I live with over $50,000 in student loan debt. I’m the national average for an American undergrad in terms of student loans, so I know for a statistical fact that I’m not the only person out there struggling with this weight on my shoulders. Before I came to Japan, one of the “selling points” for the JET Program I heard about was that many people throughout the years managed to pay off their student loans. I figured if I was thrifty I ‘d at least manage to get some of it paid off.
In the first year, man I had it so good. The yen was strong, so when I sent money back I paid more in US currency than yen. I could travel, never worry about when or if I’d have to buy be careful about money. The second year, the yen got a bit weaker, but I still managed to make regular payments. Then a recession hit, the yen’s value went down, and I found myself starting to struggle.
Fast forward to this week, where I’m struggling to pay just regular bills some months. I went into a forbearance, my second or third one in the past year. I sat down and calculated, and realized with sickening clarity that the forbearances put me right back at square one. It’s like I never made any payments before, mostly because of the interest rate.
When I wrote about the dispatch companies, I wanted to put out some awareness about what it means to live in Japan nowadays. The bygone eras from decades past (where people could come over, get paid about $2,000 per month, and pay off their student loans) are gone. Dispatch companies are trying harder than ever to screw people out of money, and no one can fight the system because no one has enough money to get a lawyer, not to mention Japanese language skills.
If you live with JET for all 5 years, you might make some headway. But then like I said, as soon as you leave it the whole ballgame changes. Companies might offer subsidies for housing, might offer perks to study Japanese, but none of those perks will be enough to save up if you still have to pay for your own health insurance and pension. Then if your company is really, really awful and doesn’t pay for transportation, you might find yourself getting strapped for cash every month (especially if you like in Tokyo).
Granted, the situation is dependent on the amount of student loan debt accumulated. If you have no student loans, or loans in the low $10,000 region, then you’ll do fine. I honestly don’t know about credit card debt having never had a proper one until I moved to Tokyo, but I imagine it’s the same idea. You should be able to actually save money if you’ve got no student loan debt if you live out in the inaka areas where taxes and food is cheaper.
At the same time if you hear from an ex-pat who lived in Japan some ten years ago and tries to sell you on the idea of moving abroad to solve all your student loan problems, take into account that the times have changed dramatically since they went to college or uni. I stay in Japan because even though I struggle some months, I still love this country and I know that I can get a stable salary out here. Returning to America would mean three part time jobs at best with an English major and Communications minor. Also, of course, I love Japanese culture, the friends I’ve made here, and the chances I have to do more than I ever dreamed of every single day.
I envy the people who came before me who managed to pay everything off, but I have to applaud them for doing it, too. Paying off those loans will be the best, for now I’ll just do what I can, and pay when I can. Maybe some day I’ll get to sing “Sallie Mae Back,” too.
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