Chen family: Living frugally in Japan

By on January 1, 2014

Many families put off reviewing family spending at the start of the year because they hope things will get better.  The not-so-welcome news of  the year and next,  is the impending consumption tax increase which economists predict is about to get family finances a lot worse before they get better.   Should we brace for the worst?  Experts at Mizuho bank say, “ a recession is not likely but the price of goods may rise.”   Finances  will be a prohibiting factor for many families to spend on even the basic necessities like food and utilities.

I came to Japan in the 90s when Japan was the second largest economy in the world.  I met and married my husband who came here a year earlier than I did.  We decided to settle here, optimistic and unprepared for any eventualities.  Then came the Lehman shock followed by the great Hanshin earthquake.  Unlike most of our close friends who have left Japan, we decided to stay.  Folks back home often ask us, “What’s your secret to hanging in despite the high cost of living?”  “Doing as the Japanese do”, I answer.

We made costly mistakes, learned a lot along the way but each lesson gave us renewed hope by emulating the Japanese values of ‘gaman’ (patience) and ‘gambari’ (tenacity).

Here are the frugal lessons we learned the hard way.
1.      Health is wealth. It should be your number one investment.
2.      Conserving water
•   Hand-washing dishes on running water from start to finish can be
costly. Instead, fill a plastic bucket with soap suds while you do the
•    Don’t throw away bath tub water after use. Instead use it for laundry or
cleaning the floor.
3.      Conserving energy
•   Switch to energy-efficient heating system whenever possible.  Patch
leaky ducts and inspect your home’s insulation.
•   Limit heating ofuro water to once daily.  Schedule family bath at night.  Doing so
conserves energy and keeps bed sheets clean longer.
•   Put heater and humidifier on timer before going to bed.
4.      Use point cards when shopping for groceries.  Shop on “double point”
5.      Every day is not Shabu shabu day. It’s perfectly healthy to eat tofu, nato
or an onigiri bento on regular days.
6.     Choosing quality over quantity comes out cheaper in the long run.
7.     The correct mathematical equation in coupling is 1 + 1 = 3.  When each
one contributes, the end result is greater than the sum of the parts.
8.     Don’t buy items only because it’s on sale. Many of the things you buy at
a sale end up in storage. Buy when you need it most and only when your
means allow.
9.     Align your expenses with your budget not the other way around. Money
in the bank is money saved not money to be spent.
10.  Tomorrow is uncertain. Practice delayed gratification. It’s the key to a
peaceful life.

About Alice Chen