Monday, 21 April 2014

10 Tips for Frugal Living in Japan

 April is all about new beginnings in Japan. A new school year (and a supply list two pages long I have to buy, all either Pokemon or One Piece, of course, no generic stationary permitted). New jobs or new co-workers at your old job (the welcome party is HOW MUCH?!). About a million kids moving out on their own for the first time to go to university are filling up the instant noodle section of the supermarket, and I can barely squeeze onto trains packed with recent graduates in uncomfortable new suits heading out to yet another interview. The air is full of excitement, stress and ohdearWTFwhereisallmymoney?

I know what you're thinking... ANOTHER how to save money in Japan article? Yawn. Yes. Seriously. This is in fact another how to save money in Japan article, but I hope it contains some ideas you may not have read about yet, even if you do hang on every word Tofugu publishes!

100 yen shops aren't that good, but hardware stores are.

I'm not just saying this because this month's tax hike put everything up to 108 yen, honestly. Nor is this a you-get-what-you-pay-for warning. It's much simpler- nothing at a 100 yen store is less than 108 yen, but because we are accustomed to seeing them as cheap stores we may not notice that many of the products they sell can be purchased for less elsewhere. Bleach, for example, is about 90 yen at the supermarket and 80 at hardware stores. ぞうきん cleaning rags are sold at my local Daiso in bags of two, the hardware store has a pack of five for the same price. Most of the things I used to buy regularly from the 100 store including note books, erasers, cleaning products and kitchen paper are all cheaper at the hardware store. What's more, many hardware stores have good point card programs, including things like "double points on Wednesdays".
Plus, they have these. Lots of them.


Point cards, charge cards

 I carry a card case these days, because I have too many point cards to fit in my wallet. They are worth getting, even for places you think you'll visit only rarely. Not only do you accumulate points, many businesses offer discounts or special offers for point card holders. Tully's coffee gave me free coffee and ice-cream on my birthday. A local onsen gives free spa treatments to card holders on their birthday. Some of the most rewarding point cards belong not to specific stores but to groups. The T-Point card for example is linked to Family Mart convenience stores, Tsutaya book shops and DVD rental stores, Kitamura Camera, Eneos gas stations, a bunch of restaurants and so on. Every time I rent a DVD at Tsutaya, I get a hand full of coupons for other stores in the T-Point family (discounted photo printing, free deserts and all sorts of random stuff).
Charge cards can also offer some surprising benefits. In addition to the point card, I also have a Tully's charge card. I get 30 yen off each drink I pay for with the card. If I put 3000 yen onto the card at once I also get a free drink ticket. Best of all, I earn a stamp for this free drink ticket that counts toward the "buy ten get one free" point card. I'm not trying to spruik Tully's particularly, by the way, just an example of how reward cards can add up and interact. My bus card also gives bonus credit versus paying cash.

Email memberships, discount days and refer a friend

In a similar vein, becoming a メール会員 can have some good benefits. A clothing store I like sent all the email members a message recently saying that everything in the store with a yellow sticker on was 40% off for members. Non-members would have had no idea what the stickers meant, which made it quite fun.
I already mentioned that some stores offer regular double-point days, but another thing to keep in mind is discount days. Karaoke places often have "ladies' day" and "men's day", with the room fee waved or similar discount if you happen to have the matching gender. Some cinemas also have these gendered days, and sometimes "couples' day" as well. Almost all supermarkets have take-home fliers listing their discount days and you can save a decent amount of money if you pay attention to these. My local has 40% off all frozen vegetables and ice-cream on Wednesdays, for example.
Refer a friend discounts aren't quite as common, but can be very good savers. My hairdresser gives me a 50 % discount on my next visit if someone I've recommended the salon to comes in for a cut, and the friend gets 10% off too. The gym I used to go to offered discounts on the monthly fee on a sliding scale for each friend who signed up, and the discount applied to everyone in the "group". It was also good motivation to keep going to the gym; if I quit all my friends got a price hike!


Be a regular

 In many ways, what every point card or membership system is trying to replicate is just the system of "regular customers" that small local businesses have naturally. There are so many benefits to becoming a regular, not only financial but social as well. At one of my regulars, I get free coffee every time I visit and the odd free desert~ not because of accumulated points, but as an expression of the relationship that exists between regular patrons and the business they support. At an okonomiyaki place we used to frequent, we always received free extras and had the opportunity to preview new dishes and offer our feedback before they made it to the menu. The social benefits for me personally have been so great that they probably deserve a separate post.
There has ended up being more coffee in this post than I expected...


Supermarket co-op sections

 I don't know if this holds true in bigger cities, but down here all the supermarkets have a separate section for local produce that is unrefrigerated and simply presented in plastic crates. One can purchase these (often completely unpackaged) products at the same register as the supermarket's own produce, but usually at much lower prices. For the same price as a packet of six shiitake nicely packaged and branded, I got a plain bag of shiitake the size of my head.


Yahoo auctions and second hand shops

Although big chains of second hand stores like Hard-Off are certainly cheaper than buying new furniture, an even cheaper option is your local independent second hand store. They are often located in run down neighborhoods and can be hard to get to without a car, but they are worth the adventure. Although we have primarily used them for furniture, I have also bought some gorgeous kimono for as little as 500 yen. Likewise, while Rakuten and Amazon have some great deals, for seriously cheap second hand goods try , the e-bay equivalent more popular in Japan (bonus: also connected to the T-Point card!). We recently bought a 42-inch (106cm) wide-screen plasma TV for 10,000 yen (about $100).


Facebook groups

Similarly, check out facebook to see if there are useful groups in your local area where people swap or sell. In my city we have fairly regular clothing and shoe swaps between the international women, for example. Japan Garage Sale is a nation-wide group, and Frugal Living in Japan is another where people share coupons, details of sales and general tips. If your local area doesn't have one, why not start one?


Public gyms and sports associations rather than for-profit gyms

In easily accessible distance from my home there are four gyms run by either the city or the prefecture that offer entry for next to nothing. They have different equipment~ the man-person will only go to one because the others don't have big enough weights whereas I prefer a different one because it's the only one with cross-trainers~ but even with a bit of fiddling around to find the best match for what we want to do it's a world less expensive than a private gym. There's no subscription, you just pay per visit (around 200 yen, more or less depending on what areas you want to use) and they are quieter and less crowded (weirdly) than the for-profit gyms. Two of the gyms have pools, and I took Tiger in the school holidays- 40 yen for his entry, 150 for mine, and there was virtually no one else there so they let him take his kick-board into the big pool.


Big Government Does it Cheaper  

OK, I just wrote that to annoy some of my American friends ;) Gyms aren't the only thing the government provides at discounted rates, though. You probably receive some kind of monthly magazine or news letter from your city or prefecture. I spent a couple of years putting these directly into the recycling thinking they were junk mail before I actually took the time to read one. Ours lists local events and festivals and services (as well as a fair bit of annoying spam from the city council). Some of the services I learned about only through this news letter included discount dog vaccinations offered at a local park (very good for my vet-phobic puppies), free dog training workshops, flu vaccinations for humans, free cooking classes, hiking groups in the forest reserves near our house, flea markets and even one random event where 1000 potted plants were given away.


Eating: Cafeterias

I feel a bit silly including an "eating out" bit because every "save money in Japan" post on the internet talks about it, but let me finish before you roll your eyes!
Spoon and Tamago did a great post recently on cheap and delicious university cafeteria meals that the public can buy. My local uni is particularly good for me, because it has each dish separate and you grab what you want and pay rather than getting a set combination of dishes. That means I can pick out the vegetarian options and not have to waste money on the "main" I can't eat. Universities aren't the only places that have amazingly cheap dining halls open to the public, though. In the basement of my City Hall building is a cafeteria most people probably will never know exists, where you can order a huge multi-dish lunch that will be cooked fresh to your order for a couple of hundred yen. On the top floor of the prefectural offices is an all-you-can-eat dining hall that again only costs a few hundred yen to get into. The branch government offices (usually in the same building as the local library) all seem to have extremely cheap dining halls, too. My local (which we visit regularly to borrow kids' books from the library) even has bottomless coffee.


Bonus: Know what you want 

We have wasted probably close to $10,000 because we didn't have a clear idea of what was possible in terms of housing when we first moved to Japan. Consequently we moved house twice, and that devastated our finances. If we had been clear about wanting a house from the start we would have put more effort into researching whether it was possible instead of dismissing it and renting the second apartment. One of my old co-workers knew right from the start that she was only staying a year. She rented a tiny apartment, barely furnished it and saved her money. She knew what she wanted, and didn't get bogged down in wasteful indecision. Another friend arrived excited about living "Japanese style" and bought a complete set of floor furniture including table, chairs and computer desk before realising that he actually found it really uncomfortable to sit on the floor. While you never know where life will take you, it does help one's budget to have a basic plan.
Bonus #2: Buy wine in bulk when you find something good. And yes, that's a bus stop and yes, I did in fact take 24 bottles of wine home on the bus. Shut up.

This post is my contribution to the J-Bloggers' Carnival "New Beginnings". Other contributors are:

Zacky Chan of Gaijin Explorer (A blog about practicing Japanese archery, exploring Japanese wilderness, traveling around spots of interest, and other creative meanderings based in the southern Japanese island of Kyushu) with

John Asano joins us with
John Asano is a blogger, web developer and freelance writer living in Gifu, Japan. Originally from Melbourne, Australia, he writes about the must see sights and attractions in Japan at Japan Travel Advice, as well as about Japanese culture and events on his blog Japan Australia.

Ishikawa JET Blog, the official blog for the Ishikawa JET  community (writing about living and working in Ishikawa and Japan in general) offer

Autumn Widdoes of English Bento Box (Art, Okinawa and Gluten-Free in Japan) joins in with
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  1. Wow thanks for all the great tips on budgeting here! Truly helpful, especially for someone like me who is especially handicapped in such areas. Damn I wish they had a Tully's up here in Nakatsu! I didn't know about all the birthday benefits that come with point cards and such, have to finally get over the laziness and annoying explanations and just get the cards to where I go. I'd have to add Jumblestore for cheap used clothes, however a lot of their stuff worth buying is just as expensive as new clothes, which is lame. Ganbarou to budgeting.

    1. Birthdays in Japan are da bomb. I just spend all day getting free stuff, seriously. Last year my credit card company sent me coupons for a facial and massage for my birthday. The only downside is that my birthday is a public holiday, so sometimes the price hike cancels out my birthday discount (as in the tragic case of the Jurassic Park love hotel

  2. Some great tips there. Thanks for sharing, I wish I knew a few of these before coming here to Japan. I agree about the 100 yen shops, some things are actually more expensive there than the supermarket or local home center. I also recommend shopping at your local JA (Japan Agriculture) for cheap locally grown fruit and veg.

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  6. Hello Sophia,
    Thanks for these great pieces of advice.
    I have just arrived in Japan to teach English at Mainichieikaiwa( I would like to save a little bit during my stay here. So your advice are so helpful to me. Thanks indeed!


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