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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.

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.

With that I’ll let Helen, this month’s Case Study subject, take it from here!

Helen’s Story

From Helen & Earl’s travels

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).

From Helen & Earl’s travels

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

From Helen & Earl’s travels

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.

From Helen & Earl’s travels

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

From Helen & Earl’s travels

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!

From Helen & Earl’s travels

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.

From Helen & Earl’s travels

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

From Helen & Earl’s travels

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:

  • Finances:
    • 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.
  • Lifestyle:
    • 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!
  • Career:
    • 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

Monthly Income

Item Amount Notes
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.
Monthly subtotal: $6,067
Annual total: $72,804

Monthly Expenses

Item Amount Notes
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.
Monthly subtotal: $5,087
Annual total: $61,044


Item Amount Notes
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.

Total: $301,364

Debts: $0

Vehicles: none

Helen’s Questions For You:

  1. 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?
  2. 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.
  3. Are there expenses we should focus on reducing?
  4. 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

From Helen & Earl’s travels

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:

  • Debt-free
  • 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.

From Helen & Earl’s travels

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.

From Helen & Earl’s travels

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):

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.

From Helen & Earl’s travels

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:

Item Amount Asset Type
CDs $23,857 Cash
Brokerage account $13,294 Cash
Checking account $8,600 Cash
Investor Checking $5,914 Cash
Total Cash: $51,665
529 college savings account $13,667 College
529 college savings account $5,252 College
Total College: $18,919
Helen’s Pension TBD Retirement
Helen’s 401k $198,816 Retirement
IRA $11,005 Retirement
IRA $8,450 Retirement
Roth IRA $6,261 Retirement
Roth IRA $6,247 Retirement
Total Retirement: $230,780
TOTAL ASSETS: $301,364 Cash, retirement, and college savings 

From Helen & Earl’s travels

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:

  1. Test out life in Japan for a month
  2. 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.
  • 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.

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:

  1. 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).
  2. 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!
  3. What’s the term limit on their CDs?
    1. 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%.
    2. 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.

Summary Advice

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Discuss and reflect on all of the questions related to moving to Japan that I outlined above.
  3. Evaluate their spending and make cuts as needed/wanted.
  4. Assess the fees on their brokerage and retirement accounts. Move this money to a different brokerage if warranted.
  5. 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 ( your brief story and we’ll talk.

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This page titled Reader Case Study: Family of Four Plans a Move from Oregon to Japan and more fantastic content can be found at this website. It was originally published on 2019-10-07 10:00:11.