Things I Wish I Knew Before Studying Abroad in Tokyo: Money

plroybalStarred Page By plroybal, 9th Jul 2013 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Travel>Asia>Japan>Tokyo & Around

#1 in the "Things I Wish I Knew" series, about perhaps the most important factor of all: money.

Studying Abroad

Going to a different country for a year of your university education is one of the most exciting and unique opportunities of your life. You'll meet all sorts of people, have hundreds of unforgettable experiences, and grow as a person as you get through the difficult as well as the fun times. I studied for a year at Toyo University in Tokyo, and although the experience was challenging, interesting and definitely unforgettable, there were several things I wish people had told me about money before I had gone.

Studying abroad is expensive

One of the most important things you'll learn is that Tokyo is an extremely expensive place to live, especially for a student on a budget. It's the centre for big businesses, and one of the most predominant metropolises in Asia. But you can comfortably live in Tokyo without breaking the bank and running up an unwanted debt. This section is mostly about money, one of the biggest things students worry about. And being thousands of miles away from home will only add to the stress. Just keep the following in mind.

Choose the right bank account

Before you go, choose which bank in your home country is best for you. Some banks offer student accounts with an interest-free overdraft, which will come in useful in emergencies or unexpected costs. Check out what the fee is to withdraw money from a foreign country and how much it is to transfer money between your account at home and your Japanese bank account, if you get one. I chose Santander - by my second year of university I had a £1500 overdraft that wouldn't charge me extra for using. Also, make sure you tell your university where you're going before you leave - you don't want your card blocked whilst your away! It's a pain to fix.

There are cheap shops

Some things are very cheap in Tokyo whereas other things are expensive. A melon can cost as much as a day at Disneyland, but that's an extreme example. Many small grocery stores sell fruit, vegetables, rice, noodles, soup, meat and more at reasonable prices. There will most likely be several in your area, so take the time to compare prices and select the best one as your usual grocery shop. Don't eat out every day - it'll eat up your budget.
One of the most important and useful shops in Japan are the 100 yen shops. These will sell almost everything - kitchen utensils, stationary, hair products, sweets and chocolate, sewing kits and bathroom supplies for 105 yen (including tax). The stuff is usually not bad quality either - I've bought things like a tin opener, pencils and bobbles (hair ties) from there many times without them being cheap flimsy things like you might expect. They can save you a wad of cash, so go there when you first arrive for your kitchen supplies and you'll be sorted with only spending a little.

There are cheap restaurants

Eating at a high-priced restaurant twice a day is expensive, but you can get simple meals for as little as 400-500 yen. There's a large restaurant chain called 'Matsuya' or 'Sukiya' that sell very cheap dishes for around this price. The gyudon is particularly popular, and consists of meat, onions and rice. However, I don't go to these often as the food isn't very good quality and often high in calories. But if you find yourself only just scraping by, a bowl of gyudon or some miso soup will fill you up for next to nothing.

Get a part-time job

Most part-time jobs teaching English in Japan won't fund your university year, but it'll certainly help. My-sensei provides jobs for native English speakers - just upload your profile, and interested potential students will get in touch with you by phone or email - whichever you prefer. There's an option to teach in your home or their home, but my advice would be to make sure you meet up in a public spot, especially if you're a woman - Tokyo is quite a safe city but you can never be too careful.
Additionally, check with your university or your local area in general for language schools and evening classes looking for teachers. Most won't ask for any qualifications or requirements exceeding for you to be there, speak English and follow a textbook. With any luck, you'll end up with a regular job and also the my-sensei job, and get an income whilst studying abroad - meaning more nights out and travelling!

Buy in bulk

There is a Costco in Saitama, just outside of Tokyo (the nearest station to it is Shin-Misato) on the JR Musashino Line. There you can buy food (including western food) for a bulk that will last months. Cans of tuna, frozen food and pickles are particularly good because they will last a long time. You have to pay a fee to join, but you can easily get a month or so's worth of food for around 10,000 yen. Be sure to take a backpack to carry all the stuff back - one of my friends even took a suitcase!
If you or one of your friends has an American military ID (has a family member in the US army or navy and carries the card to prove it) you can also visit the Yokota American military base in Fussa.. It's futher than Costco but you can get amazing American food at rock-bottom price. If you don't have one, it might be worth asking the American students if they can go, and join them when they visit.

The extras

At orientation, your university will most likely offer the exchange students things like a mobile phone, medical insurance and a Japanese bank account. Whilst all of these things are useful, they can be pricey. Firstly, a Japanese mobile phone will charge you a hefty amount each month (my crappy Softbank flip phone cost more than an iPhone does at home!) so make sure that if you do get a phone, you check that you get the cheapest possible deal, instead of the 5000/month contract with loads of extras that you might not even know about, let alone use. Sometimes phone companies will require you to go back later and change your contract that way to make it cheaper. Trust me, it's worth the time and effort. If you can't explain what you want in Japanese, drag along a Japanese person to translate or find an employee who speaks English, and make sure you know exactly what you're getting, and how much it will be.
Medical insurance is tricky because everyone will strongly suggest that you buy it. First of all, check what free insurance your university offers. If they don't offer any, get the insurance - it will reduce the cost of trips to the doctor and the dentist and medicine by a huge amount. I naively didn't buy any insurance because I'm never sick - then proceeded to get a nasty wisdom tooth infection four weeks before I left Japan, and it ended up costing me nearly 20,000 yen. However, I don't know which was more expensive - 20,000 yen at one point, or the added up cost of monthly medical insurance. I honestly don't know. And what you decide to do about that is up to you - but if your university offers insurance, I'd say go with that.
With a Japanese bank account you can easily withdraw any amount of money over 1000 yen from most banks. However, the cost of transferring money from my home account to my Japanese account was £30! So in my second semester, I just used my home bank account. I was getting monthly payments in addition so it wouldn't have made sense to pay £30 to transfer them each time. However, some students on the ISEP programme get money transferred straight into their Japanese bank accounts - so you'd have to get one. This one really depends on your situation and your feelings - would you be OK with paying a fee every time you withdrew money, and only being able to withdraw at least 10,000 yen at a time? I was by the second semester, but that one is up to you.

Don't buy things you don't need

Finally - it may seem obvious - but if you want to save money, don't buy stuff you don't really want or need. Do you really need that extra beer before you go home? Do you really want that fluffy pikachu doll that looks cute now but will just gather dust on your shelf until it's time to stuff it into your suitcase when it's time to go back? Do you really need to buy the 1000 yen ramen when there's one that looks almost the same for just 600 yen? I'm not saying you should only settle for the dirt cheap every time you go out, but resisting now and then can save you a bit of money.

So that's it - the first part of the series of "Things I Wish I Knew Before Studying Abroad in Tokyo."

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