Even if you earn a decent salary, you can still struggle to save money in Japan.
One of the number one mistakes newly arriving English teachers make is not tracking their spending. Just like in your home country, most bills come at the end of the month. But sudden costs and overspending can really take it’s toll, especially in May/June when the dreaded Municipal tax bill arrives.
One thing that might have blind-sided you is the move to Japan.
- First there is the travel cost of getting to Japan. Even if your company pays for your flight, you may have exit costs from your home country to consider.
- Second you have to take into account that most companies will pay you the month after you start working. That means a whole month of travel and living costs before you get your first paycheck.
- Then, you move into a new apartment and are immediately hit with as much as 2-4 months of rent (1 month rent + 1 month deposit + 1 month key money + brokerage fee up to 1 month). Read our guide here on the Top 5 Mistakes Expats Make When Searching for an Apartment in Tokyo to find ways to limit this somewhat.
So we put together this short list of things many people do that cost a lot of their income. If you avoid them you can reduce your spending on non-essentials and hold on to more of your hard-earned cash.
Don’t waste your money at a convenience stores/vending machines.
You know in the back of your mind that convenience stores are more expensive (by a lot) than supermarkets, but all the excitement of arriving in Japan can get to anyone. You start taking regular stops at 7-11 for a drink here, an onigiri there. Next thing you know you’ve dropped more in convenience stores than you have on groceries each month!
The markups in convenience stores are insane, and some of the snacks just aren’t worth it especially if you’re eating things that might seem more palatable to your foreign tongue. ¥247 for a tiny white bread sandwich with some lettuce, ham and cheese might seem like food, but really its not filling at all, and you’ll just end up buying more later.
Vending machines are even worse, despite being one of my favourite Japanese words (自動販売機 – Jidouhanbaiki). I know it’s hot outside; get a bottle and fill it with filtered tap water from home to save ¥100 or more a day by thinking ahead.
You eat out a little more than you would back home.
It is much cheaper eating out in Japan so many of us feel like it’s okay to go out three or four times a week. Eating out this much adds up, and it is still much more expensive than eating at home. Being able to cook just a few simple dishes with fresh vegetables can save you a lot of money, rather than dropping ¥1000 or more on yet another restaurant.
Remember also that the cheaper restaurants are cheap for a reason; some of the chain shops like Sukiya, O-sho and Ichi-ran might taste fantastic, but they are really not good for you to eat on a daily basis. Be ready to cook something nice at home, and both you and your wallet will feel better for it.
Novelty Japanese stuff that you will use once.
I know you have done this too. You spotted a matcha brush and bought it because it looked so Japanese, or bought a calligraphy set, with some ink and paper cos you thought it would be really cool to get into writing Japanese Kanji with one.
Think about whether you are going to use these things first, you don’t need to buy everything just because you’re in Japan and it might be cheaper here than it would be back home.
Buying expensive import foods.
Import food is very expensive in Japan, and we have all been guilty of this. For Charlie this was trying to find ginger beer, the best drink in the world, and even paying ¥400 a bottle just to have this creature comfort.
If you eat local foods and get used to that way of living, you’ll find that it is not only much more healthy but also much cheaper. I love natto now, and it only costs around ¥90 for a packet of three. Udon with wakame, sesame seeds and tamago-kake (raw egg on top) is delicious, healthy and cheap. Give it a try!
Your mobile phone bill is extortionate
This is a big one, and fixing it is a huge win. My first SoftBank smartphone monthly bill was astronomical; I was paying ¥10,000/month for an iPhone 4S with no allowance for phone calls or messages, but a decent data allowance to be fair. All of these white plans and requirements and 2 year rolling contracts can end up costing a small fortune when you don’t know what they all mean or what the alternative is.
This was easily 5 times more than I was paying back in the UK, and switching recently to ¥3,500/month plan is a huge win.
Check out how you can save this kind of money right here.
Travelling more than you can afford to.
Japan can be an expensive place to travel around, and it is easy to forget just how much you are spending on travel when you use your Suica card for all your trains and buses. The shinkansen is also a crazy expensive trip, often costing more than a flight to and from the same destination.
Try your best to keep track of your travelling costs, and make sure your company is paying you properly for them. Use Hyperdia to check travel details, and sometimes walking a 10 minute switch between switch stations or biking to work instead of taking two stops on the train can save you some money and keep you fit too.
A few too many nights out at karaoke/izakayas
Karaoke is fun and awesome, and we have some great times with our friends there. Doing that all the time, though, will cost you a lot. Izakaya’s too, are a real deceptively expensive way to drink. Some of these places can cost upwards of ¥2500 plus extras for just an hour or two of drinking and fun.
Most of my friends pick up drinks at the convenience store or supermarket first, then avoid the overpriced nomihoudai (all-you-can-drink) places where they take too long to bring you your drinks. Favour a bar where you might drink less but not pay out the nose and have to drink too much to “get your money’s worth.”
Want to save more? The best way is to earn more!
It all adds up, and after a month of spending on nights out and torturous student loans that many of us have to pay, we can find that we have nothing saved up for a rainy day. Budget as well as you can ahead of time and keep track of your spending, but you might still be pinching yen the end of each month.
Getting a better paying job obviously will help with this. Doing so can be a simple case of getting yourself more qualified than the average ESL teacher and having an accredited Online TEFL course to separate yourself from the pack.
After getting my TEFL qualification my next job increased my salary by 10%, and the next one after that by another 15%. Suddenly I was making enough money to save up to ¥100,000 a month.
Check out how I did it by getting the Advanced Guide to Teaching English in Japan here.
The best thing is that I still had money left over for a holiday to Bali with my girlfriend staying at 5* hotels and going snorkelling thanks to a 200,000¥ travel bonus from my company.
With a proper internationally accredited TEFL, as long you work hard at finding a well paying job in Japan getting ¥280-350,000/month, there is no reason you can’t afford to travel, eat out whenever you feel like it and save a good deal as well.
If you take away anything from this article: do not make mindless purchases at convenience stores and vending machines. See you next time.