Looking Ahead: Living On Less in Tokyo

Tokyo is not an inexpensive city to visit or reside in but over the years we’ve discovered that there are ways to keep costs down. Brett and I are going to be on a very tight budget during our three-month visit early next year because of the cost of our lodging, and also because of what we’re putting away each month for YaYu’s college expenses and the small amount that’s going into savings each month. By the time those three things are accounted for out of our net income, we will only have around $800/month left to cover our daily living expenses. We’ll be bringing all our frugal skills to bear in order to not overspend during the time we’re there, and I have to admit upfront it’s going to be a challenge.

Currently, there is a good exchange rate between the dollar and yen, and if it holds we should be OK. If the dollar starts dropping though we may run into trouble, or have to reduce expenses and what we put away into savings and for YaYu in order for us to make it in Japan.

Our housing costs in Japan are nearly a third again more per month than what we typically pay for lodging, but much, much less than what we’d pay through Airbnb in Tokyo. It’s shocking to see what teeny, tiny studios in the city are going for on Airbnb these days, so we feel very fortunate to be able to rent again from last year’s host. The monthly amount isn’t cheap but it covers not only rent but all utilities as well, and gives us the luxury of a nicely furnished one-bedroom apartment with a well-equipped kitchen, a nice bathroom, and a washing machine. The apartment’s location is fantastic too – it’s in a great neighborhood just one subway stop from our son’s place and three stops away from Shibuya, a major Tokyo transportation and shopping hub.

Here’s the spending plan we’ve come up with for each month in order to stay within our $800/month budget:

  • Convert dollars to ¥80,000 each month (at the current rate, that’s less than $800, more around $750, but that could change). This will be divided and placed in envelopes that we’ll draw from as funds are needed.
  • ¥40,000 per month will be set aside for groceries. Besides rent, food will be our biggest expense in Japan. We aim to keep our food expenditures at or under ¥10,000 per week We spent around that much per week on our last visit, but that often included bakery visits and such which we plan to curtail this time. Before we left Japan last year we discovered a second supermarket (Seiyu) located near to us that has the same products but lower prices than the other market we had been using (Tokyu), and we’ve also learned of another discount store in Shibuya (Don Quixote’s) that we’re going to check out. We will be bringing along $400 in cash with us to use for commissary and exchange shopping trips as we’ll most likely do two of these during our three-month stay (our son loves his Diet Coke). We will get things like certain cuts of meat, coffee, dairy products, cereals, and American-style bread, items that are expensive and/or difficult to find in Japanese stores at the commissary. We also plan to buy a slow cooker not long after we arrive to increase our cooking options and will leave it with our DIL when we depart.
  • ¥12,000 per month will go toward transportation costs. We are going to load each of our PASMO cards (which are not only convenient but provide a small discount each time the card is used) with ¥6000 at the beginning of each month and hopefully, that will be enough to get us through 30 days. However, if we learned anything last year it’s that the balance on the card can drop surprisingly quickly so this amount may need to be adjusted. Our son will cover our transportation costs for picking up the grandkids from their schools which will help, and I will be starting out with nearly ¥1000 on my card leftover from earlier this year. 
  • ¥12,000 yen per month will be set aside for dining out every Friday evening. Eating out in Japan is something we have always enjoyed, and there are some things we like to eat that we just can’t make at home (like takoyaki (octopus dumplings), sushi, or handmade udon like we can get at the noodle restaurant down the street), and when our grandson comes for sleepovers we sometimes like to take him out for McDonald’s or KFC. Dining out for the two of us typically won’t be anywhere near ¥3000/meal, but a few places could be so ¥12,000 should be enough to cover these expenses each month. This budget should also work as an incentive to find sources for good food at low prices (and they are abundant in Japan).
  • ¥16000 yen each month will be for all other expenses, including occasional admission fees, occasional snacks, occasional trips to the local laundromat, and for emergency expenses. We plan to use Secret Tokyo extensively because every place listed in it is free, but of course, there will be transportation costs in getting to and from those places. One big expense we’re already planning is a day trip to Kamakura. We will take one of the free private walking tours but will have to pay for our guide’s lunch and our total round-trip transportation will be about ¥2600 – we are going to use the ¥4000 we received from YaYu to help cover these expenses and will set aside some of our extra each month for the rest. We’d also like to take a trip up to Nikko but are not sure if we can fit that into our slim budget.
“Don’t say kekko (fine) until you’ve seen Nikko.” We would love to visit this amazing World Heritage site again if we can afford it.

Sadly, for now, Brett has decided to forego calligraphy lessons during this stay. The tuition for weekly lessons plus the transportation costs for getting there and back (around ¥10,000 per month) are a luxury he feels we cannot afford this time. However, yen that is remaining at the end of the month will be rolled over until the next, which will mean a lower amount we have to convert for that month. If there’s enough left over out of our $800/budget I think the extra should go toward these lessons. We’ll see.

Our time Japan next year will be all about living a good, but frugal, life in an expensive place. Our goal is to find a path for getting more for less and discovering ideas and solutions that can be applied when visiting other expensive locations.

16 thoughts on “Looking Ahead: Living On Less in Tokyo

  1. I think if anyone can do it..you can. Cool that you are returning to the same apartment that was convenient and comfortable. Looking forward to seeing what ‘free’ activities you will experience!

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    1. I hope so, Joan. It is going to be a challenge, but hopefully a bit of a fun one. I think transportation expenses may be what we’ve under estimated but I think we’ve got some wiggle room to tweak that if necessary.

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  2. And here you go again, it’s just amazing to read about how well you’re breaking down your planned expenses. As the other reader said, if there is anyone who can do this, it’s the two of you. I think you’ll find ways to get more for less since you are somewhat accustomed with Tokyo. Have fun!

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    1. We are up for the challenge! We always have enjoyed figuring out how to do more for less when we’re in Japan. Our son and DIL spoil us when we’re there too, but we have to budget like that doesn’t happen.

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  3. Great planning and forethought.

    I’ve been successful in gaining a week’s program for educational leaders in Japan. Sponsored by the Japanese govt. I will be there at the end of Feb. It’s a full-on week of visiting schools and cultural centres. All expenses paid. I’m am so excited.

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    1. Oh, I hope we can meet up while you’re there, although I imagine you will be kept quite busy. Our DIL works for the government – her department is responsible for getting out the word to international students about the many exchange and other educational programs available to international students – I wonder if any of that will overlap with your visit? Anyway, keep me posted and hopefully we can work something out!!

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      1. It will be fun to get together in Tokyo if we can – I’ll keep my fingers crossed. Have a good trip to California. Hopefully you’ll get a bit of relief from the current horrific temperatures in OZ. I almost can’t believe what I’ve been reading.

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  4. I love how you set a goal and make things happen!

    Would there be an opportunity to pick up a cash-based English conversation gig?

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    1. We had to come up with a budget ahead of time for next year because of so much impacting our income this time. But, we love a challenge and hope we’ve been realistic (especially about what transportation is going to cost each month).

      Sadly, there’s no time to set up a teaching position. I guess I could tutor, but wouldn’t even know where to begin where we are.

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  5. You two are so good at frugal planning. My son and his wife enjoyed Japan a lot. You’ve spent so much time there, you seem to have no trouble at all getting around and finding the best deals. I’m sure it helps to have family who are clued in. Oh, if you want to have meal out in Portland, check out Eem on N. Williams. It’s Thai barbecue fusion–weird, but excellent. $8 to $15. We spent $75 (including tip) at Sunday brunch for four hearty eaters so two could get by with much less, I’m sure.

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    1. We are going to have to use every frugal trick we know to stay on budget in Japan. I’m actually sort of looking forward to it. I knew though we had to include funds for eating out once a week because that’s part of the Tokyo experience, but I’m a little worried that we didn’t budget enough for transportation – we’ll find out the first month.

      Thanks for the restaurant tip! The girls are starting to arrive, so not sure if we’re going to get out or not, but I’m tucking it away for future visits.

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