Learn About Kakeibo: The Japanese Art Of Saving Money

illustrated by Louisa Cannell
Saving money is hard. Really, really hard. However much you feel you’re scrimping, you’re always left with nothing more than a few pitiful pounds rattling around your account at the end of the month, right? We hear you.
A huge chunk of your pay probably goes on rent, and then there are the bills and travel costs that eat away your precious pennies without you even noticing.
Then there’s that voice. That tiny, niggling voice at the back of your mind that says: “Why bother? You’ll never afford a house anyway. Treat yourself to that coconut flat white from Pret. You deserve it.”
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Enter the kakeibo, a "budgeting journal" and the latest Japanese lifestyle trend to get people talking. The kakeibo was invented back in 1904 by Hani Motoko, Japan’s first female journalist, and was designed to help busy women keep on top of their finances. Now, the first English-language kakeibo, by writer Fumiko Chiba, has just been released, so it’s time to put it to work.
The concept goes like this: At the start of each month, you sit down with your kakeibo and you plan what you’re going to spend, what you’re going to save and what you need to do to reach your goals. You then review what you’ve achieved. Sound simple? It is.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. We need to shift our focus from saving to spending
No problem, we hear you say. Spending is not the issue. Then you’ll like this.
Chiba explains that we need to reshape our attitude towards budgeting – we must “spend well” in order to “save well” and vice versa.
“We all work very hard in order to live, and also to enjoy things,” Chiba tells us. “It’s important to remember this fact when saving.”
In other words, if saving is all about what we can’t do and can’t have, it’s a chore, and we’ll likely quit. If it becomes about budgeting meticulously so we can do and can have what we really want, it becomes a much more inviting prospect.
2. Writing things down will help
Keeping a kakeibo is all about recording your spending, but it’s not enough to plug numbers into a spreadsheet. Putting pen to paper is a fundamental part of the practice.
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“So much of our lives is lived on our phones or on computer screens,” Chiba says. “[Recording our finances online] mimics the instantaneous way we spend money. The journal is one remove from this, and it gives us the space and time to look at our spending in detail.”
In this sense, Chiba says, using a kakeibo becomes a kind of mindfulness exercise. “Our world is now so fast that everything can be bought and paid for very quickly. A kakeibo helps us slow down and really consider what we buy in a calm, measured way.”
So at the beginning of the month, you need to figure out and write down how much money you actually have. Look at what you’ve got, from your salary to any freelance bits to that £20 of birthday money from your mum, and tot it all up.
Then take your “fixed expenditure”: the stuff you have to pay, like rent and bills, and take it away from your total amount. Easy enough.
This will leave you with a sum that you can choose to “save” or “spend well”. Don’t worry if it’s in single figures right now – we’re just getting started.
3. You need to be honest about your “musts” and “wants”
Using a kakeibo is about decluttering your finances. If you’ve followed the last step, you know how much money is coming in, and you know what has to go out – so it’s time to figure out how you’re spending the rest, and the ways you can do it better.
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The kakeibo works by dividing your spending into categories and getting really specific about it. For example: one category could be takeaways. The things listed here could run the gamut from a full-blown Deliveroo night to a quick takeaway coffee that slipped your mind as soon as you’d guzzled it. Be rigorous.
Once you know where your money’s going, you can sort your “musts” from your “wants”: what you absolutely need, and what you can survive without. Sure, we all need to eat – that’s a “must”. But let’s be honest, that lunchtime Itsu habit is a big old want. And sure, clothes are a “must” too – but does that really equate to spending all your spare money in Topshop?
Chiba advises: “To realise your ‘musts’, write down things that would go wrong if you did not spend money on them – these are usually costs that do not go away from month to month, like food.”
By looking at your spending in chunks (rather than a never-ending, guilt-inducing list of outgoings), you can identify the areas you may be able to cut back.
4. Cash is better than card
Nowadays, we’re more likely to have a wad of cards than cash (we wish) in our purse. But this, Chiba tells Refinery29, could be where we’re going wrong. Using a card makes us less accountable for our spending, while the physical act of handing over cash is something we’re more likely to think twice about.
Chiba even suggests taking cash out of the bank and dividing it into labelled envelopes to help you keep within your limits.
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“For me the physical placing of cash in envelopes makes you less likely to spend it on other things, like drinks with your friends,” she explains. “Small acts can make a big difference in your saving goals. Acting with patience and consistency is what the kakeibo encourages.”
5. You should finish the month by reflecting on your progress
A glimpse at your mobile-banking app (followed by a cold sweat when you spy single figures) won’t cut it. At the end of each month, your kakeibo demands that you scrutinise your past four weeks of spending, acknowledging successes and weaknesses, and setting goals for the following month.
Tracking spending in apps just shows us where we’re going wrong, Chiba says. But by using a kakeibo, you can get a broader perspective.
“I find joy in saving small amounts every month. They seem like nothing at the time, but lead to a bigger total in the end,” she explains. “Your review period keeps you reminded of this progress.”
So get yourself a kakeibo, get scribbling and don’t forget to give yourself a pat on the back after a month well spent.
Kakeibo: The Japanese Art of Saving Money is available in the UK now.
Read more money focused content (minus the boring bits) at On The Money.
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