How to Save Money While You Teach in Japan on a Budget

by Published

Has it always been your secret desire to live in the country that gave the world Nintendo, Studio Ghibli, sushi, and bullet trains? Is it your fantasy to get lost among the orange torii gates in Kyoto or stare open-mouthed at the Shibuya crossing in Tokyo? Make that pipe dream a reality by learning how to teach in Japan on a budget. 

Street in japan

Read our advice and don’t go broke while teaching English in Japan! 

Getting there ain’t cheap so you have to think about how to travel to Japan on a budget and save money while you’re there too!

Money matters

If you’re thinking of going to Japan on a budget, you have to learn how money works over there and how much you can get out of the yen you’re gonna earn. Here are some things you need to know about saving money while teaching in Japan.

The typical English teacher in Japan salary

Generally, if you want to earn an English teacher in Japan salary, you have several options. However, the two most popular routes for gaijin (foreigners) to teach in the land of the rising sun are working as an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) in Japanese public schools (including elementary, junior, and senior high schools) or as an English Instructor at a private eikaiwa or language school. How much you earn with your English teacher in Japan salary depends on the position you choose.

Note that the average English teacher in Japan salary varies. Salaries tend to be higher for eikaiwa positions (around ¥250,000/$1800 and up), with the possibility of earning more with bonuses. However, eikaiwa hours tend to be long and unsociable (usually between 12pm and 9pm) and can take up weekends and public holidays.

In general, ALTs get paid between ¥200,000- ¥250,000 ($1800 - $2300) as starting salaries. Rates can go up the longer you stay with a private ALT recruiting company or with Japanese government funded teaching programs like JET. ALTs usually work regular hours, usually between 8am and 5pm, and typically have the weekends and public holidays off. They may also have additional time off when students are on school vacation but it all depends on your employer. 

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Normal costs of teaching in Japan (#ThisPlaceAintCheap)

Now, let’s consider the typical costs of teaching in Japan. First, you need to get over there. If your program or employer will be paying for your flights, lucky you! That’s a huge expense out of the way! If not, please consider this when planning to travel to Japan on a budget. Ticket can get expensive, particularly direct flights with zero stopovers. If you can manage it, buy a ticket with one or two stopovers but prepare for long layovers! Also note that when you get to Japan, you may have to pay your way to your company’s training facility or school. Once you get there, the real work of living on an ESL teacher's budget in Japan begins.

Girl getting help with english in Japan

The ability to make a difference in a student's life? P R I C E L E S S

Once you get to Japan, you have to think about a place to stay. Accommodation doesn’t come cheap in Japan and setup costs can run anywhere between ¥160,000 - ¥300,000 ($1500- $2800) for a simple studio apartment or a semi-furnished 1LDK (1 bedroom, living room, dining room, kitchen). Setup costs include deposit money (usually 1-2 months’ rent) and weird stuff like key money, gift money, and other handling fees. If you have to furnish your apartment, you have to budget for this as well.

After you’ve made a home of your empty apartment, you have to think about your expenses: rent (usually between  ¥30,000 - ¥80,000 /$280 - $750), utilities ( ¥10,000 yen/$93 and up), phone/data plans (¥3000 /$28), food (¥30,000 yen/$280 and up). You also have to consider things like transport, health insurance, pension, inhabitants’ tax, and income tax which will entirely depend on where you live and how much you earn. Money you spend on entertainment is also entirely up to you!

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You’re probably getting paid to teach in Japan, which gives your budget more wiggle-room

There’s always light at the end of the proverbial tunnel, right? Living in Japan doesn’t have to mean huddling under the covers in an unheated bedroom, watching pirated movies because you can’t afford cinema tickets, or eating plain white rice for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The good news is you’re getting paid to teach in this country and with a salary, you can learn to create a lifestyle that allows you to save money while teaching in Japan!

One of the first things you should know about living in Japan on a budget is that you should only buy what you need. For instance, if your apartment is just bare bones, think about investing in thick curtains for privacy and saving on energy bills, a really warm duvet set, a bed frame and mattress if you can’t sleep on the floor, a fridge, a washing machine, a table and chair for eating/using the computer, kitchen utensils, and an iron so that you always look professional on the job. These things have to last the entire year or more so make sure you buy good stuff! Even if you decide to leave at the end of a year, you can always resell your stuff to other gaijin so it’s win/win!

8 money-saving tips while teaching in Japan

Walking around in japan

Walk instead of ride on trains—it’s free, fun, and will turn your new home from strange to familiar much more quickly.

Want to learn more about saving money while teaching in Japan? Here are 9 money-saving tips to make sure your bank account doesn’t flatline on an English teacher in Japan salary!

1. Lay off the expensive nights out.

We get it. You’re in Japan. You want to ‘gram all those Lost in Translation moments at karaoke, in izakayas (Japanese style bars), or at nomihoudai (all you can drink) sessions every weekend. If you want to save money as an ESL teacher in Japan, this is a no-no. Overtime, these habits will take a big chunk out of your salary and before you know it, you've got a huge beer gut and you’re broke! Same goes for eating out. In general, it’s nice but those calories and yen add up overtime.

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2. You don’t need all that s***!

Japan is like La-La land on speed. Everything’s super kawaii (cute) that sometimes you can’t resist buying that Hello Kitty purse, those beautiful chopsticks, or that to-die-for calligraphy set. Let’s face it. If you buy it and it starts collecting dust in some forgotten corner in your closet, you’ve wasted money! Instead of buying novelty stuff that you’ll never use, why not sign up for experiences instead? For instance, if you’re interested in Japanese calligraphy, save money while teaching in Japan by joining the shodo club at your school or community center. Or, instead of buying a costly kimono, rent it instead and ‘gram those memories!

3. Shop at the supermarket like okasan (mother).

Japanese mothers (okasan) know how to live in Japan on a budget. They always know when the sales are on and can be found roaming the grocery aisles about 1-2 hours before closing time. It’s well known that lots of things become cut-price close to the end the day, particularly highly perishable food items like sushi, sashimi, readymade bento meals, and produce. Okasan also tend to buy local and seasonal so follow their lead and buy things like renkon (lotus root) in winter, kabocha (pumpkin) in fall, yuzu (a citrus fruit) in summer, and strawberries in spring.

ESL teacher on vacation in Japan

Use your English teacher in Japan salary wisely… but make room to take occasional trips to the coast!

4. Explore all your accommodation options.

How to teach in Japan on a budget? Think carefully about where you’ll live. If you’re not going to be in company or subsidized housing, set up costs for an apartment can be steep. You can save by staying in a share house (aka gaijin house) where you’ll have a private room and share the kitchen, bathroom, and other living areas. To kit out your room, don’t buy new all the time. You can get really sweet deals on appliances and furniture at sayonara sales, second-hand/recycle shops, and online. Also, the ¥100 store in your best friend when it comes to stocking your new home.

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5. Save on utilities and other necessities.

If you want to start saving money while teaching in Japan, become energy efficient. Switch off lights when you’re not in the room, unplug appliances, don’t leave the water running, and watch your gas consumption (usually used to heat water and for gas cookers). You can even rent cheap devices to save on warming during winter (like portable electric heaters) and cooling during summer (like fans). When it comes to cell phones, data and call plans can get pretty pricey if you choose to go with one of the big 3: Au, Softbank, and Docomo. Instead, bring an unlocked phone and buy a SIM with an MVNO (Mobile Virtual Network Operator) when you get here. 

6. Don’t jump on the shinkansen every weekend.

The shinkansen (bullet train) is hella convenient, as convenient as zipping from Tokyo to Hokkaido in 4 hours. However, it’s also hella expensive. If you want to travel to Japan on a budget, buy the seishun 18 kippu, a seasonal travel ticket that allows unlimited travel on local trains for 5 days. However, by far, the cheapest way to get around Japan is by bus. Also, check out budget airline carriers that fly between major Japanese cities. Bonus tip: don’t travel around Japan during Golden Week, New Year’s, and Obon (during summer). It gets really busy and expensive and your best best is to fly out!

7. Save on school supplies and other stuff!

When it comes to school, the ¥100 store will help you save money in Japan. You can pick up high quality scissors, glue sticks, pens, markers, stickers, almost everything you need to be a well-equipped sensei. Also, if you teach in a public elementary or junior high school, be sure to sign up for the kyushoku (school lunch) program. Everyday, you’ll have a hot, nutritious meal instead of a drab, overpriced sandwich from the konbini and an overpriced drink from the vending machine. If you don’t work in public schools, cook meals at home and bring a bento to survive in Japan on a budget!

Girl in japan riding train and paying off debts by teaching abroad

Saving money while teaching in Japan isn’t rocket science. You got this! Be debt-free ASAP.

8. Buy stuff in advance online at at home.

When it comes to Western brands and imported food, Japan can get crazy expensive. Things like mangoes, papayas, granola, and peanut butter are like gold so it’s wise to stock up by buying online if you don’t live near a Costco.  The same goes for OTC medications and cosmetics that you may not necessarily get in Japan. Also, beware some Western clothing brands can be pretty expensive here so if you don’t wear Japanese sizes, start building that wardrobe before you get here or be prepared to shop online. 

Teaching in Japan on a budget isn’t just a fantasy!

Despite what you may have heard, you can learn how to teach in Japan on a budget. It’s all about the choices you make. Be a smart sensei. Start saving money while teaching in Japan by buying local, watching those entertainment bills, and living like a minimalist and you’ll be cackling all the way to the bank before every payday! Your college tuition loans or other debts will be dwindling to zero in no time—in fact, it's not only possible to teach on a budget in Japan, it's possible to make a killing while doing so. (!)

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Topics:  East Asia, Money Tips