You will need a significant amount of money to live in Japan, but this amount depends on your lifestyle. People have different spending habits and while some are content with eating snacks from Seven Eleven some expats like to splurge more on food, drinks and entertainment. When I lived in Japan I tried to keep a tight budget every month so that I didn't have to use my savings to cover my travel expenses when I visited other Asian countries. I am going to show you the details on how I spent my money and what were the things I spent money on and the things I avoided buying.
How much money do you need in Japan?
Let’s start with the exact numbers!
So every day when I left the house I spent between $10 and $20, no matter what.
This is the amount you will spend if you go to the city, because it’s almost impossible to walk around the streets in Japan without spending any money. You will get thirsty hungry or you will accidentally end up buying things you have not even been thinking of.
Even if you're trying to save some money and you eat the cheapest noodles on the street you will need at least around $10 per meal and this is only one bowl of noodles or a small menu with some chicken and rice. If you're lucky enough you can find cheaper places, but I am trying to give you a general picture of the prices in Japan in this article.
So you can calculate $10 for a single meal and usually you have to get to the place and go back to your place and this will give you another $10 in average for transportation.
As I lived in Japan for a comparatively long time I bought a small scooter and I tried to move between places with that. By doing so, I was able to save a lot of money because I didn’t have to buy a single journey ticket for the train every time I wanted to go somewhere so this is something I would definitely recommend to you if you're planning to live in Japan as either a student or an employee.
Transportation can cost a lot of money, especially if you live in the capital and you live far away from your company’s office.
While it is common for locals in many countries to use their own car to move around the city, Japan is not a place where I would recommend owning a car, because that would cost significantly more than just using the local train system or even a bicycle or a scooter.
So if you're alone in Japan and you spend $10 to $20 per day regardless of the things you do in a day, you will end up spending between $300 and $600 each month just on things you eat, wear or drink.
Rent in Japan deserves a completely different article to talk about, but I can tell you that I rented a relatively expensive place and my rent was $1110 each month. I rented such an expensive place, because I spent quite a lot of time at home and I thought it’s better to go home to a place where I enjoy being
Adding the rent to the miscellaneous expenses you will get almost $1700 of expenses each month.
There are additional costs you will have to consider when you spend your days in Japan. Data plan is something you will definitely need and I managed to choose a pretty cheap one so I was paying around $30 every month for my phone.
I bought a SIM free iPhone from the Apple Store so I didn’t have to pay for the device itself on a monthly basis. In addition to this, I also purchased a portable WiFi device with unlimited data so I used that both when I was on the go and when I was working from home. Charging the device on a daily basis is something you always have to keep in mind because the battery is quite weak, but when I tried to have a wired Internet service installed in my apartment they were telling me insane fees so I decided to try the portable WiFi device and it worked pretty well. There was coverage almost everywhere I went and I never had to worry about running out of my monthly data plan.
There was one drawback with this solution and I found this out only when I left Japan. The contract cancellation fee is crazy. So make sure you read every single word of the contract when you buy a portable WiFi device, because at the end I had to pay almost $300 just to get rid of the device.
Water, gas and electricity costs in Japan were negligible for me, especially in summer. They add up to roughly $100 each month, but heating in winter can be very costly. This is usually because apartments are usually heated with an air conditioning system and they are highly inefficient.
When you switch on your AC, it will heat up the air layer right in front of it, but it is not going to make your whole place warm. This was very frustrating and I decided to solve the problem by installing oil heaters in my room. Oil heaters are very convenient, however they cost a lot to operate. In the coldest months I was paying well over $100 just for electricity. Well, it was warm everywhere in the apartment, but you have to keep in mind that these devices can consume a lot of electricity.
This is one of the things I tried to avoid while I lived in Japan. Mostly because every single night I went out I ended up spending huge amounts of money. Usually the place you want to go to is far away from your home and you have to take a train. A two-way ticket will cost roughly $10 on average. So this is your base cost and the rest starts accumulating from here. If you go to a simple bar an Izakaya, expect to pay at least $5 for one drink, but more fancy places will charge you much more. I guess $10 for a drink in Tokyo is not rare at all. People usually drink more than 1 drink and unlike in European countries, in Japan it is expected to order some food along with your drinks. This means that you will need to spend at least $20 to $30 in one single establishment and in many cases the night does not end after the first place. So it’s like eating, drinking, having some rest and doing the same thing again. Many people spend the rest of the night in a karaoke club, which is a must-try, but I tried to avoid going to these places frequently, because the money you have to spend with your friends adds up quickly. Sometimes the nights are shorter, but expect to spend at least $100 if you have enough willpower, but for those who don’t know where their limits are the bill can go much higher.
During the first few years I had a regular student visa in Japan and my healthcare insurance was pretty cheap. I remember paying less than $50 each month and I was entitled to use the entire Japanese health system by paying a 30% compulsory charge of the total fee of the medical service.
As soon as you start earning money in Japan, your healthcare insurance gets more expensive. When I declared my revenue from English-Japanese translation and interpretation to the Japanese tax authority they increased the health insurance fee to almost $150. This was a significant change and you really have to consider this if you’re an independent business owner or freelancer in Japan. If you're a company employee your salary is transferred to your bank account after these compulsory deductions, in most cases if you don’t do your own research you won’t even know the amount of money you’re contributing to the Japanese healthcare system.
Clothes in Japan are not particularly more expensive than if you were to buy them in the U.S. or in Europe. This applies to the brands present both in Asia and in Europe. Obviously, if you're looking for something unique you might end up spending much more. This is especially true if you want to buy designer items imported from Italy or France.
Japan has a very good domestic market of high quality clothing brands. You will find several chain stores (Tomorrowland, Porter and others) in Tokyo and Osaka with clothes of very good quality. These items will be much more expensive than the ones you would find in H&M or Zara, but they last much longer and if you're not a crazy shopper who enjoys the act of shopping try to find these Japanese brands because you can significantly decrease your frequency of shopping for clothes and accessories.
In general I’m not a stingy person and I’m trying to enjoy life as much as possible, or at least within the boundaries set by my budget. Nevertheless, I hate wasting things, especially natural resources, money and time. Unfortunately, it is very easy to fall into the “consumption-trap” in Japan as well and as I observed the locals and many expats consumption seemed to be the number one priority for the majority of the people who lived around me.
Minimalism is a concept I’m trying to embrace these days so even when I lived in Japan I tried to buy only the things I needed and I tried to consume everything I had in my fridge before going to the supermarket to replenish my inventory. The situation was very similar with my clothes. I tried to buy high quality items, even luxury brands in some cases, because they last much longer than the ones you buy in H&M or other cheap clothing stores. Japanese clothes served me for several years and by purchasing these high quality domestic items I was able to save a lot of money and time.
While eating out in local restaurants can be cost effective I would still advise you to learn how to cook Japanese food. Not only because you will save a few yen on food, but also because it will be a very cool skill to bring back to your home country. Even these days I cook Udon noodles and sometimes I find myself making sushi for dinner. Try to discover the supermarkets in your area and ask the shop assistant for recipes. I got them to teach me how to cook Miso soup and other representative Japanese dishes. It was a good opportunity to practice my kitchen related Japanese skills and they were more than happy to tell me the recipe of their favourite dish.
If you buy vegetables, meat and fruit at the local markets you will gain a unique insight into the life of average Japanese people. In some cases you end up paying more for the ingredients in the supermarket compared to the already cooked dish in a Japanese fast food restaurant, which might seem insane for the first sight, however if you compare the quality of the food you're going to make for yourself the difference is huge!
Sukiya, Yoshinoya and other famous Japanese fast food chains provide the same dishes every day, but the ingredients they use are of low quality, therefore I would definitely recommend you buying your own groceries from the nearest supermarket.
These are the aspects I would definitely consider again if I were on my plane headed to Japan to live a few years on the land of the rising Sun.