Reader Case Study: Family of Four Plans a Move from Oregon to Japan
Helen and Earl want to move to Japan! They currently live in Portland, Oregon with their two daughters and are planning to make the leap overseas in the spring of 2021. Helen would like our help thinking through the process of moving and wants to check her financial projections with us. Read my disclosures here.
Case Studies are financial (and life) dilemmas that a reader of Frugalwoods sends to me requesting that Frugalwoods nation weigh in. Then, Frugalwoods nation (that’s you!), reads through their situation and provides advice, encouragement, insight, and feedback in the comments section. For an example, check out last month’s case study. Case Studies are updated by participants (at the end of the post) several months after the Case is featured. Visit this page to find links to all updated Case Studies.
I probably don’t need to say the following because you folks are the kindest, most polite commenters on the internet, but, please note that Frugalwoods is a judgement-free zone where we endeavor to help one another, not to condemn.
And a disclaimer that I am not a trained financial professional and I encourage people not to make serious financial decisions based solely on what one person on the internet advises. I encourage everyone to do their own research to determine the best course of action for their finances. Other disclosures here.
With that I’ll let Helen, this month’s Case Study subject, take it from here!
Hello! I’m Helen, I’m 44, and I live in Portland, Oregon with my husband Earl (also 44), and our two daughters, ages 12 and 7. Earl and I moved here in the late ’90s and, while we like Portland, we’re planning to move to Japan in the spring of 2021! More on that in a moment. I work in management at a federal agency and Earl is earning his Master’s in Teaching English as a Second Language.
We both went to college late, so I graduated with my BAs (Economics and Spanish) when I was pregnant with our oldest child and he graduated (with a BA in geography) when she was two years old. Before pursuing his MA, Earl worked in a law office as a legal secretary. Prior to that, we both worked for about 15 years (since we were ages 14 and 16 respectively) in restaurants.
Helen & Earl’s Financial Upbringing
Earl and I had similar upbringings in that we both grew up in Maine with limited financial resources. His family didn’t make much money when he was young and he grew up extremely frugally (for instance, his bedroom wasn’t heated in the winter because they could only afford to heat the bottom level of the house).
My family was poor too, but in an odd way. They owned a business and some years, when we had money, my parents would buy us nice clothes and cool stuff (not that we were flush, just flush in comparison), and then other years, we went bankrupt and lost our vehicles. When my parents had money, they would immediately spend it on things like a new car or a boat.
Neither of my parents saved for retirement, they’ve now stopped working, and they only have social security to rely on after a lifetime of working extremely, extremely hard. Our parents were unable to help us with college or other expenses when we were young adults. In fact, I’m the one who usually bails out my family; for instance, my little brother died this year and I paid for all the funeral expenses since no one else could. Additionally, I often loan my father small sums of money when he is tight, though I try to limit this.
Helen & Earl’s Financial Awakening
A few years ago, Earl and I couldn’t figure out why we were bringing home a good amount of money, but couldn’t make ends meet. I read Your Money or Your Life, then found the Mad Fientist podcast, and from an interview on that show, found Frugalwoods. What I learned was a revelation to me, and we started working to align our spending with our values. Doing that work forced us to realize that a lot of our spending–and our energy use–was not in alignment with our values.
Our time was consumed with commuting to get kids, our money was consumed with paying other people to care for our kids, and we spent a lot of money on things like groceries and eating out in order to manage how stretched thin we felt by all this running around.
We also had a lot of stuff. Our house at the time was small, but I had a tendency to show love to my children by buying them toys I didn’t have when I was young. I also spent a lot of money on art supplies and expensive experiences for them (pony parties, passes to area museums, dance classes, piano lessons, etc). The result: it felt like we were drowning in excess consumption, which was in complete opposition to our values. Because we lived in a small house and didn’t drive a fancy car or have fancy clothes, I’d tricked myself into thinking we weren’t materialistic, when in fact the data showed the opposite!
We realized that something we do value a lot is adventure and especially travel. For both Earl and me, one of our favorite things to do–since an early age–is travel. We also value caring for the world and not being materialistic.
Slowly, we worked to change our financial direction. I linked all of our spending in Mint so we could face what we spent. It was painful–for example, we thought we spent about $800 a month on groceries, but it was actually $1,200 a month, because we had so many mid-week stops at a fancy grocery store. On one credit card, I was unknowingly paying $500 a month in interest; because the debt embarrassed me, I hadn’t looked at it for a year.
Our “fixed” costs were consuming my entire paycheck and I was making the bulk of the money at that time (my husband worked at a law office making about $36k and I made around $96k). Examples of these fixed costs included a $187/month cell phone plan, $1,400 a month on childcare, and lots and lots of debt payments. Our total debt load at that point–between student loans and credit cards–was around $120k. We even had a 401k loan.
How Helen & Earl Transformed Their Finances
While the picture was dismal, we had a few things going for us. Growing up poor, we both had the muscle memory of living without the abundance we’d created for ourselves as adults. We knew we could handle discomfort as we deflated our lifestyle and it didn’t scare us. Earl and I were also unified in this goal of reducing our spending and paying down our debt. I’m the planner in the relationship and my husband is the implementer. Earl was completely on board with implementing whatever plans I came up with and I was completely on board with his implementation strategies.
We tackled our debt like peeling back an onion. I outlined a number of action items for us to reduce our spending and we worked through the list from easiest to hardest. Some things took longer to happen than others—for instance, on our cell phone, we were under contract and we stepped down over a period of time until we got the end point of using Twigby (a cheap and reliable MVNO).
We also had some setbacks. In our first six months we reduced our debt by $12k, but then our roof started to leak. It was overdue for replacement and there were a number of other house maintenance items building up as well. Portland is a high cost of living city and we ended up spending $13k to re-do the roof, which put us $3k below when we started! I was so discouraged, but we kept going.
Identifying Their Values, Analyzing Their Lifestyle
As we talked more and more about our values, Earl and I realized we didn’t like paying so much for childcare and driving across town to get there. Our kids go to an immersion public school, which is really important to me, and I’m thrilled they have the opportunity to learn Japanese from a young age. However, due to the location, this meant we were driving across town during rush hour and not getting home until 6pm. I would leave work at about 4pm and it would take me over two hours to pick everyone up and get home.
I made a spreadsheet to examine different scenarios of selling our house and buying or renting a home near the kids’ school.
We ended up deciding to sell our house and rent a small apartment near the kids’ school. We decided we wanted to simplify and didn’t want to be tied down by another property. We fixed up our house, sold it, and with the proceeds, were able to pay down all of our debt and put some money in our retirement savings! Since moving, I’ve been maxing out our retirement accounts and saving extra money on top of that.
Looking To The Future: Moving To Japan!
After coming out from under our debt, and as a result of evaluating our values and longterm goals, Earl and I decided that we want to move to a foreign country, preferably Japan, ideally in the spring of 2021. Earl is working on his Master’s in Teaching English as a Second Language and his university has a relationship with a university in Japan that recruits graduates of the program. Earl has researched the program and he appears to have the requisite qualifications. He’s also been looking at other opportunities in Japan.
Based on his research, we think it’s reasonable he could get a job making around $50k a year in Japan. The cost of living in Japan is variable, but in the area where his program often sends people, we’re told that rent for a family apartment is around $700 to $800 (US Dollars), which is much less than we spend on rent now. It appears that some costs are higher and some are lower, but overall I think we’d be ok on just his income.
I created a scenario worksheet to see what would happen if we moved and here’s are the factors we’re considering:
- I have a very secure management position in a federal agency, making $120k a year with a pension and health care.
- According to my calculations, if we didn’t save any more for retirement after moving to Japan, we would wind up with $1.2 million in our retirement investment accounts at age 65 (note: this is not adjusted for inflation).
- When the kids reach college age, we would have about $30k for each of them, which isn’t much, but we plan to do public universities and also look overseas where the programs are less expensive than in the US.
When we move (projected for spring 2021):
- Our projection is to have about $60k in cash CDs as an emergency cushion and $20k in a brokerage account that we could access if absolutely needed.
- Additionally, we’d have money saved up for our moving expenses.
- Once in Japan, we’d live off of Earl’s income, and would try to save some of it every month, although given the uncertainty of our expenses in Japan, I hate to plan on being able to save.
- I’m considering doing freelance work in my specialty, which is energy efficiency. I have at least one business contact who would contract out to me, although I haven’t started marketing myself yet—I would do that a few months before we moved. This delay is based on guidance from my employer’s ethics office regarding what I can and cannot do while in my current job.
- I’m also considering working part-time teaching English. If possible, I’d like to avoid working full-time so that I can focus on the kids’ transition as well as learning the culture, writing, and making art.
- We would save any and all income that I brought in.
Why We Want To Move Now
We’ve considered delaying our move overseas in order to save more money, but our kids are getting older and I’m concerned that when our oldest is in the thick of her teen years, she won’t want to move. Right now, they’re both super excited about the idea and willing to go on this adventure as a family. They also both speak Japanese, which makes Japan a very attractive option.
One reason I feel okay with the amount of money we’re projected to have in retirement (if we’re unable to save more while in Japan) is that we plan to do geographic arbitrage in order to reduce our costs in retirement. I’m mostly worried about medical expenses, but I think we could live in countries where we could manage those costs efficiently. I also think that, between our savings, social security, and my pension, we could live simply in the US if we decided not to stay overseas.
A potential downside is that if we hate living overseas and want to come back to the US, I don’t think I could get a job that pays what I make now or that offers as much freedom. It’s possible, but I think I need to be prepared that if we come back to the US prematurely, I’ll make a lot less money. I personally would prefer to try it out versus live my life regretting that I didn’t try. I know that if I don’t live overseas, it will be my biggest life regret.
The Best Parts
The best part of our routine right now is that our lives are fairly simple and less logistically complicated. Our apartment is easy to clean and the clutter is limited. We live a short drive or bike ride from nice nature areas. I commute to work by train and love my morning and afternoon rides where I knit/sew while listening to podcasts. Plus, my employer pays for my transit pass. Right now, I’m improving my Spanish and learning Japanese and I love the time on the train to listen to Spanish and Japanese podcasts.
I also ride the train most of the way with my daughter when school is in session, and it’s fun to chit-chat with her when she feels like it. I like that my job is only 40 hours a week, unlike some professional jobs, and I like that I can normally leave work at work. My job is also very flexible, which makes the life/work balance easy. I like that my kids can speak Japanese and that we travel a lot. I love how much we camp in the summer. I like that my job has a gym in the basement so I can work out over lunchtime at a great workout class.
The Worst Parts
I don’t like our immediate neighborhood because there’s a lot of loud traffic. Also, I imagine the air quality is terrible as we’re on a major road close to the interstate. Portland is becoming a really big city and the traffic, violence, and rising costs make me nervous for my kids to grow up here. We could buy a house, but that would suck up most of our money. I wish my kids could wander around the neighborhood, but it isn’t safe for them to do that (side note: in Japan, kids walk unsupervised to playgrounds and school, and adults along the way keep them safe. Also, the police don’t have guns. All of that is very appealing to our family).
My job is deeply boring and, while I enjoy my coworkers, I usually have a pit in my stomach as I go into work on Mondays. Sometimes my job is stressful and has conflict, but it isn’t invigorating conflict, it just makes me feel physically terrible. It seems like I should like my job, especially given how hard my extended family’s jobs and lives are, but it feels soul-sucking. My older daughter loved her elementary school, but now she’s in a huge middle school and hates it. The Portland Public Schools aren’t great and the class sizes are really large. I can see that my kids are getting lost in the shuffle.
Additionally, our car recently died—it had a major engine problem that we decided was too pricey to fix. After some gnashing of teeth, we’re going to live without a car. Our travel budget will absorb the cost of car rentals for out of city excursions.
Where Helen & Earl Want To Be In Ten Years:
- Have a cash cushion of two year’s worth of expenses.
- Be in the process of saving enough for retirement to allow us to comfortably stop working at age 65 (which will be 11 years away in ten years).
- Pay out of pocket for most, or all, of our kid’s college costs.
- Have enough money to travel.
- I’d like to live in Japan for 4 to 5 years, then move to another part of the world, with the goal of slowly seeing more and more of the world and learning more languages.
- If things went according to plan, I’d love to be living in Europe in ten years after having spent a fabulous five years in Japan!
- I’d like to spend some years working part-time as a freelancer in my current industry, while working on writing on the side. In ten years, I’d like to be a published author.
Helen & Earl’s Finances
|Helen’s net income||$6,067||My gross income is $120k a year. Net income is minus health/vision/dental insurance, 401k contributions, $2k annually for our flexible spending account, and taxes.|
|Rent||$1,600||Portland is a high cost of living place. We have a nice apartment (secure, no mold, lots of light, energy efficient, near public transit), but we live farther out than we wanted to due to high rents.
We also live in a somewhat sketchy part of town with super loud traffic. To pay less we would need to move even farther out, which would mean we’d need to buy a car.
One option is that we could host a foreign exchange student, which would reduce our rent. My kids would like to do this, as they would enjoy it, but my husband is worried about the loss of privacy for our family.
|Travel||$750||This is what we spent last year, but we did more travel than normal due to a death in the family, and we paid for my daughter to go on a school trip to Japan that cost $4k. However, we love travel so I’d like to keep this high.
We did two family overseas trips last year, and we flew a bunch of family to Arizona, and did a big camping trip to several national parks. I also flew my kids to Maine, flew my dad to visit me, and we did a lot of camping. We do a pretty good job keeping per-trip costs down via travel rewards and not staying in nice places and buying groceries, but we have done a LOT of travel recently.
This year we are likely to do less–we want to go to Mexico next summer and I think we can use travel rewards for a trip to Hawaii where we’ll camp.
We’re using the Chase Sapphire card as well as the American Express Delta and the Citi American Airlines cards to accrue travel rewards points.
|Earl’s Master’s Degree||$640||This will be done soonish. We have three more tuition payments of about $6k each.|
|Groceries and household supplies||$620||We are trying to get this below $500, but haven’t consistently been able to. My husband is the cook and does the shopping. When he’s busy with school it gets tough. I am not good at food or stores. We will be working to get this back to $500.|
|Car Expenses||$300||This was a pricey year for our car, but now it’s dead and gone and we’re going to live car-free. So, this amount will now be much lower. I anticipate some expenses for car rentals for excursions out of the city, but it’ll be nowhere near $300 a month.|
|Hobbies, school supplies, camping gear, etc||$143||This is a real hodgepodge of things. School items, some items for my hobbies (camera equipment), some camping gear, art supplies, etc. This used to be much higher. We are about to start another financial fast as I’d like to try to get this down.|
|Kids Activities & Fees||$115||This is for random kids activities, like classes and school costs and going to museums. I think we could use some creativity to bring this down.|
|Water/Garbage||$100||This is charged by our building, so we have no control over it. It is the average of everyone’s water use and garbage use, which is annoying.|
|Miscellaneous||$100||I had a bunch of really random expenses, and I looked to see what seemed like a good average going forward. For instance, library fines, I had to pay for funeral expenses for a brother, some software to try to recover data off of a dead hard drive, etc.|
|Life Insurance||$95||This is for a term policy we have|
|After school care for our youngest||$82||We try to avoid childcare costs when we can. This year Earl has class during school pick-up, so he can’t pick-up our youngest daughter. Given that, we have to pay for her to be picked up several days a week. We are crossed fingers for winter term that he will be able to pick her up and we can eliminate this expense.|
|Birthdays||$65||We go big on our kid’s birthdays, and we spend some on other family members. Earl and I rarely spend money on ourself for birthdays.|
|Charity||$60||We donate to a few charities every month. I need to evaluate and increase this.|
|Clothing & shoes||$55||We go to swaps a lot, but have a hard time finding good shoes. We spend most of this money on shoes (my husband is a runner and walks a ton and destroys shoes), and on my tween daughter. She likes used clothes but struggles to find hand-me-downs and likes to have some new clothes. I’d like to get this down by 20 bucks a month.|
|Restaurants||$50||Most months we don’t go out to eat, but we take the kids out around their birthdays and we eat out when things are super hectic. I think this also includes some meals while traveling. I’d like to reduce this.|
|Christmas||$50||It is high, but since I used to spend about $3k at Christmas, this is so much better than it was. I enjoy Christmas, but I am working on reducing this further.|
|Electric||$50||We could bring this down slightly by having more strictness around the temperature (everything else is LED or EE). However, the juice doesn’t feel like it’s worth the squeeze as we can’t open our windows at night due to the traffic noise and I enjoy my sleep temperature where it’s at.|
|Mobile Phone||$45||This is for three phones. My older daughter meets me at the train, so I want her to have a phone so we can keep in touch since she has to take a city bus to meet me.|
|Internet||$42||We shopped and shopped and this was the cheapest option.|
|Public transit||$40||Our older daughter takes public transit to school|
|Laundry||$30||We could save a little if we went to a laundromat but I value my time more than the few bucks we could save.|
|Bike expenses||$25||Earl commutes daily on his bike from the kid’s school to his school. Biking is cheap but has some costs involved. We also paid maintenance costs on Earl’s cargo bike, which isn’t every year.|
|Netflix and Spotify||$20||Earl and our older daughter LOVE Spotify and listen constantly. We keep Netflix because the kids like to watch it on Saturday nights.|
|Gym membership||$10||Earl’s gym membership, which he uses a lot.|
|Helen’s Pension||TBD||My pension will be 1% of my top three years of income for each year of service. I will have served 10 years as of this January. My top three are about $117k right now, making my monthly payment $975. It will be over $1k if I leave my job when we plan to move to Japan. It does not adjust for inflation until I am 59, so it would degrade in value until retirement, then it would adjust for inflation every year.|
|Helen’s 401k||$198,816||Through my employer at Thrift Savings Plan. C Fund common stock index 55.84% S Fund small cap stock index 23.06% and I Fund Int’l Stock Index 21.09%.
I am maxing out my contributions.
|CDs||$23,857||This is money we are saving as a cash cushion for when we move overseas.
I save $750 into this account every month.
Earns 2.69% interest through Capital One.
|529 college savings account||$13,667||Older daughter’s 529 college fund through the Oregon College Savings Plan.
We save $75 per month, per child.
|Brokerage account||$13,294||At Charles Schwab. SWISX (int’l index) 20%, SWPPX (S&P index) 77.75%, cash 2.26%.
We add $150 to this account every month.
|IRA||$11,005||At Charles Schwab. SWPPX (S&P 500 Index Fund) 100%.
We are maxing out our IRAs.
|Checking account||$8,600||This is for our expenses. It’s a little high right now because we’ll use it to pay Earl’s fall tuition bill, which will be about $5k.
The interest is negligible and it’s through OnPoint Community Credit Union.
|IRA||$8,450||At Charles Schwab. SWPPX (S&P 500 Index Fund) 100%.
We are maxing out our IRAs.
|Roth IRA||$6,261||At Charles Schwab. SWPPX (S&P 500 Index Fund) 100%|
|Roth IRA||$6,247||At Charles Schwab. SWTSX (total stock market index) 100%|
|Investor Checking account||$5,914||This is the account I use to fund our savings. I accumulate money in it, then put the funds in either a CD, our brokerage account, or our IRAs. Money doesn’t stay in here for long, I’ve been busy this past month but I need to move a chunk of it soon to our IRAs. I like this account because it’s easy to transfer to our brokerage. When we travel we put money in here as it doesn’t incur debit fees overseas.
The interest is negligible and it’s through Charles Schwab.
|529 college savings account||$5,252||Younger daughter’s 529 college fund through the Oregon College Savings Plan.
We save $75 per month, per child.
Helen’s Questions For You:
- What should we be thinking about, and preparing for, as we contemplate this big leap into the unknown of changing jobs and moving to Japan?
- Is a cushion of $80k realistic or laughably low? Are our retirement savings too small for us to make this leap right now?
- Do people have advice on how to plan for the unknown?
- I’m not sure how to determine what income level will be adequate as I’m struggling to figure out how our expenses will change in Japan. For example, the kids will go to public school, but if they’re miserable after giving it a shot, then we’d incur expenses from either homeschooling or private school.
- Are there expenses we should focus on reducing?
- Do any readers have advice on being a consultant overseas?
- I’ve read a lot of the digital nomad stuff, but I struggle to find resources for the nitty-gritty on taxes, fees, retirement, etc.
Mrs. Frugalwoods’ Recommendations
I got goosebumps reading about Helen and Earl’s financial transformation because WOW. They were able to identify that they were in serious financial trouble, formulate a plan, implement it, and succeed! What they did is nothing short of transformational and I hope their story serves as an inspiration.
They paid off $120k in debt and figured out how to reformulate their lives such that they’re now:
- Saving for retirement
- In a stable cash position with an emergency fund and non-retirement investments
- College savings accounts for both of their daughters
- Most importantly: they’re able to consider pursuing their goal of moving to Japan. If they were still laboring under that debt load, living abroad would be nothing more than an illusive dream.
Important Aspects of Helen & Earl’s Financial Transformation
I want to highlight several aspects of Helen and Earl’s journey that really stood out to me and that I hope will provide useful guideposts for anyone in similar need of radical financial change.
1) Her comment about embarrassment over their debt:
On one credit card, I was unknowingly paying $500 a month in interest; because the debt embarrassed me, I hadn’t looked at it for a year.
This right here is why so many folks flounder and fall further into debt. Helen and Earl’s ability to analyze all of their accounts–and be honest about their debt with each other–is one of the core reasons why they succeeded. Ignoring something doesn’t make it go away. Except sometimes for toddler whining. Amazing how ignoring that can put an end to it…
2) The united front that Helen and Earl brought to their financial situation:
Earl and I were also unified in this goal of reducing our spending and paying down our debt.
Being on the same page with your partner is often mandatory for financial healing. It’s really, really difficult to right your finances without the support and contribution of your partner. If you find yourself struggling to align goals with your partner, you might find some help here: Reader Suggestions On How To Convince Your Husband Or Wife To Be Frugal.
3) The radical changes they made:
…we started working to align our spending with our values. Doing that work forced us to realize that a lot of our spending–and our energy use–was not in alignment with our values.
Helen and Earl did what my Uber Frugal Month Challenge advises people to do: they holistically examined their lives and realized they were not spending their time or their money in service of their priorities. This analysis is what led Mr. Frugalwoods and I to move from the city to the country. And this analysis is what led Helen and Earl to sell their home, move to an apartment, and focus their energies on achieving their bigger dream: moving abroad.
Often, how you use your time is a close bedfellow with how you use your money. If you bring one into alignment, it’s likely the other will follow. In this case, Helen and Earl eliminated the cost of their mortgage, extra childcare, and commuting in order to regain time and money.
I want to point out that, in this process, Helen and Earl didn’t overlook their “fixed” costs (mortgage, daycare, cell phones); rather, they tackled them head on with intention, and creativity. If you’re in deep debt, like Helen and Earl were, it’s often necessary to analyze these sacred cows. If you have six figures of debt, like Helen and Earl did, it’s unlikely you’re going to dig your way out by cutting your own hair and cooking at home (much as I love those tactics). Nope. That level of debt is going to require radical, serious changes. Helen and Earl are living proof that it’s possible to transform your financial situation if you’re willing to make difficult decisions.
All that to say, congratulations, Helen and Earl. You did it! Now, let’s dive into their questions about this next chapter of their lives.
Helen’s First Set of Questions:
What should we be thinking about, and preparing for, as we contemplate this big leap into the unknown of changing jobs and moving to Japan? Do people have advice on how to plan for the unknown?
Helen is analytical and knows how to make a good spreadsheet to compare options (a woman after my own heart!). Given that, what I want to focus on first are the intangible, non-financial questions surrounding their impending move. The intangibles of life are what I struggle with because they resist being put into a spreadsheet and it’s usually impossible to arrive at a clear conclusion. I sense that Helen–like me–struggles with ambiguous questions that aren’t bound by numbers. So we’ll try to muddle through them together.
Here are the non-financial intangibles I encourage Helen and Earl to seriously consider:
1) Does Helen speak Japanese? I think that Earl and the kids do, but what about Helen?
Will this be a challenge for her, particularly if they’re living outside of a major city?
Based on the rent she quoted ($700-$800 per month), I assume that puts the family in the suburbs or a rural area, where it could be less likely she’d find culture, activities, events, friends (I live rurally and I do find all of those things, so I’m not hating on rural living or the suburbs, just pointing out that it can be harder to create community outside of the bustle of a city, particularly if you don’t speak the language).
2) How will Helen feel if she’s not able to work in Japan?
If any number of factors conspire against her (taxes, Visas, an inability to find freelance work, etc), is she ok with not doing compensated work? I ask this from both a financial and a fulfillment perspective. Helen is accustomed to doing a good job, receiving respect for her work, and being well-paid for this work. There’s a lot of personal identity tied up in doing remunerative work and I encourage Helen to reflect on how she’ll feel if that part of her identity is no longer available to her.
Helen is currently the breadwinner and is clearly very successful in her career. While I get that she’s not in love with her job, I think there are aspects of it she enjoys. It provides structure, purpose, and clear pathways to success. She has a full life in Portland with routine, an incredible salary, and an awesome pension.
Beyond the financial piece, I get the sense Helen derives purpose and meaning from her work. This isn’t to say she won’t have purpose and meaning in Japan, but I encourage her to consider what her daily routine will be like in Japan. Relatedly, I encourage Helen to speak with a tax attorney who specializes in Japanese ex-pats because, from my very limited understanding, it’s a complicated and potentially expensive situation to work in Japan as a US citizen.
3) Do they have a clear sense of the hours and expectations of Earl’s prospective teaching position?
Workplace norms might be different in Japan versus in the US. I’ve read that, in Japan, long hours are often expected along with after-hours socializing with colleagues (obviously I do not have first hand experience of this, so I’m just relaying what I’ve read). Since Earl and Helen want this to be family adventure, I encourage them to evaluate how much time Earl would have off each day, week, and month. I don’t want to be alarmist, but I also don’t want them to move to Japan under the presumption that Earl will be clocking in at 9 and leaving at 5 every day. A few articles for them to review (if they haven’t already):
- Japan is facing a ‘death by overwork’ problem — here’s what it’s all about (source: Business Insider)
- The young Japanese working themselves to death (source: The BBC)
4) Do Helen and Earl have an awareness about the different gender roles often at play in Japan?
Similar to workplace culture, it is my understanding that gender roles can be expressed differently in Japan. This ties back in part to my concern over Helen’s potential loss of self in her loss of an income. I also want to highlight the potential for different expectations from schools in Japan. A few articles that shed some light on these expectations:
Japan’s Working Mothers: Record Responsibilities, Little Help From Dads (source: The New York Times):
The preschool her two youngest children attend requires the family to keep daily journals recording their temperatures and what they eat twice a day, along with descriptions of their moods, sleeping hours and playtime. On top of that, her 8-year-old son’s elementary school and after-school tutoring class require that a parent personally signs off on every homework assignment.
Her husband, a management consultant, often stays late at the office and sometimes goes out drinking with clients — which are also deeply entrenched expectations in Japan, particularly for men.
Japanese Womenomics (source: NPR):
Surveys show a declining percentage of people in Japan agree with traditional gender roles – this idea that men should go to work while women take care of the home and the family…
Japan has one of the biggest gender pay gaps among developed countries… And there still are very few women at the top of Japanese companies or on the boards of those companies. A Reuters survey recently found that women make up less than 10% of management at most Japanese companies.
5) How much time have Earl, Helen, and their girls spent in Japan?
I don’t know if the family has visited Japan yet and, if they haven’t, I encourage them to consider visiting for an extended period of time. It’s such a major change–new country, new language, new culture, new customs, new home, new school, new workplace–that I encourage the family to do a trial run before they commit to moving there.
I encourage Helen and Earl to consider renting an Airbnb in the neighborhood they plan to move to. And I’d rent it for a month (or more). Yep, this’ll be expensive and disruptive to their school and work schedules. But it’ll be a lot less expensive and disruptive than moving there and realizing it’s not right for them.
I’d take this time to visit the girls’ prospective school, test out Earl’s work commute, tour apartments in their price range, go to the grocery store, talk with neighbors, identify where they’d get their health and dental care, determine if there’s a community center/church/etc where they’d feel connected, visit restaurants, figure out where they’d buy the girls’ school supplies and clothes. Basically to pretend they live there–to the extent possible–for a month and, at the end, see how it feels. This’ll give them some crucial data points about distances, costs, amenities available and it’ll also address a lot of the intangibles that Earl and Helen can’t accurately analyze until they experience them.
6) How certain is Earl about this new career path?
Since this plan hinges on Earl working in a brand new career, I encourage him to reflect on how certain he is that he’ll enjoy and succeed in this career.
7) What is their plan B?
Related to the facts that this is a new career for Earl, and that Helen won’t have a clear path to employment in Japan, what are the plan B scenarios? I encourage Helen to game these out, and here’s where a spreadsheet again comes into play! What would they do if: Earl hates his job, Earl gets fired, Helen can’t find work, the girls hate school in Japan? I realize this all sounds super negative, but I find it’s often helpful to consider worst case scenarios and map out a response to each.
None of this is meant to dissuade Helen and Earl, nor do I want to imply that they haven’t already done their research–they clearly have. My job is to walk through some of the thornier considerations and help Helen and Earl fully analyze their options before leaping in. I am their cheerleader and I personally really want them to move to Japan, but I want them to do so with as much data in hand as possible and with a clear sense of the potential downsides.
Helen’s Financial Questions:
Is a cushion of $80k realistic or laughably low? Are our retirement savings too small for us to make this leap right now? I’m not sure how to determine what income level will be adequate as I’m struggling to figure out how our expenses will change in Japan.
Oh thank goodness, we’re back into spreadsheet territory… sort of. The issue here is that, as Helen adeptly identified, there are too many unknown variables at play. We can’t create a Japan budget without knowing their Japan expenses and we can’t know their Japan expenses until after they’ve moved. We also can’t know Earl’s Japan salary until he’s been hired! So, I’ll reiterate my advice above to go live in their prospective Japanese neighborhood for a month-long trial period. This’ll at least help them create a rough outline of their monthly expenses (rent, commute, groceries, healthcare, etc), which will give them a starting point.
Helen and Earl are in great financial shape, but they’re not in the financial position to not work for an extended period of time.
Let’s take another look at their assets:
|529 college savings account||$13,667||College|
|529 college savings account||$5,252||College|
|TOTAL ASSETS:||$301,364||Cash, retirement, and college savings|
Ok so this is good, really good, but it’s also true that the bulk of their net worth is tied up in traditional retirement accounts. That’s not a bad thing, but it does mean that their runway is short. If they liquidated their brokerage account and their CDs, they’d have $51,665 in cash. Helen projects that this amount will reach $80k by the time they move ($60k in cash CDs, $20k in a brokerage account).
Since we can’t know their monthly expenses in Japan, we’ll have to use their current monthly expenses, which are $5,087. An $80k safety net would cover them for just over 15 months, which is awesome. However, that doesn’t account for expenses related to their move and setting up a household in Japan. It’s a tremendous amount of money, but it’s not a financially independent amount of money.
Bottom line: they still need to earn an income. In light of that, I go back to my above recommendations to:
- Test out life in Japan for a month
- Seriously map out the plan B scenarios
From a financial perspective, moving to Japan is totally possible. The question is whether or not it’s wise for their longterm financial health. That’s an intangible I can’t answer, but I can go back to Helen’s comment:
I personally would prefer to try it out versus live my life regretting that I didn’t try. I know that if I don’t live overseas, it will be my biggest life regret.
That might be all the answer they need.
Helen’s Question #3: Are there expenses we should focus on reducing?
Helen and Earl did a fantastic job evaluating their spending and reducing–or eliminating–many of their expenses. And guess what? Helen already answered this question for herself in the “notes” section of their monthly expense report. These two don’t need me to assess their spending–they’re pros, they know what they need to do.
A few takeaways:
- Helen and Earl are tracking their spending. This is step #1 on the path to managing your money. They use Mint, I use the free service from Personal Capital, and you can use a cocktail napkin if you like (affiliate link). Bottom line: have a system to track what you spend because, without it? All of your other financial decisions are total shots in the dark. If you’d like to know more about how Personal Capital works, check out my full review.
- Helen and Earl use a cheap MVNO cell phone service provider. This is one of those slam-dunk decisions that almost everyone can make to dramatically reduce their monthly outlay. Learn more here: My Frugal Cell Phone Service Trick: How I Pay $10.65 A Month.
- They’re leveraging credit card rewards to help fund their travels. Since they’ve proven they’re able to pay their credit card bills in full every month, this is a brilliant strategy. More on how to structure your own credit card rewards system here: The Frugalwoods Guide to a Simple, Yet Rewarding, Credit Card Experience.
Savings Accounts Side Note
One of the easiest ways to optimize your money is to keep it in a high-interest savings account. With these accounts, interest works in YOUR favor (as opposed to the interest rates on debt, which work against you). Having money in a no (or low) interest savings account is a waste of resources because your money is sitting there doing nothing. Don’t let your money be lazy! Make it work for you! And now, enjoy some explanatory math:
- Let’s say you have $5,000 in a savings account that earns 0% interest. In a year’s time, your $5,000 will still be… $5,000.
- Let’s say you instead put that $5,000 into an American Express Personal Savings account that–as of this writing–earns 1.70% in interest. In one year, your $5,000 will have increased to $5,085.67. That means you earned $85.67 just by having your money in a high-interest account.
And you didn’t have to do anything! I’m a big fan of earning money while doing nothing. I mean, is anybody not a fan of that? Apparently so, because anyone who uses a low (or no) interest savings account is NOT making money while doing nothing. Don’t be that person. Be the person who earns money while sleeping. Rack up the interest and prosper. More about high-interest savings accounts, as well as the ones I recommend, here: The Best High Interest Rate Online Savings Accounts.
Overall Asset Allocation
I want to do a quick check-in on their overall asset allocation (that just means where their money is). In general, Helen and Earl are doing a fantastic job.
There are a few things I recommend they research:
- What are the fees on their brokerage, IRA, Roth IRA, and 401k accounts through Charles Schwab?
- A crucial part of investing on your own is ensuring you’re in broadly diversified funds with low fees. Fees can cripple your net worth over the long term and there are several excellent low-fee brokerages that offer diversified, total market index funds (I use Fidelity; Vanguard is another excellent option). Helen should just check on what these fees are and whether or not they’re comparable to Fidelity and Vanguard’s low fees.
- More on DIY investing here: For the Love of Frugal Hound, Manage Your Money Yourself! (by following The Simple Path to Wealth).
- Move the money in their investor checking account and regular checking account into a high-yield savings account.
- Helen noted that these accounts receive “negligible interest,” which is a red flag.
- I realize these are pass through accounts for Helen and Earl, but there’s a sizable amount of money ($14,514 total) sitting in there doing nothing. Never let your money do nothing!
- What’s the term limit on their CDs?
- CDs (certificates of deposit) can be a great option for shorter-term investing (as opposed to the traditional longer-term investing vehicle of a brokerage account), and Helen and Earl’s interest rate on their CD is a lovely 2.69%.
- The downside is that this money isn’t liquid until the CD term is up and, depending on when that happens, it could make their cash position tight when they move to Japan.
Helen and Earl are in a stellar financial position and they’ve done a lot of hard work to get here. As they consider this next phase of life, I encourage them to do the following:
- Plan an extended trip to their prospective Japanese town and gather as much data as possible on what their daily lives would be like if they moved there.
- Discuss and reflect on all of the questions related to moving to Japan that I outlined above.
- Evaluate their spending and make cuts as needed/wanted.
- Assess the fees on their brokerage and retirement accounts. Move this money to a different brokerage if warranted.
- Migrate their low-yield savings accounts into a high-yield account.
Ok Frugalwoods nation, what advice would you give to Helen? She and I will both reply to comments, so please feel free to ask any clarifying questions!
Would you like your own case study to appear here on Frugalwoods? Email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) your brief story and we’ll talk. User Generated Content Disclosure: Reader comments and responses are not provided or commissioned by Frugalwoods or its advertisers. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by advertisers. It is not the advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.
Update from Helen on 2/12/20:
Thank you to the Frugalwoods community for helping me brainstorm and plan for our next step. It was very helpful and has caused us to make significant adjustments to our plan. After sitting with the comments that pricked at my discomfort I was able to identify the two main weaknesses in my current approach.
Weakness number one was the plan for my daughters schooling. I realized that with a small annual income I would not have many options for schooling. After doing more research based on the comments, I realized I needed to address that and I needed to have flexibility to meet their educational needs.
Weakness number two was that I was conflating the desire for the move with the desire to ramp down my career. My job is stressful and as I am an overachiever I have always put a lot of effort into work. The feedback about the shift from work possibly being difficult did not resonate with me, as I have no question I would love putting that energy into things outside paid employment. However, I was wanting to force our moving timeline and my work reduction timeline together. We don’t have the assets to do that, and I decided that this was foolish and have decoupled them.
With these two new insights, I looked at suggestions like the YouTube channel the community referred me to and the recommendation to look more at federal employment opportunities. I had looked briefly into federal employment but my cursory look made me think I wasn’t a good fit for an overseas position. However, after weeks of following job postings on USA Jobs and extensive reading I realized that there were a lot of interesting jobs available in Japan in locations which would also work for my husband to work. I also discovered that the benefits would include housing and tuition for international school for my daughters. This meant that there are jobs in Japan that match my skills, are close or equal to my current income, and that additionally pay for housing and education.
This shift in strategy has removed all the risk areas that concerned me and had me lying awake at night after looking at the case study comments, and now I am full steam ahead applying for jobs. I have read it could take a year or more to find the right position. I have had one interview since starting to apply in November, and I recently hired a firm to help me in developing a resume that will translate my experience to a different federal agency and job series. I am really hopeful that this will be successful and that in the next year I will find a position that will allow us to move. The federal positions can last for five years before needing to do a year in the US or territories, which also fits the time we’d like to spend in Japan!
Hopefully in a year I can send in a photo of us landed in Japan and launched into our new adventure!
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Could Helen take a year’s sabbatical from her job? This way if life in Japan does not work out she’ll have the same job to come back to. A safety net…
This is such a good suggestion, and something I have been thinking about. On the one hand, if I am on sabbatical, it could limit my income earning potential in Japan if I were to look into doing freelance work in my industry, because I could create the perception of a conflict of interest. The other part of the puzzle is that it would keep my head-count, which would limit the Agency’s ability to backfill me, which would be fine if my intention was to stay at the job, but my intention is to leave and I don’t want to harm my team. My current plan is to give my job plenty of notice once we know for sure where we are going and when, to be fully transparent about my intentions and ask my job if there are any options similar to a sabbatical. I think it will definitely depend on what the hiring situation is–for instance, if a federal hiring freeze is in effect, they might be willing to hold my headcount since they wouldn’t be able to backfill it.
I live in Japan and feel it might be a real challenge for your older child to catch up if she entered a regular JHS. Not saying it would be impossible but they teach students to pass exams in JHS and not much focus on developing creatively or opinions.
Thank you, I agree that going into a traditional public high school could be too much for her. She has been in an immersion program since she was 4 learning Japanese, but she doesn’t have the kanji or verbal skills, and her educational goal isn’t to go to college in Japan. I have been doing research on what the options are for her. I want to make sure she has the opportunities to make friends and learn to navigate a different culture. I think once we have figured out the area and job, then we can narrow down on what school could look like.
First, congrats Helen and Earl! I don’t have firsthand experience with their questions, but about a few years ago we did visit US ex-pat friends who live on the edge of Tokyo who have young children. He is a college professor in a program taught in English and she is fluent in Japanese but has not worked outside the home since they moved to Japan. All of my comments will be from that very limited experience!
The pro Helen pointed out of the relative safety of Japan is awesome – our friends lived near a school and each evening around 6 pm a bell and announcement would ring telling the children playing to head home and wash up for dinner as unaccompanied play is a norm! College professors seem to have more laid back work styles than most other Japanese professions – if Earl’s position will be at a university, he might expect the same. Mrs. Frugalwoods points on gender norms and the issues with working as a US citizen in Japan are well founded based on our friend’s experience. Going in with open eyes about the many differences in culture and knowing their Plan B is all excellent advice. I wish you the best on whatever adventure comes next.
Thank you Betty! Earl was really worried about the work hours and work culture, and he was worried he might not be successful. The informational interviews he has done speak to what you have noticed, that the work culture is different at universities. The place he is most excited about has a staff that is mostly North American and with a work culture similar to what he is used to.
I agree on the open eyes on culture and solidifying our Plan B! I have several floating in my head, but I think some spreadsheets to get them worked out will really help us be prepared.
Great story. We did this 18 months ago, but to France. Absolutely incredible experience so far. To your questions.
1. Is a cushion of $80k realistic or laughably low? Are our retirement savings too small for us to make this leap right now? No and no; but it depends on where you live and what your husband and/or you will earn. We quickly adapted to living and shopping like locals in our town and found that we are still probably a lot more frugal than many locals. We rarely drive and many school parents now walk their kids to school with us after seeing us walk with our kids all last year (it’s 1.25 miles each way in a small city) Same with shopping–we shop at Lidl for many staples, local bakeries for bread/croissants and the market for produce and meat sometimes.. Even if you don’t contribute another dollar to retirement savings, you should still have a decent stash by the time you’re 65. If only your husband is working, you could do a Roth conversion ladder and move your TSP money to a tIRA and then a Roth IRA. With the child tax credit and retirement savers credit, you could convert most of the balance without paying any tax over a few years.
Do people have advice on how to plan for the unknown? Stay flexible and keep an open mind. it’s an adventure. We had many sleepless nights before moving about kids transitioning, about finding a place to live, about work. In reality, it was easy, the kids will learn the language more fluently very quickly and you will have the opportunity to make friends. Have solid plans for medical, returning to the US quickly if there is a health issue with family, keeping your kids consistent with their US studies if you think you might return while they are still in high school and other issues like this. Particularly for your 12 year old, school may be difficult depending on their proficienty with Japanese. We had some friends who tried to put their kids in French school and left after 4 months because they just couldn’t keep up with the langague barrier. Our kids were younger and because fluent enough after 6 months and are now completely fluent in almost every aspect.
I’m not sure how to determine what income level will be adequate as I’m struggling to figure out how our expenses will change in Japan. For example, the kids will go to public school, but if they’re miserable after giving it a shot, then we’d incur expenses from either homeschooling or private school.
Are there expenses we should focus on reducing? This will change a lot depending on where you end up and what you enjoy doing.. We tried to reduce everything as much as possible except travel. We try to take a week vacation about every 2 months and follow the same model. AirBnb near long improved bike trails. 40-60 €/night. We bring groceries and a crock pot so we can cook most of our meals and eat out a few times while we’re there.
Do any readers have advice on being a consultant overseas? Have you considered a term federal position at one of the bases? I do this and it’s a great gig. Pays well, schooling/tutoring for the kids is all covered + living quarters allowance is really nice. Even if you don’t see something that exactly matches your field, these jobs can be notoriously hard to fill because career people like you are reluctant to give up their perm jobs and many people don’t want to move their kids when they are somewhat settled in school so when hiring managers see a good resume, often times the competition pool isn’t too tough.
I am very interested in working on one of the bases. As my husband looks for employment that works for him, proximity to a base is definitely something that would be helpful. I’ve been watching the job postings, and one thing that is tough is that much of my experience is specialized in a field that wouldn’t fit with base jobs. That said, I have some experience I do think would translate well, and so I’m keeping an open mind to it if we can make it work!!
Thanks for the encouragement!
I worked as a School Librarian in Japan on an American base for four years and am currently doing the same job now in Korea. It is an amazing gig. If your husband has a teaching certificate I would highly recommend he looks into teaching at a Department of Defense Dependent School (DoDDS). You apply with the agency directly and not through USA Jobs. It is competitive but has been an incredible job for me with full benefits (including relocation costs and housing) and of course the amazing schedule with summers off. The system is not without flaws but for a job overseas and work/life balance you would be hard pressed to find something better. A few of my coworkers had their kids enrolled at Japanese schools, public or private, and had very good things to say for them. There are many DoDDS schools in Okinawa (southern island) and a few closer to Tokyo. Some are certainly more remote than others so do your research, but for the immersion experience your family is talking about I think you would do well at any of them. Japan is such an amazing place and I hope to be able to go back there with my family when my husband retires from his Active Duty that keeps us moving around at present. Best of luck!
I (American, female) lived and worked in Japan for three months. The articles about gender roles and working hours are correct. It was very common for my co-workers to be at work very late. ‘Seat-time’ is important in Japan. My co-workers didn’t seem to be especially productive, but the fact that they were present was really important.
Regarding gender roles, there few women who work, and there is this “cutsy, Hello Kitty” culture. Women walk pigeon toed because it looks cute. If Helen is used to being valued at work and then suddenly goes to being a stay-at-home mom, in a country that has some antiquated views of gender (and is not traditionally very welcoming to foreigners), it could be a really suffocating experience. I also think that immersing teenaged girls, who are particularly sensitive to issues of body shape and fitting in, in a culture that does not encourage strength and independence among women is somewhat…….risky.
I would strongly encourage the family to spend some time in Japan (like Mrs. Frugalwoods suggested). Perhaps Helen could take Leave without Pay during a month-long trip? I had the opportunity to spend a year in Japan, but decided that 3 months was enough for me. I would go back to visit, but it’s not a place that I would want to live. I know two other women who lived there (one from Canada, one from Germany) and they also felt the weight of the gender roles.
I agree with the sentiments about brining teenage girls to a place where they will be forced into gender roles at a critical point in their development. It’s already difficult enough without added pressures from a new culture… would it be an option to wait until after the girls are in college to move overseas? At which point you likely could just sell all the remaining stuff, have a ton of money stockpiled and be done working forever, and could become a traveling nomad. How cool to be a traveling nomad. Good luck, wherever you land!
Along the lines of bringing teenage or preteen girls to Japan, you should be aware that there is a really weird culture around sex and the sexualization of young girls there. A friend lived there in her teen years, and she and her classmates would get offers by grown men to buy the panties they were wearing. You can apparently also buy them from vending machines. Just a bit of info to temper the rose colored glasses on safety, etc.
The issue of gender roles and the patriarchy is an interesting one that I’ve thought a lot about.
On the sexual assault and general creepiness, it’s hard to compare since things aren’t reported and so it’s anecdotal. But, anecdotally, my daughter’s middle school has emailed this year about a guy they didn’t catch exposing himself behind the school, and a creepy guy offering kids rides. And it’s not just a city thing, as I’ve had my own experiences as a kid in rural areas with gross men. I don’t know of a place where predation on young people isn’t common, and it’s something I’ve mitigated via lots of talking and reading with my girls so they are able to recognize red flags and feel ownership and power over their bodies and their boundaries.
On the patriarchy, and the very real problems in Japan around gender, I think that will take some time for me to know how my girls and I will experience it. When I was younger and we lived in Mexico, I was given a lot of warnings about the machismo and the culture for woman. I found that living in another culture’s form of patriarchy helped me see the patriarchal systems in my own culture better by seeing the contrast. For instance, I noticed that when families were out, the men frequently carried and played with the babies and acted goofy with the babies in a way I didn’t see in my own country. When Earl was caring for our daughters he’d be treated like a superhero for carrying them through the grocery store without a woman.
I think the thing that will be interesting to me is how the communitarian culture interplays with patriarchal systems. My family talks a lot about gender and norms, partially since we live outside the experience of most Americans in how our household labor and earning is split up.
I also think in some ways really blatant sexism is easier to navigate. I find the USA’s sexism to be crazy-making sometimes, particularly in liberal circles, because it’s so subtle and yet so solid.
So, I expect we will encounter some really rough sexism and patriarchal mindsets, and I think that is something inevitable when exploring the world. I am hoping to build the tools with my girls to name it and develop strategies around it, because it’s pervasive across cultures.
It sounds like your girls are in the best of possible hands regarding this!
Wow, beautifully put!
We moved to Tokyo when I was a teenage girl, and it was a life-changing experience for the better for me. Maybe because I didn’t understand Japanese super well, but I didn’t feel affected by patriarchy and sexism. We went to ASIJ, so the school setting was different than what your girls will be experiencing and maybe provided an extra layer of protection. But overall I just remember being challenged and learning and growing and loving my time there. That being said, from a parent’s perspective, my parents went into a lot of debt during our time there. Costs in Tokyo are pretty outrageous. But it sounds like you’ve really done your research. Wish i had more to offer. So excited for you guys if you do decide to go! I sure miss it!!
FYI the age of consent in Japan is 13. That’s a very different view of sexuality, childhood, consent etc.
If you are worried about safety in Portland, which is generally a fairly safe city despite some obvious recent issues, how would this make you feel safety-wise? Mexico is, in many ways, much more similar to the US, for better or worse, I think.
Excellent advice about scouting out the new country first, as well as thinking through the consequences of giving up your job/breadwinner role entirely, especially before your husband has secured employment. Is there anything you can do at work now to improve your situation and make it less soul-sucking? Any chance to find another fed job in the clean energy/international sector that would allow for an overseas adventure while keeping your job?
Oh, we wouldn’t move until he had a contract! So if I leave my job, it will be because we do have something lined up.
I’ve looked into jobs that are based internationally in my field, and I’ve applied for many, but haven’t had luck. My agency sends people overseas, but to work into those jobs is tough, and what I’ve been told is that I would need to live in Washington DC for at least a few years to try to work my way into them. There are the term jobs at bases, which I’m interested in, though part of the issue is that my husband really really wants to work while I don’t, do it depends on if there is a base near where he can get a job.
I’ve been bored at my job for a while. I have gotten harder assignments which have been nice, and I recently switched jobs to try to get my vim back. Every thing I have done has made it more clear to me that, while I’m fortunate and there’s a lot to like about my job, it’s not something I like. I really want to do other things with my time, and I really really want to explore the world.
I think it’s fantastic this family is considering an outside the box approach to education and professional success! Helen, if you write a blog or document your adventures via blog/ instagram, please share!
Thanks! If I do, I will!
I love the case studies! My brother-in-law has been teaching in Japan for well over a decade. He went from a very fulfilling teaching position at a high school to cobbling together multiple teaching jobs due to what he’s described as a shift in Japan to prioritizing hiring native Japanese to teach English and not bringing in expats. I hate to discourage the move because they seem really prepared and thoughtful, but I would suggest talking to some Americans currently in Japan teaching to get on the ground advice. Maybe seek out some perspectives from people not connected to the graduate program.
Another random thought – if Oregon gives 529 tax breaks, could they use the existing 529 accounts (changing beneficiary) to pay for Earl’s school and then put cash into 529s to replace what was spent and get a tax break?
I’m going to look into your suggestion on the 529 for tax breaks! Thanks!
Completely agree on talking to people. Earl has been doing lots of Skype calls with people teaching in Japan so that we can get as much information as possible!
My 2 aunts who teach school in the Portland area took advantage of a program in Oregon that allows public school teachers to teach in Japan for up to two years and not lose state teachers’ benefits and also to continue to contribute to their state pensions. Both loved this opportunity to immerse themselves in another country, though both did it as singles whose children were already grown and did not move with them. Also, they made the same salary that they made in Oregon which was more like $75k at the time. Just saying that if you decide to stay longer in Portland in your well-paying job, you could look into such a program if your husband were to join the Oregon state system. The program also existed in Washington state. I do understand this would be delaying your plans and possibly moving your children at a tougher time, but your salary is decent enough it seems like staying for another say, 5 years, could be worth it for the boost to your savings and pension, and also set your husband up for an Oregon teacher’s pension.
Thanks! We will look into that program, it sounds incredible. Earl’s degree is not as marketable in this area, from what we understand. There are more ESL teachers than there are jobs—his program warned everyone coming in that they shouldn’t do this program if they wanted to work in this area. But he has been keeping an eye out for opportunities and we will look into this.
Look online for ex-pat community websites and Facebook groups. While nothing beats your own on the ground investigations, there is a lot to be learnt from those who’ve gone before you.Advice on what/what not to bring, for instance , is really helpful, as is advice on areas that are convenient to work, economical, and have good facilities., including transport.Prices can vary greatly within a 5 kilometre area, and schooling for kids makes a poor initial choice of rental very difficult to change without a lot of trauma. I think you have a wonderful lifestyle change ahead for you, as a family, and it’s one you richly deserve! Doing the hard yards up front gives you the freedom to own your dreams, congratulations!!
Thanks, great suggestion!
IIRC, many “Teach English in Japan” jobs run on 6 month contracts. I’d recommend your husband taking the first contract alone, and if he decides it’s a good fit, to then plan for the rest of the family.
You mentioned the kids speak Japanese, but do they speak well enough to enroll in a Japanese school, or would you be looking at private school and/or homeschooling?
That housing estimate seems really low, particularly for a furnished apartment that’ll fit 4 people. I’d either get a furnished apartment or plan to buy what you need once you get there (as opposed to moving your things), as the dimensions of American furniture tend to be really bloated and will take up unnecessary, excessive space.
I loved my time in Japan and would love to go back, but I don’t have a family to consider.
Exactly. You can’t just relocate your American life. You’d want to sell as much as possible, and bring as little as possible. Ideally, rent a furnished house or apartment. That would reduce moving costs to the price of your plane tickets and a couple extra suitcases.
We definitely aren’t bringing our stuff! We will have some extra money set aside when we leave to buy bare furnishings, I have heard that there are expat groups that you can buy furniture and appliances from other expats leaving, and there are some stores with second hand goods though I don’t know if they have furniture.
I don’t want to rent a furnished place because I’d be too worried my kids would spill on them.
The places my husband is looking at work have two year contracts, not six months. We have talked about him going first, but we aren’t keen on the family being separated.
My sister moved to Japan with her husband and two toddlers two years ago to teach English literature at a private school. I showed her this blog to get her take on cost of living surprises.
Her response was brief but she reports:
If they’re getting a family apartment for $800/month, this assumes they aren’t in Tokyo.
Bikes are cheap, but if they are far out, they’re taking trains everywhere which is a cost consideration.
More expensive and a cost to consider- a family of four on 50k income might be eating a lot of rice and tofu so need to be okay with not having “old standbys” for meal prep. Ovens and large American-style refrigerators are less common there.
Out in the suburbs/country, the education is completely different and might be tough for older kids to adjust well. School isn’t free—not even public school. Public school is around $3,000/year in fees unless you’re below the poverty line, which they won’t be.
how will Helen get a visa to work part time?
Their health insurance for a family of four is about $500/month
Plus travelers insurance every time they leave the country.
It isn’t like schools in the states where diversity is a fact of life. They will more than likely be the only gajin in the school. It’s isolating.
“We came here with zero expectations, and I think that’s been crucial to our survival and acceptance of the way things are here. For people with a lot of expectations it doesn’t often end well for people because when their plan doesn’t work, everything derails. We decided to give it two years and leave if we didn’t like it versus planning on moving permanently.”
Thank you so much Susan!!
Your sister is correct, the housing I referred to is in Saitama, which is a suburb in Tokyo (it appears to be 30 minutes by train to Tokyo proper). I wasn’t aware of the public school fees, so that is super helpful in thinking about schooling. It also helps me in comparing various options for education.
I am not sure about the visa for me, as I don’t know what the visa is for spouses. When my husband was doing some interviews with people at the universities in Japan, one had suggested I work part-time teaching as there was a high demand in that area. This is a great suggestion to ask more questions about.
We are also planning to try it for two years (which is the length of the contract at places he is looking at) and then leave if we don’t like it. We don’t think we would stay much past 5 or 6 years if we do like it, as we want to explore other areas of the world as well. Though, we don’t want to come back to Portland (but per Mrs. Frugalwoods advice I am going to sketch out my options B, C and D so that we have a good plan for afterwards).
I’m gong to mostly restrict my comments to the moving to another country and hoping to find work stuff. That and leaving your employment behind here in the US. I can relate as I moved overseas last year(on my own though).. I had spent some time in the country I moved to but really, I had no idea what it would be like to actually live there. I had been assured I’d have no problem finding work but that didn’t happen. I was legally allowed to work there(are you certain you both can work in Japan?).
Ultimately I found being so far from my family and friends back in the US as well as the stress of living in a foreign culture to be less than optimal. Although I knew the language to some degree I was very socially isolated due to a less than stellar grasp of the language plus real cultural differences. I moved there with some savings but I wasn’t able to earn any money after all. I moved back to the US and am now restarting my life again(had to buy a car, looking for a house, have to replace furniture, etc). I kinda screwed myself over by leaving my job here and it’s doubtful I’ll find a well paying professional job here now. You’re younger than I so that’s a real plus. But be careful as it’s not always so simple as you get older to just find a good job. The US and some other countries can be extremely ageist.
So I’m torn over what to say. I do understand your wanting to make a change, expose the kids to life in another country, do something different as your job has gone stale etc. I surely do get this. But you really do want to think about the financial impact on your retirement and later financial security. To make this move will definitely be a real hit on this. I made some decisions when I was younger than you are now that will always impact my finances due to my not being able to really understand the repercussions or visualize myself at an older age.
So I’d really urge you to see if you can take some sort of finite leave/sabbatical to spend some time in Japan and really try it out. See what it’s like living there day after day, dealing with grocery shopping, utilities, landlords, schools etc all in Japanese. Plus, both of you would need to get solid employment guarantees, not just be told you’ll have no problem finding a job. I, and others believed this and we found out the hard way that wasn’t so(as English speakers we were told we’d be in high demand).
Thanks so much. We definitely wouldn’t move unless Earl had a job lined up, and his job does need to meet our minimum needs (rent, food, transportation). I agree about the ageism, and it is literally the only reason I have worries about leaving my job, as I have seen friends in their 50s who went through layoffs etc. taking jobs at much lower pay. Thank you for the words of caution!
Excellent advice to give living in Japan a trial run for a month.
Definitely see someone about taxes; my husband and I lived in Beijing for a year and his company handled that for us, but we met many people who were not as lucky and things can be tricky and expensive. Preparing before will make things easier in the long run.
Our children were grown and I retired before our year in China. My job there was to figure out food purchasing and preparation, learn some Mandarin, explore the city and plan trips while my husband was at work. It was an absolute blast for a year – I wrote a blog about our adventures for family and friends. We did great things and met interesting people. Had we stayed another year or two, I think I would have needed something more and work options are limited to visa issues. I did teach yoga for no pay and I was offered several jobs teaching English on the side, but chose not to.
I think it is wonderful how you have whittled your lives down, ridding yourselves of home and car and extraneous possessions so you can take this step.
Sometimes no matter how much planning you do, you don’t know til you’re there – keeping options open for returning to the states by taking leave is a good idea.
Hope your family has a wonderful adventure.
This is a very exciting move! I highly recommend taking a trip to the city in Japan that you will be living in before hand. I visited Japan for 2 weeks earlier this year and the culture is extremely different. We found food prices especially for fresh fruit and veggies to be astronomically high. Also very few people spoke any English. As another commenter mentioned it can be overwhelming and difficult to adjust to if you aren’t prepared for the social and cultural differences. In my experience I also found Japan was not as open to foreigners especially in Japanese speciality bars and restaurants. Good luck! I think it will be a challenging but exciting change for your family!
#5: DO THIS!!! I JUST did this for a job opportunity and what I thought was my dream location (I frequent the area a few times each summer for camping). I also had the fear that if I didn’t take the leap, I’d regret it for the rest of my life, as I’ve talked about eventually living there for years. After spending a few trips to actual living areas (not just the campground/trails I frequent) and speaking with a lot of people, I found out just how lonely the existence is (I’m in a small city, and this would’ve been rural mountain living as a single woman – probably even more rural than Frugalwoods’ life as there isn’t a central town for socializing, but a couple even smaller cities a solid commuting distance away). I realized that in this point in my life, I just cannot handle that level of isolation 24/7/365. It’s lovely for a four-day getaway, but the costs ended up being too great. Like Helen, I would not have had an easy backpedal plan had I gotten out there and been miserable. I would have had to stick it out for a couple years, and probably not be able to get back to my old work location, but have to start over (again) elsewhere.
An additional item to consider is increased travel costs to return to the US or visit with family. It sounds like family is a high priority for you, but you’d be either paying for dad to fly to Japan, paying for the whole family of 4 to fly back, or go however long without seeing them. That can put a big dent in things.
I’m a federal employee (also in Portland!) and would encourage you to read OPMs guidelines on LWOP. If your supervisory chain will let you, and you have 208 hours going into a year abroad you could quite possibly finagle keeping your benefits for a year. How? By using 8 hours of annual leave per pay period – especially on days before or after a federal holiday because you would get paid for the holiday too! Maybe a one year sabbatical is what you need to refresh.
I am also a federal employee, and I have found that at least at my agency, there is an effort to help employees remain engaged and fulfilled- midcareer burnout is pretty well recognized and isn’t good for anyone- the employee, the agency, and they can have a detrimental influence on more junior staff. If Helen has not reached out to her supervisor to ask if there are any details, leadership roles, or other such options she could explore to reinvigorate her passion for her work, I would recommend that she consider that option to see if she can find more fulfillment at her current employer- even to make the rest of her time there more bearable.
I second Mrs. Frugalwoods suggestion to live in Japan for an extended time before making the move. I stayed with a boyfriend (who was in the Navy at the time) for about a month in a neighborhood. He had been there for about six months, and had the base to fall back on. He was already isolated and depressed. I got sick when I was there and accessing healthcare in a setting where English was an option was a challenge. If you are living without that ex-pat support system, I’d wager it would be even tougher. Typically there are ex-pat communities all over, you just need to find them. The culture was (about 15 years ago at least) very xenophobic, and when we would sit on the subway, people would often move away from us. The food was a shock in a way that European food had not been for me.
It sounds like an amazing adventure, but I’d spend some time there (like a month) before heading there for good and quitting your job. Your benefits and pay as a Federal employee are a once in a lifetime opportunity. I can’t help but wonder if a different job within the government would make you more happy to stay, and not feel such wander lust. A lengthy trip may cure your desire to live there. I know it certainly put my desire to get married quickly and move to Japan with him on the back burner. (Which worked out for the best because while we got engaged, I called off the wedding for some very good reasons…. I would have been very stuck if I had gone there to him!)
Please look up Our Rich Journey in YouTube! This couple/family has gone they what you want to do now. You will find more hacks there to help you make even more money during your move to Japan.
While this plan sounds amazing on paper, I think it’s a non-starter in terms of practicality. There used to be a ton of money in teaching English in Japan (like back in the 80s), but my understanding is that isn’t the case now. I taught in a Japanese public school via the JET Program. when I was in my 20s. The salary mentioned above is a bit higher, but I don’t think it’s adequate to support an expat family of 4.
The culture of schools in Japan is not like those of American schools where diversity is a given and language learners are accommodated. I don’t think it’s realistic to put the kids in public school… but if you have an idea of the area where Earl’s job would be, you could try contacting the school to arrange a visit and get more information. There are some English language international schools in Japan but they are incredibly expensive. I assume there are Japanese speakers at the kids’ schools in Portland so I would talk to them about the plan as well. Do they think it’s realistic that the kids would have a good experience academically and socially if they were to attend public school in Japan? And Earl’s school also probably has people you can talk to about the realities of life in Japan.
I am sorry that this comment isn’t so optimistic, but if we’re reading Frugalwoods, I think we’re trying to set ourselves up for success and be practical. As far as expenses in Japan go, I found rent to be quite low but utilities are quite high. Transportation by train is expensive. I ended up buying a cheap car from another English teacher but gas and mandatory inspections (and repairs) made car ownership quite expensive (but worth it because I lived in a rural area.)
Good luck and please do so much more research on this!
I recommend going for a long visit first. I love Japan, I’ve lived there and speak the language, but it’s a VERY different culture and you need to be prepared for that, especially with children. It’s sooooooo different, you can’t just go to Japan and hope for the best when you move 4 people and quit a good job for it. It’s very unlikely that you could get a job there, other than part time English teaching so you would have to be ok with being a stay at home mom. It will also be hard to make friends as it takes a long time to be included in the group. I sound negative but it’s just that it’s not an easy country to adjust to when you come from North America. You basically have to forget everything you have learned in your life and start again from scratch. You can do this but be prepared!
Congrats on your move to Japan.
I have lived there for 8years. A wonderful, safe country. There is ZERO chance Helen can’t earn quite a bit extra as an English teacher / tutor. I lived in a couple of towns and small villages. I turned down SO MUCH work and all my friends did too. My top part time jobs were approx 100usd an hour right down to 25usd an hour depending on students / ease of job.
I get where you are coming from but they don’t need the 1 month trial. They need a change, they have just invested in a TESOL Masters and the girls speak Japanese. JUST DO IT. And the food, OMG!
I think the audience here leans risk adverse! Seems like Helen has done tons of research. There’s only so much you can plan for. I think they should do it too! She sounds done with her job, and if this doesn’t work out, a clean break from that could be a gift.
Sounds like a really fun adventure! Thank you to Helen and Earl for sharing their story.
I would encourage Helen to fully understand her retirement options with the Federal Agency where she is currently employed before making any final decisions. In short, I wonder if she will have to forfeit her pension is she leaves federal service prior to reaching the required minimum ‘years of service’. It may be helpful to understand the potential value of her pension and what options are available as she and Earl plan their next steps. For instance, could she pick up where she left off (in terms of her pension) with a new Federal job after returning from Japan? A colleague in HR or a certified financial planner who works with federal employees may be able to help. Also ChooseFI has a facebook group specifically geared for federal employees–they might be able to provide some insight.
Good luck with your decision I wish you the best of luck!
Agreed. I understand they are enthusiastic but a gig like Helen’s is hard to replace and I’d want to be very sure I knew what I was giving up. I would also point out that she did the figures for her retirement fund values without taking inflation into account. Redoing the figures accounting for inflation could be an eye opener.
Thanks Tim, yes, 100% agreed on understanding my benefits before making any decisions–luckily, my pension won’t be forfeited if I leave federal service now. I would also have tenure, which makes it easier for me to be rehired back into the federal system than if I were a civilian applying. My pension is based on my top three years of earning, which gets COLA’d once I hit my minimum retirement age. The big thing I would be giving up, unless I went back to federal service later, is that when you retire in the federal system you have access to the federal healthcare choices. I did some comparing with Medicare, and it did seem that it would be slightly less out of pocket if I stayed in federal service. That said, I don’t think I want to spend my retirement years in the US (though of course, that could change if there are grandkids or family reasons). I speak fluent Spanish, and would like to live in a nice warm country with lots of birds like Costa Rica 🙂
I would do some more research on Japanese schools – their expectations, approach to testing, etc. along with gender norms and how they play out in Japan. Your girls are both at really sensitive times in their lives where the next few years will have a significant impact on their identities and approaches to learning. The school environment in Japan – especially if they’re in an environment where there aren’t a lot of ex-pats – is very, very different and they’re going to feel life outsiders. They’re also probably going to be pretty far behind the others, academically, particularly in mathematics. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t do it, but it should be something you are aware of and I’d suggest (as someone who studies child development and learning) that you have plans in place to support your daughters emotionally and academically, because the transition may be difficult on them.
I know I’m almost a month late here, but I wanted to chime in on Japanese education. I’m not Japanese, but I have a brotherish and sisterish who are. (10-second explanation: They were exchange students, I met them through friends, they stayed in my parents’ house, it’s been more than 10 years now, they’re still in the US, we’re all just kinda one big family at this point.) Their parents sent them to the US for high school because getting into high school in Japan is kind of like getting into college here. You have to apply, and in many cases those schools are quite specialized, narrowing you down to a certain field before you’re really even old enough to know what you want to do with your life. (Example: My high school partners with a high school in Japan that is entirely for music students.)
In addition to the more collegiate atmosphere of Japanese high schools, pretty much the entire education is geared toward end-of-year exams. If you’ve ever seen Japanese movies, manga, etc. that involves high school kids, you’ve seen them portray the insane pressure kids feel to do well on their end-of-year tests. And prepping for them throughout the year is done at the expense of learning life skills, critical thinking skills, and other functions we take for granted in American education.
There are some really great parts of Japanese education, of course, including a superior math education (if you are fluent in Japanese – conversational language learning often doesn’t cover STEM terminology) and the amazing spirit of cooperation and taking care of a classroom that comes with Japanese upbringing. But most likely your kids are going to do best in a specific expat school, which is going to impact where you can live or your commute time, since I imagine those are often in city centers.
I’m of a similar age, and also have a secure federal job like the OP. I’ve traveled to over 45 countries for work and pleasure and have lived overseas for years as well. To be honest, the only thing all my worldly experience had given me is a much greater appreciation for the USA. I’m not sure why so many have this grass-is-greener syndrome to live in cultures very different from your own. People are social animals and we need our family, friends, community, and culture. Perhaps if we loved and cared for our own communities and culture we’d want to live here more.
Now, every time I come back from abroad I want to kiss the ground because I appreciate how well we have it here. I’m currently on trip to New Mexico and guess what, it’s amazing. 350 days of sunshine per year, low cost of living, no traffic, gorgeous scenery, tons of outdoor activities, and clean air.
Has the OP considered finding an alternative job in a different agency within the government so she can keep her salary and pension?
One thing I know about Japan is they have some of the most competitive academics in the world. My fiancé grew up overseas and while she was at the top of her class in Central America she went to the bottom of her class when she had to compete academically with Japanese students. I’d be concerned that the OP’s 12 year old is going to be in for an enormous struggle both socially and academically at a critical time of her development.
I’m just finishing up a similar 2 year adventure – albeit to Australia rather than Japan. My advice:
– make sure your buffer can cover your arrival in Japan, but also your return to the USA if you need to.
– allow for start up costs: flights, initial accommodation (difficult to get a rental straight off, you normally need several months proof of income in Japan), furniture. etc
-research the heck out of living costs to get a realistic view. Taxes, rental, food, transportation, utilities are all findable online. For example, in Japan you’ll need 5-7 months rental to cover costs at the beginning of the contract, and most contracts are for a minimum of 2 years).
Looking at your budget, it seems you’ll have a fairly significant income gap to cover too. Earl’s $50,000 is about $36,500 after Japanese tax- just over $3k a month. Your current living costs are just over $5k and expected reductions (Earl’s education, car) are likely to be offset by the extra costs of schooling, and health insurance (mandatory in Japan). In fact, with local transport costs, and the fact you’re likely to want at least some western style groceries (which are expensive in Japan), it seems reasonable your costs will go up, not down. That’s a minimum $2k a month deficit you need your buffer to cover, probably more.
Will your $80k be enough? Depends on the sums, and your personal attitude to risk. Would I do it on that? No.
I lived in Japan as a young child and went to public school there for 2 years (as did my brother). My brother only lasted one term before he couldn’t handle it and was pulled out. It is very competitive and much more difficult than a typical American curriculum. The teachers were very nice but it was a very intense experience. Also your children will not usually be available to travel around on the weekends as most public schools require the children to come on Saturdays to clean and organize the school. While Japan is very safe overall, she needs to prepare her daughters for groping on crowded public transportation. (We would carry long, thin hat pins and keep them in our hand like a mini-dagger). I have many wonderful friends from our time there but I would ask her to have her daughters visit some schools there first. Good luck to them on whatever they choose to do.
Having worked with them (in a male-dominated field) I heartily second that she needs to prepare her daughters – and herself – for groping, & not just on public transportation.
Japanese women, at least the ones I got to know, were kind and sweet. Why they tolerate their husbands behaving the way they did was (and is) a mystery to me. Although one coworker did tell me he never went home before 10pm because he was ‘afraid’ of his wife (I met her, she was very sweet). That man literally went over 6 days a week not setting eyes on his children.
You have done great in paying off your debts! It’s not easy to do. You have a really good job, are you sure you want to move away and leave it? My niece went to Japan to teach english as a foreign language a few years ago. She had to take the course there for a month even though she has a B.A. in English Writing. She had to be hired by a company there (International School) in Tokyo, and then shortly after she had to LEAVE THE COUNTRY and come back in on a different visa, so she went to South Korea for a weekend. Her apartment was on one side of Tokyo (close to the foreign language school), she had to ride a bike to the train station, take a long train, then walk to the school. Almost everything there was more expensive. Her job was good and provided enough to live on, good medical benefits, and a type of 401(k). She did not earn enough to pay off her student loans like she had hoped, but it was a good experience for her. She made friends in the international community there, especially from Brazil, but it was very difficult to make friends with the locals. It looks great on paper, but there are a lot of cultural differences. The kids will probably experience culture shock for sure! Good Luck in your adventures!
Helen has never explained WHY JAPAN? Just because the girls speak Japanese a little, doesn’t mean they have fluency or would fit in easily in Japanese society which is conformist, rather xenophobic and stuck in the 1950s in terms of gender roles. Their daughters may find it hard to adjust to such “foreign” surroundings at this late stage and may grow to resent the move. Helen too may resent giving up her generous salary and benefits and find the struggle not really worth it. Other commenters have mentioned getting in touch with expat communities in Japan for the skinny on living there and that would be an excellent first step before making the decision to quit jobs, schools, friends and family, and move to another country that may not work out.
It sounds to me like they picked Japan because the kids have been learning the language to some degree in school for a lot of years. I suspect they also read one of the trending articles about how 6 year-olds ride the subway alone in Japan safely and that was that. I think this is a WONDERFUL idea, and something the family should continue to explore but they need to pick a new country and do more in-depth research about the locale before getting in so deep!
I believe there are some limitations on being able to contribute to low cost index funds (like Vanguard) and other retirement options if you live abroad. The way people do/do not save for retirement outside the USA can differ significantly, so be aware that some financial planning options may not be available to you.
My parents immigrated here from one of the Baltic countries and raised us to speak English outside but their language at home, so I am completely bilingual. Years ago I convinced my husband to move to my parents’ country to live. We could navigate the financial stuff but for me the hardest thing was how women are treated, and Japan is even much more restricted in how women are viewed. I realized I was “too American” (this was used as an insult when I questioned why women were paid less, their opinions were given less validity, they were expected to carry the domestic load even when employed full time outside the home…and on and on) and eventually came back home. We also lived in Scotland for a year, and that was far less problematic in terms of gender issues. This may seem small to some, but I am an outspoken woman used to running a business and not especially feminine dressing. If I had had a young daughter, I would have left much sooner because a parent cannot overcome the messages being given to an impressionable, desperate to fit in teen, by her peers and their parents and even their teachers.
Suggest you look on Facebook for groups such as Expats in Japan, Americans in Japan, Expats in Tokyo, Americans in Tokyo, etc. Pose the same questions there and see what the people who have gone before you have to say. Being so far away from family could mean you and/or the children might only get back to the US once every couple of years. Food and travel in country are very, very expensive.
Are you sure you will be allowed to work? Your idea of having the girls go to a foreign university at the local rates might be a misplaced idea. In the EU (where I live) the low fees are for local citizens only. Japan does not allow its citizens to hold dual citizenship, so that won’t be happening.
Mrs. F’s idea of living like a local for at minimum one summer would give you a better idea of what you are jumpng into. Good,luck!
I would add a specific budget item for tutors and an emergency fund for private school so you’re covered if the kids really struggle to adjust. There are often “American” or “International” schools abroad that mirror what your kids are used to and teach in English, but the cost is probably significant. Also, speak to families who live abroad all over the world and not just in Japan. This can help you tease out what are universal concerns / challenges for families abroad and what are specific to Japan.
I moved to Europe with three children, two school-aged.
I am wondering why you say you’d ideally spend five years in Japan (and then Europe) why that number? You also say you don’t want to disturb your older child in the teen years, so is it because your oldest will be finished secondary school and your youngest will be starting? That does seem like a good point to move on. It might help to project different scenarios (one year, two years, five years) looking at the implications of each regarding visas, pensions and taxation (with expert advice). Keeping in mind the Japanese end has implications too (our visas cost thousands, annually). Also, you might want to check what you’ll need, and think about what you’ll do if you should experience a bereavement.
My family of 5, 3 kids ages 7, 12 and 14, recently return from a 12 day vacation to Japan. We absolutely adored the country. My 12 year old daughter wanted to move there. People are beyond polite, the streets are immaculate and we felt very safe. You don’t need a car because the transit system is awesome. When we were in Kyoto we saw people of all ages biking to school/work. Moms trekked their toddlers to school on tandem bikes while smaller ones rode in a carrier. It was very refreshing. My concerns would be the smaller size of the housing units, the homogenous and patriarchal culture. Japan is a culture that prizes work. People are expected to commit to a company for a lifetime and spend long hours at work. Tokyo workforce seemed to be dominated by males as witnessed by the sea of black suits swarming the streets at the end of the workday. There’s even a term for it, “salarymen” they’re called. Enough said.
I’m really glad you mention homogeneity. It’s true – Japanese culture generally prizes harmony, everyone pulling their weight, and the good of the many over singularity. It’s something I really like about Japan…but it’s also true that being a standout may garner some judgment. Because you and your husband clearly value adventure, strength, courage, learning, and independence, your girls have surely been encouraged to try new things, speak up for themselves, and be anything they want to be. They’ve also grown up in an extremely individualist American society that prizes being special, going the extra mile, and innovation. Japanese culture may well not be excited about those traits in children, especially, if we’re being honest, in girls. Homogeneous is the right word. Even my brotherish and sisterish (mentioned above), who are half-Japanese and grew up in Japan, were othered pretty strongly by their full-Japanese classmates.
Oh, related – and this may not be an issue in Tokyo – but when I was in Osaka/Kyoto/Kobe a few years back, I noticed that Japan does not cater to English speakers like many countries do. (Which is totally understandable! Just a challenge for us generally lucky, well-accommodated Americans.) Signs, menus, subway stops, etc., are in Japanese, which cannot be sounded out or guessed at by English speakers. If no one in your family can read Japanese, you could be in for some extra cultural friction for a little while.
I love how adventurous your family is! I have always wanted to live abroad. It is very interesting readying everyone’s comments I never would have thought how different education and gender roles would be there. Like many have said, I think you should definitely go for it so you don’t regret it but leave some options in place both financially and planning-wise in case you want a change after a period of time. Also I was thinking your “Plan B” doesn’t have to be returning to your current life exactly how it is now. You mentioned you were interested in living in other countries after Japan and I saw in someone’s comments they moved from Japan to Scotland and found that to be an easier transition. Or even moving back to a new part of the US could be fun! I am wondering if you will be able to pick up some remote work once you are there and then that might be able to continue even if you move again. I am a planner so I get that having such an open-ended plan is tough and even tougher from a financial planning standpoint. But you guys are so financially savvy and have already accomplished so much so I think if you continue to reassess both how much you enjoy your new life and what your budget looks like you will be in for an awesome adventure! As someone else said if you write a blog or anything I would love to hear how it goes.
Wow! I’m so excited for you and your family! You’re going to have an incredible adventure. I think you’re rocking on your finances and don’t have anything to suggest financially.
I’m curious to know who, besides your daughter, has been to Japan? I think a recon trip would be in order.
I’d also suggest trying to find a “friend” online to give you more insight into cost of living there. So many Japanese want to learn English and there are plenty of websites that partner language learners together so I bet you could find a woman from the area where you’d likely be living who would love to chat online with you. She could give you a more realistic idea of what basic bills would be. Rents might be cheap, but electricity or heating could be a doozy.
Best of luck to you on this wonderful adventure!
Also, keep in mind that visiting a place and living there are two entirely different things. Living there you get to experience all the negatives along with the positives. You get to see beyond the facade.
What an interesting and exciting time for this family! After reading this, I am curious as to what they really hope to get out of their experience in Japan? To me, it seems like they are most interested in creating an adventure together as a family, putting Earl in a place where he can use his degree, and having their daughters further their Japanese language skills with a full immersion situation. I am currently a teacher at an international school here in the US (and formally at an international school in Shanghai, China). I have two big thoughts on this case study:
1. I would encourage the family to really consider, and possibly even formally assess, your daughters’ Japanese language skills (all aspects- reading, writing, oral) before making the decision to place them in a public Japanese school where they may seriously struggle academically while they are also navigating what is sure to be a challenging social environment. As a teacher who works with tons of expat families, I talk to a lot of parents who overestimate their children’s foreign language skills. While full language immersion generally works after awhile, the “honeymoon” phase of going to a brand new school, in a brand new country may wear off quite quickly for your daughters.
2. Would you all be willing to relocate to a country where the cost of living is lower than that of Japan (where the cost of living is pretty high)? With this, you would definitely still get the lifestyle change and adventure you are craving, and maybe you could afford to put your daughters into an international school where they (and you all as parents!) would have more of a global community compared to what might be available in rural Japan. As others have mentioned, I would not underestimate the community aspect of where you choose to live. Likewise, making the choice to relocate to a country that has a lower cost of living might mean that you would (potentially) eat through less savings, regardless of whether you decide to stay long term. This could open up opportunities for more regional travel, as well.
I’m 44, live in Beijing and am getting ready to move to Portland in 2020. Haha. And a teacher. I encourage your husband to look at international schools as well as this opportunity he has. There are a number of good ones in Japan, ASIJ, Nishmachi, Canadian Academy off the top of my head. The advantage is higher salary, kids can attend for free so you maintain a Western education for them while still part of the culture, housing is usually provided in some form, trips home, international insurance, etc. The problem might be that you typically need a minimum of two years teaching experience prior and 3 dependents are not favorable.
Moving abroad isn’t as scary as many people make it out to be. I’ve now lived in France, Thailand and China. I’d never been to China before and came for 2-3 years but have stayed for 7. I’m nervous to move back to the US because my life is pretty easy and the US seems like such a struggle. We’re returning because I’m a single parent and deeply crave a more stable, less transient community for my daughter and myself. Good luck whatever you decide.
Yes, international school teaching jobs are fantastic! You can use a job placement agency like Search Associates to job hunt and Rosemary is right that pay, benefits, and social life are great. I work at one of the schools that she mentioned and I love it here, but I will say that most teachers need a teaching license, experience in a K-12 environment, and potentially some IB experience as well in order to be considered for most positions. Many schools do not accept cold calls or resumes emailed directly to HR, but this is the hiring season so the timing would be good for the 2020/2021 school year.
Helen – there’s a YouTube channel called Our Rich Journey which features an early retired family who lived in Japan with their two school-aged daughters. Could be some helpful binge watching for you! The parents were also both US government employees and they were living in free housing while in Japan. The family just recently FIREd to Portugal, but their channel has a lot of Japan content.
Ooh! And with winter coming!!! I’m absolutely going to watch their channel thank you SO much
For Mrs Frugalwoods: Schwab has super low cost index funds like Vanguard. Helen et al are in great shape with them.
For Helen and family: $96/year fee for financial planning review w Mark Zoril who specializes in US ex pats. Google him and put the financial plan in front of him. Well known and regarded in frugal/ex pat circles.
Oh wow, I have heard of him but didn’t realize he did expats. Thanks so much!! I’m going to do this!!
I loved reading Helen and Earl’s story. Well done to you for identifying your money issues and working on resolving them! What a triumph!
Its fantastic that you’re now in a position to think about living your dreams rather than simply working to survive, as Mrs Frugalwoods has pointed out. I agree with you that travel is fantastic and is one of the greatest ways to help us grow and develop as global citizens. We (husband and I) have lived overseas a number of times and been expats up until recently when we re-patted back to our original country. In the years since 2013 we’ve lived in Germany, England, and Wales, as well as travelling full time for 12 months out of an 18 month period (2 x 6 months stints). It sounds like you are people who really investigate your options and choices, so that is something I totally agree with. You need to read and learn all about your expat options as much as possible as there are things that crop up that can be totally unexpected. I would like to suggest a FANTASTIC online community on facebook called Two Fat Expats. It’s a brilliant, kind, and helpful group of expats all around the world and I just know there would be folks on there who would have a lot of resources and support to offer you as you plan your journey.
Expatting often isn’t about getting ahead or becoming rich (although some people can and do). In my experience, its all about the journey and the adventure, and that sounds like what you’re after. It can put a dent in your career, it can cost a bit, but the experiences are priceless. Not everyone is career driven, I kind of get the sense from your story, that you may not be, and instead want to focus on family and adventure and life rather than climbing up a corporate ladder. Japan is an amazing place, so very different from anywhere else I’ve lived or travelled to (I haven’t lived in Japan but spent some time there and have friends who do live there). As others have mentioned, it isn’t always the most open to outsiders, but for roles that require English natives speakers, its possible and especially if you are part of an expat community (which it sounds like it will be through your husband’s work).
In relation to working, definitely explore your choices in relation to freelancing. That’s what I do and that has allowed us to travel the world while I sit and complete work sent to me in hotel rooms, on trains, in planes etc. If you can secure something like that, it makes the world open up to you. But there are negatives, for example tax (I am an Australian citizen and when I was a non-resident I had to pay the highest rung of tax which was a shock to the purse!). Those are the nitty gritty things you’ll need to weigh up and plan for. But even if they don’t work out as a positive money wise, the cost may be worth it in the long run. It was for us for many years.
As with everything in life, there are positives and negatives. Expatting is no different…but a lot of the time, the experience outweigh the challenges. Good luck!
Thank you! I’m going to join that group you suggested! I have been doing some reading about freelancing and what it takes to get established with clients. The piece I need to get more information on is how the taxes would work, as you point out. I’m also in that phase of thinking about my next work steps where I could go in a number of different directions and I’m trying to game out which makes the most sense. The biggest attraction to the freelancing is that it would keep me in my industry, which I really like, and it would pay well by the hour, since it’s the field I’m highly skilled in. I also love love love the flexibility! I also know I am comfortable with working heavy hours in short bursts if there is a sudden client need. So much to think about!!!
Their current situation is successful because of Helen’s job. They are assuming a lot about the future which also incorporates Helen losing her job and maybe not getting a similarly compensating new job if their expectations don’t pan out. I would suggest that Helen find out what kind of unpaid leave of absence she has access to and how much accumulated and unused vacation time she has. It might make sense for Helen to stay in the US at her job while her husband and kids move overseas in steps: everyone perhaps spends the summer in Japan while the kids school is out including Helen for as much as she can get away with and still hang onto her job. Then beyond that they could skype all the time and Helen could come over for a week or two at a time (probably better use of her accrued vacation). After a year they all could assess whether reality meets fantasy and whether they could make a go of it. During that time, Helen could connect with potential employers and work on her Japanese. I am concerned that they are looking at this fantasy and the hard core reality will be very different. Japan is expensive including outlying areas and the culture is still very closed unless you are fluent and had relatives that grew up in Japan and still have connections there (I used to travel for business and was in Japan 6 times/yr for 6 yrs). Even those with both parents growing up in Japan but being born and raised outside are considered “foreigners”, even if fluent. Also, tax equalization is a very difficult and expense to achieve; those of us who worked at sizable companies had our tax returns prepared by name firms because it is so complicated and that is very expensive. And what Mrs. Frugalwoods states about the long work hours is really a very inefficient structure because employees go out to eat and drink with their coworkers after work and stay for long hours because that is how it is done.
If i had one major suggestion, it is that they choose a place like Taiwan because they break barriers constantly, don’t hang on to old norms just because they are expected to by society and are much more westernized. Plus powerful women execs in Taiwan are the norm which would mean that perhaps Helen has a chance at a high compensating position assuming that she learns the languages and networks like anything.
I’d recommend reading How to be a Family by Dan Kois. It’s an easy read (there is an audio book version, too). He and his family spent a year away from home in 4 different locations (3 months each). The take-aways they all had were numerous. While they didn’t go to Japan, I think just reading about his experience with similar aged kids could give you a lot of insight.
I love your sense of adventure and completely relate to wanting to live in another country. I completed two study abroad programs while in college and absolutely loved both. However, one was in Italy, the other in London. Living in London was obviously easier because I spoke the language and could easily connect with the locals. In Italy? Not so much. After Italy, I went to Germany to visit one of my best friends who was German (she had been an exchange student in my high school). She and her family spoke English perfectly, but many of her friends did not. When going out with them, it was hard because I couldn’t understand most of the conversation and couldn’t connect in a meaningful way. That’s something to consider for Helen – how will you connect with other women? I foresee a lot of isolation for you in Japan.
There’s also the saying that living somewhere is vastly different than visiting a place. Boy, did I and countless others learn that lesson about NYC! So, there’s that too. What we imagine about a place isn’t necessarily what that place is.
I’m generally pretty gung-ho about doing things that are off-the-beaten path and that foster tremendous growth, but I see so many risks involved in this situation that I am concerned for you and your family. You have an extraordinarily good situation at work, even though you find it soul-sucking (don’t many of us, unfortunately?). As you’ve stated, should you need to return to the US, you won’t secure another job that pays as well and only requires 40 hours per work + offers a pension. That’s a tremendous risk, one I’m not sure you shouldn’t consider more.
I agree with the above suggestion that your husband should try it abroad for 6 months to scope it out to see if it’s actually a feasible plan for your whole family. But I also don’t see this one instance of living in Japan as your sole opportunity to live abroad, especially considering your plans to move to another place later. While your finances aren’t bad, they’re not great either. With a stronger financial footing, you will have more freedom later in life to fully enjoy life in another place, minus the stress of worrying about freelance work, etc. A former colleague of mine did exactly that, though she and her husband planned for several decades to move to France. They’ve been there several years now and love it. But their finances were firmly in order before leaving and there was no question about income, etc. As a result, they can come and go as they please between the US and France, while still affording a very nice life in France.
My other question is how will you maintain contact with family and friends in the US if you’re on a 12-hour time difference? I’ve traveled globally and have always found these time differences challenging to connect with family and friends. It will greatly reduce the amount of contact you have with everyone in the US. Are you prepared/okay with that?
I honestly hate to discourage you from this endeavor, but I also hate to encourage you to do something when I see so many other risks that could derail your later life. Ultimately, it’s your choice. I think the larger question is what are you willing to sacrifice in order to live abroad, and how soon does this goal really need to be met? Oh, and if you want to write, why not write here? I’d try connecting with as many expats in Japan before deciding what to do. Good luck to you! Sorry, I hope I’m not too harsh!!! It’s just that there’s so much at stake with 4 people, including 2 kids, and the loss of an excellent job situation. (Yes, I see the negatives you present about Portland too, but sometimes those negatives are magnified when the grass looks greener elsewhere.)
I love the desires and dreams represented here! The blog, Cup of Jo, has a series about parenting in other countries. The installment on Japan was eye opening. It covers a lot of the concerns you have voiced and is definitely worth reading. “Ten Surprising Things about Parenting in Japan”. It’s written by a woman born in Japan that lived for a long time in NYC. She moved with her American husband and found it more challenging than she expected. Enjoy whichever adventure you choose!
You should go, it’s an awesome opportunity you’ll figure it out as you go, your industrious folk raised to live frugally, you got this!!
Have fun blog about it write a book about it & you’ll be rolling in dough
I recently moved from the Portland metro area to Vietnam, albeit just my partner and I (we are renting our house and doing this for about 6 months, to see if we like it). As with anything, there are good and bad parts. The cost of living in Vietnam is extremely low compared to Portland. Is $50k a reasonable amount to live off of, and still save, in Japan? For Earl’s potential job in Japan- is that an area of Japan in which your interested in living?
Helen mentioned teaching part-time English, but she didn’t explain that. Has she thought about getting her TEFL (teaching English as a Foreign Language) or CELTA? That would be a great way for her to also bring in some extra money, since she also has a Bachelor’s degree. They have online or in-person courses (on Groupon as well, although those usually don’t have in-person practice hours). It may not be anything near what she wants to do, but it has allowed me flexibility to work online from anywhere that has a strong internet connection. A criminal background check from home (with fingerprints) will likely be required to work in schools or language centers abroad. It’s a great way to network, plus get income, and often helps with medical, housing and/or flights.
There were a lot of people negative about our move. We chose to prepare well financially, help our older family members get Skype set-up for video chats, and joined Expat groups via Facebook (I’m not sure how it is in Japan, but the majority of connections are made via Facebook here). One thing I would HIGHLY suggest is that Helen and Earl find some Expat forums or groups, (expats.com, Facebook, check on Craigslist-but not at work because Craigslist can be sketchy in other countries) and start asking questions about medical care, meet up groups, good areas to live, etc. While having a strong network at home is good, having a good group set up is extremely helpful.
Best of luck!
Thank you Mrs. Frugalwoods for the excellent advice!
On the trial run, I was envisioning it a bit differently. Earl is doing informational interviews and working on a list of possible locations. We were thinking to time it so that we could go to each location and do reconnaissance to help make the decision in the event he has multiple options to choose from. The reason I wanted to do this versus just stay in one spot is that we might discover some locations are more in line with our preferences. I also wanted to get a sense of the housing, parks, schools etc, and possibly set up appointments or meetings with people we have networked to in order to help us plan.
Yes on the savings account with a higher interest rate. I will get that set up pronto.
Schwab has less options than vanguard, but the fees for the funds I am in are the same. I had checked the big three across main indexes I was interested in, and ended up picking schwab since the fees were the same but I could buy with a higher minimum and the debit card was worldwide with no fees.
I agree that having a sense of purpose will be critical, as I am not a person who does well without that. I do not enjoy domestic work, and being home does not fulfill my needs. But work isn’t where I am finding my purpose right now. What really charges my battery is doing things that I’m not very good at with obsession and passion. (For instance, I was awful at Spanish, so instead of taking the hint I decided to make it one of my majors in college; I was a horrid anxiety filled public speaker so I joined a competitive debate team and spent most weekends for several years at debate tournaments until I got good at it…and these are some of my happiest memories, even though I cried and sweated and embarrassed myself regularly)
In that vein, I have three things I’m super excited to work on without paid employment. The first is studying Japanese. I’ve started my studying already and hope to be semi-conversational by the time we get there so I can spend some time every day studying and then awkwardly lurking to try to use my Japanese with people. I also really want to write, and I plan to write every day. Finally, I want to explore all the nooks and crannies, so exploring the all around us will be great. I can’t wait to spend scads of time trying to navigate grocery stores, ramen shops and secondhand stores trying to figure it all out.
I love the idea of getting my plan B fleshed out more. This seems like a great spreadsheet!! Earl is going to look at jobs outside Japan as well, I’m the event that he doesn’t find a job that works for us, and we have been working a little on that plan B. I’m going to flesh out my Plan C (which is the plan that assumes we go but it is awful or he gets fired) out—it likely involves hunkering down for a wee bit in a low cost of living place while we apply for work elsewhere.
Thank you thank you!! I am very appreciative of all the ideas and questions as we explore this next step!
1. I recommend looking into the JET program…that is well set up for Americans who want to teach in Japan, and it’s only a 10-month commitment.
2. This will sound overly general, but I experienced it firsthand while in Japan: once you get away from the touristy areas, many Japanese are wary of non-Japanese. We actually we’re refused from a couple local izakayas basically just because we weren’t Japanese. I love live live Japan and most people in general are super nice and eager to help, but something to consider, especially if they don’t speak the language.
So excited for you! I dont know if any of this helps but my husband taught English to adults in Japan for over a year and I joined him there for part of that time. Unlike most of his friends, he did not sign a contract before he went. He was therefore free to negotiate once over there and compare schools and found a much sweeter deal that included a car. Its something to consider. We were treated like royalty and often invited out by the adult students. Being a teacher over there commands respect. I did not feel the gender roles to be a problem. As a woman, the benefit of feeling safe made up for that. The cost of living is very high, but you probably know that already.
I cannot speak about living in Japan, but can speak from hosting a Japanese teenage exchange student. She was a lovely exchange daughter, but I would not want to send my daughter to live in Japan for her teen years after learning about her schedule and expectations. I have the certification your husband is finishing his master’s in and have explored teaching abroad. There are many opportunities for your family that would not have the potential problems discussed in these comments. Might I suggest you investigate them? If it were me in your shoes, I’d look around a bit more.
Might I also add that moving to a different and more expensive place on a significantly lower income is much more difficult than you can imagine and adding an entirely different culture will require a great deal of fortitude. I speak from experience.
Best of everything to you and your family.
All I can think is oh goodness anywhere but Japan! The Japanese culture is very honor based, but also extremely sex obsessed, I would be extremely worried about bringing young girls into an environment where women have just barely come out of property status and prosititution is legal.
Crime is everywhere, Japan might hide it well, but there will always be crime no matter where you go, no country/state is truly without it.
Other considerations from my husband who was stationed in Japan for three years:
The Japanese tax everything, there is even a mandatory entertainment tax.
The costs of vehicles and transport are super pricy, and then if anything happens you will be at fault even if you aren’t even in the car (a trash truck hit his car fully in a parking space while he was inside somewhere, he was still responsible)
There is no such thing as personal space in Japan. Think clown car.. on the train and on the sidewalks.
You have none of your freedoms in Japan, we take our rights to free speech, free assembly, right to defend yourself for granted often here in the US, and you won’t have the right to vote.
Communications with the US in any form are expensive. Phone, postage, etc. all more costly and the time difference will make communications harder.
All of these things are the iceberg tip of the darker side of Japan. If you’re truly in love with Japan it might be worth it, but it might serve your family much better to pick a different country that’s less expensive and less culture shock or save money and take longer abroad vacations in multiple locations, that way you have the time to live like a local and really immerse, but not so much time that the fun of living abroad wears off and then you can go to your US home and do it again the next year in a new country.
Helen, congrats on your hard work and financial accomplishments! It’s amazing to see what people are capable of when they have a vision. I know nothing about Japan, or being an ex-pat, but I know what it’s like to lose excitement for your job and want to run away from it. Not working might sound good now, but from my own experience with my husband’s job transfers and shifting from breadwinner to housewife, I struggled enormously. Maybe that’s not the case for you. Regardless of what happens, I encourage you to find joy in your work while you’re still there. You deserve that.
Hi Helen! This is very exciting for you and your family. I completely understand all of your questions and concerns- my family was in the same place just over two years ago and there is so much I could say! We made the leap and moved to Japan in July 2017 with two young kids (then ages 9 months and 4 years). We had a lot of the same financial concerns and questions as you. We had about $70,000 in cash (non-retirement) assets available to us before we moved, and that ended up being more than enough for our family of four. We had to dip into our savings for moving and some other expenses, but we have been able to replenish it and even save a bit more. In our situation, I am the one who works full-time teaching English, while my husband is a stay-at-home dad, and our older child goes to the local elementary school. I work through the JET Program, so my salary my first year was around $31,000 and now in my third year it is around $36,000. Surprisingly, we have not struggled to support ourselves on this income. We have a small apartment and pay just over $500 each month (and an additional $150-$200 on average for utilities)- if our kids were older, we would want a larger apartment than we have now. We have one car for our family, but we live in a suburb, so we are able to walk and use public transportation sometimes. Food costs are high and food is definitely our biggest expense, but medical costs are much lower. Also, the Japanese government pays all residents of Japan a small allowance for raising children, so we get an extra $3,000 each year from the government. My daughter is doing well in public school, but there is a lot of homework, and we have run into some issues with bullying. With older kids in school, I would pay particular attention to issues around bullying. As a foreigner, we will never fit in, but we have been able to make some connections in our local community. The hardest thing is not having a support system, especially with younger kids, but we are continually building our community here. It has been a challenge, but an excellent opportunity for our family, and I think that you are definitely in a financial position to make it work. I agree with people who posted above about expectations- I think if you come in with an open mind about what the experience will be, it will go much better for you. Best of luck if you choose to pursue this adventure- it has been very much work it for our family!
Thank you for sharing your experience! I suspect that my younger daughter might be okay in a public school, but I’m not sure about my older daughter. Her Japanese is better, but she’s also at an age where being so different from other people could be really rough. When she was in Japan, she spent a week with her host sister at a public school and really enjoyed it (her favorite part was that they have much longer lunch breaks and she loved the food!), but we’ve talked about just giving it a try and then if it isn’t working, then we can figure something else out. We have talked about some plan B options if she hates school; I think I’ll do some work to research them all so if that if the first school doesn’t work for her we know we have options.
I have heard that frugal living is possible in Japan, and the people Earl has interviewed that have worked at the universities he is interested in said the same thing, that they were comfortable on the salaries. I did notice that the homes are very small when I looked online at rentals in those areas 🙂
Greetings from Japan!
My husband and I are Americans that have been working as international school teachers in a medium sized city in Kansai for the last 3 years and while we absolutely love it here, I would like to chime in and reiterate a couple of points made by other commenters and supported by our own experience:
1) I would not make any major decisions until your husband has a complete university contract in hand outlining the full extent of his job, its terms, benefits, and length of visa offered. I would even go as far as to say that I would wait until you have visas in hand before resigning from what sounds like an excellent federal job in the US. My husband has his MA TESOL as well as many years of experience and had a hell of a time finding any university work here in Japan (despite already living here as my dependent) because many universities have limits to how long they will employ someone and as a result they will issue part time contracts so as to avoid having to pay for long term benefits such as insurance, etc. Most of the jobs require you to know someone who works there already to get your resume in the door and many other positions involved lengthy applications in duplicate on paper in Japanese. In addition to this, many universities require you to have a PhD or a significant number of publications to even be considered for work. My husband was offered a part time job after a friend of his submitted his resume but he had to turn it down because he wasn’t able to change his visa status soon enough to begin working. It sounds like your husband’s university makes these pathways a bit easier (which is awesome!), but full time university positions with decent pay and benefits are very rare, especially for expats with dependents.
I often hear people say that Japan is “begging” for native English speakers to come and teach English, but I don’t think that this is the case at all any more. Most of the advertised jobs that I see here are Kindergarten language immersion positions on Saturday mornings in undesirable locations with low pay. I have lots of friends that have cobbled together multiple positions at different language schools, often involving weekends, just to be able to afford living expenses.
2) I currently work at an international school that facilitated my moving to Japan and settling in. Without their support I think that moving to Japan would have been very, very challenging financially, culturally, and socially, and I say that as a person who has lived in 4 different countries in the last 10 years and have loved my experiences. I am no stranger to culture shifts but I have always had a reliable scaffold of local and expat friends and coworkers to fall back on. Of all of the places that I have lived, Japan has been my favorite but Japanese bureaucracy is no joke and even with a full staff of Japanese coworkers whose job it is to make sure that I can live here comfortably, I recently had my Japanese credit card cut off because one of my utility bills wasn’t transferred from a previous account in a timely matter. I can’t apply for another credit card for 5 years because of a clerical error.
3) In terms of your daughter’s education, speaking Japanese is the very tip of the iceberg when it comes to transitioning from a US school to the Japanese system. I think that in the right neighborhood that has a bit of diversity, Japanese elementary schools may offer a good experience for your daughter, but by junior high, schools are very competitive and most students attend after school classes (juku) to maintain their math and kanji grades, and these are kids that are native speakers and have been studying in the Japanese system their entire lives. I have expat coworkers with a Japanese spouse who have kept their kids in Japanese elementary schools but moved them to our international school for junior high because of how challenging the curriculum and environment are.
I think that we often hear the best things about Japanese schools in the west and there are MANY good things about the Japanese education system, but while my husband was searching for a university job he worked as an ALT (assistant language teacher) in a Japanese junior high and was really shocked by the teacher’s attitudes towards the students (yelling, comparing students to each other, encouraging competition, general unkindness) and any issues that you might have with an American school will be present there as well, especially class size which is often close to 30 or 40 students. The classes can be this large because the style of teaching and learning is pretty old school and doesn’t involve a lot of group work or individuality. There are of course exceptions but they are rare.
The alternatives you mentioned are homeschooling and international schools. The international school that I work at costs around $25,000 a year and that doesn’t include transportation, meals, gym kit, etc. Most families have their tuition paid for by their sponsoring companies as very few can afford this out of pocket. Homeschooling is quite rare and you wouldn’t have many opportunities for socializing or co-ops.
Another thing to consider is that the Japanese school year begins in April so it will be hard to transition from an American school calendar without beginning the school year late.
4) As far as cost of living goes, I think that you will find Japan to be similar to the Pacific Northwest. The most expensive parts about living in Japan for me have been transportation (the trains are phenomenal but it is not uncommon to have a $20 daily commute to work or school in the same city where you live), travel (bullet trains are as expensive as air tickets and even cheap hotels will run over $100/night), and housing. I was surprised to hear that you would be able to find an apartment for $800/month but this depends a lot on where you live and may be offset by your commute relative to distance from jobs and schools. This is in addition to the challenge of even FINDING an available apartment that will rent to foreigners. I would suggest watching this video to learn more about housing discrimination in Japan: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iZ5f_QokinY
When I was discussing your case study with my husband he jokingly called me a “dream crusher” because of all of the concerns that I raised. He made the excellent point that people move from the US to Japan all the time and do just fine, but many of these people are young and not relocating children or leaving lucrative jobs. It is entirely possible that you could move to Japan, enroll your kids in Japanese schools, find meaningful work, and have an amazing experience! And I don’t want to deter you from what could be the best decision of your life! But I would hesitate to make any major life changes until you know exactly how you will be accommodated once you arrive. I have met many Americans over the years who have moved abroad only to discover that the places that they visited as tourists were very difficult to live in because of the daily logistical problems that can very quickly sap all of the joy out of an otherwise wonderful experience. As I said, my husband and I LOVE living in Japan but if you were a good friend and we were discussing this move over coffee I would tell you (lovingly and gently) to reconsider relocating your whole family into a new situation without knowing exactly how the major details would play out. It sounds like you are really doing your research already so you are on the right track! Hopefully we will be neighbors very soon and you are able to begin an amazing adventure as an expat!
Thanks—I’m curious what prefecture you live in? I have read about the concerns around renting to foreigners in some areas, and the large deposits etc, but the folks Earl has talked to have told us that in their areas the rents are fairly easy. I did some internet research, and from what I could tell via advertisements and google it matched up with what they had told him.
For international school, I would need to be making an income for that to work. Do you have suggestions on the best way to research schools remotely? I have been looking at different options online, and was planning to tap people we know in Japan once we had a better idea of what places we might have.
And, yes, thanks for the suggestion on making sure I don’t leave my job until he has a contract and is very clear on all the terms. He is also meeting with people from his program who have worked in the places he’s applying in the past to try to understand what we should be thinking of when he is comparing different possibilities.
Hi! I’m in the Hyogo/Osaka prefecture area. I don’t know many people that have faced housing discrimination in our community but we have local staff that are able to facilitate leasing agreements. I think that many universities that hire teachers from the US can help with this as well. It’s good to hear that the folks you have been talking to have said that they haven’t had many problems in the area where you’re looking to live.
Depending on where you are looking to live, there aren’t too many international schools in Japan (Tokyo and the surrounding area is an exception, there are quite a few and at a variety of tuition price points) so I would suggest doing a search online for different options or contacting the US embassy or consulate nearest to where you will be living as they might maintain a list. Definitely contact anyone that you know will be living in your area for their recommendations. There are also some Japanese schools that have bilingual or immersion programs that would help to ease the transition for your kids from the US system even if they were the only foreign students.
It sounds like you guys are really doing your research which is great. Once your husband finds a job that he’s interested in, his future coworkers and their families will be your best resource, especially when it comes to figuring out housing, cost of living, and a good school situation.
Look, I didn’t even read the whole case study and I simply have to comment. I moved away from America – to another English speaking former British colony – and it is HARD. I have a native spouse, comfortable life, large group of congenial friends, I live in a beautiful part of the world in a lovely climate, and yet I bitterly miss the freedom, fun, and joie de vivre that is American life! I could not recommend anyone leave America permanently. I have been away for nearly 14 years. Bear in mind, if you earn over $90000 or so, you must pay American taxes as well as taxes in your adoptive country. The Obama administration really cracked down on expatriates, probably for good reason, but overseas banks are deadly demanding now. Your children will face the same sort of restrictions on earnings.
Please, post this
As a retired federal employee and military reservist, I am glad I had the number of years I did into my two pensions, both at 30 years. Getting out of the federal civil service without getting enough years for retirement can be a big mistake. At $120 K a year, I am guessing you are a GS14. Rather than throw that away, consider looking into a transfer to another federal agency that you could work for while in Japan. Just my two cents, but I know it takes time to get to that GS level, and agencies usually promote from within the federal civil service system rather than bring in an outsider.
Hello from an American Expat living in Germany!
This is such an exciting prospect and I relate to Helen’s situation and experience so much! My husband and I also grew up in poor families, have been pulling ourselves out of debt after finding the life-saving Frugalwoods blog (thank you!!!) and absolutely love and prioritize experiences/travel over material items, which ultimately led us to move abroad. We initially intended to live in Germany only temporarily but the things I discuss below are now making us consider living here permanently.
First, I wanted to address two of Mrs. FW comments. The first being that massive debt makes moving abroad an elusive dream. Actually, in our experience it’s quite the opposite. Depending on the foreign country, it can help you get out of debt. In our case, Germany’s amazing social system and lower cost of living (we live in Berlin) for safe/healthy housing and food makes us finally be able to get out from under our student loan debt. There are no unexpected healthcare costs here (only reasonable monthly insurance contributions), childcare is free, and college is free…and most people commute by bike or walking & public transit. The gov’t also pays generous parental leave and child subsidies until the kids are at least 18. It’s worth checking what Japan’s benefits are. If not better than US, consider moving to Germany instead (only partially kidding)!! 😉
Second comment by Mrs, FW is to try living in Japan for a short time first. Yes, for sure! We did this before coming to Germany and not only does it help to plan finances, but it helps on the emotional side AND to meet other expats living in the area that can help you out immensely. Having a network before you move is so important.
OK, now on to some of Helen’s questions. I was also working in the US fed govt and was/am the female breadwinner. My govt job would not allow me to transfer to Germany (check on this!), so instead I moved into consulting. I found a industry consulting job (I’m an engineer) and was upfront with my plans from the beginning with the new employer. I started with the company first in the US and then transferred with them a few months later to Germany. I was in a WFH position in both countries and now under a German (not US) contract. This plan helped me to not start everything new (can be too stressful) and to have a solid financial basis for our move. The company then also helped with our visas, tax consultation, setting up bank accounts, etc. Consider looking into this option as freelance consulting may not give you the same benefits. For example, in Germany, I wouldn’t have had the same social benefits from the beginning or the costs covered. You could then transition to freelance later if you want (check non-compete clauses, etc in your contract though).
Overall, I would say you will not regret something like this!! You’ll learn so much more about yourselves and native country than you ever thought possible. The hardest part may be unexpected: if you’re like us, the hardest part by far is now realizing we may never want to move back to the US! We are struggling with this immensely since it’s difficult to be away from your family, especially if you have children. Besides the financial elements, we love the culture here so much and what it means for our daughter. Not dealing with gun violence in schools and no massive student debt, and no unexpected healthcare costs for her as she grows up! As you mentioned for Japan, children are more independent and walk to school/playgrounds alone safely….same here.
Only one last thing to consider if you do move, which is about retirement plans. Some countries (Japan too?) have treaties with US to avoid double taxation but also the ability to receive retirement funds (taking US funds in the foreign country or vice versa). You wouldn’t be able to contribute to US-based IRAs without US income and there are even some limitations with contributing to any mutual funds, etc. We’ve found that the private pensions in Germany are not anywhere close to as good as 401k’s in the US for example (they’re more like investing in bonds). You may need to consider alternative strategies for retirement savings if you do move abroad (eg, real estate). Mrs. FWs has another recent case study from an expat living in France and some of these things were discussed, in case you want to go back and check it out. Also, check out Mrs. FW recommenced book “The Simple Path to Wealth” on ideas for TSP fund contributions.
I wish you and your family the best of luck in this super exciting decision!!! 🙂 It’s so cool that your children are also on board with the idea. We have family that move internationally every few years for the US govt and their kids love learning new languages and traveling. It’s such a great experience to learn firsthand about cultures different than our own.
PS: I forgot to mention that one of the main reasons I chose employment in a WFH consulting position at a company with international presence was that our family could easily relocate back to any city in the US or elsewhere without having to worry about finances and finding a new job.
Reading this and all the comments I sit here shaking my head. My final reaction is ” treat this as an adventure. Do not expect to stay.” My nephew, a young lawyer with degrees from Harvard and Yale went on an exchange, with very good pay allowances, to Japan for 6 months, leaving his young wife working in the US.
He returned with no intention of their moving to Japan, as first thought of. Why? Dreadful situation for wife and future children. Culture, employment and education = vastly different and in no way advantageous compared to the US.
At one time, admittedly 25 years ago, I was in charge of a foreign students organization at Oregon State University. Due to its language school run for foreign wives I met and became good friends with many Japanese women. Of these, one wept constantly when her husband’s student days were ending and another had decided to return home with her husband at which point they would both apply for visas and green cards to return permanently to the US.
Having myself lived in many European countries, for many years, I have a deep appreciation for the US. While much is wrong with our country (I am a Democrat, enough said) it is still a wonderful place to live, in more ways than any other I know of.
Best wishes to them both but get rid of the starry eyes and consider reality.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this – my favorite case study yet! When I read this line, “We fixed up our house, sold it, and with the proceeds, were able to pay down all of our debt and put some money in our retirement savings!” I wanted to jump up and down and cheer loudly! Congrats! The next line that really got me was, “I know that if I don’t live overseas, it will be my biggest life regret.” WOW. As a a life-long saver, aspiring minimalist, and frugalwoods fan, I understand the practicality and planning involved with such a big decision to move to Japan. But there’s also the fact that we each have ONE life to live, and if you and your family want to live overseas, I say, MAKE IT HAPPEN! I think the suggestion to take an extended trip to Japan is a smart one. If you and your husband and kids still feel that aching pull to move to Japan after you’ve visited, I say, do it! And by the way, I enjoyed your writing style so much. If you wind up moving to Japan, please please please write a book about your journey. I would love to read it. All the best!
Check out the youtube channel “Our Rich Journey”. They move to Japan from the US with children and both worked. They have lots of tips about living abroad and videos about expenses. They have several videos about getting jobs abroad that may interest you. Good luck. It sounds like it could be a fun adventure.
Such an interesting case study! And very timely for me, since I’m gearing up to move to Japan for 5 months this November and it’s been interesting to read everyone’s perspective on this kind of move.
I don’t have much practical advice except this: don’t listen to the naysayers! Sure, it’s probably not all going to be sunshine and roses but from everything you have written Helen, your worst-case scenario if you end up having a bad time is you move back home, richer in experience.
I spent a year in the US as an exchange student in rural Idaho in my teens (I’m from Germany) and while it wasn’t always easy to adjust to a different environment and culture, I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything. Just make sure to look into reverse culture shock, if you’re not planning to live in Japan permanently. I found returning home after my stay abroad was the hardest thing by far!
I second the reverse culture shock. I moved to CA from the UK. I integrated really well and my daughter was born in CA. The biggest shock was moving back home. It’s never been the same for me. I’m always longing for something different now. I think the answer is to keep moving forward in life. I moved backwards and it was hard. I’ve been plotting escape to France for years! Make every move a new adventure, even if it’s in an old location.
Yep! We’re still in deep reverse culture shock after two years in Germany. Our kids identify more with German culture than with American culture. It’s called “third culture kids” and it’s common for military and missionaries. I think the crux of it comes from going through puberty in a country that you will not be living permanently in. That said, as an adult, I still miss Germany like crazy. I can think to new adventures, but feel pretty darn stagnant right now. Of course, part of that might be that I currently live on the most isolated island chain in the world….you’d think that would be adventure enough. Ha!
I enjoyed reading this case study – I’m also planning on moving from Canada to Japan with my husband in 2020 when he completes his degree. We both speak Japanese and I used to attend university there. It’s scary to think about leaving my long-term job and starting a new career path, but it’s been my dream as long as I can remember. You won’t know what’s right for you until you try.
Study the language as much as you can (The Genki or Minna no Nihongo series is a good start), attend language exchanges, watch films, and speak Japanese with your family. You may find it easier to live in a prefecture with more English-speaking residents to start. If it’s too difficult for your children to adjust to a regular school, there are English-language or bilingual schools in some areas.
Moving abroad can also complicate access to a US higher education for the kids, both financially and in terms of admissions. For admissions purposes, many colleges and universities will consider them to be “international” students and this may limit them. Moreover, without a home state they will be out-of-state everywhere, and this can increase costs considerably. These aren’t reasons to not go, but I haven’t seen anyone mention them elsewhere, and if you see a US college education in the kids’ futures it is something to be aware of.
As long as you continue to file taxes with a permanent address in the US (as we have done for 7 years, using my mom and dad’s address), you are still in-state in that state! Also, if you come back within a year of starting school that’s usually enough to establish residency somewhere new. (There may be states where this is more complicated, but that’s the general gist)
What if you guys moved to Japan based on Helen’s job first? As a Federal employee, Id explore Federal jobs in Japan at State Department sites and Department of Defense bases/installations, then hitch Earl’s job to that. Helen wouldn’t lose her pension and seniority plus she would keep her annual leave, medical benefits, and might even qualify for moving expenses. If not in Japan, consider other international sites with a Federal presence such as Germany and Italy (Naples has a huge DOD presence). Although not ESL, DOD bases have American K-12 schools that might be attractive to Earl. I went to grad school with a guy who’d been a principal at one of the elementary schools. I’d start searching OPM policy and job opportunities. Also, what an awesome job of knocking out your debt! No matter your path, you’ve done something extraordinary that will positively impact your family for years and years. What a great example for your girls. Good luck and safe travels!
Take a step back from all the Japan advice and re-read what you wrote about your parents.
If you substitute “travel and life experiences” for “new car or a boat” you are getting set to repeat their roller coaster ride. You paid off a huge debt in one fell swoop and are now ready to give up a good paying secure job with health benefits and a pension.
It’s become socially acceptable to spend on life experiences rather than things, but they both cost money. At this stage of your lives it does not make sense to give up a $120,000.00 job. If you stick with it, and advance in your career, as well as staying in a small apartment for a little while longer (not forever) you will be in a great position financially in 10 years that will give you a lot of options, both for yourselves and your children.
You said that if you don’t live overseas that would be your biggest regret in life. How would you feel at the end of your life if no one in your family had been able to pay for your brother’s funeral or help your parents? Having the financial security to do those things is something of which you should be very proud. It may not be Instagramable or Facebookian but it counts.
Mrs. Gardener, you articulated what I was feeling (but unable to put into words) brilliantly. (And super for Mrs. FW for being candid). Learn from the mistakes of previous generations Helen! Also how amazing and poignant are these all comments! Some comments may make one with a ‘grass is greener’ mindset rethink and – perhaps ultimately realize that the present situation could actually be an excellent one by changing a few things up. But seriously, the only people I know who gave up gs14 positions left to earn even more in the private sector. Futhermore the only people I know personally who moved to Japan were fluent in Japanese and had extremely lucrative law firm attorney positions (and even those friends who are former new yorkers say how outrageous the taxes are, these are already 1 percent earners, i mean these people make a ton and still say how expensive things are there). I vote for the long vacay instead of a move. Or how about another state like colorado has bases there with civilian jobs.
Imagine in 10 years…Helen saying well I could have had a great couple of years in Japan, but Im still here in this job I don’t even like, because of the health and pension. That’s just sad.Lots of people manage to travel widely and live overseas and still build their assets. There are different phases. It’s not meant to be a grind guys. It’s the only wild and beautiful life that you get.
This is true, but there are consequences to the wild life. Both my children I would define as “third culture kids” now that we lived in Germany for two years and moved back to the US. I didn’t even know there was such a term, but they identify more with German culture than American culture. I wouldn’t say it is bad, but we can’t live in and get citizenship in Germany and they feel very lost back in America. We were over there on a US government job, so we still had some very “American” influence in a large military base, had SOFA, etc. We had an amazing two years there, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything but it has been a very rough transition back, and for us that transition has all been the culture shock.
I’m not sure if anyone else has suggested this, but have you thought about taking a one year sabbatical and traveling as a family? As discussed, the financials and practicalities may be working against you moving to Japan, but you have a dream to see the world and THAT you definitely have the money and logistical set up for.
You could homeschool your children for a year, and spend some real time getting to know a place or three. Maybe spend 6 months in Japan slowly getting to know it and then visit other countries of interest. I have lived overseas for 13 years and I think doing what you propose is quite tricksy, and there is a worrying lack of consideration about visas. If anything, moving overseas would be easier with Helen’s qualifications because she appears quite specialist, whereas English teachers are a dime a dozen, meaning she would work and Earl would stay at home. But here in the UK which ostensibly has a special relationship with the US, visas are getting harder and harder to obtain, and in the EU you would have to prove that no EU citizen could fill the job you are applying for – pretty difficult to do unless you are a highly qualified specialist. I, too, grew up poor and as much as I love adventure, I do not want to go back to those days nor do I want my daughter to experience the kind of stress I did observing my family’s precarious position, I’m not sure if this resonates with you.
I’d pivot a bit and take a family sabbatical year, enjoying time together and having adventures, and then come back into the secure job and perhaps reevaluate. Maybe Portland won’t be the place for you anymore and you’ll want to find a more peaceful and safe town. Things might be clearer when you’ve had a year away.
First, congrats on your amazing financial transformation, it’s really inspiring. To parrot another commenters question: Why Japan? Just so the girls can practice their language skills? Or because Earl’s program has connections to a school there? Or are there additional draws? Does Earl speak Japanese? If not, do you plan to rely on your children as translators? Are they ok with this? I know you mentioned you are learning, but you didn’t specify your level. Are you confident that their language skills are sufficient for you to rely on (if Earl doesn’t speak Japanese)?
Do you have extended family in the US that you and the children will want to see? I currently live abroad with my husband and daughter and our travel costs each year are significant. Between both sets of grandparents and other family and close friends we have a lot of people to try to visit. We budget for at least 2 trips to the US per year to visit.
Not to be a downer, but in addition to having a plan B, I would also suggest having enough cash on hand for emergency evacuation. While unlikely, things like natural disasters and political unrest do happen. I’m speaking from experience, I live in Nicaragua, which had a huge political crisis in 2018. While we didn’t evacuate, many many other expats did. We’re constantly monitoring the political situation in case things flare up again. Have enough on hand to pay for flights out of the country in cash, without having to stop at an ATM or bank.
If you’ve always wanted to live abroad, I definitely say go for it, but realize that it might mean your finances take a hit (there are always unexpected costs associated with moving). As others have said, I’d suggest an extended visit first, or see if you can do a sabbatical or something similar with your job in case you don’t love Japan after the first year. Good luck and please provide Mrs. FW updates along your journey so she can share with all of us!
This has been a great case study—thanks for submitting it—with interesting, very thoughtful comments. I’m really looking forward to your decisions and how you make them.
Although Saitama is becoming more of a city than before, I still believe
that you will be considered a “gaijin” (foreigner) and the children will
still feel being the outsider. They may or may not feel welcomed and as
long as they are ready to embrace that change, then it may be a great
experience. As one of the reader commented, how well are they in Japanese?
With their ages, they will definitely be struggling if they don’t have an
expansive amount of kanji, grammar, etc. under their belt. Everything will
be taught in Japanese- geography, math, history, social science- things that
are normal to them right now will feel like a complete different subject
because of the language barrier. Studying conversational Japanese/simple
grammar in the U.S. is a lot different than being a full-time student at a
Japanese public school, so please prepare yourself and your kids!
I also second the person who commented about some of the extreme sexual
encounters (selling underwear, etc.). Growing up in Japan, it was just
another one of those normal thing for an older man to sit next to you and
touch you inappropriately… but now, when I talk about it to my American
friends who have never lived in Japan, they always say, why didn’t you do
something? When you are a child, there’s more fear to say something to an
adult that prevents you from moving away/saying something. Well, that was
back in the day, so it may have changed now. These were just a normal
occurrence on the trains and buses, so just be aware. There are
pornographic magazines at a magazine stands in convenience stores, and there
are many graphic posters and such near the train station where people stand
to hand out tissues/flyers as well.
Living expense is a lot cheaper than say, NY or Hawaii, but it all depends
on how well you utilize your resources. I personally feel like living in
Japan was more geared towards a frugal/simple living because of how everyone
tries to conserve energy (we RARELY used our dryer to dry our clothes; the
majority of people will be hanging their clothes to dry), we don’t use our
personal vehicles as much as people do in the U.S.
We also utilized the local vegetable stores, meat stores, and fish stores
(they are just little stores, specializing in those items only); usually,
once you get to know the store owners, they will be very friendly and you
can get some great deals. It’s all about community and knowing your
Another culture shock may be the lack of “friendliness”. There is
definitely a “soto shakai” or outside society; once you’re inside, then
you’re considered one of them, but in the beginning, your neighbors will
probably treat you and your family as an outsider. If you are used to
people always saying “hi” or “how are you doing?” when passing by/greeting
the cashier at the store/talking with strangers while in line at a
store/post office/etc., then you’ll be surprised at the lack of these
greetings. People don’t just strike up a conversation with a stranger and
they tend to keep it to themselves. However, on the other end of the
spectrum, you will feel the hospitality when you are the customer, going in
to a store because their professionalism with customer service will wow you.
They treat customers like they are a God, and if you don’t, you can talk to
a manager and they will correct the misbehavior instantly.
Also, I see that your husband’s job will be in Saitama and I doubt there are
any government jobs (as long as I can remember, there are no U.S. military
bases in Saitama) but that is another option, is to find something that is
commutable. You would have return rights to Portland and when you feel like
you are done working in Japan (up to 5 years for U.S. federal employees),
you can go back to Portland and they will have to let you come back into the
system. If you don’t want to go back to your old position, you can at least
move laterally to a different position without losing your benefits and your
I still believe that working hours will be longer than what you are used to
in the U.S.
Mainly because you are expected to work long hours to appease the
supervisor, to be there for the students, and support other faculty members.
It will look negatively on his evaluation if his peers see that he doesn’t
stay behind working, and even going to the social outings after work.
There are so many things that make living in Japan worthwhile but at the
same time, it may be a huge challenge for your family as well. I hope
everything works out for you and that your experience in Japan turns out to
be the best thing ever. It saddens me sometimes when I hear that people got
mistreated and leave Japan with a bad taste in their mouth. Living there
and visiting there will be a completely different experience so even though
your short visit may turn out 100% awesome, living there might be quite
different. Also, prepare for earthquakes! I know you are in Portland so
you’ve experienced some, but it’s nothing comparable to the ones you will
feel in Japan. Everything must be earthquake proof- putting up rods on top
of the cabinets so keep them from falling, putting in the stopper on china
cabinets from your dishes falling out, etc. The kids will get drills at
school, but know where your family will meet up in case of emergencies.
Hi, as a non American ( Im a New Zealander) I laughed and laughed at the comments about sexuality and gender and conservative female roles in Japan. Holy Moly, the USA has this in spades! The rest of the world will be a radical liberal hotbed compared to anywhere not coastal stateside.
I was also surprised that 1.2 million minimum in retirement and 80k in cash now along with everything else was not “enough” for some of the posters. You’ll be in the top 3% in the world for affluence. If you can’t make do on that, surely that’s on you. You also don’t like your job so its not a loss to leave it. You’re young. You can make more money later. If you want to. In fact, even you decide not to leave Portland – you should leave your job as it makes you feel ill.
You’re in a great position. Travel is never a “good” financial decision. But it doesn’t sound like you need to be told that. You love languages and travel. So go for it. The Japanese are a wonderful people. Japan is a stunning place to live.
I would also like to be the voice of reason – and emphasise a few points:
Helen has spanish as her second language – her knowledge of Japanese is still low – even if she is learning the language.
Earl obviously has no knowledge of Japanese. He can teach his students English – but if these students start at a low level, he would have to speak Japanese himself to explain the foreign language to them.
How is that supposed to work? He can’t have a conversation with his colleagues in the local language. And Japanese is unfortunately not an easy language. I remember that you have to know 3000 characters to read a newspaper – but there are more than 50000 characters.
I am also quoting someone who lives and studies in Tokyo:
“How long does it take to speak Japanese? This question does not really have much to do with Japanese as a language. Because: Japanese is an extremely context-dependent language. This means that one does not communicate 100% via “words”, but rather interprets the context. It is therefore almost never the case in spoken language to finish a sentence. One always leaves everything open and expects the other person to interpret one’s own message correctly.
In order to speak Japanese, you have to get used to the Japanese way of thinking. That only works in Japan, and only if you really have no contacts to expatriates.
After half a year I learned to speak and after 3 years I was ready to read books.”
The two daughters are probably 14 and 9 years old at the time of the planned emigration – how many years do they learn Japanese and what level of knowledge do they have at that time? When I look at how good (or how bad) my godchild’s foreign language teaching is, I’m afraid that it’s by no means “fluency” – more of a general basic knowledge – maybe a few characters and very simple sentences.
In no case suitable for a complete conversation with a native speaker. Or to read a book. Especially not suitable for following lessons at a Japanese school.
Japanese schools are very strict, very hierarchical and very little pupil-oriented. The goal is only to pass certain exams that entitle you to something. The pressure is very high – and probably the children have to go back several years because their knowledge does not correspond to the level of the Japanese children. This can be very demotivating when all classmates are many years younger.
So it might have to be planned that the children have to go to an international school so that they don’t lose years – The fees cost about 27,000 US$ per child and year, depending on the school, plus one-time registration fees of 12,000 US$ and various fees.
This can change your budget planning a lot.
I’m very sorry to make that statement: I would never go to Japan, of all places, if it were not guaranteed that costs of the relocation, costs for international schools and a very high salary would be ensured. I would only move to the country as a “secondment” for an international company or as a young person who does not yet have any dependents.
A completely different example: I myself studied English at school for 7 years (advanced level, I also learned Latin and French), I worked in the tourism industry and always actively used English. I also only read English books (and a lot of them, several hundreds a year). I can easily follow movies or conversations. Nevertheless I know that I make many mistakes in writing.
As someone who is still semi-fluent in Japanese after a decade of focused study, traveled there three times and lived there for a summer, and who had a Japanese girlfriend at one point – I highly encourage and recommend Mrs. Frugalwoods’ advice to take an extended trip there before you move. I can confirm everything Mrs. Frugalwoods said – the Japanese often work incredibly long hours. I had two host families and many friends, and everyone I had a chance to observe up close, the husband left in the morning and came home at crazy late hours. And there are some major differences in how men and women are treated in Japan.
I loved Japan, and still plan to visit again some day. But even as someone who was obsessed with Japan and read everything I could get my hands on, my first trip there was a shock. It’s hard to put into words until you go there. The people are some of the most polite on the planet, it’s probably the safest place on the planet (two people I was traveling with lost wallets and they were both returned, with the money inside – they somehow tracked my friends down, and I still have no idea how). You will make friends, you will find places to hang your hat, but you will always be treated like an outsider. People I know who have lived there for years say it’s something that never quite goes away. The ones who stayed the longest don’t seem to mind it, but for others eventually it wore on them.
It’s also important to note that while Japanese people study English in school, they are taught to study written exams. My first trip to Japan was with a company formed to address this very problem – that most Japanese have an intellectual knowledge of English but can’t really speak it. I and other counselors helped conduct three-day English immersion camps to help students use what they know. Usually by the end of three days, they were talking circles around their own high school teachers. It’s not like Germany or Sweden – you won’t find a ton of English speakers in Japan. I definitely found some – those who study aboard usually come back with a pretty good grasp. I’ve had women in train stations ask in English if I needed help. But make no mistake: You will NEED to speak Japanese. For some context, I’ve been studying Spanish now and in about a year’s time I got where I was in Japanese in about 6 years. At this point I think I’m actually a bit ahead of where I was with Japanese, and it’s been less than two years.
I peeked above and I see a few experienced people voicing these concerns, I think mostly because it appeared only your one child went to Japan (perhaps you did visit before and it just wasn’t clear in the post?). Those of us who have experience with the country just want to make sure you know what you’re getting into. Japan is awesome and I’ve made some truly loyal, wonderful friends there; and it is challenging, and you should definitely visit for an extended stay before you make any decisions. Hope that helps.
That’s exactly my feeling. My post hasn’t shown up yet. I just got back from Japan and I was totally obsessed. I assumed I would fall in love, but I didn’t. There were things I loved about it and things I didn’t love about it. The language was harder than I expected, because it’s really two different languages you have to learn. And yes, they are super friendly people and will help you, but they will treat you like an outsider.
What a wonderful situation to be in–with the desire and interest in moving and the flexibility to do so! You’re doing a great job thinking, researching, and planning ahead! I support your interest and respect how thoroughly you are considering what living abroad will entail.
When I was in 10th grade, my family spent a sabbatical year in Paris. My brother (7th grade) and I attended the local French HS; my younger sister (2nd grade) went to the local elementary school, then the international school for the second half of the year. Here are some considerations to add to the mix:
– do the Japanese students learn English in school? Starting at what grade? I had classmates who had studied English for 3-5 years. They were my first friends, because we could make ourselves understood. (I had had 9 years of French in school by then.)
– my brother had fewer friends initially–he had had 7 years of French, but his classmates had at most 2 years of English.
– all of us knew some French, but we also all took language classes while we were there. So I recommend adding that expense to your budget.
– for your younger daughter, consider whether her Japanese teacher is likely to have any experience or training for teaching a foreign student. My sister’s (elementary school) teacher in Paris had no idea what to do, so the first semester my sister was ignored, isolated, learned nothing, and was miserable.
– do you hope to, or expect to, travel while you are in Japan–either to other places or to surrounding countries? In France, we spent every long weekend, break, and summer vacation traveling all over Europe. What will it take in terms of visas, money, time, language skills, to take trips when you have time to get away?
– for that matter, if you travel even within Japan, what does it cost to visit historical and cultural sites, museums, gardens, or anything else a tourist might want to see? Are tickets to such attractions expensive or subsidized by the government? When you think of the places you would want to visit in your (Japanese) backyard, consider including extra money in your budget.
– We did not find Paris to be a closed society, although many people have that experience, but we were rarely invited to people’s homes for a meal. I don’t know Japanese culture at all, but from others’ comments here, I can imagine you would need to be prepared for a similar experience.
– As the mother of two children in college in the U.S., I would give some thought to how your older daughter will prepare to attend college (e.g., college admissions tests, applications, essays, etc.). This process/preparation can start as early as 10th grade in the US.
– If she (or both your children) will enter US colleges as international students, their access to financial aid is much more limited, I believe. So I would talk to at least one admissions person and financial aid counsellor at a Portland university for their policies about admitting/awarding aid for students attending from out of the country.
– If you return while your children are still in high school, think about how their coursework in Japan will/will not meet high school graduation requirements in the US. That was an issue for me, also for my daughter when she studied in Israel for a semester of HS. Planning ahead makes a difference, of course, but summer school in the US may still be necessary.
-Without knowing what type of higher education you aspire to for your children (and your children for themselves), your college budget account seems very low to me. Are you going to be able to set aside more for them during your time in Japan? I have children in private school, with scholarships, and Federal subsidized loans. Of course public colleges and universities cost less, but consider talking to your friends in Portland with college-aged children and learn what they are spending on tuition, room and board, books, travel from school to home, etc. Given your own experiences attending college later in life, the current high level of student debt after graduation, and the escalation of costs (they grow far faster than inflation), I strongly recommend you consider the financial needs your children will have when they are ready for college. College-cost calculators are available on all school websites (I think it’s a requirement), so you can check what you/they will need to pay to attend.
– I’m not assuming your children will attend college FT. Many students attend college PT and work PT or FT as well. Some start at community college, then transfer to a 4-year school. All these choices have their own benefits and costs. I encourage you to have conversations with your friends about these options, because it’s easier to have these conversations face to face than over the phone/email/etc. once you are in Japan.
– I loved spending a year abroad, but it was hard to keep up with friends and I missed milestones (both in my friends’ lives and school activities). Consider discussing with your children what experiences (for example, school trips, sports teams, band/orchestra/theatre participation, etc.) they will not be here for. I just moved to a part of the country where band is HUGE for middle and high school students. What activities do your children enjoy and are they ok with leaving them behind for a while?
– You don’t mention if you have a faith home/belong to a congregation, etc. If that’s important to you, research what options you will have in Japan. Are there English-language services you can attend? Church/Synagogue/Temple can be a huge source of support, friendships, activities, belonging. Conversely, if you don’t have a faith home here, are you interested in finding one in Japan? Is there one with some sizable English-speaking subset? If so, it could help you make the transition faster and easier, and reduce the isolation others talk about. (I have no idea whether there is freedom of religion in Japan. If not, that is another issue altogether for those who value their faith and faith practices.)
– Are their other (American) families from your children’s school who have lived in Japan for a while? Can you speak with them about their experiences? What about Japanese families whose children attend the same school? What advice can they give you about expenses, living options, culture, etc.?
– Do you have Japanese friends in Portland? Your Japanese network in Portland could spread to their friends and relatives in Japan, which would also address some of the anticipated isolation.
Best wishes to all of you!
1. It sounds like you guys have a good affinity to Japan based upon your daughters experience in elementary school and that’s as good a reason as any to look at living there, however you won’t know how good a fit it is long term until a few months in, homesickness and culture wise. You will know if it’s a terrible fit much quicker though. So you may be tempted by two year contracts or whatever but the suggestion to spend a months leave there- with the girls in school there if possible is a really good one. I also suggest instead of planning for a long term goal of 4-5 years, you look at what a 1-2 year term would look like for you and your girls. I also suggest you look at where you could earn a living (looking first to jobs and visas for yourself- with your husband looking in the area you find one, particularly in Japan with its high cost of living) and two: don’t rule out other countries do territories. I second looking at Taiwan, China (particularly up and coming 2nd tier cities like Shenyang, Chengdu and Suzhou), Macao, second tier Korean cities like Busan and Jeju, even Singapore or Georgetown, Malaysia with your husbands MA. Don’t write off your career either. A different part of the government or the industry might spark some adventure and the gov has jobs in lots of places even overseas. It sounds like you feel stuck in a major rut, and that you older daughter may be too. A conversation about what you want and expect out of your daughters schooling and school experience may be in order whether you move or not. Two years is a long wait to “fix” a problem. Also while planning on 4-5 years in a place radically changes and sets your kids with those experienceS with education, a 1-2 year experience probably does not. Nor taking 1-2 years abroad set you to have to come back to the same place. Have you looked for jobs in your position in other places? Guam, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, even Montana or Texas would provide new challenges. And yes if you do end up overseas for any length of time do plan for college prep and entrance in America. (I am all for US students going and getting foreign degrees but in a world that in most areas demands internships and experience coming out- you can’t get that on a nonworking student visa) so you can explore both but don’t plan on it. Also the critical thinking and ability to plan and teamwork is what foreign firms hire westerners for- without that experience your just any old native speaker. I know a few second gen expats and the ones without the high quality education are a bit adrift.
Advice from former federal DoD HR who worked 13 yrs overseas (2 yrs in Japan) with spouse who wanted to teach ESL. If the sponsor/wife is a DoD employee in Japan, she has SOFA protection for her family on PCS orders. Should the spouse work non-DoD (e.g. international schools) in Japan, he will lose SOFA protection. His passport must legally change to a business visa. Losing SOFA protection not recommended.
I didn’t read through all of the comments and not sure if what I say here has already been said. We literally just got back from two weeks in Japan (on Friday). We spent time in Tokyo, Kyoto, and mostly in Miyazaki Prefecture (Southern Island). I would definitely recommend visiting there to make sure that you want to go there. As someone who loved the Japanese culture, I assumed I would fall completely in love with Japan. And I didn’t. I liked it, but I didn’t love it. The big thing is the language barrier. You will have to not only learn the Japanese language, but you will need to learn the Kenshi (spelling) language, which is the Japanese lettering. Almost EVERYTHING was written in it. So, yes, I knew the word tempura, but I couldn’t pick that out in a menu unless it had pictures (which shows that it’s friendly to westerners). Also, things were more expensive than I originally thought. I read so many blogs and advice about how food was cheaper. When we got there, I saw things like grapes (grown there locally) for as little as $5 for a small bunch to a whopping $18. In general things, were just expensive. But the trade off is that the food quality is 20 times better. https://www.mrtakoescapes.com/ was a good reference for cheap ways to save money (and he’s from Seattle). I guess from Texas, I thought things were just more expensive. It is cash heavy in most places outside of Tokyo (and that was hit or miss). The problem I had was that my Bank of America card wouldn’t work at almost all ATMs, except 7-11 ATMs only. We visited friends in Miyazaki (who is a teacher) said that 10 years ago, they had to go to the post office just to get money out internationally. So, I would advise researching how you will get your money out, especially when dealing with investment accounts.
They send their kids to private schools and it’s expensive yes. But the big thing to know is that for instance, they have to have a certain type of backpack and shoes. he said this was for all of the schools and you will see these backpacks on all of the children. The backpack started at $700 and went up to $2500. Yes, you will be required to buy it. Plus, he said that the Japanese children are required to do lots of activities. He teaches teens and they usually get home about 9 pm and then do homework. He said that many of his kids in the class are falling asleep.
As for the rural part, you will have more of a community there and will speak the language than say in the city. We preferred Miyazaki to Kyoto and Tokyo. It was more laid back. We had so many friendly people talk to us. I will warn you that there is still a fear of westerners. And if you speak Japanese fluently, but with another Japanese person, sometimes the waiters will not speak to you. It happened to our friend a few times when we were out with his wife vs when we were out just all of us.
I didn’t get the feeling he was expected to work like the office people are expected to work. But he did say that women in the workplace are treated differently. His wife (not a teacher) and other women in the workplace would need to get there early to make the coffee and tea. Just a thought.
I think he would be a great source for you to get advice if you want it since he left everything to start a new career teaching English to Japanese children.
PS what they think is a hamburger is comical at best.
I was a little skeptical about the backpack comment but I found several articles on it: https://japanobjects.com/features/randoseru
Not that it would sway me one way or another, but I think there are so many considerations discovered in this reader’s two week trip, that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to settle in for a months as an experiment and decide then whether you would like to make it permanent.
I don’t have any financial input because I agree with everything you’ve done and that it’s a smart move financially (as you said, rent is typically low in Japan, contrary to popular belief based on downtown Tokyo rentals) but if you think Portland is a “big city” I’m concerned about how well you’d be able to manage in a dense area like Japan, even in a smaller town. I had the reverse experience, coming from a small town on the east coast and moving to Austin. Everyone acted like it was so crowded and bustling but it just felt like I’d gone back in time and was living in a remote college town from the 90’s. It was not something we were able to adjust to, and we moved back to the east coast. Being so adjusted to the car culture, you may have a lot more trouble than you imagine living in a place cars are not the default. It’s worth the money to take an extended trip there, especially for you. Kids are highly adaptable, but adults can struggle, and this is a huge deal when you are planning to move to such a conservative and homogeneous place.
You mentioned that there is a history of your husbands program being recruited for work in Japan. Have you started trying to reach out to recent graduates who have trod that path ahead of you? I’d highly encourage your husband to establish a linkedin profile if he doesn’t already have one and register under his current graduate school profile. Those people will have the nitty gritty details you need on taxes associated with the program and housing and schooling availability.
Hello, I will share our experience in case it helps you with your decision.
Ten years ago my husband and I decided we would always regret it if we didn’t try and move to a new country. He grew up with parents who took academic sabbaticals and he craved the experience of living and working in a new culture, and wanted our kids to have that too. So my husband and I moved around the world with a 14 month old in our mid thirties. We sold our condo, car, I left my job, my husband took a one year leave of absence, and we sold most of our belongings. He got a great job and we got permanent residency (at that time it was about $8000). We spent about a year preparing and doing all the medical checks, paperwork, etc. After almost three months in our new country, a week before his residency papers came, in his employer gave him a 10 percent pay cut he had to agree to to get his paperwork signed off on.
To make a long story short, we ended up considering going home but moved to a nearby country instead for a better job (that took another stressful 6 months). We had to sell another car, package up our things again, make new friends again…I cannot put into words how much stress we encountered. We are now settled and happy, but I have elected to start over again with a new career (teaching) as I couldn’t imagine what would happen if I was left on my own for some reason and couldn’t support myself. I also had to consider what would happen if one of us adjusted and the other did not. Would the kids stay and one of us would leave? Our kids now consider our new country home and do not have the memories/attachment to our home country, so we will likely stay permanently. We probably set ourselves back ten years in finances and when you get into your 40s your health and ability to work are not a given. What would happen if one of you was injured or ill and you were on temporary visas? If you needed to move back to the U.S., would you have health care cover without your current job? My husband injured himself here playing soccer and had to have surgery and spend months in physio, working remote, etc. In hindsight we should have considered a less drastic move. We now plan to save, pay off the mortgage, build our retirement fund, and take time off with our kids in good chunks to go on month long trips hiking and seeing cool places locally and sometimes internationally. We are also now age 44, our kids are 7 and 11 and since reading this blog we are now committed to playing the long game. It’s not easy for us, as aging parents, jobs, etc. make life a bit boring sometimes and life seems like it’s going by fast, so we crave adventure too. A sabbatical sounds like something that could work well.
I come here with another remark that someone else mentioned in a previous comment. But today an interesting article has appeared in Time magazine, I would like to inform you about it.
I hope this is allowed:
It is not that I fear that your daughters will fall into the hands of such a cartel – but I wonder whether I would choose a country that knowingly does not protect its children.
I admire your adventurous spirit, I truly do. But I (as a late-20s American blonde) worked in a Japanese/American joint venture for years. #Metoo does not BEGIN to cover the sexism or racism (and it’s not like I was clerical help, I came in from the US side of the JV in a critical procurement role, so it wasn’t the ‘goose the secretary’ shenannigans of the time, it was overt propositions, constantly, both in the US and Japan). It doesn’t matter that your girls speak Japanese, just being blonde will make them curiosities, and later when they’re of age it’ll be even worse. If you *have* to do this, go for a small town (which I realize probably isn’t where that university your spouse will work in is located). I’ll think good thoughts for you and them.
If you *have* to do this, also look into the cost of schooling for foreign children in Japan.
If I were going to do this (live overseas) I’d go to Norway. There’s a disconnect with foreigners there, too, but it’s not sexist or racist, it’s just a societal cultural difference and in time is overcome.
Beyond all that? Personally I wouldn’t walk away from 120K a year and decent insurance for much of anything; not right now (currently early 50s). It’s too hard to get back to that if you leave it.
I just wanted to point out that you will not be able to get a visa to work part time in Japan – it must be full time work. If you have a spousal visa that is a different story but generally foreigners must obtain an offer of full time work in order to get a visa.
I always wonder what choices people make after sharing their stories, so thank you so much for updating us. Good luck with the job search and best wishes to you and your family!
I wonder what ended up happening eith thus family? I saw that their plan was to move this spring (2021). Did the pandemic change these plans?