Crucial Tips For Saving Money When You Live in Japan


So you’ve finally come to Japan as a new teacher, started unpacking, and are eagerly exploring Google Maps for places near you. However (depending on your contract, of course), it might be up to 2 whole months until your first salary. Japan is full of such wonderful things to see, places to go, food to eat… and 95% of it is not free. So, how do you survive on a budget until that first paycheck and still want for nothing?

budget city

Even if you try to save money by going to places that are within walking distance from your apartment, where the entrance is free, you will still need to buy at least a bottle of water and these go from JPY 80 upwards. And it is precisely here that people spend the most of their money. The little things.

Let’s look at a simple example: you go to work at 9 AM and grab a cup of coffee from the nearby coffee shop for around 200 JPY. You get there, and at around 11:30 you are already a bit peckish but decide to hold off with a bag of sweets or a cup of soup (~180 JPY) until lunch. For lunch break, around 1 PM, you decide to go to the konbini with a few of your colleagues and buy a bento (packed lunch) for around 600 JPY. You also grab a bottle of water to go with it (100 JPY), and a snack for later (~150 JPY). When the workday is over, around 7 PM, you head home. By now you’re so hungry you decide to go to the konbini and get a piece of fried chicken for dinner (or a salad) because you are just too tired to cook (~150 JPY).

On your way to the food shelf, you see a bath bomb which you totally need to soothe your sore muscles and get that extra bit of energy out of your daily bath. It’s just 120 yen, why not treat yourself? You’ve deserved it. Oh, you’ve also just remembered that you’re out of shampoo so you pick the most basic one off the shelf (~350 yen) to tide you over until you go to the supermarket.

So, what was your biggest expense today? The packed lunch for 600 yen? Guess again. Today you’ve spent JPY 1.850 and the 600 yen lunch wasn’t even a third of that sum.

The 5 Ways to Spend Sensibly

If you plan your time and your expenses, you can cut your living costs in half within just one week and still want for nothing. Here’s what to do:

1. Plan your supermarket trip one week in advance. Search online for which supermarkets are closest to you, have the best prices and when is the best time to go. Avoid buying too many things at the konbini.
2. Make a shopping list and don’t buy anything (or limit yourself to three things) not on the list.
3. Set a daily, weekly or monthly budget for food, non-essential transportation, entertainment and other areas, and stick to it.
4. Set aside one day of the week when you can spend double the allowed daily budget, so you can still treat yourself to something nice and not feel like you’re denying yourself anything.
5. Become accustomed to 100 Yen shops and to cooking for yourself. Now, don’t get discouraged – cooking can, for a beginner, sound like a daunting task but it can really be as simple as boiling water and adding a spoon of miso to it.

Wherever you work, you will have at least one day off during the week. Use this day for shopping, cleaning and socializing. And yes, you can fit all that in one day easily.

Now, let’s see what this looks like in practice (I live in Nagoya, so I suppose for Tokyo you would need to allocate a little bit – about 10% – more money):

The supermarket in Nagoya which I recommend is Aeon MaxValu. And no, this is in no way a sponsored article nor did any of these stores pay me to advertise them. Another shop I recommend is a 100 yen shop/drugstore 2 corners away from MaxValu, called Daikoku, and the well-known Daisowhich can be found all over Japan.

Let’s imagine, as an example, that you want to buy enough food and household items to last you a while, and let’s set your weekly budget for necessities at 10,000 yen (or just over 1,000 yen daily). If you go to MaxValu at around 6:30-7:00 PM you will also be able to benefit from different discounts applied to fresh meat and foodstuffs (notice the 40% discount in the food photo below).

Now, before we delve into actually saving money, be prepared to spend some money initially. You will need to buy cleaning supplies and other household items before everything else, but you should know that the cleaning stuff usually lasts around a month so you can divide the total sum by 4 to get an approximation of a weekly cost.

budget cleaning

Now, on to a weekly supply of food. Let’s buy 5 packets of different meat for around JPY 200 each. We’ll freeze them for later use. We’ll also need 1 leek, 10 eggs, 2 cans of tomato, 1 bottle of oil, 1 chicken stock, 1 kilo pack of spaghetti, 1 mayo, 1 ketchup, 1 pack of butter, 1 pack of carrots, 1 pack of potatoes, 2 packs of frozen gyoza, and a ten-pack of Real Gold energy drinks.

budget food

With the ingredients listed above you can make at least 10 different meals, pack them and take them to work for lunch. While everybody is different, this shopping list should just serve as an example to give you an idea of what I’m talking about. Please adjust it to your own needs and preferences.

OK, supermarket done. On to the 100 yen shop. Here you will be able to buy instant soups, noodles, and spices (which normally cost around 150-180 yen) for 100 yen. Massive savings right there, huh? Go on and take a 12-pack of miso soup, 3 cup-soups, 3 instant ramen (or other noodles of your choice), candies, sweets, juices, teas or anything else. For 2,000 yen you can buy a lot of food…

What’s our total so far? 10,230 yen or 7,208 yen per week. You have food and beverages, you have everything you need to keep clean and relax in the bath, lead a normal life, and build positive spending habits which will enable you to save a lot once you start actually earning money. And you still have almost 3,000 yen to spare each week!