I came to Japan in 2003 for the first time right after I finished college. It was meant to be my gap year. Funny how things turned out.
In college, I double-majored in Political Science and Journalism with the intent of becoming a reporter in Washington, D.C. once I graduated. I thought that being a journalist was the ideal job for me. (I was going to change the world and be poor, too). Unfortunately, after graduating, I couldn’t find any full-time work in journalism or any type of government job not only in D.C. but even in my home state of New Jersey. I also had about $12,000 of student loans to pay back. I felt the pressure of those loans.
Since I’ve always had an interest in Japan and minored in it while in college, I decided on a whim to apply for a job teaching English with a company called AEON. Lo and behold, the company hired me and sent me to teach in Sapporo, Hokkaido. I stayed for two years enjoying my first full-time job–all without thought to saving, investing, or even just managing my money.
Like I said, this blog is about undoing all those mistakes of my youth. That includes all the ones I made when I finally found a full-time job after college.
I mentioned before that I was a spender in my youth. What made it worse was that getting my first full-time job meant that I had a guaranteed income every month that I could spend to my heart’s content. I got paid about ￥200,000 (about $1600 at an exchange rate of $1 to ￥125 in 2004) every month. This was after taxes and rent was taken out.
All that money coming in! And it was all mine. I was young and dumb–on my own and no parents were there to tell me what I could do with my money. I bought a whole lot of useless gadgets–hey, when in Japan, right?
I also traveled. I did a couple big international trips to Hong Kong and Korea. But mostly, I traveled all over Japan, which is not cheap to do. My goal then had been to hit every major island that comprised the country: Hokkaido, Honshu, Kyushu, and Shikoku. Sadly, I still have not been to Shikoku.
My money also went to drinking every weekend and hanging out with friends. In my twenties, that seemed to be the most important thing in my life. The excitement of meeting new friends and exploring new places made me feel like I was living the dream.
And it was! I don’t regret the friends I’ve made and the time spent with them. They are still my life-long friends even after a decade. I don’t regret the fact that I traveled. It exposed me more to Japanese culture as well as made me realize that travel was my passion. I liked exploring different countries and different places so I can learn about myself. I’ve also become travel savvy, a skill that many people need to know.
I’m glad for all the experiences I’ve had, but I wish I had thought a little bit more efficient with the way I used my money. It makes me sad to think of all that money that I wasted on buying useless things. If only I had saved more while my expenses were relatively low at that time. Or, I should have paid more on my student loans. I think the only thing I did right was to send money back home to pay off the minimum payment of my loans every month.
I remember one of my American co-workers was so proud to have saved 1 million yen in the bank, which equated to about U$D 8,000 at that time. He joked about being a yen millionaire. Back then, I didn’t really understand why it was such a big deal to have that much money saved. I thought of him as being such a cheapskate. Little did I know how smart he was about his money.
When my two-year contract was up, I decided to go back home and go to grad school (hahaha). I had about ￥800,000 total coming to me from my final paycheck and contract completion bonus. I spent an extra three months collecting unemployment which amounted to ￥450,000. So imagine having ¥1,250,000 (about $10,000) and blowing almost all of it in that short time span. When I finally got back to the US, I remember having about $3,000 in the bank. And of course, I bought a new laptop with that “extra” money left over from my time in Japan. In the end, I was left with only a few hundred dollars in the bank.
Don’t forget, I did all this knowing I still had to pay my student loans back!
See, told you: I was such a money moron.
Work. Earn. Spend. Rinse and repeat.
So of course, with student loans that needed to be repaid and not having a job, the next step was to get a Master’s degree, right?
That was the life I was living before I got smart about money. I wish somebody had talked to me about finances, but really, I only have myself to blame. Again, though, during my first stint in Japan, the people I’ve met and my experiences were unforgettable. I don’t regret any of that one bit. I only regret getting started late in mastering my money game. I don’t believe, however, that it’s too late to do anything about it. I usually learn from my mistakes, so I consider this time of my life an exploration phase. Isn’t that what people do in their twenties?
Now, I can say with confidence that I’m more conscious about my time, my money, and my energy. I’m still course-correcting and doing the best I can. That’s all anybody can ever really do. We’re all just winging life.