Working on JET or as an ALT can provide a pretty comfortable lifestyle for those of us in Gunma. We are afforded a decent salary along with many of the comforts of large cities (Takasaki, Maebashi) without paying Tokyo prices. Yet, I am sure all JETs would never turn down an opportunity to save a little more cash and enhance their savings for any future plans post-JET.
Naturally, saving a significant amount of money requires discipline, small sacrifices, and good decision-making, but there are many ways to create small savings in Japan that add up over time. Even just putting away small sums of money every month in a separate account (like JP post) can help accrue savings and decrease the likelihood of spending it. Or, only withdrawing, in cash, the amount of extra spending money you want to use every month. This can be a very easy way of keeping track of spending.
There are also plenty of smartphone apps available to help you keep track of what you spend and how you spend it in order to improve your budgeting skills—a simple search in the app store on your device is all you need. Over time, you generally begin to internalize how much things cost and figure out what a generally achievable savings goal would be. The important thing is to stick to it, and save money where you can (without sacrificing too many fun things).
So, through my 2 years on JET, I am here to share with you the various ways I have found to increase my savings, both large and small, and I hope you will find some of them useful!
Savings on Bills and Utilities
Basic utilities like electricity, water, and gas can seem like a set expense that just fluctuate with the season. While it is true your gas bill can go up in winter and electricity in summer, there are small things you can do to reduce your energy bills in small amounts (or sometimes significant ones)—which add up over time, especially over a few years! Considering Japan in unlikely to revert back to nuclear energy at any time in the near future, saving on energy bills is a great way to increase savings.
- If you have an adjustable water heater, set it to a reasonable temperature as to reduce gas usage—I find 41* in the in winter and 39* in the summer are a generally eco-friendly, comfortable setting. I always make sure to turn off the water heater at the wall when not in use. I also turn off the gas to my stove when not using, mostly in case of earthquakes— it’s safer to leave it off.
- Obviously, taking shorter showers, installing a low-flow shower or faucet head (can be purchased on Amazon—lower end cost around \10,000 but can be a good investment if staying in Japan for a long period of time), and not running water for too long when brushing your teeth or washing dishes (it may be better to fill your sink with warm, soapy water first, rather than running the faucet) are all ways to reduce water consumption and lower your bill; also, try to do laundry in larger loads rather than several smaller ones to reduce waste.
- It seems like a no-brainer, but turn off and UNPLUG electrical appliances when not in use. The New York Times just ran an article about how much energy your appliances draw when off, or in idle, but still plugged in—many of them draw a similar amount of power when they are on! This includes things like: computer chargers and phone chargers, coffee makers, TVs and DVD players, microwaves, toaster ovens, internet modems, etc… If you can use a power strip to turn everything off at once—great! Otherwise, it is best to unplug them from the wall—this can lead to real savings in your electrical bill!
- Clean out air conditioners—both the dust by lifting off the hoods and scrubbing the filters, and using special sprays (can be purchased at home improvement stores like Cainz home) to clean out the mold inside. This makes them more efficient. Keep them at an eco-friendly setting. I usually keep my heat at 21-24*C in the winter, and I set the cooling to 23-26* in the summer. Naturally, turn them off when you are not at home. Or use, a timer to turn them on shortly before you arrive home, or before you wake up in the morning if that is more comfortable.
- If you find your apartment has the insulating capacity of a cardboard shack, curtains can be your best friend! Purchasing the specialty insulating curtains at places like Cainz home or Nitori (I purchased some for about \7,000, but you may find them cheaper elsewhere) help to better insulate your home. In the summer time, I keep them closed to block out light and heat during the day while opening them at night. In winter I leave them open to let sunlight in during the day and close them off at night to trap the heat.
- In winter—use a hot water bottle instead of running the heat overnight in the winter. Bought cheaply at places like Cainz home, a 湯たんぽ, can be your best friend. Fill it with boiling water, place it in its cozy pouch, put it in your sheets a little before bed time, and it will keep you warm all night!
- Buy energy efficient light bulbs. Seriously. While they are not as ubiquitous as they were in the US, one of the first purchases for my apartment when I moved to Japan was tungsten-light (I detest harsh white fluorescent light), energy-efficient circle bulbs for all the lights in my house. They cost about \1,000 each, but I have never regretted the purchase. I have 2-bulb, 3-setting light fixtures (both on, one on, and off), and almost never keep both lights on, only use lights when I am in the room, make sure to always turn them off, including the switch on the wall when they aren’t on, and my electricity bill has averaged \2,000 to \3,500 per month my whole time in Japan.
Savings on Groceries
I tend to cook a lot, as opposed to eating out (which obviously will add up to a lot more over time), and I have found a lot of ways to save money on groceries. Considering the fact that I don’t get kyushoku (SHS life), I still manage to prepare all my weeknight meals and lunches for about \15,000 in groceries a month. There are some easy ways to save money at the grocery store:
- Shop on sale days. At my local grocery store, Belc, they have sales on produce on Tuesday and Wednesday. I can get a lot of delicious fresh vegetables and other produce for \30-\70 cheaper than what they cost on regular days. This is a small initial saving that really adds up over time. Find out what days your store has their sales, and you can do your weekly shop on those days. Also, a point card for grocery stores is a great choice because you spend the money anyways, and occasionally I receive \500 coupons to use. I also tend to buy the meat that is on discount, as I cook it within a few days and I have found that the quality is still pretty high, even after the usual “sell by” date.
- Price compare. I have found certain items cost slight cheaper at one store versus another (Belc and Fressay near me tend to be cheaper than Yaoko; Fressay especially has better deals on rice—Yaoko tends to carry slightly higher quality products (and so more expensive), but some things are cheaper there). If you have the luxury of a few super markets near you, don’t be afraid to compare prices of items you buy regularly. If you only have one, shop those sales!
- Bring your own reusable bag. Most stores charge \2 for every plastic bag you use. Like I said, this is a very small savings, but over a year or several years, it adds up!
- Shop in bulk when efficient—places like Costco are great if there are items you tend to use in mass quantities and so buying in bulk saves you time and money from having to purchase them again and again. However, be aware that not everything at Costco in Japan is cheaper than a grocery store in terms of price per gram, as Japan has yet to fully embrace the idea of bulk pricing. However, they do have a greater variety of foreign products and their hot dogs are cheap and delicious.
- For cooking items, Daiso is your friend. Cainz home is better for quality pots and pans at a decent price, but for regular utensils, Daiso is cheap (\100!) and things last pretty well. I also use Daiso for a lot of my cleaning items.
Now that you have saved all this money, what to do with it!? I personally enjoy traveling around Japan and to other countries during breaks, and I find this is my most satisfying way of spending my hard-earned cash. However, even when traveling, I always keep an eye on good deals and ways to save money comfortably, so that I can also occasionally splurge when the situation warrants. So here are some of the things I do to keep my traveling budget-friendly without sacrificing experiences:
- Note: I don’t have a car. And I bike around Takasaki. Easy access to a train station means that public transport is my primary option. If you want to know more about taking cheap road trips, you will have to ask other JETs I’m afraid!
- Plan early. Whenever I decide to go somewhere during a break (usually Spring, Summer, GW, or Winter Holidays) I try to start researching about 3 months early. If traveling overseas, budget airlines like: JetStar, Vanilla Air, and Peach Aviation can have good deals on both domestic and international locations. They occasionally have really cheap tickets, but these are usually not during the regular holidays for Japanese schools, but good deals can still be found during busier travel periods. Three months before tends to give you the best prices—as you get closer to the date, the costs go up significantly. I usually sign up for e-mail deal alerts, always keeping an eye out for travel deals during my usual travel dates (Spring, Summer, and Winter holiday dates). However, be aware the budget airlines have many strict rules regarding carry-on baggage and check-in—and can sometimes apply these rules inconsistently while occasionally catching minor infractions and charging high fees. Best to read the terms and conditions carefully and follow the rules if you don’t want to end up paying a lot extra at the airport!
- Same with hotels and hostels. When looking at accommodation, I usually start with Trip Advisor, as you can now search for projected dates and they will give you the cost of that accommodation across several websites— letting you know which one is cheapest. At the same time you can choose accommodation that is well reviewed. I always compare the cost on 3rd party websites with the price from the actual accommodation’s website (if they have one) just to make sure I am not getting charged more. 3rd party sites can be better for instant booking, as sometimes you have to send a request and wait for a reply if you contact the hostel directly. However, if they are sometimes sold out on 3rd party sites, I will still send a message as sometimes there is still space. The earlier you start looking, the more likely you can choose your desired accommodation in your budget range (and won’t have to settle for something more expensive or lesser quality.) Sites like Booking.com don’t require down payment and you can get free cancellation up to a certain date.
- Airbnb can also be cheaper for couples rather than staying at hotels or hostels. It is worth a search to compare with regular accommodation.
- If using the train, the Seishun Kippu 18 is a great way to save money during certain holidays if you want to use JR trains. With this ticket, you can only use local and rapid trains, which means longer travel time, but if you use them to travel to say, Osaka, or even to, and then around Tokyo for a day, they can save you a lot of money. More information on them here: http://www.jreast.co.jp/e/pass/seishun18.html
- Also, in Japan, in local areas, many cities have their own special passes for that area or for certain attractions. These combined tickets can also save you money on transport and famous sites, so always research possible passes or combined tickets for the area you want to visit. (For example, the Kanto/Kyoto/Osaka areas have several passes for tourists that can save you money). Many can be used by anyone, not just foreign tourists (unlike JR Rail pass).
- Finally, whenever I do travel to the airport, many people suggest the airport bus to Narita: The Azalea Express. While it is very convenient, especially if you have a lot of baggage (3 hours and you are there), it is certainly not the cheapest (\4,560 one way) Taking the regular trains, if you only have light or easily-portable baggage, is way cheaper and actually takes a similar amount of time. Getting to anywhere in Tokyo costs \1,940 from Takasaki. Always. A few transfers and you can get to Narita for just about \1,030 more. For Haneda, it is just \410 more.
So, those are some of my tips! Obviously budgeting will be different from person to person, and the less you spend on stuff the more you save—but everyone has different priorities and different financial needs that fit their situation. However, I hope you find these suggestions helpful in saving just a little bit more!Guides, JET Life, Money