It is no secret that Americans are not good at saving.
In fact, before the economic downturn, Americans were only saving 1% of their income according to The Atlantic.
Compare that to the Japanese, who save 25% of their income, down from a high of 30 to 35% according to Maki, the Japanese woman behind the blog Just Hungry.
My husband was born in Japan and lived there the first 25 years of his life, so I asked him about his experience growing up. He was at first hesitant to share because he is nearly 40, so he doesn’t feel his family is representative of the way things may now be in Japan. Still, this is his family’s experience, which I find to be in stark contrast to many American households, even 30 years ago.
His Parents’ Backgrounds
His parents each have modest educations and careers.
His dad, Shoji, only has a high school degree; he worked for the local government and did not move into a management position until he was nearly 50. He worked 10 hours a day, seven days a week. Even on Saturday and Sunday he went to the office and worked 10 hours or more.
My husband has memories of his dad not coming home some nights until 9 or 10 p.m. Shoji also lived several hours away for a few years when work required it and only came home sporadically on weekends.
His mom, Yuki, has a two year degree and worked at the local preschool. She worked nine hour days Monday through Friday and a seven hour day on Saturday. Sunday was her only day off.
Societal Structure Helped Them to Save
In Japan, tradition dictates that the oldest son and his wife care for his parents in their old age.
Per this societal expectation, Shoji and Yuki moved in with Shoji’s parents as soon as they were married. While this arrangement can be personally taxing for some, it does offer significant financial benefits. They never had to pay rent or take out a loan to buy a home; when my husband’s grandparents died, his parents took over the house. Likewise, Shoji and Yuki did not have to pay for daycare for my husband and his sister while they worked; the grandparents took care of them.
Because Shoji’s dad developed Alzheimer’s disease, he did eventually require more care than the family could give, so he lived in an assisted living facility. All members of the family chipped in to pay for his care.
Implementing Frugal Behaviors Allowed Them to Save Prodigiously
My husband had a long list of frugal behaviors his parents implemented to allow them to grow their savings with their modest careers. Here are a few of them:
- Grew their own garden to save on the cost of vegetables;
- Went on vacation just once every three or four years, and then the “vacation” was simply an overnight trip or a two day trip, often at a facility the local government owned so their stay was free;
- Went out to eat only once or twice a year;
- Used cash only, not credit cards;
- Rarely bought their kids’ clothes (besides the uniforms required for school); instead they dressed in hand-me-downs from their older cousins;
- Ate basic, low cost but healthy foods such as fish, rice, miso soup, and other Japanese staples;
- Bought the smallest cars they could that would comfortably fit their family of four so they could save on the price of the car itself as well as gas over the years;
- Kept each of their cars for at least 10 years;
- Never had cable tv;
- Put any extra money they made immediately into savings.
How Their Children Benefitted from Their Frugality
Education is very important to Shoji and Yuki.
Because of their strong work ethic and dedication to long hours at work as well as their frugal lifestyle, they were able to pay for my husband’s three year education in Tokyo (one of the most expensive cities in the world), as well as his 3 month exchange trip to London, and his three years of education in the United States.
They also paid for four years of my husband’s sister’s education and living expenses. They paid for all of these educational expenses outright, without loans.
In addition, because my husband is living in the United States, his sister took over the traditional role of caring for her parents (though they don’t need to be cared for yet and are in fact still working even though they call themselves retired). In return, rather than living with them, Shoji and Yuki built her and her family a large two story house right next to their house and bought her a new car.
Again, they were able to afford this thanks to their prodigious savings.
Despite these expenses, they still have plenty left for retirement and are enjoying their pseudo-retirement and spending time with their grandkids.
As Americans, many of us feel that luxuries (though we may not see them as such) are our right such as the latest electronic gadgets, a home as large as we can afford, a new car every few years, dinner out several times a week, and vacations to exotic locales, to name a few.
My husband’s parents’ example seems to prove that it is good to work for the things you really want, in this case their children’s education, but you can’t have everything you want.
To grow your own wealth, you must put a priority on the one or two things that are very important to you and let the others fall by the wayside.