2020 was a difficult year for everyone, both emotionally and financially. The global pandemic has made it necessary for people to shop more carefully, both in terms of finances and public safety protocols. The art of shopping on a budget can be a daunting one for those who haven’t needed to consider it before; this is especially true for foreigners living in Japan, to whom the wide array of products with stylistically calligraphed kanji names and veritable battlefield of middle-aged housewives warring in the aisles can seem insurmountable.
It is for that reason that, in this handy guide, I hope to review some budget shopping basics so that those of us who find ourselves a little bit thin in the wallet can shop with the best of them.
1. Know what you’re looking for
It’s very important to go shopping with a plan; if you wander aimlessly into your supermarket, you can quite often walk out with things you never intended to buy, or (arguably) even worse, forgetting to buy what you came for in the first place.
To this end, it’s important to make a shopping list. Knowing a few basic recipes can definitely help you when creating a list, though there are also a few ingredients that it’s wise to keep a stock of, including vegetable oil, soy sauce, salt, pepper, and rice. All of these can be bought in bulk for relatively cheap, and are essential parts of many cheap and easy recipes, so consider picking them up on your next shopping trip.
2. Choosing your supermarket
The next thing that one needs to do to ensure that they are maximizing the bang for their buck is to find the right place to shop. While the store itself may seem inconsequential, it is important to note that different supermarket chains do run different deals, and prices can vary by a few yen on different items.
Additionally, different supermarket chains have different memberships, point cards, and incentives to shop with them. For instance, the LIFE chain of supermarkets has a point card that doubles as a prepaid card; you can load money onto it at terminals in certain shops, and use it to pay for your groceries. Other grocery stores, such as AEON, use the Waon point card, which can be used at a variety of stores (such as AEON’s liquor store chain and the Kitchen Origin bento chain), and the points accumulated can be redeemed for discounts at their supermarkets. A more detailed list of these multi-store point cards can be found here. It’s important to know what incentives your supermarket offers, so if you are able to speak Japanese, it would be worth your while to ask at checkout on your next shopping run.
If you’re lucky enough to live near multiple grocery stores, I implore you to compare prices at each of them before committing, as even 1-2 yen differences between items can add up on that final receipt.
In that respect, here are a few of the better supermarkets to look for:
• Gyomu Supa (業務スーパー)
Gyomu is a restaurant supply chain, and widely regarded as one of the cheapest supermarket chains in Japan. As long as you aren’t looking for fresh veggies, you can find most of the goods you’ll need here to fill your kitchen cabinets, as well as a wide selection of cheap, frozen goods.
• Niku no Hanamasa (肉のハナマサ)
Niku no Hanamasa, much like Gyomu, is largely a restaurant supply chain, but their focus is largely on meats. While not the freshest cuts you’ll find, the budget shopper would be hard-pressed to find better deals on a larger selection of meats.
• Seiyu (西友)
Owned by Walmart, Seiyu is a good one-stop shop for a lot of your various needs. While not as cheap as Hanamasa or Gyomu, Seiyu has a wide selection of products available, and you can find almost any other ingredients you might need within its walls.
Before we get into specifics, I believe we should also take a moment to address the elephant in the room: convenience stores. While places like Lawson, 7-Eleven, and Family Mart are undeniably convenient, their prices tend to be higher than the equivalent products at a supermarket. Unless you are in a rush and a convenience store is your only option, it is almost always better to shop at a supermarket for all of your grocery needs.
3. Price Check
Once you have chosen your supermarket, the real challenge begins. It’s easy to assume that, when shopping on a budget, the cheapest option is always the best; however, this is not always true! There are several other factors that one must consider in order to get the best deal possible.
Rice is a good example of this; while smaller bags of rice are immediately cheaper, rice lasts for a good amount of time, and bulk bags are generally cheaper in the long run. Container size is also an important consideration, which is most commonly seen with drinks. On the one hand, it’s very clearly better to buy 2 liters of water for home consumption, as they tend to be the same price as a 500mL bottle (~¥100) for about 4 times more water (though having a water filter at home can cut this consideration out completely!), but I think another great example is with energy drinks.
Most energy drinks (pre-tax) cost around ¥190 yen; however, the container sizes tend to be vastly different. Cutting flavor preference and dietary concerns out of the equation, a 700mL can of one brand will generally be a much better investment than a 550mL or 300mL can of another brand. Personal preference does come in to play here more so than with the rice, but when you’re shopping on a budget, sacrifices are sometimes necessary.
When your budget is your primary concern, buying in bulk and maximizing the cost effectiveness of your purchases tends to be the best course of action. As disappointing as it is to admit, this is wear the story problems we did in our freshman year math come in handy, as these calculations are essential to maximizing your shopping skills.
Especially at the three supermarkets listed above, sales are a regular occurrence at Japanese supermarkets. Once you get into the habit of shopping at the same store over a long period of time, it’s very easy to go on autopilot and ignore everything but the brands you usually buy, but this isn’t always the best way to go!
By keeping an eye out on the price tags, it’s possible that you can find a nicer or more expensive product for a much more affordable price. This can be particularly useful for more luxurious treats, like desserts, which many low-budget shoppers often have to do without.
Finally, it’s time to talk about bentos. As most foreigners already know, a good supermarket can be an excuse not to learn how to cook, as most offer a wide variety of tasty (and sometimes not-so-tasty) boxed lunches and pre-made meals. However, if purchased without forethought, these bentos’ costs can quickly add up; if pre-made meals are more your speed than cooking your own, then it’s important to know the one simple trick to getting the best deals on these bentos.
Most supermarkets have a 24-hour policy on their bentos: after 24 hours on the display, most will be disposed of. To avoid wasting perfectly good food, most supermarkets will put discounts on the older bentos to encourage customers to buy them, anywhere from 5% off to 30%! These discounts can most commonly be found near the opening and closing times of the supermarket, so if you’re searching for a bento, those are the best times to buy.
This has been an introductory guide on budget grocery shopping in Japan. While far from comprehensive, it is my hope that this guide can help you become the crafty consumer that you were always meant to be.
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