Is International Marriage Expensive?

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One of my favorite Japanese bloggers on language and living an international lifestyle is Madame Riri. As a Japanese speaker married to a Japanese woman, I find that a lot of her content resonates with the joys and challenges of my own marriage. (She also has an accessible writing style that’s easy for students of Japanese to follow. Learners, bookmark now!)

That said, I can’t agree with everything in her latest post, “International Marriage Will Cost You Dearly! Six Facts About the Financial Situation of International Couples” (国際結婚はこんなにお金がかかる!国際カップルのお金事情6つ). Riri identifies six ways in which international marriage will Hoover[1] the greenbacks and yen straight outta your wallet:

  1. The wedding is expensive, especially if you feel you have to (a) have a wedding in two countries, or (b) ship you or your better half’s family overseas for a single ceremony.
  2. Immigration fees are expensive.
  3. Studying the native language of your new country is expensive.
  4. Returning home to your country of origin is expensive.
  5. Foreigners have a tough time finding work in their new country.
  6. Imported foods are expensive.

I agree with about half of Riri’s points. As for the other half, with a little planning and ingenuity, you can control for these costs, and limit the impact that your marriage will have on your savings.

(1) Weddings. Let me be blunt: it’s your choice how much money you want  to waste on your wedding. Hey, if you and your significant other think it’s critical to spend up to $30,000 on worldwide weddings, then knock yourselves out. My wife and I decided that it was more important to spend money on vacations and experiences, so we got hitched[2]  in the courthouse and had a nice dinner with our family afterwards, keeping our total costs (with rings) well below $5,000. It’s not the traditional Hollywood wedding experience we’ve all been groomed to expect, but it worked just fine for us.

(2) Immigration. Yes, immigration is an expensive hassle. We are currently waiting on my wife’s green card, and I estimate it’s cost us about $2,000 to get to this point. That’s about $350 or so for the initial K-1 visa process, $1,100 for the Adjustment of Status (green card) application and biometrics (fingerprinting), and the remainder in ancillary fees, including Aya’s required medical exam.

(3) Language. You don’t need to enroll in an expensive school to learn a language! There are plenty of phone apps, Internet Web sites, and other freely available tools to help your spouse get up to speed in a new language.

If your spouse is someone who thrives in a classroom environment, or who needs a little more structure to their learning, they can still get a decent education without handing over much money:

  • iTalki is a Web site that enables language learners to schedule lessons with native language teachers for as little as $8/session. It’s a wonderful site that’s been instrumental in my own language learning. If you haven’t tried it, sign up for an account today.
  • Your local community college may have an ESL program that offers discounted classes for anyone holding a valid visa. In Seattle, several local community colleges offer such programs for as low as $30 a semester.
  • For English learners, there are several good English as a Second Language (ESL) books that spouses can use together. My wife and I have been using English Made Easy, which takes a pictorial approach to learning the most basic structures and vocabulary required for everyday communication.

(4) Returning home. Okay, yes – returning to Tokyo for two weeks will run my wife and I around $5,000. But even here, there are options:

  • If you speak your spouse’s native language, look for work that might enable you to visit the country on business once or twice a year. This can potentially reduce your travel feels by over half, as your own expenses will be reimbursable. (Obviously, you still have to pony up for your spouse.)
  • Use airline mile and credit card rewards programs to pile up points towards overseas plane tickets and hotels. The Points Guy is a great Web site with a ton of recommendations on what credit cards you can use for everyday spending that will enable you to accumulate points towards travel.

(5) Finding work. Yeah, okay – this sucks. Unless you’re fluent in the native language already, finding work is going to take some effort. Even worse, unless you specifically emigrate on a work visa, odds are that it will take you months to receive authorization to work in your new country in the first place. (My wife just received hers after six months of residence.)

The news here isn’t all dark, however. If you and your spouse move somewhere where there is a large population of emigrants from his or her country of origin, he or she may be able to find work that only uses first language skills, such as a local language school or his or her country’s embassy. Also, thanks to the Internet, it’s possible for many people to find at least some sort of work in their country of origin that can be done solely through telecommuting.

Either way, if your spouse needs to work in order to support your mutual lifestyle, this is something you’ll want to investigate before filing papers with the immigration office.

(6) Imported food. This will depend greatly on where you live, and what you’ve been eating prior to your marriage. In my case, Seattle is blessed with a large Asian grocery chain, Uwajimaya, that carries a wide array of food products from Japan at reasonable prices. If I lived in the American Midwest and we had to have our kamaboko and chikuwa shipped from Amazon Japan Global, we’d probably have a larger hole in our budget.

Conclusion

No one ever says, “I’m going to save SO much money marrying this person who lives half a world away!” Living an international lifestyle is going to cost you – but with a little planning, it doesn’t have to spell financial ruin.

FOOTNOTES

[1] Hoover: A brand of American vacuum cleaner. This word can sometimes be used in casual writing as a verb to indicate the action of sucking something up completely in a rapid fashion.

[2] Get hitched: Get married. Used in informal conversation.

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