Mar 14, 2018

How to live on a shoestring budget in Japan

People often say that Japan is one of the most expensive countries in the world to live in. So where does that leave you if you're on a shoestring budget?  

What consists of a shoestring budget is going to be different for everyone, and a big part of it is going to come down to where in Japan you have to live. For instance, if you work and live in Tokyo, then your rent per month is going to be a lot higher than what you might expect in rural areas. However, I'm going to talk about my case here, and how we manage to live in a pretty tight income right now while my husband is studying here. We're a family of four (plus a dog!) and we manage to get by on about $2000 a month. Yup. For all of us. We do have savings to fall back on if need be, but we're trying to ensure that we don't chew through all of those during our time here. Here are the ways that we manage to make it work.

How to live on a shoestring budget in Japan photo

We live in the countryside

This isn't always going to be an option for you, based on your life commitments. We were fortunate that my husband's university was in the countryside, where rent is substantially cheaper than what we ever paid in Tokyo. If you are able to reside outside a city center (perhaps you have a job where you can telework) then it's much friendlier on the budget to do so in most cases.

We embrace nature and free local events over paid attractions

Sure, Disneyland is awesome and all - but so is the snow! Or parks! Or hiking! My children are thankfully at the age where they don't really ask for stuff, and they're more than content with going out sledding in the open spaces near our house, or riding bikes, or playing at nearby parks. All of those things cost nothing - and don't have insanely long queues or painful admission prices. We’re also big fans of local festivals. I follow my local area’s tourism Facebook page, and they always post about fun events going on in our region. It’s one of the things I love most about living in Japan - even in regional areas there is so much to see and do, and bucket loads of culture - all for nothing.

How to live on a shoestring budget in Japan photo

We look towards minimalism

Ever heard of the book “The life changing magic of tidying up?” It’s by the Japanese author and organization guru Mari Kondo, and it’s ultimately about not being tied to “stuff”. I’m sure we all have stuff lying around that we don’t need or use - and a lot of that stuff is able to be sold. Kids clothing, books that you've read and don't use anymore, appliances that you just had to have but now are sitting in a cupboard collecting dust...someone's trash is another person's treasure. Whether you go to a chain like Book Off or Hard Off to get rid of your stuff, or perhaps sell it online via Japan based Facebook swap pages, it can be a way of both freeing up some space for you and earning some extra yen for the monthly bills. Also, less stuff you own means less stuff to clean, and who doesn’t love that?!

We use stuff up before buying new stuff

We've moved house 3 times in the last 5 years, and I was always astounded by just how much stuff we'd accumulate each time. I'm trying to be more mindful of actually using stuff up before buying more (I’ve got a ridiculous amount of lip balms that seem to multiply, for instance). Just because Japan has a million things in cute packaging doesn't mean I have to buy them all - and there's something highly satisfying about getting use out of the things you do own already and have forked out cash for. I’m also trying to be more aware of this when it comes to clothing. I often used to just go shopping and pick up something new because it was cute, but when you’re on a budget that’s just frivolous. I’ve got plenty of stuff in my wardrobe that I’ve bought and barely worn - so again I’m trying to get more use out of those. When I do need something new, it can really wait until my birthday or Christmas when people say “hey - what do you want?”. I got a new winter coat and some other cold weather gear from family for Christmas last year that will last me years. Same for my kids - if people ask what they want or need for special occasions I’m pretty practical. Clothes and shoes!

We do a lot of shopping through home delivery services/Amazon Pantry

We shop for a lot of our groceries through Co-Op Deli, which delivers to our door weekly. There's a few reasons for this. First, if you have young children like we do, they waive the delivery fee for you for a couple of years. This saves us on petrol money, and is especially convenient in the winter months here where getting two kids loaded up to go to the supermarket can be pretty unappealing. Secondly, it really makes us consider what we buy. We peruse the catalogues leisurely, we try and meal plan, and we're not just making spur of the moment purchase decisions like we would if we were at the store in person.

How to live on a shoestring budget in Japan photo

We also buy many of our dry pantry staples and household cleaning supplies on Amazon Pantry. We’re able to use the gift cards we earn here on City Cost (score!) and they’ve got a surprisingly large range of products, and plenty of healthy stuff too. All the more reason to get writing, folks! 

How to live on a shoestring budget in Japan photo

On the eating out at restaurants front, we tend to try and limit that to special occasions too. Cooking at home is just more economical, and we usually have leftovers that can be used for lunches for my husband to take the next day. Seasonal eating is big for us as well. Embracing whatever fruits and veggies are in season here not only makes them taste a million times better, but ensures they’re cheaper too. Winner!

We're mindful of utilities

I’m going to be honest here, winters in Niigata are pretty hard to do this with - even when you’re being mindful it can be expensive to keep rooms warm. We only heat the room we’re in, but we still had some pretty whopping bills. In saying that, I can’t imagine what our bills would have been like if we’d been indifferent to our usage and trying to save money. We’re looking forward to spring being in full effect, since it will mean no heat and no cooling required here.

We walk/cycle where possible

Again, the winter months here can make this tricky, but wherever possible we walk or cycle to do errands. We’re lucky that we are in close proximity to our train station, our local supermarket, convenience stores, the post office and so forth - plus, it’s a great way to get some extra exercise in. Back home in Australia I’d pay for a gym membership that was around $80 a month...but here there are plenty of opportunities to get that exercise in and help the budget as well.



After spending the last several years in the beating heart of Tokyo, I will be spending the next three in the countryside of Japan. I adore this country and all it has to offer - and I'm always learning more and more about life here as I go along!


  • helloalissa

    on Mar 14

    Love KonMari's book & the 'less to clean and maintain' part of minimalism! Lately I'm thinking more about what I actually need and 'waste not, want not.'

  • genkidesu

    on Mar 14

    @helloalissa yes! i've really been embracing it lately, i think there's something so freeing about not being tied to material things. it probably sounds cheesy but i feel like the less stuff i have the less cluttered my thoughts are as well...so that's another added bonus!

  • edthethe

    on Mar 14

    @helloalissa waste not want not is where my mind goes. I try so hard to only make purchases that have meaning, even when it comes to food. @genkidesu I think the most difficult struggle we have been having is cutting down on utilities. Even in our tiny apartment, it is hard to just gaman through some things *cough*winter*cough* Cant ever turn off the heater with this family. I liked this post. Very similar to how I was thinking.

  • genkidesu

    on Mar 14

    @edthethe utilities are the worst part here too. it’s finally (the last few days!) been warm enough for me to not sleep with the heat on overnight, but especially with the kids i can’t leave the house cold! and the fact that our house doesn’t believe in the word insulation seems to make the cold that bit colder, and the hot that bit hotter!