As we moved back from the US to Japan, we have to learn frugality again. Although the general rules of frugality probably apply worldwide, the implementation details may vary.
Some of the things I used to do in the US I can copy to some extent here in Tokyo. Others just don’t make sense. Below are some random, not-really organized thoughts on frugality in Japan so far.
bringing my own lunch is a good money saver, although I’ve found that I do appreciate eating out for lunch, or going out to grab a beer with friends. Japan has recently been asking employees across the country to leave early from work on the last Friday of each month, and so far I’ve been using the free time to go out and have a drink with friends. The net result is that I’ve been spending much, much more money on “going out” since we moved to Japan. Looking at the numbers, I’m spending roughly 10 times as much as I was back in the US for the “eating out / party” category. Now, that’s $200 a month instead of $20, and I do hope the number will go down (my long term goal is to keep personal social/fun expenses at $125 or less per month), but I won’t lie: I’m happy to have a social life again.
It also tells me I was probably spending way more than I thought back when I was not frugal here in Tokyo. I always assumed I was spending roughly $10 a day on lunch + bars. Counting about 20 work days in a month, my estimate was that I used to spend about $200 a month. The reality was probably much closer to $400 a month.
I’ve had issues finding the ingredients for my Saturday pizza, at a price that makes sense. Our local grocery store has all the ingredients, but only small portions and at inflated prices compared to the US. Not a big surprise, but Parmesan and Mozzarella are more expensive in Tokyo than they were in Seattle. It’s also been tough with the small oven we have here, so the pizza was overall less satisfying than it used to be.
I also have to avoid the trap of drink vending machines. They’re ubiquitous here, and given how hot and sweaty the summer is, it’s very tempting to buy a bottle of coke or tea every time we go out. The kids are also very attracted to that and it’s been a bit of a fight to say no constantly.
My company, like most companies in Tokyo, pays for my public transportation costs. All I need to tell them is where I live and the stations/lines I intend to use for my every day commute. As far as I understand, they don’t actually care if I actually use public transportation as long as they agree with my suggested commute route.
So I actually get off a few stations before my actual destination. This way I avoid a pretty crowded line, I get to walk for about 25 minutes to the office which is good exercise, and I save $35 a month on my commute allowance.
The fact that companies pay for transportation means “living close to your office” (as is being preached a lot in mustachians circles) is less meaningful here in Tokyo, if you only consider the financial aspect of it. Living close to my office would most likely mean a 50% increase in rent, and would not have any direct financial benefits. It would make my commute easier of course, and would probably be better for the environment overall if everyone was living close to their office, but the sometimes US-centric vision of the MMM community fails to realize how insanely crowded Tokyo is.
It’s one thing to imagine a world where everyone can live at biking distance from their office in some of the states of the US, it’s another in Tokyo where the population density is already 6158 people per square kilometer. I don’t like that my total commute time is about 1h (so, 2h every day), but it’s much more enjoyable than it used to be when I lived in a part of Tokyo that meant commuting on one of the most crowded lines for 2h30 every day.
What I’ve learned from my frugal experiments in the US and from MMM is that walking/biking is always an option, even if it’s only on a portion of the commute.
Our condo is a bit cheaper than what we had in Seattle, but not by much and only because of the current exchange rate. The two places are equivalent in terms of cost, compared to my respective salaries in the US and in Japan. The Japan condo is about 20% smaller than what we had in Seattle, but it is well organized with lots of storage space so we should be ok. We make more efficient use of the space, plus the good thing, as always, is that it will prevent us from buying more crap that we don’t need. I like that, even though I really appreciated the big storage unit we had in the US.
Since we moved to Japan I feel that my wife has been wanting to loosen the string of our purse a little bit. She bought a new table, for about $1000, which I felt was expensive but I didn’t have the heart to stop her. Our current table was getting too small for a family of 5 (it was ok for 3, not really for 4, definitely not for 5), but thinking we bought it for $20 and it lasted us 10 years, the new table will have to last 500 years to have the same kind of financial efficiency 🙂 . Then again, I was ok getting a new table, although I had told her multiple times it would have been better to wait until the kids are in their teenage years before buying something expensive. If they draw on this new table (which, inevitably, they will do), it will be more heartbreaking than when they did it on the $20 table.
We however got into a pretty heavy discussion when my wife decided to sign us up for some mineral water delivery system. Yes, it’s as bad as it sounds to your frugal ears. These companies bring mineral water in huge containers to your home, and they install these containers on some sort of dispenser that you rent from them. You pay for the water, and a rental fee for the dispenser.
This kind of service is against everything I believe in. First, tap water is exceptionally good in Tokyo, and is a public service that is paid through taxes. I strongly believe that life basic needs such as drinkable tap water should be supported by the community/government, and not owned by corporations. So I strongly believe in high quality tap water paid for by my taxes. And yes, I don’t mind paying for more than my share if it helps support people who don’t have the same income as me. Additionally, these companies ship gallons of water from some mountain up there in Japan, down to the cities. This has to have a terrible impact on the environment, when you think of the waste to create then recycle the plastic containers, as well as the oil used to transport all of this. Yuck. Last but not least, the price was about $15 for 12 gallons of water, which is just insane. It’s expensive, and paying for that doesn’t mean that suddenly the taxes we pay for tap water go away.
My wife thought she had gotten a pretty sweet deal, because for a limited time, the rental fee of the water dispenser was free. Duh, if I had a system that once inside your house could make you pay me $15 every week for water which you can already get virtually for free, of course I’d give you that system free of charge.
I was mad, mostly because I was surprised that my wife didn’t know me better and how much I felt this purchase was disconnected from the things I believe in. It was less about the money, but more about the whole environment + anti-social aspect of the whole thing. What’s next, only the rich can afford water because nobody wants to support tap water? No way. She canceled her order the next day, but she still wanted to make a few points. One, which I disagree with, is that she believes the minerals in these mountain waters are good for health, better than what we can find in tap water (statistically and historically, due to the lack of regulation, it is actually more likely for mineral water to be bad for your health than tap water, but my wife generally trusts word of mouth more than scientific and statistical evidence. It’s no surprise that the companies behind bottled water have spent decades using the power of marketing to make people believe their stuff is worth its price). The second one is that she’s looking for ideas to get our kids to drink more water (vs milk or sweet juices). Her third point was that these machines also instantly provide boiling hot water, which would be very useful now since we have a baby who needs her bottles to be prepared with a specific temperature. To that point I replied she would not be needing her milk for very long, and that is just a temporary pain point that does not require us to subscribe to an expensive water delivery service for 3 years.
I looked into water dispensers that would directly connect to the tap, sadly those are expensive to buy and to install. And since I don’t really see the benefits of doing so, I gave up pretty quickly.
I believe my wife is growing tired of some of our frugal aspects, some of which she thinks are actually holding us back in the long run. I’m just hoping this frustration will not turn into more purchases that I personally think are not helping.
A new country, a new life, and we have to adapt our frugal habits. Some of the things work well, others need to be slightly tweaked. Both my wife and I are also visibly loosening our frugal habits, which is ok in the short term, although I do hope that 1) it won’t become a habit for both of us and 2) we will align on what purchases make sense.