Spending

Japan’s Salarymen Learn to Save


Japanese women have by tradition run the budgets of their nation’s households. Each housewife scrupulously tracks her family’s spending in her kakeibo, or budget book. They also traditionally stash away secret savings (hesokuri) that the husbands usually don’t know anything about: The savings come in handy for a rainy day. Finally—and most surprisingly to Westerners—housewives in Japan dole out an allowance to their salarymen husbands, which most men meekly accept. The wives even determine how much of their biannual bonuses the husbands can keep for themselves.

Little wonder, then, that the financial decisions of Japan’s housewives are closely scrutinized as guides to the health of the nation’s economy. Judging from this year’s research, the news is bad. In January a survey of housewives by Sompo Japan Insurance revealed that the value of wives’ secret savings fell 18 percent in 2010, to a three-year low.

Now the husbands are feeling the pain. According to a survey by Shinsei Financial released on June 27, salarymen’s allowances have withered to the smallest amount since 1982 as their wives pare household spending in an economy mired in slow growth. Husbands are getting 36,500 yen ($452) per month for pocket money, amounting to a mere $15 a day.

Japan’s growth of less than 1 percent per year in the past decade has crimped pay, forcing housewives to cut back on pocket money: Last year the average household spent 8 percent less than in 2001. Household sentiment is near a two-year low, making a consumer-driven economic rebound less likely. “This makes me a little sad,” says Hiroshi Miyazaki, chief economist at Shinkin Asset Management in Tokyo. “It’s a result of a very long period of deflation. Unfortunately, this trend’s going to continue.”

Workers’ allowances peaked in 1990 along with the country’s assets and a real estate bubble, with men receiving 76,000 yen a month, more than double what they get today, according to the survey. Respondents said they now spend the greatest proportion of the money on lunch, dispensing an average of 490 yen. That matches the price of a double cheeseburger with small fries and a drink at McDonald’s. “People are becoming increasingly austere in their attitudes toward money,” Shinsei says in the report.

To save money, the salarymen surveyed said they bring their own lunch to work and eat out less. Kitchenware maker Zojirushi has capitalized on this trend by rolling out a lunch box slim enough to fit into a man’s briefcase. Men ate out 2.9 times a month after work and spent an average 3,540 yen each time, according to the survey. That compares with more than 6,000 yen in 2009. Pub chain Watami is one of the businesses taking a hit from consumers’ intensifying drive to spend less: The restaurant company’s same-store sales dropped 6.4 percent in May from a year earlier.

The bottom line: Salarymen's allowances hit a 29-year low as Japanese housewives cut back. This frugality will aggravate deflation.

Ito is a reporter for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.

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