Tokyo has a reputation of being one of the most expensive cities in the world. While it certainly is expensive, there are plenty of ways to live for cheap – if you’re willing to sacrifice some basic comforts.
I lived in Tokyo for two and a half years, first in a tiny one-room apartment and later in a larger three bedroom place (after I got married). The only thing that didn’t change was my budget – I went from being a broke college student to a broke newlywed.
I’m writing this post for people who are moving to Japan and worried about the cost of living. Maybe you’re a JET teacher, or you’re going to be working at an English School (eikawa), or you’re a “freshman” employee of a regular Japanese company – either way, I hope this answers some of your questions about the cost of living.
1. Rent 49,500yen – 140,000yen
Rent has always been one of my biggest expenses. When I first moved to Tokyo as a student, I got a very cheap, very run-down apartment. The walls were paper-thin (like I could hear my neighbors watching TV), it was a really old building, the window let cold air leak through, the floors were cheap rubber, it was a 15 min walk from the closest bus station and a 40 min walk from the closest train station. The closest store where I could buy food was a convenience store located 20 min away and the closest grocery store was a 45 minute walk.
Needless to say, I spent a lot of time biking (which was a pain when it rained and snowed).
It was one small room, with a small space near the door for the bathroom/kitchenette.
That apartment cost me 49,500 per month (for rent, renters insurance, fire insurance, etc), for the thirteen months I lived there. Luckily I only had to pay one month’s worth of shikikin / reikin (typically 2-3 month’s rent upfront, as a “gift” to your landlord) so it wasn’t too expensive.
I liked that apartment because (at the time) it was exactly what I needed.
My next apartment was loads better. It was a five minute walk to the station, in a great neighborhood, with plenty of nearby grocery stores. The building was new, the walls were thick, and security was fantastic. It was a three bedroom place off of the Keio line, in Tokyo.
Rent was 140,000yen a month (including insurance). Luckily, because my husband was a full-time employee, his company paid for 85% of our rent (up to 150,000yen per month), which is pretty standard.
Even though our rent was pricey, we only had to pay 21,000yen every month.
In general, if you’re looking for apartments in Tokyo, pick three:
- Location (is it close to a good train station?)
- Price (is it cheap?)
- Quality of the building itself (can you hear your neighbors cough/argue/watch tv/have sex?)
- Size of apartment (is it the size of a closet?)
2. Utilities: 6,000yen – 8,000yen
When I lived alone, my utilities were about 6,000yen per month. Living with two people puts our utilities at around 10,000yen per month.
3. Phone 800yen – 5,000yen
My first phone was a “burner phone” of sorts. It didn’t have a camera, couldn’t access the internet, and didn’t have an English setting. The only thing it could do was call and text. It only cost 800yen per month. As a foreigner, I wasn’t actually allowed to rent that phone, though; my boyfriend at the time (now husband) rented it under his name and gave it to me my first week in Tokyo.
This year, I upgraded to a smartphone (for work) which runs at around 5,000yen per month. I see it as a necessary expense because it’s made my work life much easier.
4. Internet: 5,500yen per month
5. Food: 20,000yen – 40,000yen
I’m not 100% sure how much I was spending on food my first year in Tokyo. I was eating all sorts of cheap, crap foods like ochazuke, yakisoba, instant ramen, etc every single day, because I was so broke.
Ryosuke and I started charting our monthly food bill when we moved in together – we spend between 45,000yen and 77,000yen on food every month. I know that’s rather high but I like food. Now that I have money, I want to spend my money on materials for cooking really good food. We splurge for nice cuts of meat, fruits, and deserts and only go out to eat once or twice a month.
Ryosuke swears he only spent 20,000yen every month during his four years of college on food and I’m inclined to believe him.
6. Household goods: 6,000yen
Toilet paper, new curtains when ours happened to rip last month, dish-washing soap, conditioner, wet wipes for the floor, etc.
7. Entertainment: 15,000yen
Hanging out with friends, movie rentals, shopping, day trips, etc.
8. Transportation: 8,000yen – 15,000yen
When I lived in Tokyo, I was spending between 8,000yen and 10,000yen a month on train tickets to meetings, hanging out with friends, dates, exploring Tokyo for the sake of my blog, etc.
Now that we live out in the countryside, it’s much more expensive (and as a result, we go to Tokyo less). On average, I go to Tokyo once a week and spend between 9,000yen and 15,000yen on train tickets.
9. Parking: 10,000yen – 30,000yen
Parking is expensive in Tokyo… Rates depend on the building, though. In this case, because the car we had came from Ryosuke’s company (for work), the company also paid our parking bill.
10. Health insurance and pension insurance: 750yen – 25,000yen
National Health Insurance covers 70% of doctor’s visits. I’ve used it at hospitals, doctor’s offices, dentists, and when I had to get surgery. The cost itself varies depending on several factors.
As a student, I was paying 750yen per month. Once we got married, I fell under my husband’s insurance (so we didn’t have to pay anything) and when he quit, we had to pay for it our on own. Right now we’re paying 25,000yen per month (each) for health insurance and pension insurance.
11. Taxes: 15% – 20%
About 15% of my income goes to taxes – some of which I get back at the end of the year (because I’m a self-employed freelancer). Unfortunately I have to pay both Japanese and American taxes, which adds up.
12: “Other:” 50,000yen
Every month we seem to have unexpected expenses. Two months ago we went to America. Last month we went to Nittori and got winter supplies (thick blankets, etc) and a table for our work room since sharing a desk got to be difficult, which was about 35,000yen. This month we bought a desktop for 100,000yen. Next month I’m getting my tonsils removed (long story) for about 65,000yen.
There’s always something.
The “real” cost of living in Tokyo per month: 160,000yen – 300,000yen
When we were just living on one paycheck, we cut back on a lot of things and ended up more on the “low” end of expenditures. It isn’t fun, but it’s definitely doable.
The best way to save money while you’re living in Tokyo is to not buy a car (just rent one on days you need it), cook at home rather than eat out, and limit yourself to only 1-2 “nomikai” (drinking parties with friends or colleagues) per month. If you still want to hang out with friends, invite them to your place, cook a meal, and get everyone to bring a 6-pack of beer or bottle of wine – that’s more fun anyway!