A comparison of the cost of living in Japan and the US

Comparing the cost of life in two countries is usually a moot point: The choices people make in a given city vary greatly depending on many factors, and the prices in a given country can dramatically change from city to city. In the US, the average rent can go from $700 a month (in cities like Detroit) to $4’000 a month (New York, San Francisco). With such variations, it is difficult to pretend to be able to compare the cost of “living in the US” versus the cost of “living in Japan”.

But I’ll do it anyway, because why not.

Our family of 4 used to live in Tokyo (considered to be one of the most expensive cities in the world), and we moved to Seattle (also one of the most expensive cities in the US, at least for rent), so these are the two I will be comparing.

We’ve been keeping a budget pretty diligently, so it is fairly easy for me to go back and compare our expenses month to month.

Besides the bias that I mentioned above, it is worth mentioning that we have been trying to be a bit more frugal as of late. This tends to reduce our expenses in the US, compared to what we spent in Japan last year.

For the sake of the calculation, I’ll use a rate of 1 USD to 100 Yen, which was roughly the price until late 2014.

So, what did our expenses look like?

This is monthly average over the course of the 6 first months of the year. For example our Rent in Seattle is less than $2480 a month, but there were costs involved with moving in, that are factored in there.

I’ve highlighted in Red categories where our cost was significantly more in one country than the other.

Category Tokyo 2014 (monthly avg) Seattle 2015 (monthly avg)
Rent $1230 $2480
House expenses $590 $530
Utilities $150 $60
Communication $160 $170
Groceries $520 $615
Travel & fun $780 $718
Kids $640 $170
Transportation $145 $123
Hospital $1030 $35
Insurance $200 $225
Other $480 $220
Total $5915 $5350
Percentage of median Household income 110% 95%

What can we conclude from these numbers? Honestly, not much without an explanation (don’t worry, it’s coming). Some of these values depend directly on stuff that happened to us, or life choices we’ve made in the two countries.

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Let’s get on with it:

Rent: Tokyo 1, Seattle 0

Disclaimer: we used to own our condo in Tokyo. The “Rent” in this case is actually the mortgage payment + building maintenance fees. Nevertheless, we’ve rented places in Tokyo before, and I can say without a doubt that rent on average is more expensive in Seattle than in Tokyo, in my experience.

But it is not an apples to apples comparison: the average condo is also far much bigger in Seattle (or the US in general) than in Japan. We were also not living in the center of Tokyo (my commute was 1h00 of train to reach Shinjuku), while we made the conscious choice of living in one of the most “upscale” neighborhoods in Seattle for convenience reasons (I walk to the office).

Our rent in the US is more than twice what we paid in Tokyo for a similarly sized condo. We could definitely take the price down if we were looking in a different neighborhood.

It’s really easy to find condos in Tokyo, for a wide range of prices, depending on how old and remote the building is . For Seattle, I found that the prices were quite consistent in a given neighborhood, making it more difficult to find a “good deal” in a specific place, as a renter.

Utilities: US a clear winner against Japan

Water, Sewage, gas, and in particular electricity are way much cheaper in the US than in Japan. It definitely helps that the climate in Seattle is great (yes!) compared to Tokyo. We don’t have an Air conditioner in Seattle, and will not need one. We rarely had to turn the heater on even in winter. The same cannot be said about Tokyo, where I’m pretty sure people actually die in summer if they don’t use the air conditioner.

With that being said, we have a clothes dryer in the US, something we didn’t have in Japan. Even though that thing is a huge electricity eater, we are not seeing any of that pain on the electricity bill: electricity in the US is really, really much cheaper than it was in Tokyo.

Groceries: US 15% to 20% more expensive than Japan

We’ve been trying very hard to be frugal in our grocery expenses here in the US. We buy in bulk, aggressively looking for deals, buying cheap brands while trying to go with healthy food. I’m convinced we’re trying harder to reduce our grocery bill than we were in Japan. Yet, we are consistently spending up to 20% more on groceries in the US than we did in Japan.

Keep in mind that we are not looking for unusual or exotic food here: we were eating local food in Japan, and we’re eating local food here in the US.

Others: personal reasons

The other categories are skewed because of things that are not necessarily specific to the country, but to choices we made or things that life threw at us.

The Travel & Fun category is a mix of various things, including travels/vacation, but also eating out, and sometimes paying for other people’s trips. We’re an international family, and it means flying abroad quite often. Last year we went from Japan to France and that was expensive. I was also eating out a lot more than I do these days, and that added to the monthly fee. Last but not least, when we moved to the US, my mother in law flew from the north of Japan to Tokyo a couple times in order to help my wife while I was away preparing the move. We paid for her trips and added those in this category. After we moved to the US this year, we haven’t made a single trip yet, but we bought expensive tickets to France (again) to go and see my parents for their 60th birthday. This represents the bulk of our expenses this year.

The “Kids” section shows a clear difference, we were spending much more money on our kids back in Tokyo. This is because our oldest kid was going to preschool back then, and this was an expensive monthly expense. We haven’t found a preschool yet in the US that we like, for a reasonable price, and with openings. As a result, the kid has been staying at home with his mom a lot more. Good for our finance, but I’m too sure about my wife’s sanity if this keeps going on 🙂

Transportation represents our costs for regular transportation when we are not traveling for “fun”. That’s basically the cost of moving to get to work, buy groceries, etc… We have significantly reduced our costs in the US by not buying a car (we did not own one in Tokyo), and I walk to the office pretty much every day. In reality, our costs in the US are much lower than that, but we had a few big ticket items this year: I had to get a driver’s license, and I also got screwed in paying some insurance I didn’t need while my company was lending me a rental car for a month. without those 2, our monthly cost is closer to $30, which is basically the bus fare every time we go somewhere and can’t walk there.

Hospital costs were through the roof for us last year back in Japan. We had our second kid, and there were a few complications down the road. It’s pretty safe to say that if I wasn’t a high income earner we wouldn’t have kids by now. Not that we couldn’t afford to raise kids on a lower salary, but we wouldn’t have been able to have them in the first place. I might talk about that one day, but I am definitely thankful that money actually helped us a lot here, and my heart goes to the people who don’t have that luck. But long story short, even though healthcare is in general much more affordable in Japan than in the US, our costs so far in the US have been extremely low, simply because we didn’t have any specific trouble. Note that I do not include the cost of healthcare in there, simply because in both countries the money was taken from my paycheck before I could even see it.

For various reasons I haven’t included taxes. My taxes are a complicated matter and I am having a hard time understanding how much I actually pay in each of these countries. Some of it is directly deducted from my paycheck, some of it is not. I have the general impression that I paid more taxes in Japan but do not have the numbers to back that up.

Conclusion

The cost of living in Japan was higher for us than it is in the US. But this was mostly due to “health” circumstances. Take away the hospital bills which I hope will not be a recurring thing, and living in Japan was actually slightly cheaper than living in the US.

The rent is really what’s killing our monthly bill in the US, and we should probably consider moving to another place next year. The truth is though, we really like that place and might stay another year if our landlord doesn’t increase the rent.

Our monthly expenses in the US will also likely go down significantly: there were some expensive “move in” costs we had to pay in the first few months here, that we will not have to pay again. It’ll be interesting to do this comparison again at the end of the year.

Another thing worth mentioning is the difference of revenue between the US and Japan. Looking at the numbers today (which, as I type this, is the first time I actually made a “monthly” calculation) shows me that our family wouldn’t have made it in Japan without my side gig. It frightens me in a way because we think of ourselves as a pretty frugal family, and yet couldn’t make it work on my (high for the country) salary. The median household income in Tokyo is $63’000 a year, and we consumed more than that. By comparison, the median Seattle household income is about $67’000. My salary is above average in both countries, but I got a significant increase when I moved to the US, so that my salary would be aligned to the national average. So by spending the same amount every month in the US as we did in Japan, we’re effectively saving much more.

As a result, comparing the cost of living in the two countries in pure dollar amount might not be very useful, which is why I included our expense rate as compared to the median income per city. We were spending 110% of the median income back in Tokyo, and we’re at 95% of the median income in the US, which is a significant improvement, without changing our lifestyle.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not proud of these numbers: I like to think of myself as a pretty frugal person, and so is my wife. Knowing that we spend basically what the average person makes, is not a great feeling to me, in particular since Seattle is a pretty high-income location compared to the rest of the US, and Tokyo is more than twice as much as the median Japan household income (again I’ll need to revise our US numbers by the end of the year). But the one thing to take away here, and I’ll definitely talk about it in the future, is that by working and saving in the US, with plans to ultimately retire in Japan, we’re setting ourselves on a great track to success: I’m convinced that we could live on much less than we did back in Japan, and because we’re making much more in the US, we’re able to save a lot faster than when we were in Japan.

10 Comments
  1. RetireJapan
    • StockBeard
      • RetireJapan
  2. Mr. Tako @ Mr. Tako Escapes
  3. Mrs. Tako
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  4. April
  5. Andrey
    • StockBeard
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