How to Survive on a Basic Teacher Salary in Japan

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Back in 2006, when I first moved to Tokyo to take up a position as an instructor at an English conversation school, I accepted the company line that “living costs in Japan are comparable to the UK/US and 250,000 yen per month is a salary that you can comfortably live on in Tokyo.”

“Sounds doable” I thought.

How wrong I was.

Drunk on the enthusiasm of being in a new country surrounded by ample opportunities to sample new foods and drink, discover new places, and meet new women, I found myself entering into an almost immediate struggle to get by from month to month.

I would come to each payday with literally pennies left in my bank account. But for the generosity of a few older and wiser friends, as well as occasional forays to the bank of mum and dad, there’s no way I could have made it past that first year in Japan.

Of course this is totally unsustainable in the medium to long term and now, almost 11 years later, I’ve learned the hard way the importance of balancing your finances.

So what advice can I offer to new teachers who have just accepted that first job in Japan, where sadly a decade later 250,000 per month is still considered a decent starting salary?

Organizing yourself is a good first step. Something I have recently got into is the idea of sticking to a daily allowance. Any excess I build up by saving during the week allows me to splurge a little on the weekends.

An example daily budget

Let’s use the example of a typical new English teacher who earns around 250,000 yen per month. After tax and insurance deductions, this will come down to about 210,000 per month or so.

Next, deduct all the bills which need to be paid every month.

For example:

I would say for a single person living alone, if you shop at a local supermarket and don’t mind buying local produce as opposed to more expensive imported goods, then a weekly food budget of around 5,000 yen is perfectly reasonable.

So, total deductions for the month come in at 116,000 yen. This leaves you with a disposable income of 94,000 yen per month. It doesn’t sound like much but stick with me.

Assuming there are 31 days in each month, 94,000 divided by 31 days comes in at around 3,000 yen per day. On a typical working day, how much of this do you actually spend? Provided you are cooking breakfast and dinner at home, and don’t go overboard with lunch, a daily budget of about 1,500 to 2,000 yen per day is doable.

So this way, you are banking about 1,000 yen per day. Play this out over a five-day week, and you’ve suddenly got an extra 5,000 yen at the end of the week. This is more than enough for a couple of drinks in the izakaya, a dinner date with an acquaintance or a trip to the karaoke.

If you are the type of person who can make lunch at home, then suddenly you are looking at the possibility of several days in a week when you can actually bank a lot more than this 1,000 yen figure.

Of course I’ll be the first to admit that mathematics never was my strongest subject and there are certainly many months where I don’t hit my budgetary targets. So, let me offer you some more general money saving tips:

1) Avoid using convenience stores

Yes, we all love 7-11 and the like, but the fact is that these places are significantly more expensive than the local supermarket. For example, in the supermarket, a full-size pizza which easily constitutes an evening meal on its own, costs about 300 yen. In the convenience store 300 yen will get you a sandwich which barely constitutes a snack. That being said, you can save money at the konbini with store point cards.

2) Take a set amount of money with you each day and leave your bankcard at home

If you are like me and you don’t trust yourself to resist the urge to impulse buy when you’re out and about, then you need to remove that option. By only carrying the money you need for that day, plus maybe a little extra in case you lose your train pass and need to get home, you don’t give yourself the option of breaking your spending habit.

3) Restrict yourself to one night out per week

This last one is perhaps the most difficult one to adhere to, especially if you are new to Japan. As you make new friends and explore new places you will find yourself being invited out for drinks on an almost daily basis. You need to resist this temptation, especially in that initial six weeks as you await your first full wage. Besides, that Friday or Saturday night beer tastes so much sweeter if you’ve been waiting for it all week!

Hopefully, you’ll be able to avoid the financial hardships I endured in my first few months in Japan. Whilst wages have remained largely stagnant in the time I have been here, thankfully, so have prices. With the exception of an extra 10 yen on the train and bus, introduced when the consumer tax went up two years ago, my daily expenses in Japan have remained largely unchanged in the four years I’ve lived in Osaka.

So, if you have the discipline and self-awareness to set a monthly budgeting plan, sticking to it shouldn’t be that hard, right?

Have you got any tips or tricks for making your paycheck last? Do you think 250,000 yen per month is enough to live on? Let us know! 

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Teacher, journalist and now blogger.

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