Why I stopped thinking in exchange rates

Views from Mt. Unzen

If you’re reading this, you’ve survived another week of the pandemic known as CoVid-19. Welcome back. This week I’ve been taking a closer look at my finances. Even though I am currently living in Japan as a semi-permanent resident, I still have some financial ties back home and having had to have some money conversations recently, I was reminded of a decision that I made at the end of my first month of living in Japan. Back then when I was fresh off the plane, the Yens in my pocket freshly converted from Rands, I quickly came to the realisation that I needed to go full Yen in my thinking. Today I’ll share just a few of the reasons why this had to happen.

1) The rate keeps changing

Growing up, I remember sitting down to watch the Zulu/Xhosa news at 7:30 pm every day with my family. After the bulk of the day’s news had been shared, the screen would change to that royal blue screen with the golden strings in the background. A flute jingle would then start playing softly just before the news anchor gave us our daily rundown of the exchange rates. They would mention The Big 3 – Dollar; Pound; and Euro; sometimes even throw in the Botswanan Pula (probably our only neighbour who received this honourable mention). After this, they would go into the price of precious metals (gold, platinum, silver) and end it off with the price of crude oil. I’ve personally never had any interest in the financial markets, imports or exports but, as a side effect of our shaky economy, one came to know how these things were affected by the movement of the Rand. One thing you learnt about this movement was that it was a constant ebb and flow and just because you knew the exchange rate yesterday, it didn’t necessarily mean you knew it today.

Not Yen to Rand but you get the idea

The same was also true about the Rand to Yen exchange. I had trouble gathering Yen before I moved over here because the Yen isn’t a popular currency in South Africa. This meant I had to go to a few different exchanges since I’d failed to plan far enough ahead to get it all in one go. At every new exchange place, I visited over that few days, I watched as the exchange rate swung from one value to the next. This is one of the first things that influenced my decision to just cut my losses and forget about thinking Rand to Yen because honestly, who can keep up?

2) Cost of living is not the same 

With my honorary economics degree safely influencing my decisions already, this next realisation was bound to follow. At the time of writing this, for every R1 that you have, you can get roughly ¥6. Does this mean the Rand gets me more value for money when I come to Japan? Not necessarily. An important factor to consider is the overall cost of living. On paper, the salary I receive here is pretty high (especially when considering and comparing it to what I was getting paid as a specialist in a niche field back home), also especially if you are going to engage in a Rand to Yen exchange. Unfortunately, these kinds of exchanges were useless when it came down to the practicality of spending money. On one of my first nights in Japan, making my way through the streets of Tokyo with a few new friends, I discovered what has to be the most expensive fruit I’ve ever seen in my life. A street vendor had set up shop in the back of his van in one of the small streets near our hotel. It was the most beautiful collection of peaches and grapes one could imagine but even grapes from Woolworths (one of the more premium grocery stores in South Africa) could never be this expensive.

The price tag for that punnet of grapes was ¥4000, that’s roughly R595. A few days later I discovered that I could buy 4 huge full chicken breasts for about ¥400 (+/-R59), 3kg of local rice for ¥1200 (+/-R178) and 4 apples bigger than the size of my fists for about ¥2000 (+/-R297). Back home I was paying roughly R30 a punnet of grapes (+/-¥200); chicken breasts about R40 (+/-¥269); 5kg of rice (good old Tastic rice) would be about R70 (+/-¥470) and finally, for 4 large apples (large in relation to the normal pack of apples that cost us way less but also have baby-sized apples in them), I would pay R20 (+/-¥134). On the flip side, my accommodation here in a two-bedroom flat with a large kitchen, a lounge and the benefit of being a short walking distance from work, only costs me ¥42000 (+/-R6250). Back home to have relatively the same level of comfort, I’d have to look at places that might cost me upward of R10000 (this is before we consider the commute fees necessary to get to said work). So what am I trying to say? The two countries don’t put a value on things in the same way. My salary here is very much in line with the cost of living here, just as my salary back home was almost enough to cover the things that it did back then (a lie but we’ll go with it for the purposes of this article).

3) I’ve actively chosen to be present

Pulling together numbers 1 and 2, I have come to a place where my reasoning for not living according to the exchange rate anymore boils down to this: I want to be present where I am. For the one month where I let myself be pulled between Rand and Yen, I didn’t feel settled. I was in Japan yes but my thoughts, my plans, half of me seemed stuck in South Africa. Why was this a bad thing you ask? Well, as someone who was settling into this new environment, I had a lot of purchases that I needed to make. Unfortunately, because my mind was trapped in exchange rate mode, I found myself putting off the purchase of important things because in my head this was costing me too many Rands.

This came back to bite me later when I no longer had access to free transportation to help me when I finally needed to make those big purchases. I was more reluctant to go out with people because on paper, a meal at a restaurant here was suddenly 3 or 4 times what I was used to back home. Even the movies (one of my favourite solo outings) seemed ridiculous. In my opinion that was now too many things I was giving up on because of that darn exchange rate comparison constantly telling me that things were too expensive!

You shutup Budget!

So I decided to try something unheard of as an ex-pat: I was going to stop doing those conversions (If you’ve been online anywhere where ex-pats are having discussions about money, you will have noticed that people do love to describe the price of things in their home currency). I get it, it’s comfortable, it’s familiar, heck I did it too, but most of the problems you’ll find when people complain about the price of things (here’s looking at past me that one time I complained about medical care in Japan), stem from that exchange rate conversion. When you become present where you are, it starts being easier to figure out and make peace with what things cost and why they cost that much. In Japan, I’ve vaguely learnt about their local farming, imports and exports of goods which has painted a fuller picture of why things are the way they are (none of this has satisfactorily explained why the price of a movie ticket is so damn high though ¥1900).

Hashtag movies must fall

Peace of mind. It’s as simple as that. When you stop splitting yourself in two, you have more peace and isn’t that what we are all after at the end of the day?


I'm a writer with some stuff on my mind.

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