Ten Ways Living in Japan Has Made Me Financially Better

You’re riding the trains to work, being packed in by the station attendant until the passengers are squished together like sardines in a can. Once you get to your destination, friendly public service announcements gently remind you in all languages: “Please make sure you take all your belongings with you.”

Out of the station, J-Pop filters over hidden loudspeakers. The latest idol group is promoting a new album. “Yoroshiku onegaishimasu!”

The shops haven’t opened yet, but display windows have lots of kawaii things for sale. Ooh, a Hello Kitty handbag. Nice!

Living in Japan has its perks and quirks. One of the best thing I’ve done is become financially savvy in the ten years I’ve been living here. I’ve learned to be more responsible with my money and be more efficient with my time.

Here, in no particular order are ten ways that have helped me master my money game.

1. Paying in cash makes you spend less.

Even though e-money and credit cards have become more popular in use over the years, Japan is still a cash-based society. I love it. When I hand over my cash to the shop clerk, I do feel an instant of regret and wonder whether the purchase I made was worth it. I feel more aware of the value of money and so I’ve become more mindful of what I consume. The money in my hand is a visceral reminder of the hours I put into work and giving up a lot of fun things in exchange. I can’t do that with a plastic card. A plastic card seems less “real” and feels like imaginary money.

2. Rent can be cheap.

For our two-bedroom apartment, we pay about $630. This is keeping our housing costs really low. Granted, these apartments are not as big as those you would get in the US, but it’s a comfortable place to live in. If you don’t mind the age of the building or the walk to the nearest public transportation stop, rent can be cheaper. The fact that we rent instead of own our home is another factor. We don’t have to worry about repairs and maintenance because the landlord is always ready to help us with any problems. For some, renting might be throwing away money, but to me, the money we pay is in exchange for shelter from being exposed to the elements.

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Two-bedroom apartment within walking distance to public transportation for about $400

3. Small spaces mean less stuff.

Living tiny limits the amount of things you can bring into your place. You can only have so much space to store your things. I’ve learned the art of paring my things to just the ones that I really need. Because of this, I don’t spend my money on useless junk that will clutter up my house. I’m able to stick to my budget and also invest that extra money in my retirement fund or other more fun experiences instead of things.

4. Bento culture helps you invest in your health.

Most of my co-workers bring their lunch to work, usually in bento boxes. This has rubbed off onto me. I bring my own lunch to work and this has helped me save a lot of money by not paying for convenient ready-to-go meals or a sit down lunch at a restaurant. The most important part for me was being able to control what I eat. I know exactly what ingredients I’ve used in my meals and they tend to be wholesome compared to what I can easily buy. I pack my lunches with lots of vegetables and low sodium. I’ve also learned to eat smaller portions, which in turn helped me lose weight. All this has made me healthier and given me the energy to stay focused and to work hard. After all, without your health, nothing else matters.

My co-worker’s bento, all hand-made. As usual, so cute!

5. Efficient public transportation saves you money and time.

I take the train to work everyday. The trains usually run on time and accomplish the task of taking you to your destination. I also use the buses and the subways. If not, I walk. This is so much cheaper and much easier than owning a car. I don’t have to worry about finding and paying for parking. I don’t have to buy insurance or gas. I’m doing my part to save the environment. Most of all, the time I spend riding the train means I get to listen to podcasts or audiobooks. This way, not only am I saving money, I’m also learning and expanding my mind.

6. Getting paid once a month has forced me to budget my money.

Most of workers in Japan get paid on the 25th of the month. I am not an exception. This usually means that on the 25th, there is a line at the ATM machines and banks are busier than usual. Most bills will then be paid right after payday. I never used to budget, but this system of salary payment forces you to handle your money more efficiently. After payday, I’m usually careful not to overspend because I know I will be in trouble later on in the month if I didn’t have any money left. I’m also aware of what bills need to be paid so I never miss a payment.

7. Income tax is low.

Income tax in Japan is very low, but there are other taxes that will eat up whatever savings you’re getting, though (but that’s another blog post). For the first income you earn up to ¥1,950,000 (about $18,500 USD) you pay 5%. Beyond that, up to ¥3,300,000 (about $31,000 USD) is 10%. Income up to ¥6,950,000 (about $68,000 USD) is taxed at 20%. The next bracket is at 23%. Japan taxes income progressively, but you can see that these are super low rates.  To be honest, I’ve never had to pay more than 10% on my income taxes. I also get a refund in April. All this means that I have a lot of money to save or spend if I choose to. Most of the time, it all goes into investments.

8. Health insurance and retirement are forced upon you by the government.

This is one of those that I’m having mixed feelings about. On the one hand, it can get expensive because I don’t have any options but to pay into the system that the government has established. On the other, because this choice is taken away from me, I don’t need to bother myself overly much about it. Because I don’t work for a company that offers health insurance or retirement plans, I’m all on my own. Luckily, the government has established programs to help me out. Government health insurance premiums are based on your previous year’s income. It changes every year. If you made a lot of money last year, that means your monthly premiums go up. If you make less, they get lower. Retirement, or nenkin, payments operate the same as US Social Security taxes that need to be taken out of your paychecks. I am required by law to pay into the Japanese system. I am okay with that. At least it forces me to save for my own retirement in the future. It won’t be much, but at least I will get something.

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Sample (social) health insurance card

9. Low tech banking has hidden benefits.

Surprisingly, banking in Japan is still low tech. Not many people use internet banking the way Americans and the rest of the world do. Recently, though, many younger people use their smartphones and applications to pay for things, but most of the older population rely on old-fashioned systems. They go to the ATMs and banks–gasp! I am one of those old people. Japanese banks give you a bank book that you have to keep updating. Personally, I really like this system. Again, this forces you to take a hard look at the money that is coming into your account as well as what is leaving. It’s not automatic, but going through the extra hassle makes it worthwhile for me. Every time I go take out money from the ATM, I’m aware that the amount decreases and might not go up for a while.

10. You can always get an income.

If you don’t mind teaching English, you can always make money. This took me a while to understand, but after working with other language teachers, I finally understood how lucky I am. I used to work with teachers of Korean and Chinese language and they told me how lucky I am that most people are more interested in learning English. This means you can always find students since people are always willing to pay for these lessons. If you work in a different capacity, maybe for a company unrelated to eikaiwa, you can always supplement your income by taking on private lessons or doing some translations on the side. Of course, you have to go out and actually look for them, but you can always find it.

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These are the main lessons that I’ve learned. It didn’t start out easy and I resisted accepting all these things as I adjusted. I went from an American way of living into a more hybrid approach that incorporates parts of Japanese culture. I feel like I’ve gotten better over the years. Now, I’m living my life and trying to make these lessons more efficient.

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