An Example ALT Budget

April 29th, 2009

Many people wonder what life in rural Japan costs. Since my salary is publicly available to pretty much anyone who looks it up, I figured disclosing my monthly spending habits would be no big deal. This is what I actually spend on stuff each month. Every single financial transaction I have made in 2009, more than 300 so far, is included. This is by no means what everyone’s budget looks like, but it’s a real case study for the curious. I’ve got charts, and explanations of the categories that I use below. Please note that the color legend is different between the two charts.

As you can see, I have paid on average ¥81,425 each month towards my college loans. (It’s aggressive on purpose.) That’s where most of my monthly money goes. Allow me to point out that for both of these charts the value given to the Housing category is weighted incorrectly, yet accurate. I paid several months’ worth of rent in January. My actual rent is ¥19,000 / month plus water usage fees (which are separate from hot water fees – regular fees are around ¥1,000 monthly for me, while hot water fees hit at about ¥3,800 each month). In short, “Housing” looks twice as big as it really is. :-) But it’s accurate, because I actually did pay enough to skew it. Ha ha.

Food is the most surprising cost to me. I spend nearly the same on Food as I do on Trips each month. To date, I’ve spent ¥158,255 on food this year. Unreal. I had no idea eating costed so much. I’ve especially noticed how much each trip to the vending machine costs. I’m going to see if I can’t cut this substantially by joining the coffee pool at work (one time ¥500 versus ¥120 for each can of coffee that tastes bad anyway), and by eliminating silly snacks when I buy lunch – which would be a good thing anyway. I’m not sure what my Entertainment expenditure says about me… A mere monthly average of ¥5,498, or a cumulative ¥21,992 over 4 months. Yikes. I obviously have no life. Half of that was spent on presents for other people! Ha ha. This is where rural Japan helps you save. When there is nothing to do, you don’t spend money on entertainment, I guess. I get most of my entertainment online these days.

Let’s take a look at the percentage of my gross income that I spend by category. Remember, the housing slice will shrink eventually to half its current size. I’m really encouraged when I look at this and remember that the Transportation, Food, Utilities, and Housing categories are the only rigid ones. I must spend on these without much leeway. The rest is all flexible! The rest can be adjusted at a moment’s notice! I can’t tell you how nice it is to realize this. Before I started tracking my spending habits, I always “knew” how much I needed to get by – but now that I watch it, I know just how small the number is. I can live on ¥80,000 yen a month. The rest is freely adjustable. I happen to choose to travel (while I can!), and pay off loans with a large amount of it. Other folks do different things.

Do you track your expenses? Do you have any questions about what I’ve written so far? Leave me a comment, and I’ll answer as best I can – but I reserve the right to not make public every little detail. Ha ha. Please keep reading past the fold to see the descriptions of the categories I used for the tracking and the charts. These categories cover 100% of my expenditures. If something doesn’t fit, it goes into the catch-all “Miscellaneous” category.

Unplanned Savings – this is the money that I don’t spend, which rolls over to be spent in the next month. It’s helpful to calculate this for cash flow and balancing purposes. But it’s perhaps a little odd to call it “savings.” If this number is negative, it just means I had a negative cash flow for a month – it doesn’t mean I’ve gone into debt.

Planned Savings – the embarrassingly small amount of money that I’m tossing in a savings account. It’ll grow once I’ve phased out the smaller of my 2 student loan tabs. Right now it’s juuust about at 10% of my income. :shy:

Utilities – Electricity, Gas (cooking), NTT Phone Service, Docomo Cellular Service, Hot Water, Yahoo! BB Internet Service, Drycleaning

Food – Pretty self-explanatory. Groceries and lunches are included, some dinners out are not.

Insurance – I ride a scooter, and insurance costs a mere ¥10,000 per year. I paid 2 years ago. Will pay again shortly, but that’s why it’s at 0% right now. Health, etc. is covered by various other means.

Transportation – Gas (scooter), bridge tolls, ferry tickets, train tickets, oil changes, job-related airfare.

Personal Care – Toiletries, clothing.

Entertainment – Anything just for fun – including the non-Food dinners, like enkais.

Miscellaneous – Catch-all category for stuff that doesn’t fit anywhere else.

Trips – Includes domestic and international travel, but does not include work-related travel.

Loans – Student loans, obviously. Darn them. Darn them to heck.

Housing – Rent.

These graphs were made using the raw output of the 2009 expense tracker spreadsheet that I got from Presh Talwalker (whose name sounds like something out of Star Wars) plugged into the Google Spreadsheet’s graphing utility. Being a cool guy, Presh helped me troubleshoot his free spreadsheet for use in Google Docs and modify it a bit. Thanks to him, my New Year’s resolution is still holding strong – how many of my readers can say that, I wonder? – and I’m far more knowledgeable about my spending habits. Cool huh?

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  • Tom

    80,000 on student lord. Good lord. I dread to think. Imagine how much more cushy life would be without that to contend with. Although I'm sure you already have.

    The more I hear people talk about these types of loans, the more glad I am I never went to uni in the States!

  • Tom

    Obviously not a “student lord”. Sorry!

  • Alex


    Sorry to totally derail this post, but there's a book I know you'll be interested in if you haven't already been through it – Dread: How Fear and Fantasy have Fueled Epidemics from the Black Death to the Avian Flu. The basic gist of the book is that news doesn't represent a threat, but that it seems to live up to our own fears about the world; about the fantasy that we'll have to pay double for the comfort we've managed to get away with until now. I haven't read it myself yet, but it reminded me of the Michael Crichton lecture on the same topic.

  • Deas

    Yep, I think about it all the time. And that's why I'm paying it down
    aggressively. It seems that no matter what unpopular “big” industry is
    getting attacked politically at any given time – “big oil” or “big
    pharmaceuticals” or “big agriculture,” etc., nobody every seems to even
    consider “big education.” Universities continue to pump prices up and up and
    up, and demand more scholarships to cover it rather than cut their costs. I
    loved my university experience, but if I could cut all of the wasted classes
    required by regulations I swear I could have packed more into my super
    expensive stay. Ha ha. In the meantime, there's nowhere to go but out of
    debt. So maybe it's good to not have a life for now. (Sniffle, sniffle.)

  • Deas

    I'll check that out, yeah. (But you're right – that comment came out of left
    field! I'm assuming it's on your brain because of the swine flu insanity in
    the news. I'm reminded of Macbeth whenever I see the latest story: “it is a
    tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”) I get
    ticked at the irrationality of it all.

  • Michiko

    Food and shelter always ding ya when it comes to a budget. I'm proud of you for paying off the loans fast, not a lot of people do that!

    It's nice you make travel a priority however!

    Keep Rockin'!

  • Deas

    Thanks, Michiko! I have to admit, it's partially in self-interest that I pay
    them off fast. The interest is NUTS. The faster I pay them off, the more I
    technically retro-save on what I would have owed by letting them linger.
    Grrr. And I'm lucky to have such cheap housing here. Food was the shocker
    for me. I guess part of me realized how much my mom must have shelled out
    when I lived at home. Yikes. That's totally insane. Ha ha.

    And of course, I agree. Travel is a priority. Last year I went to Malaysia,
    Singapore, Hong Kong, and the Philippines. This year I've been to Taiwan.
    Gotta start planning more trips to keep up the pace! Ha ha.

  • Mike

    Nice breakdown. It's cool to see the sort of budgets JETs hold. I was surprised at the amount you spend on food as well, but I don't track my spending (I only know I'm not losing money :P ).

    Interesting to see you are paying off your loans so aggressively? Martin the Money Expert recommends not to do that, (assuming American student loans are the same as British in that they only increase at the rate of inflation), because almost all other types of loan are more expensive and therefore by paying off that loan now more than you need to, you may later need to take out another loan at a higher interest rate.

    Can I ask how much an average student like yourself owes in student fees for 4 years at University? I will owe £15,000 when I graduate.

  • Alex

    The author was on The Daily Show this week. I just assumed you probably don't watch the show, but I thought you'd be interested in the author.

    So to bring this back on topic – Most of my living expenses are sunk into school fees for my wife and daughter!

  • Deas

    I watched the show when I was in the states, but it's grown too predictable
    for me lately. And it still bothers me that people consider it a legitimate
    source of news.

    I assume that once I start a family, things will be the same for me. My
    money will be for them.

  • Deas

    I resent being thought of as an average student. Ahem.

    My school (a private university) currently charges $36,000.00 a year for
    tuition. Book fees and living on top of that and you're likely looking at
    $37~38K annually. I received academic scholarships that covered around
    $28,000.00 a year, and I took on multiple summer jobs to do what I could at
    the time. But it just doesn't stretch far enough. I'm lucky that I got the
    JASSO scholarship for study abroad, or Tokyo would have been right out for
    me. I shall owe just a bit more than you will rather shortly.

    Thanks for the economic advice, but you're dead wrong. In America we deal
    with federal loans, private loans, subsidized loans, unsubsidized loans, and
    fixed or variable interest rates on top. Depending on the sort of loan
    you've got, you're either holding predictably stable debt, or volatile debt.
    Each kind of loan is best dealt with using a slightly different approach.
    The loan I'm paying off aggressively is on a variable interest rate, locked
    into a 20 year payment plan. That's 20 years that the Fed could change it -
    for better or worse. Granted, the current economic crisis is favoring the
    debtors in American society, but nobody would argue that holding volatile
    debt is better than paying it off. And at the current calculations, I'm
    still saving thousands of dollars in interest by paying them off fast. And
    if that doesn't console you, rest assured that I consulted with friends in
    the finance industry. My approach is proper in my situation.

  • Mike

    Wow! I never imagined American student loans are so different to the UK ones. I'd heard that going to university in America is really expensive, but not *that* expensive!

    *Nods. The Money Expert's advice only holds for loans where the rate is the same as inflation, or much less than what other commercial loans might be. UK student loans are on a variable interest rate (I think – assuming the terminology is the same), but they say it will never rise above the rate of inflation and have stuck to that for years, so I think it's a fairly safe bet over here not to rush to pay off loans. Saying that though, with the recession, interest rates have become so low that it's not really worth it either way. I've even read that student loans could actually go negative – so you pay back less?!

    Thanks for digging up your scooter post btw. Reading it now ^^

  • Alex

    “I'd heard that going to university in America is really expensive, but not *that* expensive!”

    It depends on the uni, public or private, in-state or out-of-state. If you go to school in-state (go to a school in the same state as your official residence), and if you go to a public school, the fees drop considerably.

    I went to University of California, Santa Barbara, and being a “native-Californian” I was paying $15,000 per year in tuition, but my first two years were full-ride, including living expenses. I even managed to save a considerable portion of the scholarship and took a two-week trip to Japan (my first trip to Japan) in the Summer of 2001 after my first year as a uni student.

    Like Deas, I also studied for a year in Japan from 2003 to 2004 at Sophia University (上智大学), which is a private school, but I didn't have to pay any more in tuition as it was through an exchange program my uni has with Sophia, so I was paying UCSB fees as if I was attending on-campus classes. I could make up for the living-costs in Tokyo by picking up part-time English teaching gigs tutoring Waseda University English Literature majors.

    If I went to a private uni out-of-state, I'd be in debt today, no doubt.

  • Mom

    You are doing an awesome thing, my son….I am proud of you for not taking after me! : )
    Don't count me out just yet- while I live, I still have a chance to turn things around ! Brad says we will work on this together!! I've warned him… : )

  • Deas

    Riiiiiiight. I love you, Mom, but I'll believe it when I see it!

  • Deas

    No problemo. Ha ha. I wish people didn't have to go into such crazy debt for higher education. I honestly think privatization of the entire school system is the best move. (Lower education AND higher education.) The government's got a monopoly on lower education now, and higher education caters to students who are a byproduct of the dismal system. Le sigh.

    Let's get back to budgeting, though, shall we? Ha ha. Got any savings / spendings wisdom to share with me? I'll try to deal with my debt elimination my way, since it's kind of particular to my situation. But budgeting is pretty universal. An advice for the other readers?

  • Jamaipanese

    cool indeed!

    you inspired me to try and o something similar to manage my money better

  • Deas

    The spreadsheet I augmented is available via the link at the bottom of the
    page. ;-) Good luck!

  • Alex

    It's not very scientific, but what we do in our house to “psychologically manage” our budget is that whenever my paycheck comes in we split it up into different place:

    The estimated cost of utilities, school tuition, rent, etc. goes into one checking account that gets automatically withdrawn from.

    A “grocery pool” of cash goes into a little box in our house from which we withdraw when we go grocery shopping.

    A “books etc. pool” of cash of 4,000 yen per month each goes into two boxes – One marked “M” and the other “D”. (“Mom” is my wife, and of course I'm “Dad”) We use this cash to buy whatever we want for ourselves, most of mine being sunk into One Piece manga recently.

    The remainder of my paycheck goes into another bank account that we use for savings.

    I call this “psychological management” because we are mentally barred from withdrawing cash from the ATM whenever we feel like it. We have all of our money divided up for pre-determined uses, and we end up with more savings. We first tried this system when we lived in Korea and it had great results. I think we're both impulse buyers, so it helps curve our behavior.

  • Tom

    I should do something like this. Especially so that I can keep track of my utilities bills. They are all paid out automatically and I don't even receive receipts for some of them. Plus I can't keep track of when exactly they come out, so I'll go to the ATM and be surprised to find a big chunk of money gone. It can lead to problems when it comes to the last few days before the next payday!

    How did you go about doing it on a day to day basis? Did you just keep receipts for abslolutely everything you spent? Did yuo write it all down?

  • Deas

    Good question! The truth is that after a week or so of doing this, it
    becomes second nature and you can shift from keeping a hard copy to keeping
    a highly reliable mental list as long as you're on the ball. If you don't
    trust yourself, just keep going with the physical list.

    1) Keep receipts for absolutely EVERYTHING that I do. Unfortunately this
    does not help for vending machines, ferry rides (the ticket is the
    receipt – so you have to turn it in), bridge tolls, lost change, etc. Input
    them on the spreadsheet every night. It takes just 2 minutes.

    2) Keep a handwritten / mental running tab of daily purchases that do not
    come with receipts. Usually these things are routine, and therefore easy to
    remember. Or they are so out of the routine that they are easy to remember.
    Input the amounts.

    3) Account for all automatic debits AND credits to my account. Debits
    include bills and banking fees for using ATMs in off hours, *furikomi*, etc.
    The Japanese auto-balanced ATM book rules for this. I tend to enter them in
    one bulk push in a non-chronological way. It makes no difference, as the
    spreadsheet will automatically sort them into the proper month provided I've
    got the field filled out correctly.

    4) If the cycle breaks down, fix it ASAP.

    A nice side effect of having everything written down is that I can put notes
    in the spreadsheet too. For instance, I can tell you what I had for lunch
    for every day I spent at school this year so far, since I buy my own bento.
    Instant lazy food diary. Ha ha.

  • Kamizushi

    I'm from Quebec and university fees cost someting like 3000$CA each years (2400$US). I guess I'm in the right place to study for cheap :D .

  • Deas

    That's the same as many state run schools in the US. I just went to a
    private university. But again…let's get back on the topic of a monthly
    budget, and less on the topic of overwhelming school debt. Ha ha. :-)

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  • Jonadab

    Those are pretty good numbers. The food category is probably more flexible than you think, but with housing that low, you can afford to spend a bit on food. You've got a reasonably good percentage (quite good, compared to most Americans) going to savings and debt reduction (which fiscally speaking amounts to pretty much the same thing, give or take any slight difference in the interest rates). I'm a little surprised your transportation figure isn't higher, since you have a fairly rural posting (for Japan).

    I did that too, with my college loans. The bank handed me a ten-year plan for paying off my loans starting in the fall (I graduated in May). So I made extra payments to pay down the principle amount, starting right after graduation, and had them completely paid off a month short of four years from my graduation date. It's good to be debt-free.

    On the other hand, your low entertainment figure is balanced out by the high trips figure. This makes sense, provided you enjoy going on trips more than you enjoy buying new DVDs and junk.

    My financial spreadsheet goes ahead and allocates what you're calling “unplanned savings” into the various categories (“funds”, I call them) every month, so money that is not spent carries over to the next month, but it carries over in a particular fund. So if money accumulates in a given fund for a number of months, more is available to spend in that category, or I can adjust the budget to reduce the amount going into that category each month if I think I don't need so much. I do occasionally run a category into the red briefly, which is sort of like your “negative unplanned savings” but specific to a particular fund. So the numbers for each fund really are medium-term averages. Most of the time they all have a positive balance; currently they come to some four grand total between them all, though that includes $700 that's earmarked for planned savings but hasn't been transferred to my actual savings account yet.

    So for instance I currently set aside $10 each month into a “shoes fund”, and every year or so, when it has accumulated enough, I buy a new pair of shoes. (I pay over a hundred bucks a pair for shoes because I have very unusual feet, not just in size but also shape; it took me in excess of ten years to finally find a place that can actually sell me a shoe that almost fits. I also have a hard time finding socks.) Right now the shoe fund contains $122, and as it happens I need to buy a pair soon because my previous ones are starting to show their age; polish only gets you so far. Having about the right amount saved up by the time I need it is mostly the result of having tracked my spending for several years so that I knew about how much would be needed and how often.

    Do you set anything aside for medical or dental expenses?

    Regarding “wasted classes” at college, I only had two classes that I really felt were a waste: “College Life”, a one-semester-hour class all the freshmen had to take (“Hey, all the cool universities are offering an introduction to college life class, so we better do it too, say, what material should we cover in it? We can give them a tour of the campus, that'll be great for one day's class, and then, umm… I guess we could have them write papers about, umm, what they want out of college, or something like that…”; total waste of time) and something called Healthy Lifestyles, which was basically all about how we should eat right and exercise regularly, for three semester hours. Other than that, every other class that I had was valuable.

    They weren't all of *equal* value, granted. If I had to do over again I would find a way to take a second visual arts elective, probably at the expense of one of my computer programming classes (I took more of them than my minor required), because the one Intro to Drawing class that I did take has proved to be of greater value, ounce for ounce, than anything else. But anyway, my point is, gen-ed classes are a large part of the point of your undergrad degree.

    Regarding student loans, it just depends. Stafford loans are pretty low-interest, for instance, but a lot of students don't get enough other financial aid (scholarships and grants and such) to make it through on just those.

    Aside from the interest-rate issues, the Money Expert's advice also assumes that you're not going to want to do certain things (like, take off and go overseas where you might not have the income to make the payments, for instance). On top of that, it also assumes that you can get a better interest rate on your savings than what the loans charge, which is generally true for people with enough money to have a significant investment portfolio, but not necessarily so in the lower income brackets. This is a mistake money experts *frequently* make: they ignore the lower income brackets, because they've never lived there. They also will tell you that it's a mistake to arrange your W-4 so that you get a tax refund, but this advice is wrong for a lot of people, because they stand to gain mere pennies in interest *if* they can discipline themselves to keep enough money (and they're seldom sure exactly how much) set aside in savings for paying taxes, and if not they get stuck trying to cough up money for an extra bill when April rolls around. The risk outweighs the benefit for anyone in a low income bracket who doesn't handle money unusually well.

  • Deas

    Great comment. Probably the longest I've ever received. No…definitely the longest. Ha ha. For the time being I don't have to worry too much about medical / dental stuff for two reasons: my employment has contractual insurance, which takes care of loads of stuff that being automatically entered into the Japanese socialized medicine system doesn't necessarily cover. (Wish I got to keep that money anyway, since I've YET to go to the hospital for anything, but people like the feeling of being cared for “for free”.)

    I really found the end of your comment to be fascinating. I was nodding as I read it. I pretty much agree. (I'm going to be the sort of person who holds no money back and puts it in a savings account instead one day….I hope.) Ha ha. Anyhoo, thanks for the comment!

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  • Andy

    A very detailed account of where your money goes. I wrote a much rougher version of my ALT budget here.

    In the post yesterday I just got a bill for 34,500 yen…damn road tax!

  • Mladen



    this is good information, regarding cost of living, could you perhaps contribute to my new cost of living free online software :

  • Mladen



    this is good information, perhaps you can consider to use it to contribute to our worldwide cost of living free online software :

  • David Thomas

    I can't believe the rent! ¥19,000 per month is amazingly cheap. One of the many advantages of living outside of Tokyo I guess :)

  • Deas

    Yeah – it's a tradeoff for living in the countryside. It's subsidized. :-)

  • David Thomas

    I can't believe the rent! ¥19,000 per month is amazingly cheap. One of the many advantages of living outside of Tokyo I guess :)

  • Deas

    Yeah – it's a tradeoff for living in the countryside. It's subsidized. :-)

  • Tracey

    I was wondering, that 19000 yen per month for your rent… is your housing subsidized? Are you in the Inaka or the city? I'm curious because I've applied for Interac and the pay with them is only like 230000 to 250000 yen a month and I have a daughter and a husband that would be coming with me, and I want to know if I could realistically support my family on that kind of income? Applied for JET 2 years running now… was an alternate the first time, and not even an interview the second time… I don't want to wait around anymore !
    Any info helps a lot! Thanks!

  • Deas

    Hi there! Thanks for the comment. Yes, my housing is subsidized. I live in
    the countryside in public teacher's housing, and the contract stipulates
    that the board of education pays half. (With your quick mental math skills
    you can see that were I not subsidized, I'd still only be paying about
    38,000円 a month.) I hope that helps you! Too bad about JET not working for
    you, but I'm glad you're being proactive about your goal!

  • Tracey

    Wow thanks for getting back to fast! Of course I have a million other questions for you… if you have time of course, I hope you don't mind!
    so what does 38000 get you? is it a big apartment? house? how many bedrooms? Do you live way out in the sticks? or in a suburban/urban area? Do you think 230000 yen a month is a realistic number for a family of three to live on? actually it could be less then that even… they take out a percentage for the health insurance. Man I want to go sooooo bad! JET would have been perfect for my situation, but it didn't work out and I'm exploring other options. I've already had to disregard all Eikawa because of the hours alone. I want this one to work!

    Also, just wanted to say thatnks so much for posting this… not only is it up to date, it also gives practical, usable numbers. everything else I found was vague sating cities are expensive, and the country is cheap without any real numbers.