Savings Techniques for Women Who Can't Save

This article about my favorite Japanese personal finance book is part of Frugal Food Month. While it's not directly about food, I hope it's of interest to Just Hungry readers anyway!

Previously, I wrote about some household budget management tools and methods which are fairly standard in Japanese society. While I've known all about these things for years - the kakeibo household ledger, the envelope management method, and so on - I had a hard time following these methods myself for a very long time. As a result, my personal savings have always been on the meager side, to put it mildly.

It actually took a small book that I picked up a couple of years ago to make me really see the light. The book is called Finally This Time! Savings Techniques for Women Who Can't Save (貯められない女のためのこんどこそ!貯める技術). It's actually a manga (comic) book. In Japan, it's quite common for difficult concepts to be explained with manga. And what's more important to really understand than how to manage your money?


The book starts by recounting how the author, Kyoko Ikeda, was totally unable to accumulate any kind of savings. One day she discovers that she only has about 11,000 yen in the bank (roughly US $110 at current exchange rates), and that has to last her for 10 days until her next client payment (she's a freelance illustrator and manga artist) is due in. She somehow manages to make it through those ten days, and goes to the bank fully expecting the client payment to be in...and it isn't. She has a serious moment of panic, especially when she goes home and tries to get online - and she can't. Has her internet already been cut off due to nonpayment? What is she going to do? What about the rent that's due?

She survives that crisis when the payment is credited to her account later that day. Some time later, she goes to a class reunion, where she talks to a former classmate who not only have bought their own home already, but has paid off the mortgage. She realizes that she's single, in her late 30s, has no savings or any kind of assets to her name, and is always living from payment to payment, walking a financial tightrope.

She wonders, where has all the money gone? It's not like she hasn't been earning a good income. Her basic expenses like rent are not that high either. She doesn't buy expensive clothes or accessories, or go on lots of trips. When she really analyzes her past spending habits, she realizes that she's just been frittering her money away. Where did it go: On things like an expensive computer she really couldn't afford (on 'easy monthly payments' of course); lessons for things she was all fired up to learn, but never followed through on; equipment and stuff for hobbies soon abandoned. She also has a habit of comforting herself with food (chocolate, an ice cream sundae, a nice curry at the local restaurant...) or little trivial, non-lasting purchases (Aromatherapy! Miracle skincare products!) Finally, she's also always fighting clutter and disorganization at home, and constantly buying new organizing gear - more shelves, more boxes, more...

Does any of this sound familiar to you? To me, it was almost like reading about myself, especially the parts about using small purchases to make myself feel better. And getting frustrated with all the clutter and going out to buy more and more organizing gear. Oh, and the part about spending too much on computer stuff too. And the supplies for soon-abandoned hobbies (ouch!). And the lesson fees for half-finished courses (ouch again!). And, and... The similarities were quite shocking.

Keeping it simple

Of course, it wouldn't be a personal finance book without solutions. What made sense to me was that she kept it very simple.

  • Every month, she'd subtract her fixed costs - rent, utilities, and so on from her income.
  • The rest, she withdrew as cash and divided up into envelopes (see the envelope method described previously). She made a strict pact with herself never to let one envelope/category "borrow" from another; e.g. if her entertainment expenses envelope ran out, no transferring from her office supplies envelope!
  • She kept a kakeibo (household ledger), but didn't use a commercially available one, since she found the categories to be too complicated. She just used a regular notebook, using 2 pages per week, and used broad categorizations that fit her lifestyle and spending patterns. One that made a lot of sense to me is that she divided her food spending into 'food for survival' and 'food for comfort/entertainment' categories. Things like eggs, milk, vegetables were 'food for survival'; chocolate, cake, or eating out for the sake of eating out were 'food for comfort/entertainment'. Most if not all Japanese pre-printed kakeibo divid 'food' into too many categories (carb, protein, vegetables, etc) which can get tedious to keep track of.
  • Instead of writing down what she spent, she just stuck down her receipts and wrote down the totals.
  • She got rid of unplanned spending. Whenever she wanted to buy something, she would write down her requirements first, and carry the notes around until she found something that fit.
  • She had a couple of variations on the coin saving scheme. First of all, whenever she could she paid with bills rather than coins, so she'd always end up with change. Then any change, especially 'big' change (500 yen coins) left at the end of the day was put into the coin jar. (That would be easier to duplicate in countries that have big-denomination coins; here in Switzerland I try 5 franc and 2 franc coins. In the US, you could try quarters, those elusive dollar coins, or even $1 and $5 bills.) At the end of the month, the contents of the coin jar were deposited into a separate savings account, at a different savings institution from her regular bank (she chose the post office).

Decluttering leads to saving

Ms. Ikeda's best known books are actually about decluttering and organization. I picked those up before getting to her savings book. In any case, she says, and I agree from my own experience, and decluttering your personal space leads to saving money too. Not only do you stop wasting money on duplicate purchases (10 pairs of scissors because you keep misplacing them, etc.) but clearing your physical space seems to clear your mental space too.

So, has it worked for me?

Since reading this book as well as her decluttering books, I can say that I have improved my personal finances quite a bit, as well as decluttered my environment and life. It's been a small yet significant factor in leading to the situation I'm in now, looking for an ideal place to live and work, with just enough funds to make that choice. So I'd say it has worked, and is continuing to work.

Ms. Ikeda has a lot of other ideas in her little book, some of which go a bit too far for me (like when she determines that white flour is the cheapest carb, and tries to live on udon, okonomiyaki, and so on). But I truly love this book. Maybe it should be translated into English! In any case I've tried to cover the highlights of the book here. If you do read Japanese at all, and have problems with saving money, I highly recommend it. Besides being practical, it's very cute and funny too, and while the title says 'For Women Who Can't Save' it's just as useful for men too I think. (Her organizing and decluttering books are just as good, if not even better. If you all are interested I'll try to describe them also in an upcoming post. She's also published a couple of books on investing in stocks, and new one on dieting, but I haven't read those yet.)

(Note: a related post on my language blog about a term she uses often...that leads to a lot of wasteful spending!)

Filed under:  books and media essays japanese favorites budgeting


This is me!! Just curious, what are some of the titles for envelopes? I sure would like to see an English translation!

I KNOW that I have a lot of small purchases that add up to a serious amount of cash at the end of the year. A piece of handcrafted chocolate, a brand new pen, a hardcover book, new lip gloss, etc. I thought I was doing OKAY because I would take out a certain amount of cash at the beginning of the month and spend that.
However, it was brought to my attention recently that even though I was "good" about using cash for these small purchases, I wasn't being as diligent with my credit card. :( eek.

Would love it if this book was in English. I'm sure I could learn a lot from it.

These are some really great tips, but I agree...I wish I knew Japanese! I think women should consider personal finance proactively, and look into amateur stock trading and other investment strategies. Saving money can mean making yourself aware of all the options out there, and it doesn't take a lot to educate yourself on what trading can offer. As long as you stay conservative and true to yourself, it can be a great way to make a few extra bucks.

I must echo the people above and request an English version. Or maybe that could be your next blog :)

I'd love to see highlights of the decluttering books! Thanks for posting this!

I am SO buying this book. I've gotten better at saving in the recent years but I'm sure I can do more. And the one about decluttering, buying that, too!!

This is me to a T - thanks for a great post! I, for one, would love to read a sum up of the organizational books... I am severely lacking in that department despite putting forth a TON of energy toward it (i.e. buying a plethora of organizing "equipment"). I think YOU should translate the whole series! ;)

Re titles for the envelopes: She didn't go over all of them, but they included things like 'food', 'transportation', 'art/office supplies' (since she's a freelance illustrator), 'entertainment/going out' and so on. But I think her point was to come up with broad categories that fit your own lifestyle.

She didn't really talk about credit cards, but leaving those plastic things at home can really really help to curb spending. Oh, and for me, to keep them well away from the computer too! (And to watch out for that i-Click thing on Amazon...)

Thanks so much!!! If only I had a scanner to translate kanji!! I miss Japan sooo much! I am definitely implementing the envelope system for next month. It's already too late for this month.... and it's only the 10th!

Her de-cluttering and organizing books are even better than her savings book, so yeah...I'll describe them here too sometime. Another blog, I'm not sure ^_^;

Wow, I'm gonna save this page and try to use some tips on my own lifestyle! I'm also the kind who spends the money on useless stuff and comfort food, so this works perfect for me.

Thanks for posting this!

Yup, that´s me right there, along with a legion of other women...!

Step 1...Declutter!!

Echoing above comments, I would really like to see a translated version, but in the event that there is no translation, I might just have to buy the Japanese version and attempt to translate it myself (with my very broken and unused Japanese.)

Because you are one of those wonderful multilingual people whom I admire, and because the Japanese written language fascinates me (it's so different from English!) is there a book/method you recommend to help me learn how to read japanese? I know that reading and speaking go together, but the reading part is what I really care about. : )

Your websites are great! I always look forward to reading. Thanks for the entertainment and advice.

Although I'm obviously not Maki, I thought you might want to get this book that I've had huge success with. I've worked on studying Japanese for YEARS, but I struggled a lot until I found this book, "Japanese Demystified," by Eriko Sato. Out of all of the books I've had, it's the only one I can actually recommend. Although I guess it's not really about specifically >reading< Japanese, I learned that even if you can >read< Japanese that doesn't mean that you can make sense of it! ^_^

For reading I think it's probably best to get a simple kana workbook, kanji I think is best learned by repetition, but everyone has their own preferred approaches for learning kanji I think (:

Sounds like a great book! I think I will check this one out! Hopefuly my local japanese book store carries one!!

I really like her method of getting those "small" expenditures under control. For clutter - until we all learn to read Japanese ;-) an English-language source of good information is

"You can't organize clutter, you can only get rid of it."

Loved this post. Please write about the other books, too. Thanks - I really enjoy your blog!!

what an excellent post! thanks for taking the time to explain the basics to ms. ikeda's technique! i'm inspired and am going to try this out! would be interested in reading about her organization and decluttering techniques too if you decide to post about that. thank you thank you!

WOW! Thanks for writing about this. :) I did something similar last month when I gave up eating out for Lent. I wrote down all the foods I wanted, took the money out of the bank at the end of the week, and then at the end I put the money back into the bank. (I could've just moved it over each week, but seeing the money really made me think about it.)

very interesting book! *wants english version*
Thanks for the review

I'd love an English version too! I had to face up on my spending habits last month. I was at the bank applying for a loan to buy a car, and the bank lady made a calculation of my income minus my expenses (rent, other bills,...) and showed me that I had a lot of money left each month (in fact more than my entire income 5 years ago). And I kept thinking: where the hell does it all go to??? I keep telling myself to save money for travel, and end up spending it every month on cheap clothes for a quick fix...

Id love an english version because I am still only a japanese language learner and struggle with pretty simple manga and books let alone trying to make sense of this book no matter how much I want to read it.

But everything you posted about in the summarisation is me exactly.

I really need to follow some of these steps.

Sorry Maki,
A quick question.
This manga/book does it have furigana?

I'm afraid it doesn't...only books aimed at kids usually have furigana.

OK thanks :)
*studies harder*

I love this series, though the diet book is my favorite. Fun and relatively easy to read - the kanji's not all that hard since it uses so many of the most basic conversational characters. I'm a beginning learner and haven't had too terribly much trouble figuring it all out. :)

Hi Maki,

Def. getting this book. Just wondering-is her main message to try to get the little things under control-I find that I am a a really good saver, but then use it all for travel-does she talk about things like that-I mean bigger things? Or is it that you should just save more in your daily life (which I should...)

Jill in Kobe

It is mostly about stopping mindless spending on things that go no where, and building up some savings for bigger goals. (There are some sections that go a bit too far imho, like when she calculates that flour is the cheapest carbohydrate and lives on okonomiyaki, noodles, and such for days... but it's all presented in a funny/cute way which helps!)

this is soo interesting..
i'm still a university student and i am always struggling to make do of my student loan every semester.
reading this makes me realize just how ruthless i've been spending my money..buying hobbies stuff that i later abandoned..shelves..magazines..
so, for the first step, i'm going to copy ms ikeda in separating those money into envelopes..
really thanks a bunch for this article!

oh wow!! love it!! i wanna hear more, too!! : ) i live in japan and am married to a japanese man, though i am american. i am always amayzed by my japanese girl friends and how they can save so much money or spend so much less than me in their daily lives. i want to learn more!! but i doubt my japanese is at the level it needs to be to understand this manga. anyways, just what you wrote about it alone, is very helpful!! i'm curious about the diet book too!! :)

I love this article. One thing I also find that works is when I am in the mood to "window shop", leave the wallet in the car. Every time I think that I'll just browse I always end up buying something. And if grocery shopping for just a few items, then it is key to take just the amount of cash you will need. Otherwise all the food items which are on sale will soon find their way into your cart at check out time!