In 2017, I decided to quit my job working for a London publisher and move to Japan. I enjoyed my work and had a great social life, but was craving something new and different.
After living in Tokyo for six months, I became fascinated by how small details, mindfulness, and incremental changes were given more emphasis in Japanese daily life.
It was unlike anything I had ever experienced, and it encouraged me to slow down and make some lifestyle improvements — specifically, in my frivolous and impulsive spending habits.
‘Kakeibo’: The Japanese method of saving money
Some people don’t struggle with overspending and can live a satisfying life with just essentials. I was not one of those people.
Instead, I had a habit of shopping when I felt bored, stressed, or unhappy about something. I also shopped when I was in a good or celebratory mood, with a tendency to go beyond my means.
While I’ve never gotten into serious debt, I always knew I needed to put more effort into making smarter financial decisions. But, as many people would agree, this isn’t easy to do — partly because our spending habits are deeply cemented into our daily routine, and the act of spending also includes an emotional aspect that is difficult to detach from.
Then I learned about a Japanese practice called kakeibo (pronounced “kah-keh-boh”), which translates as “household financial ledger.” Invented in 1904 by a woman named Hani Motoko (notable for being Japan’s first female journalist), kakeibo is a simple, no-frills approach to managing your finances.
I was intrigued and decided to give it a try.
No technology—just a notebook and pen
Like all budgeting systems, the idea behind kakeibo is to help you understand your relationship with money by keep a ledger of everything that is incoming and outgoing.
What sets this 116-year-old method apart, however, is that it doesn’t involve any budgeting software, apps or Excel sheets. Similar to bullet journaling, kakeibo emphasizes the importance of physically writing things down — as a meditative way to process and observe your spending habits.
Research has proven again and again the numerous benefits of writing by hand: It can help you make positive changes by encouraging you to be more present and aware, while also acknowledging the triggers behind your bad habits.
According to the kakeibo method, you must ask yourself the following questions before purchasing any non-essential items — or the things you buy on impulse, but might not necessarily need:
- Can I live without this item?
- Based on my financial situation, can I afford it?
- Will I actually use it?
- Do I have the space for it?
- How did I come across it in the first place? (Did I see it in a magazine? Did I come across it after wandering into a gift shop out of boredom?)
- What is my emotional state in general today? (Calm? Stressed? Celebratory? Feeling bad about myself?)
- How do I feel about buying it? (Happy? Excited? Indifferent? And how long will this feeling last?)
While kakeibo was effective in helping me stay on top on my finances, what it really did — that other systems I’ve tried in the past didn’t — was force me to think about my purchases and what motivated me to buy them.
In other words, I was finally able to conquer my fear of being completely honest about my “needs” and “wants.” As a result, I got better at making faster, smarter and more logical decisions about whether to spend money on a particular item.
It’s important to note that kakeibo isn’t designed to cut all joy out of your life. If you’re feeling glum about something, then some flowers are a fairly inexpensive way to cheer yourself up. Rather than requiring you to do anything drastic, the goal is to change your bad habits through mindfulness and incremental changes.
How to spend more mindfully
In order to see significant results in your savings, it’s important to stay committed in asking the right questions before making any non-essential purchases.
Here are some simple kakeibo-themed strategies to ensure that you spend more mindfully:
- Leave the item for 24 hours. This highlights whether you genuinely want or need it. If you’re still thinking about the item the next day and can afford it, then make the purchase. You’ll feel a greater sense of satisfaction about your decision.
- Don’t let “blowout sales” tempt you. I used to be a sucker for big sales. But that often meant spending money on items I knew I wouldn’t use. So for each item that you have in your basket during a sale, ask yourself whether you would buy it if it were full price.
- Check your bank balance regularly. Checking your balance will help you feel more in control of your finances because it brings into focus how much money you have to spend. Now, the first thing I do every morning is check my balance. It’s a scary habit to try at first, but does wonders for worry levels.
- Spend in cash. Physically handing over cash rather than just mindlessly swiping your card makes you more conscious of what you’re spending, and you will find it easier to budget. Try taking out a set amount of cash to use for the week and only spending what you have.
- Put reminders in your wallet. My friend came up with the brilliant idea of attaching a sticker to her credit card that bluntly says, “Do you REALLY need this?!” Anything that prompts you to take a step back before making a purchase will help you make smarter decisions.
- Change the environments that cause you to spend. If you notice that you often spend money after clicking on a marketing email or seeing pictures of an Instagram influencer wearing a particular brand, for example, then unsubscribe or unfollow. Or, if you buy clothes or makeup when you have time to kill, try using that time to do another activity instead, such as taking a walk in the park.
I still occasionally treat myself with non-essentials. This is fine and even encouraged! Remember, kakeibo is about using mindfulness to cut out purchases that might only give you a temporary boost of happiness.
The acts of mindful spending and saving are very much interlinked, and the small changes I’ve made using kakeibo have had a cumulative effect on my bank account.
My savings are growing at a faster rate than I ever imagined possible. More importantly, I’m making wiser decisions about how to invest that money for the things that really matter.
Sarah Harvey is the author of “Kaizen: The Japanese Secret to Lasting Change.” Previously, she worked as a publishing consultant in Tokyo, where she fell in love with the Japanese culture. Sarah now lives in London and works as a literary agency. Follow her on Twitter.