family visits, FOOD :D) AND don't want to compromise when it comes to quality, I've become quite adapt at finding good deals, tempering my urges and planning ahead. If you're on a budget, I hope these tips can help you! 

Do you have some tips to stay on top of your beauty spending? How do you balance saving and 'treat yo self' bliss? Have you been to Korea and gotten some shopping done? :) 

Thanks for reading! <3


  1. So jealous that you have membership cards in Korea! But some great tips I'll have to keep in mind for when I next visit.

    Sophie | MapleTreeBlog

    1. They are the best thing! My husband actually had an Innisfree membership, too, so he's been slowly racking up points over the years (...... they're transferable haha)

  2. Really great tips! I agree that patience is super important. :)

    1. I did struggle with that in the beginning, really. But as time goes by I noticed how predictable brands are and I got super zen about shopping. :D

  3. Hello there! Thank you so much for the information. May I ask how do I sign up for the memberships? Do I do it online or in store? My Korean is not very good and I can't seem to find any info regarding instructions on how to sign up for beauty membership card. Thank you in advance

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