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Ultimate Guide to Living in Tokyo on a Budget

By Camilla Vigotti | March 15th, 2022 

How many times have you heard or read in articles that living in Japan, and especially living in Tokyo is expensive? Probably a thousand times. Tokyo, like many capital and global cities, has gained the reputation of an expensive place where the living cost is rather high. However, with the right budgeting tips and money-saving hacks, living in Tokyo can be as expensive or affordable as you want it to be. In this ultimate guide, we will reveal the best ways to save money in your daily life so you can keep enjoying living in Tokyo on a budget. 

This article is a part of our extensive series on Japanese Culture and Online Japanese Lessons at Japan Switch.

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    Living in Tokyo

    Learning the language is a must for living in Tokyo

    Although it is possible to navigate and survive in Tokyo with little to no Japanese, it never hurts to learn more. By becoming more comfortable with the language you could learn more about deals and systems that can help you save money in the long run.  If you are interested, find out more about Japan Switch Online Japanese classes and get your consultation for free! Japan Switch offers affordable Japanese lessons in Tokyo where you will be able to learn useful and real everyday Japanese. If your goal is to pass the JLPT test, visit Coto Japanese Academy for premium classes.

    eat out while living in Tokyio

    Dining Out on a Budget

    Living in Tokyo, you won’t be surprised to find cuisines from all over the world, not just traditional Japanese food. When it comes to dining out, there are plenty of places to choose from. However, if you are trying to enjoy a delicious meal for a low price, you might want to do your research beforehand. 

    How do You Find Affordable Restaurants and Cafes?

    First of all, big Japanese chains of traditional Japanese food and family restaurants are always a reliable option. If you have an appetite for Japanese flavors, in restaurants like Matsuya, Yoshinoya, COCO’s, and Sukiya you can enjoy popular and beloved dishes (such as tonkatsu, gyudon, and curry) and a teishoku (set meals) for less than a 1000 yen (approximately 10 USD). These chains provide fast and reliable service perfect for people on the go such as salarymen.

    In case you are craving more of a Western type of meal, family restaurants have your back. Saizeria is among one of the cheapest restaurants available and specializes in Japanese-Italian cuisine. The place offers a full pizza, a plate of pasta, or a hamburger with vegetables for about 500 yen each ($5 USD). Other popular family restaurants include Johnathan’s, Gusto, and Big boy which have a combination of Western and Japanese dishes.

    Finally, fast food joints such as KFC, McDonald's, and BurgerKing also have cheap food items or sets that do not go above 1000 yen. Family restaurants and fast-food chains are popular among students of any age group that want to enjoy a cheap meal, do homework, and spend some time with their friends and classmates.

    However, if you are not in the mood for food chains, there are more local and family-owned options that you can scout by walking around your neighborhood or through the help of Google. Small ramen shops usually have a big bowl for a 1000 yen or lower, and you can choose from a large variety of styles and broth types like miso, soy sauce or shoyu, tonkotsu, shio, etc. If you are planning to use Google, thanks to websites like Trip Advisor or Tabelog and the Google search engine you can easily select your budget and find the best cheap restaurant available.

    Personally, I think that a beautiful aspect of living in Tokyo is having access to cuisines from all over the world. If you know where to look, there are so many ethnic restaurants that can satisfy your cravings for a small price.

    For instance, Shin-Okubo is the Korean town of Tokyo but it does not limit itself to just Korean food. Closer to Okubo station, which is only a five minutes walk from Shin-Okubo station, you can find Vietnamese, Chinese, Indonesian, and kebab restaurants. Some are easy to spot as they are located on the main street, while others are a bit hidden in secondary streets. It is a perfect opportunity to explore a new area.

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    When Should You Eat Out to Save the Most? 

    After living in Tokyo for a long time you realize that eating out at lunchtime is much cheaper than eating out for dinner. Usually, restaurants offer a “Lunch Set” for a set price that offers a main dish with a few side dishes, a drink, and sometimes even a small dessert.

    The prices vary depending on the place and area but you can easily get a lunch set for around 1000 yen to 1200 yen and usually, there are different options that you can choose from.

    Lunch sets are extremely convenient because they tend to be cheaper than ordering each item separately, still come in abundant quantities, and give you the possibility to try different dishes all at once. They are fast and reliable and therefore perfect for students and workers on the go that live in Tokyo and have a busy schedule.

    For instance, in one of my favorite katsu places (Ichi Ni San), the lunch set includes a huge bowl of miso soup with vegetables and pork, the pork katsu as the main dish served with shredded cabbage and tomato, a small dish of tsukemono (pickled vegetables), a bowl of rice, sauces on the side for the katsu and vegetables, and a small sweet appetizer that comes with the free Jasmine tea. 

    In my favorite Vietnamese place in Akabane, you choose the main dish like bun cha, pho, or beef stew and it arrives with two spring rolls, two fried rolls, and a small coconut pudding.

    Lunch sets are amazing but not always available as some restaurants only offer them during the weekdays and keep their regular menu over the weekend where there is a higher chance of attracting more customers. To avoid any disappointments, you should check the restaurant page if available or look for the menu’s images on Google. If you feel brave enough and confident enough with your Japanese skills, you can always call the restaurants and ask.

    Check out our Ultimate Guide to Ordering Food in Japanese to learn more.

    How Can You Find Discounts and Coupons?

    If you are seeking to lower the cost of your meal or perhaps get some free items to be on the lookout for coupons. The best way to find them is to use the app of the restaurant you are dining at. Through the mobile app, you will have access to seasonal coupons and discounts. This is applicable to big chains and fast food places such as McDonald's.

    In some cases, you will be asked to complete a short online survey or to follow the restaurant on social media or LINE through a QR code to unlock a free item, usually a soft drink or ice cream. It is a fairly easy and fast process that requires basic Japanese skills that you can pick up by living in Tokyo.

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    Read our Ultimate Guide to Japanese Culture here and learn the ins and outs of Japan, its rich and diverse culture, and the countless unique customs. 

    Using Point Cards in Supermarket and Combini

    It is a well-known fact that the best way to save money is cooking at home rather than dining out, just like our mothers used to say “There is food at home.” This is also applicable to living in Tokyo. By shopping in the right places, at the right times, and using some tools, you can save quite a lot of money on your groceries.


    What is a Point Card and How Can You Use it to Save Money?

    One of the first things you probably have heard while living in Tokyo is “Do you have a point card?” (ポイントカードはお持ちですか?/ pointo ka-dowa omochi desu ka?) by any employee or shop clerk. At first, it seems that these cards are only useful when it comes to convenience stores and a few shops here and there, however, quickly they have become more popular and now so many different stores ask you for one.


    The top five most used point cards are:  

    1. T-Point by Yahoo! Japan; 
    2. Ponta point card by Recruit; 
    3. D point card by NTT Docomo;
    4. Nanaco point card by 7&i;
    5. WAON POINT card by AEON.

    Each card can be used in different stores so you have to spend some time understanding which one is the most convenient for you while you are living in Tokyo. The general idea is that for every 100 yen that you spend, you get one point. Some items at the convenience store or supermarket might give you more points in case of a promotion. Such a promotion is often shown on the price tag of the item you are planning to purchase. Once you have gathered enough points, you can use them to pay for your items meaning you can get your entire groceries basically for free! 

    The beautiful thing about point cards is that anybody, student or worker, is eligible to sign up and receive one. Most of them are free while others have a small fee of 300 to 500 yen, which is not much if you consider it an investment for future free items.

    If you do not have access to a Point Card or do not want to commit for some reason, fear not we have other ways for you to save money while living in Tokyo. For instance, some supermarkets, even without a point card, offer small coupons by completing surveys at the very bottom of your receipts so be careful to not throw away your receipts before checking them.

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    What Chains Have the Best Deals?

    Although the supermarkets and convenience stores may look the same and may have the same kind of items, that is not true. While living in Tokyo you will learn that there are different tiers of supermarkets and combini with different prices for the same products.

    In the case of supermarkets Gyomu Super, Cosmos, Donki, Big-A (Discount Food), and Seiyu are the most notorious for cheap groceries and crazy discounts. In my experience living in Tokyo, Seiyu is the most complete supermarket since it offers a wide variety of produce, some international products, over-the-counter medicines, supplements, and daily life amenities. 

    If you want to learn more about supermarkets in Japan and what the most affordable chains have to offer, check out our Ultimate Guide to Shopping in a Japanese Supermarket

    Finding affordable fresh produce while living in Japan, especially fruit, can be challenging due to cultural beliefs. Japan likes to sell fruit only if they are in the best conditions, meaning that their products must present no imperfections such as brown spots or small holes. Moreover, fruit is also considered a luxury item. It is often purchased or gifted for important occasions, such as holidays or work-related achievements. It is also a common gift for loved ones that are hospitalized to wish them a fast recovery.

    A useful tip shared by Reddit user “KuriTokyo” on the subreddit “r/japanlife”, local vegetables and fruit shops can offer amazing deals that can save you some money than shopping in a supermarket. Moreover, it will be an amazing chance to see and experience a more local aspect of living in Tokyo.

    When you first started living in Tokyo, you probably thought that convenience stores live up to their name, however, the truth is that when it comes to money most of these stores are not so convenient. Because they offer fast and easy access to bento, snacks, beverages, and basic cooking ingredients, convenience stores can charge more compared to a supermarket.

    However, there are some chains that offer better deals than others. My Basket, Daily Yamazaki, and Lawson 100 offer pretty much the same services and products as the other more well-known convenience stores such as 7 Eleven or Family Mart but for a cheaper price. Although the difference might not be huge, around 10 to 20 yen perhaps, the accumulation of that small change can make a difference in the long run, especially if you rely a lot on them in your daily life. 

    When is the Best Time to Buy Your Groceries?

    Just like with dining out and lunch sets, the time of the day in which you do your groceries is also quite important. The best time is during the evening starting from around 7 when supermarkets start marking down the prices of their products. Employees can mark down fresh produce, meat, fish, bentos, and baked goods giving a discount from 5% up to 30%.

    If you do not mind eating earlier or a bit later than usual, this is a perfect occasion to stock up on discounted items. Keep in mind that items on sale usually have a shorter shelf life and an upcoming expiration date than not on sale items.

    When it comes to fresh produce and baked goods, the discounted items are moved from their usual spots on their shelves to a nearby tray or box, so keep a lookout for those discounted goodies.

    Donki also offers extremely good deals throughout the day on items that will expire soon. There isn’t a specific location for these sales, as employees tend to move the sale spots a lot around the store. Recently, I saw Reese’s Peanut Butter Pretzels reduced from 450yen down to 50yen a packet.

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    trasportation while living in Tokyo

    Riding Public Transportation like a Pro

    At first, navigating in Tokyo with public transportation at first can be a true nightmare, especially if you find yourself in a big and complex station like Shinjuku or Ikebukuro. But once you get used to it and start understanding the metro system, living in Tokyo becomes rather easier. The only problem that still remains is the cost of using public transportation.

    How Google Maps and Similar Apps Can Help you?

    Google Maps has come a long way in Japan, compared to a few years ago the app has become more efficient and accurate when it comes to navigating Tokyo. Now it provides better GPS accuracy and lots of navigation options. 

    乗換Navitime (Norikae Navitime) is probably the most used app among Japanese people when it comes to transportation. Similar to Google Maps, 乗換Navitime shows you all the available transportations options on how to get from point A to point B. However, this app is fully in Japanese so if you have trouble writing and reading Kanji, you might want to choose another app. 

    Learn basic and easy everyday life  Kanji with our Top 15 Japanese Kanji Tips. 

    Japan Travel is another navigation app made by 乗換Navitime that is fully in English. Although this app seems designed for foreign tourists as it shows all kinds of entertainment and daily passes, it can still be useful for people who are already living in Tokyo.  

    The beautiful thing about these apps is that they show you what each route is going to cost you based on the mode of transport. The metro, JR, and buses have different costs and even among the train system, some lines are more expensive than others. Also using metro and JR on the same route presents additional costs as one person has to either change station or exit and re-enter the gates. By knowing in advance, you can choose the most cost-effective route.

    Commuting Pass While Living in Tokyo

    If you are working part-time or full-time, chances are that your company or place of employment will pay for your commuting fees. However, for students or workers that do not have this luxury and have to commute multiple times a week, a student/commuter pass with the Tokyo Metro is the most convenient and affordable option. You can purchase this pass at the ticket vending machine or at the pass office of any metro line station.

    The cost varies depending on your daily commuting fare and the pass can only be used for a pre-established route, however, within this route, you can ride the train for an unlimited amount of time. When you are issuing your pass you can choose the period of validity, a pass can last up to 1, 3, or 6 months at a time.

    Living in Tokyo Shopping

    Shopping More for Less

    Shopping while living in Tokyo can be extremely fun due to the high concentration of specialized stores, huge department stores, and fashion districts that sell both brand new and second-hand items. If there is anything you want to purchase, there is probably a district or a shop that can provide that. You just need to know where to look. 

    Shimo-Kitazawa is a very famous district for vintage and second-hand stores that sells mainly clothes and some jewelry. New York Joe Exchange is one of my favorite stores that buys, trades, and sells all unwanted clothes for a reasonable price. Here it is possible to find unique pieces and some well-known brands like Ralph Lauren. 

    If you are interested in learning more about where to buy clothes, our Ultimate Guide to Fashion in Japan offers plenty of insights about unique Japanese fashion, working etiquettes, the hottest neighborhoods, and the most affordable brands.

    Moreover, just like with fast-food chains, many big brands such as GU, Uniqlo, and H&M also have mobile apps where you can create your account to have access to seasonal discounts and gather points with your purchases that you can later unlock for free items. 


    Online Shopping

    Online shopping is always a wonderful resource to have. Even though I have been living in Tokyo for a while, sometimes I feel like I still do not know where to shop and where to find certain items that I want. In these cases, having online resources is always a life-saver.

    Amazon is usually the most convenient website as it provides a vast selection of items and price range but in Japan, it can be rather disappointing. Compared to other websites, Amazon does not always offer cheaper deals or the best selections.  

    Mercari is an extremely popular e-commerce Japanese company that essentially works like E-bay. Because it is individuals who sell and buy items, Mercari offers all kinds of items from electronics to clothes to furniture. 

    Zozotown is the leading Japanese fashion online marketplace that provides an ample selection of local and international brands for women, men, and kids.

    Fun things in Tokyo

    Don't Give Up Your Fun

    While living in Tokyo you will realize that this city has so many activities and entertainment to offer but it can get expensive pretty quickly if you do not pay attention to your wallet. Nightlife in Tokyo is probably one of the most sought-after experiences, for this reason, we created a separate guide that focuses just on that.

    Read the Ultimate Guide to Tokyo at Night for more information.

    Student Discount

    For many activities, as a university student living in Tokyo, you can use your student card to obtain some discounts. Many karaoke places, museums, private parks, and movie theaters have a special prize for students. The amount of said discount varies from place to place and can be as little as 100 yen to as big as a 1000 yen.

    Your student discount can be used even to purchase a ticket for the shinkansen. This purchase is not made directly at the train station but rather at your university. Go ask your student service office where you can find this service and get a 20% discount on your train ticket. Other places such as cafes and restaurants might also have small discounts for students. This is usually indicated in the menu or at the register where you pay your bill so always keep an eye for it!

    Final thoughts

    Living in Tokyo does not have to be super expensive, you can choose how much you want to spend in your daily life. With the right tips and hacks, you can budget your lifestyle while still enjoying what this city has to offer. It may take some time to adjust and understand how certain things like point cards work, but in the end, it will be worth it.

    Read Ultimate Guide to Planning a Day Trip in Tokyo for more inspiration on how to enjoy Tokyo.

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