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Commandments of a Cheapskate 10

Big in Japan: How to travel without breaking the bank.
The view from the Skytree in Tokyo, Japan. While the author is of the view that frugal habits should underpin sound financial planning, it doesn't mean that investors shouldn't be allowed the odd indulgence or treat. Picture: Ingé Lamprecht

At the turn of the year, I was in the fortunate position to enjoy the sights and sounds of one of the world’s most fascinating cities: Tokyo.

While the vacation was in the pipeline for about two years, I agonised over the extravagance of the trip for quite some time. Would I have to postpone my retirement from 88 to 90? Is a self-proclaimed miser even allowed to take a vacation that doesn’t involve camping in your own backyard? Would I have any credibility as a cheapskate columnist if a Moneyweb reader spotted me and my discounted boarding pass in cattle class? (Note to self: If your aim is to disguise yourself in the land of the rising sun, make sure you emerge from a gene pool other than The Blonde Behemoths.)

This column was born because I believe frugal habits underpin sound financial planning. In short, it is about truly grasping the difference between the ability to afford something and the “need” to buy it. Yet, this does not mean that I believe people should hoard as much money as they can and deprive themselves and others of anything that could be considered unnecessary or expensive. Rather, it is about finding a disciplined, balanced approach to saving, spending and investing and understanding how a decision to prioritise one, will impact the other over time. It is only on the mythical pre-trade war island Trump where actions apparently don’t have effects.

So yes, I think even cheapskates are allowed an overseas holiday or two-ply toilet paper once in a while. (Separating the sheets is easier than you might think!)

Since I suffer from severe allegrophobia, I have always wanted to visit a country that truly understood punctuality. Here in South Africa I have been hospitalised more than once after I arrived at an event at 08:50 only to find out the briefing starts at “09:00 for 09:30”. Despite significant technological advancements, I’m still struggling to set my watch accordingly.

Anyhow, Japan did not disappoint. I would have been on time to catch the morning train at least once if I could read the street map, or understood any of the five very friendly Japanese people who tried to help me with English directions. It seems that it is not only Northern Capetonians like myself who use the Queen’s language exclusively for self-defence. While the Japanese are known for their work ethic and diligence, I had to suppress a chuckle when I saw the leaflet with the train schedule for weekends and “horidays”.

(As an aside: If sport is not your thing, I can really recommend a visit to Tokyo in December. If 5ºC weather doesn’t cure your running addiction, at least you can look forward to a slow run. The information board next to the Imperial Palace explicitly instructs joggers: “Don’t run too fast.”)

Here are my tips for a memorable and relatively cheap overseas trip:

  • Draw up a budget during the planning phase. This makes it easier to narrow down your flight, accommodation and food options and to manage expectations if you go as a group.
  • Decide on a foreign currency (yen) amount that you can spend each day (without using it as a target). This helps to stay within the allocated budget but also relieves some of the pain when converting yen or other foreign currency to rand every time you want to buy something.
  • Book in advance, especially if you are a bunch of people going during peak season. Also make use of flight specials and discounts offered.
  • Share. We stayed in a small, self-catering apartment we rented via Airbnb and it made a significant difference to the overall cost of the vacation.
  • Choose your companions wisely. If you don’t want to break the bank, but your friends and family don’t have the imaginative capacity to convince themselves that takeaway miso soup tastes like Michelin-star restaurant food, swipe left.
  • This may sound strange but I find the best way to explore a city is on foot. Apart from the cost saving, one also gets a better sense of the scenery, vibe and often stumble across interesting stuff that isn’t discussed in a travel book.
  • Don’t assume a seven-day train pass will necessarily be cheaper than individual tickets. Previously, I used to buy a long-term visitor pass when travelling, but one of my companions has perfected the comparison calculation to a science and it worked out much cheaper to buy individual tickets on this trip.
  • Sightseeing doesn’t have to be expensive. We visited the Ueno Zoological Gardens and the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden for about R60 and R20 respectively.
  • Don’t buy foreign currency three weeks before an ANC elective conference!

Ultimately however, this vacation highlighted something that is easy to forget: It is the experience of enjoying a foreign country (or even just my own backyard) with truly amazing people that I will remember for the rest of my life. The shared experience, the banter and the memories are some things money can’t buy.

(And no, MasterCard is not there for everything else!)

Read more of Commandments of a Cheapskate columns: 

A salary-earner’s pursuit of financial health

Rethink your approach to car buying

The big decision: What to do with your fortune

How to flee from financial FOMO

An expensive lesson in mobile downgrading

Do you know the price of milk?

A run for my money

It’s time to think differently about income and risk

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COMMENTS   9

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You didn’t mention your tinder dating in Tokyo. “Swipe left” was the give away.

Lol! No comment! 🙂

Great piece which deserves to be widely published, read and enjoyed.

Great read once again, Ingé. Have survived more than once on bread, ham, fruit and beer from supermarkets when traveling, instead of eating in restaurants. When you have to decide whether you’re there for the food or the sightseeing, it becomes quite a simple decision.

I’ve struggled with the same predicament. Travel overseas and broaden your horizons, or stay home and broaden your bank balance. Thusfar I have chosen the latter. But yes, Goudini Spa is not the same as Tokio, LOL.

As a fellow cheapskate I have just returned from India. Rands go a long way, room for two R200 and shared meals for R80 at street restaurants. (For REALLY good tasty stuff) Lots of things to do and see and even the airfare for one at R10900 not too bad. We two ladies felt safer over there thank back home.

Does it pay to buy foreign currency in South Africa? I draw some cash from an ATM on arrival and use my credit card as much as possible.

It’s really a matter of whether you want to pay for convenience. Commission on cards can be high. Travellers cheques are still accepted in most travelling or tourist places but there is always an inconvenience or a commission. I travel extensively globally, to expensive and poor countries, and find that South African banks rip us off. The difference between the buy and the sell rates is a giveaway.

As an example, in Kenya or Bangladesh the difference for USD or EUR or ZAR is about 2% whereas here you will find about 8-9%. I go to Switzerland twice a year and find no problems or greed with forex.

Incidentally, as a travel tip, I find that in most countries the ATMs that give the best forex rates for bank cards are those of the national Postal service. Unfortunately in SA, SAPO does not have its own ATMs.

End of comments.

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