Student Loans and Teaching in Japan: Compatible?

Hi, guys! It’s still cold here in Kyoto, but we’re finally starting to see signs of life in the plum trees as they, one by one, start budding and blooming. Before we know it, we’ll be in full flower season again, going from plum to cherry blossoms and then to the countless other types of flora you can find in Japan.

Meanwhile, though, I’m still buried under the kotatsu, clutching at my hot tea. However, there is one big, important change:

As of this month, I am officially student loan free.

It’s so strange to type that, and stranger still to say it aloud! I’ve been paying them for just shy of 8 years. I imagine it’ll take a few months before it fully hits me, but I wanted to share this news with you all.

The reason being, a lot of people come to Japan fresh out of university. And, especially if you’re from the States, you can have tons of student debt in tow, no matter how careful you tried to be while in school. For my part, I worked 30 hours a week while attending a state school, but due to studying abroad twice, I ended up wincing when I realized how much I had to pay back.

Finances are something my parents have drilled into me since I was very little, so when I came to Japan one of my main goals was to not move again until I had paid everything off. I want to travel the world, and see as much as I can, but I want to have as little debt as possible while doing so. Thus, I began to develop my plan for getting rid of it.

No doubt if you struggle with loans, you’ve heard all of the usual “advice”; don’t drink at Starbucks, get a prepaid phone, etc. etc. Well, I go to a cafe and indulge in $5 drinks at least once a week, and I have a smartphone with a 2 year plan, so. There. (Seriously, the whole idea of ‘never treat yourself for the next ten years’ is such a terrible way to view the world; I hope whatever your situation is, that you’re able to have something nice once in a while.)

I’d like to share what worked for me in taking care of these loans, in hopes that maybe they might help you, either now or in the future.

The very first thing I did when I came to Japan was write down everything I spent money on. I’m talking about dining out, vending machine drinks, 30 yen candies from the kids’ section of the convenience store, everything. I plugged it into the note app on my phone, and kept track of it day to day. I didn’t worry so much about categories; I just wanted to figure out my average weekly spending.

This was helpful because there were sneaky extra costs that would have otherwise gone under my radar, like the aforementioned vending machine drinks. Another thing that added up fast was the cost of bus or train tickets, especially if I was going somewhere close so they were “only” worth two or three dollars.

Once I’d done that for a while, I figured out a weekly budget, and I stick to it even now. I withdraw a certain amount every week. If I spend it all, welp, guess I’m eating leftovers till the end of the week. If I have extra, great! I keep it in a separate sort of savings for emergencies/fun times. We’ll get back to that later.

The weekly budget, along with knowing how much I have to pay for regular fixed-price items like my rent, helped me guesstimate how much I actually had to spend each month. Comparing that to my income, I was able to work out how much I could save, and how much I could throw at my loans.

Having those numbers, the next thing was to figure out how to get money home.

There are countless ways to send money overseas, which is great because loan companies don’t like it when you try to pay using a foreign bank. In Japan, you can go to the post office and send money for a relatively cheap amount (~2000 yen each time). But they can be strict about how you fill out the paperwork. A friend of mine would go every month, and every month the person behind the counter would tell her to fill it out slightly differently–even when she had the previous month’s approved paperwork with her as reference!

You can also try going through your bank, or trying one of the remittance services like GoRemit. I preferred doing this because it costs around the same, BUT I can do all of my transactions through my ATM. No filling out forms or talking to people necessary! Just hit the buttons and watch the money go whoosh. Just make sure you’re pressing the right buttons!

Knowing how you’re sending money home allows you to set up a personal schedule for when and how you’re going to wire cash back to your country to pay for your loans. For me, I try to do it about once every two or three months. Others might do it monthly. Yet others with less monetary obligations back home may only do it once or twice a year. Think about what works best for you, and stick with it.

But the amount you actually get home will vary, thanks to–you guessed it–exchange rates. Keep an eye on those so you’re not unpleasantly surprised by how little you might find in your account back home, and do your best to accommodate for that.

So, at this point I’ve discussed your weekly budget, the amount you know you can send home, and how often you can transfer your cash where it needs to be. Now comes the point of actual payment.

Every person’s situation is different. Some people pay $50 a month for loans; others pay upwards of $700. Some want to knock it out as fast as possible, like me. Others are more interested in saving, and opt for a payment plan that corresponds with their income. Whatever you do, I suggest this:

Try to pay just a little more than your “set” minimum.

Let’s say you owe $150 a month. Sometimes you might only be able to pay that $150, which is great ‘cuz you’re making your payment. But on months where you have a little bit extra, I strongly recommend paying $155. Or $160. Whatever you feel you can do, try just that little bit more. It will help cut down your principle, which will reduce the overall interest you’re going to be paying, which in turn saves you money in the long run.

Again, everyone has a different situation, and I don’t want to act like I have the One Plan to Fix It All. But that last part especially can make a big difference down the line, so I really encourage you to consider it, if you’re able.

But more importantly, I want to hear from you guys. What works–or worked–for you? What advice do you have for people moving internationally while carrying debt from home? Let me know!

In the meantime, hang in there, everyone. We’re getting closer and closer to the end of flu season. We can make it!

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