Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Saving for a Trip Abroad

This is part of a series responding to Christine at Almost Fearless' series 30 Ways in 30 Days to Redesign Your Life and Travel the World. 

The way we think of saving is misleading.  It’s like losing weight, you don’t just lose weight, you eat less or exercise more, but there is no specific action called losing weight.  It’s an expression that describes the end result, not the process.  For saving it’s the same way, it’s not what you do as much as what you don’t do.  Saving is actually inaction, we’re stopping ourselves from spending.
Losing weight is not something I'm very good at. Saving money? I'm better at that. I'm not going to claim that I am an expert, but I have much more success at saving money than I do at losing weight.

This is because saving money is a twice a month proposition, as opposed to an every day decision like losing weight. I transfer money into my savings account the day I get my paycheck. I basically give myself a paycut. I have a separate bank for my savings, so that it takes more than a few clicks to spend it, a tactic that is called using passive barriers. In addition, windfalls are either used to pay off high interest debt or pad my savings account.

I still need to increase what I earn, which is something I need to tackle after I get back from vacation this summer. Asking for a raise a few weeks before leaving for two weeks seems a bit crass.

Unfortunately I have not been as successful in coming up with a reliable weight loss psych out. After work, the daily decision of whether or not I will go to the gym or to the barn is a tough one, and to be honest the barn usually wins out if I do anything other than be a slug on the couch, and I have yet to make both in a single day now that I have to stack them back to back thanks to the time change. This has not improved the tone of my thighs.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Feeling left behind

I'm considering splitting this blog and maybe starting a horse training only one. Because my interests are kind of schizophrenic and I doubt that someone who is interested in reading about horse training is also interested in moving abroad.

One of my best friends (K) got engaged this weekend, and my other best friend's (R) younger brother also got engaged. These two girls are probably my closest friends. I have known both of these girls since I was in middle school, and R's younger brother was always around, though he and I are not particularly close compared to some of my other childhood friend's siblings. R got married a little over a year ago, and she's currently expecting. A mutual friend (B) just got married last weekend and is also pregnant. Another close friend of mine is currently freaking out about attending her 10 year reunion in the summer. She graduated from high school a year before I did.

I am not interested in being engaged at the moment, I do not want children, and yet I still feel kind of like a failure.

I really expected to be out of South Carolina by now. I have good reason to stay - my long term boyfriend (who really needs an initial here - I dub thee C) is in school to get his BA, which is a requirement for work visas in Japan. He has instate tuition here, and with how ridiculously expensive college has become in the US during the last ten years or so, spending more than absolutely necessary for a undergraduate degree seems shortsighted especially in light of my too large law school loan debt. Going to Japan without C being able to work would be financially disastrous, so we pretty much have to wait for him to graduate. His school is not being particularly helpful in giving me a timeline, though, since they can't guarantee him a spot in required classes during any given semester.

I am very anxious to leave. I think I have stayed here almost two years too long as it is. If I had a definite exit date I would probably be much happier, but as it is we are unlikely to know for sure until the fall.

Which brings me back to feeling like I'm treading water. My goals are very different than those of my friends, but the fact of the matter is they seem to be achieving their life goals while I am waiting to make mine happen. Well, I'm actually working toward it, but it feels like I am not making any progress. The problem is that I am not sure how much progress I will have made a year from now. I don't know if I will have an exit date, because so much is not up to me. I am a certified control freak, so this is tough.

So, to make myself feel like less of an abject failure, here are the things I have achieved that will help me get to Japan:

  • I am closing on a refinance this week that will allow me to cover all condo expenses with the rental income when I leave. That's everything including HOA fees (which I thought I would have to pay out of pocket).
  • I have paid off all but one of my credit cards.
  • My savings account has hit 20% of what I need to go to Japan.

And to torture myself further and poke the scab like I always do, here are the things I still need to do:

  • Save the other 80% of what I need to go to Japan.
  • Wait for C to graduate.
  • Pay off that last credit card.
  • Lose 35 pounds. (Ok, so this probably isn't a requirement to get to Japan, but it is something I have been working hard on lately.)

OCD? What's that?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

What to do with the house?

This is part of a series responding to Christine at Almost Fearless' series 30 Ways in 30 Days to Redesign Your Life and Travel the World. 

Day 8

I guess I kind of touched on this in my last post, but this part of the series was about how to sell your house in a downturn.

The original post was written in 2009. I bought my condo in 2008, and the only thing the housing market has done since then is drop like a rock. While the idea of offloading my condo and never having to deal with it again is appealing, if I sold my condo right now I would end up taking out a loan for the difference between the mortgage and the selling price. There are two other units in my condo complex for sale, and their asking prices are far lower than my mortgage.

So that means I am going to have to become a landlord.

I kind of already am, as I rent out the two spare room in my condo to students. I have learned from experience that there is a big difference between graduate students and undergraduate seniors. I have also learned that I am definitely going to be hiring a property management company and requiring co-signers when appropriate.

One thing Christine mentions in the homework section is this:
3. If you need to reach out for financial help, do it now.

I have considered refinancing in order to make it more likely that renting out the condo will pay for all of the associated expenses of keeping it. Since I have not had the mortgage for a long time, interest rates are low, and my income has increased since I took out the loan, it seems like a good idea.

But I still hesitate. If I had enough cash to pay down a point I would do it in a heartbeat, but I won't have that for a few months, and even if I did there's the question of whether I should be putting that amount towards going to Japan or not. PMI insurance rates doubled about a year ago - I may not see any real savings without paying down a point.

I'm going to have to do some research on refinancing before I put the house up for rent. I should probably start seriously looking at it in mid-2012, after I have enough saved to seriously consider paying down points or not.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Budgeting for Living in Abroad - When you still have a mortgage.

This is part of a series responding to Christine at Almost Fearless' series 30 Ways in 30 Days to Redesign Your Life and Travel the World. 

This part of the series didn't work as well for me as other parts did. I am planning on staying put in one country for a year or two, instead of country hopping for however long I can afford it. The article was definitely aimed more for a country hopper or RTW trip. It's good information if that's what you're planning on doing. (One day this will be me!)

But that's not the plan for my initial trip. I've decided, for a list of reasons I have talked about before, that even though it's the most expensive trip, I want to return to Japan first.

And that is expensive.

And I haven't made it any easier on myself.

I won't sell my horse. Even horse people might think it's dumb, but I would rather board him at a facility I trust rather than to let him go to an owner who may sell him off to who knows where. You hear horror stories of people's horses going to slaughter, even when they have a buyback agreement. I'm basically going to give him to someone I trust, with a big fat savings account available for his expenses. I plan on having 16k in a savings account for Avalon when I go. Not easy.

Additionally, all that money to move to a new apartment in Japan is going to have to come from somewhere. I want to have an account with 8k in it for move in costs. Hopefully I won't spend all of that finding and furnishing an apartment, and what is left over will be designated for rent.

Then there's the mortgage. I would LOVE to sell, even if I just break even. But some other people in my complex are trying to sell, and it looks like I am at least 30k underwater. At least when buying I made the good decision of insisting it be within walking distance to campus. Which means I will be able to rent it out for enough to pay the mortgage and insurance, and pay a property manager. It's possible I won't make enough from renting to pay the entire property tax bill, but property taxes in South Carolina are very low. I will have to make some repairs before I leave (mostly painting) and I want a few month's worth of the mortgage in a dedicated account, just to be safe. I would like 8k total in that account, but I could probably get away with 6k.

My boyfriend will be working while we are in Japan. Getting a job teaching English is actually pretty easy to get, and they pay around $2900 US dollars a month for those jobs, entry level. It doesn't go as far in Japan because of housing costs, but I'm familiar enough with the rental market that I can find us something far below the average $1100 a month most gaijin pay. If you don't speak Japanese, this is very hard to do. I hope to pay around $700 a month in rent in Japan, and from looking at rental agency websites, this shouldn't be impossible. We should be able to live off of his income easily.

Which means that I need to have $32,000 saved up before we go. We can probably make do with a little less, but I'm using that as a goal amount.

It's actually not impossible. See in the past three months I have been paying off as much consumer debt as I can. In 3 months I have paid of $3000 in credit card bills and personal loans. Once I have paid off all of my debt (late this month I should be done!) then I plan to roll all of the money I used to be using for debt into savings.

Even if I have unexpected expenses (car trouble, dental costs) I should be able to save that amount up in 3 years.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Finding an Apartment in Tokyo, Japan

Yes, this is the outside view of a Japanese apartment building.

This is part of a series responding to Christine at Almost Fearless' series 30 Ways in 30 Days to Redesign Your Life and Travel the World. 

Day 6

Finding a place to live for my first trip (Japan) doesn't intimidate me much. As an aside, the more and more I complete Christine's series the more absolutely convinced I become that I'm going to go on more than one long trip. The details of paying for it, however, are still up in the air.

I have lived in Japan before. I was a student, and I lived in the dorm recommended by my school. I know now that I could have found cheaper accommodations closer to my school, but it takes some legwork and research. If you don't speak Japanese it can be difficult to find the information you need.

Luckily, I now speak a little more Japanese than I used to.

Long term housing in Japan can be overwhelming at first. Tokyo rents are expensive. A typical lease in Japan is 2 years, and to renew a lease you have to pay a renewal fee of 1/2 to 2 months rent.

General Options
Gaijin Houses:
Sometimes people call these by the more PC term Guest Houses. This is basically a roommate or dorm suite style situation - most Gaijin houses have 4 to 6 bedrooms and a shared bathroom and living area. Agencies rent out these accommodations by the room, and keep in mind that there's not any sort of roommate screening or matching in most cases. The living situation can be the best thing ever or a nightmare based on who the other renters are. The whole apartment is usually furnished. These can be a very inexpensive option.

You can find dorms in Japan that are not just for students - they basically operate like a long term stay hostel. You share both your bedroom and your living area with roommates, and the number of beds per room depends on the agency running the dorm. Sometimes you get private bedrooms in dorms. The type of dorm style depends on who they cater to.

Student dorms have a cafeteria you can buy a meal plan to. Dorms are not run by or tied to a specific school like they are in the United States. A dorm is run by a separate company, which may have a contract with your school so that they can be recommended by the school to its students. The dorm will most likely have students from multiple schools, and is usually single sex with curfews (and inevitably the girl's dorm has a earlier curfew than the guy's dorm). The dorms that cater to students are sometimes more expensive than renting your own studio apartment, so make sure to compare costs, especially of they have a business relationship with your school. Once again, your roommates can make or break your stay.

Company dorms are actually much the same as student dorms, though usually run or owned by the company that employs the people staying there. You sometimes share a bedroom, and the kitchen and bathroom are shared. They don't usually have cafeterias. Additionally, these dorms also commonly have curfews, though most leave a separate door unlocked so the residents can come and go as they please. Most foreigners employed by a Japanese company that runs a dorm will be given their own room. These are almost always cheaper than an apartment, as they whole point is to subsidize a company's workers' living expenses.

Some rental agencies run general dorms, where anyone can stay so long as they pay the rent. How many people in a bedroom depends on the dorm, and most have a few options. They are similar in set up to a company dorm, but they are usually more expensive than the company dorms. As the student dorm prices vary, they can be either cheaper or more expensive than student dorms.

Apartments in Japan are the same as apartments in western countries: private space including bed area, bathroom, and kitchen area. But if you search for apartments on a Japanese realty website you will notice that there seems to be some kind of weird code as to what kind of space is being rented. Japanese apartments are divided into the following categories:

  • 1ROOM - A one room area, like a western studio, where the kitchen are and sleeping area are in the same room, but the bathroom is in a separate room. The shower and toilet are in the same room, which is considered less desirable by the Japanese.
  • 1K - This stands for 1 bedroom + kitchen. Here the bedroom area is separate from the kitchen area, and the toilet and shower are separate. There is not usually enough room in the kitchen for a table, it could be described as a galley kitchen - just room to cook.
  • 1DK - This stands for 1 bedroom + kitchen/dining area. These style apartments have a separate toilet and shower, as well as a separated kitchen and bedroom area. The difference here is that there is enough room in the kitchen for a table.
  • 1LDK - This stands for 1 bedroom + living/kitchen/dining area. The only difference between this style of apartment and 1DK style apartments is that the kitchen area is a living room area as well. There should be enough room for a table (or maybe there is a bar/countertop that can serve as a table) as well as a space for a coffee table or TV area. 
The numbers before the letters stand for how many bedrooms are in the apartment, so for instance a 2LDK would mean that there is everything described above in the 1LDK description, plus a separate bedroom. If you are still confused there's a beautiful chart posted by a Japanese real estate agency association here.

Because I will be moving with my boyfriend and cats, an apartment is really our only option. 

Costs to Rent an Apartment
The Japanese don't move much. There's a reason for that.

Security Deposit:
In order to rent an apartment you need to pay a huge security deposit of 2 months rent. You can get your money back if there's no damage to the unit after you move, but be aware that Japanese property managers and landlords act much like property managers and landlords everywhere, which means that if there's damage they're not going to bargain shop for the cheapest repair, and they may inflate their costs a little. If you have damaged your apartment in any way, it may be cheaper to hire someone to repair it before you move than let the landlord decide how much the damage should cost you. Oh, and if you want to bring your pet you need to pay an extra months rent towards the deposit.

Advance Rent:
You are usually required to pay the first two months rent in advance, on top of the security deposit. I have heard this is because there is a high percentage of people in Japan who sign the paperwork on an apartment and then never move in, but I have no idea how true this statement is. 

Key Money:
This is where you get to see the ghosts of Japan's past return to haunt you. Key money, or reikin (礼金), was basically bribe money. After World War II there were very few properties left standing, so people gave gifts to the landlord in order to get housing. Despite the fact that housing is no longer scarce, everyone in Japan still pays key money. In case you couldn't guess, this about is also 2 months rent. 

There are ways around paying the key money, but it often involves paying high rent (sometimes higher than rent + the key money would have been) or catching a promotional sale by the property manager. If you are going to move to Japan, budget for paying this, as the chances of avoiding this fee is not in your favor.

Guarantor Fees:
In order for anyone to rent an apartment in Japan, they must have a guarantor or hoshonin (保証人). This is in effect a cosigner on your lease - if you do not meet your obligations the landlord can turn to the guarantor for the money you owe them. Because this is such a big deal, most Japanese will only sign on as a guarantor for family members. 

Here is the problem for foreigners moving to Japan - the guarantor must be Japanese. I may be wrong, but I don't believe there is a legal requirement for the guarantor to be a Japanese person, just a Japanese resident to that the legal system will have the ability to extort have jurisdiction over them should you not pay your rent. If someone is not ethnically Japanese, even if they are Japanese residents who have been in the country for 25 years or have married a citizen, Japanese property managers will not let them be a guarantor. 

Japanese people see foreigners as unreliable, and every time I hear about an English teacher skipping the country leaving unpaid debts behind I think that they have just made is harder for honest foreigners to live in Japan. Yes, it's a stereotype, and stereotyping is bad. But stop reinforcing stereotypes, people!    

So what is a poor foreigner to do? Pay out the nose, of course. There are guarantor companies in Japan, called hoshonin-gaisha (保証人会社), which are basically insurance companies that will sign on as your guarantor in exchange for one month's rent per year you need them to act as guarantor. Expect to pay both years up front. This would be an additional 2 months rent to your move in costs.

Agency Fees:
In order to find an apartment in Japan you usually need to find a real estate agent. Renting in Japan is competitive, and even Japanese people use rental agencies to find an apartment that suits their needs and budget. Almost all apartments in Japan are advertised through an agency, so often you pay the fee even if you didn't hire an agency to look for apartments for you. 

Of course, finding a good agent if you are a foreigner can be hit or miss. Many Japanese agencies won't serve foreigners, sometimes out of fear that they will be unable to explain key parts of the lease to someone who does not speak Japanese. Other times it's racism or prejudice. Some agencies will search for an apartment the same way they would search for a Japanese person's apartment - which is bad since many landlords will not rent to foreigners, for the same reasons.

Agencies aimed towards foreigners usually have a certain clientele in mind, and they seem to price rents a little higher than a similar quality apartment listed on a Japanese rental agency's website. Some are companies that own their own network of buildings, and will only show you the open rooms in their network, and others are more traditional agencies that just happen to cater to foreigners.

The best place to find an agent would be to ask on an expat message board like gaijinpot.com or  eslcafe.com. If you plan on teaching English in Japan I highly recommend elscafe.com for general questions. 

So what are my total costs to rent an apartment in Japan? 9 months rent, give or take, just to rent the room. Of that, only 3 months worth can be refunded. Pretty pricey.  

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Goodbye Pete

Pete left yesterday. *Sniff*

I thought I would be much more sad about it. I am sad, but I think the fact that I am at peace with it just shows that I made the right decision.

I already have a horse to spend time and energy on, and to be honest he's been getting a little bit of a short shift with Pete to take care of. My riding has improved so much in the past year. I have been unable to save enough for a replacement trailer after the Great Trailering Accident of 2010 (aka I Hate Alabama), which happened over a year ago. The extra $300 a month could make a big dent towards that replacement trailer. The sooner I get a trailer the sooner I can get off the farm and attend clinics and competitions.

I'm still sad, though.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Hooves. And Farriers.

I have had a rough time finding a good farrier in South Carolina. Or maybe its just that I have had some serious issues in the past two years.

In 2010, probably around March or so, the farrier I was using did not return my calls when Avalon ripped off his shoe and a chunk of his foot. Avalon was dead lame, and he needed a shoe put on in order to give him some relief - he always went lame when he lost a shoe. We've got granite chunks in the pasture that pop up like weeds after every rain.

After a few days of no return call no show I found another farrier. I'm not going to name names here - let's just call him Barefoot Guy. I call him Barefoot Guy because he was very into the natural shoeing trend that's going around. And you know what? In many places, for many horses, you can go without shoes and it's better for them. That did not end up being the case for Avalon.

When he came he took one look at Avalon's feet and said that he had some heel problems. He was right. A few years ago I had to switch farriers when one collapsed Avalon's heel (the same heel) through fitting the horse to the shoe instead of the other way around. He was lame for 3 months off of that. As a side note, total South Carolina farrier count so far is 4 with Barefoot Guy being the 4th. So Barefoot Guy put shoes on all 4 of Avalon's feet for a couple of months, then said that his back feet probably didn't need them. I was concerned about it, but I gave it a try, and you know what, it worked. Avalon is still barefoot in back, in fact.

We continue to put shoes on the front, until Barefoot Guy tells me that he cannot fix the problems we are having with Avalon's heel by putting shoes on. He tells me that he's just in a holding pattern, and shoes are preventing Avalon from getting the kind of growth he needs to grow out that collapsed heel. I decide to give it a shot, since it worked well in back, and we pull his shoes in August of 2010.

Avalon goes dead lame, but Barefoot Guy says this is normal, and horses generally need a couple of months for their feet to toughen up enough to prevent bruising, and once they do they get healthy feet. He tells me it's temporary, and about two months later (right before he's due for a trim) Avalon seems to be getting sounder.

It doesn't last. Avalon gets sounder when his feet are long, and lame after a trim. The Barefoot Guy keeps telling me it's temporary, but my horse is lame. I call the vet out in November, because Barefoot Guy has me half convinced that the problem isn't bruising now, but that heel problem we are trying to correct. We nerve block parts of Avalon's feet to see where the pain is coming from - and it is definitely his sole.

I ask Barefoot Guy in December to put shoes back on Avalon's feet. My horse has been lame for nearly 6 months with him continually telling me that his feet will toughen up any day now, but my gut is telling me 6 months is too long for this to be a temporary issue. I want my horse back. Barefoot guy refuses to put shoes on him, saying that it will undue all the work he's put into Avalon's feet and that eventually Avalon will be permanently lame if he has shoes put back on, ever.

I find a new farrier in January. Farrier Number 5.

Farrier Number 5 is my current farrier, but I am now so paranoid about crappy farriers I have serious concerns about Avalon's feet. Next month (aka when I have money), I am going to get a vet to come take xrays of his feet and make sure they are balanced. Avalon is sound. But the way his feet look, I don't think he will be for long.

I took these pictures on July 3rd, which was a couple of days before Farrier 5 was supposed to come out and trim him. These pictures really concerned me.

This is his funky foot. The one I have had past heel issues (twice!) with, and the one that looks different than the other 3. I don't think it's a true club foot, but it's definitely low compared to the rest of his feet. I do NOT like the way his heel looks. It looks completely underrun/collapsed to me.

I always doubt myself with hoof issues because I'm not a farrier and I'm not a vet, and what do I know. That self doubt is why I let Avalon be barefoot and lame for 6 months - my farrier convinced me that he knew better than I.

This is the other foot. Far more upright, heel looks maybe a little but underrun, but really not like the other foot. Toe is too long, I think, but he's due for trim.

This is a front view. I am 90% sure that the "dishing" you see, or the flares, are a bad thing. My understanding is that this shows that the white line is separating from the rest of the hoof, because the feet are out of balance or too long.

I really think I was directly behind the foot when I took this photo. Shouldn't his leg be straight, not kind of bent inward? Are the two sides of his heel growing at different speeds or lengths or is the farrier just not balancing him right?

His funky foot is even worse. I know his heel is collapsed here, and I am worried that this picture shoes a prolapsing frog.

The pictures I took after the trim show significant improvement. But...I cannot just trust the farrier. Too many bad experiences. I want xrays and vet consult, because my gut is telling me that if I don't get this done right then I'm going to have a lame horse again.

Maybe the vet will tell me I just wasted $500.00. But I'm pretty sure he's not going to say that.