TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan's homemakers have made an art of living frugally in one of the world's most expensive countries, and they are now pruning spending further as the economy plunges into what could be a long recession.
For many of Japan's 17 million homemakers, managing household finances on their husband's salary, averaging about 270,000 yen a month (about $2900), is already a struggle.
As layoffs spread, consumer confidence has nosedived. Household spending, which makes up more than half the economy, dropped 3.8 percent in October, sparking a vicious cycle that is hurting retailers and will likely put more jobs at risk.
Asuka Suzuki, 27, who lives with her husband on the northern island of Hokkaido, says keeping monthly food spending to 19,000 yen ($205) a month, about a third of the national average for two people, requires meticulous planning and discipline.
"I do sometimes feel a bit down because I can't buy clothes, go traveling or take up any expensive hobbies," Suzuki said in an e-mail interview. "But I have a goal, which is to buy a house some day, so I just keep on trying."
Before setting out food shopping, she searches the Internet for bargains at all the local supermarkets, makes an inventory of the contents of her refrigerator and puts together a weekly menu.
Only then does she tuck the minimum necessary cash into her wallet -- no credit cards -- and, weather permitting, heads out on her bicycle to the supermarket.
Suzuki is just one of the hundreds of housewives featured in "Sutekina Okusan" or "Lovely Wife," a monthly magazine offering recipes and tips for the budget-conscious, from switching off the TV to save on electricity, to re-using water after rinsing rice.
Other suggestions include using old clothes to make cushion covers and making children's playhouses out of cardboard boxes.
Food is the biggest expense for many Japanese households, and even the thriftiest housewives often pride themselves on serving something different every night.
"At first I was astonished," said Satoko Sugiki, an editor at the magazine, of her first encounters with the determined women who reveal their spending habits in the magazine.
"But now it seems quite normal for someone to spend only 10,000 yen ($108) a month on food, even though it's amazing when you think about it." A less careful shopper could spend more than 10,000 yen on a single gift-wrapped melon at one of Japan's upmarket department stores.
As shoppers turned their backs on such high-priced goods, sales at department stores have fallen. They dropped nearly 7 percent in October on the same period the previous year, the eighth consecutive month of decline.
Instead, shoppers hit bargain stores. Discount clothing chain Uniqlo saw a jump in sales of more than 30 percent in November.
"People are shopping at places that offer good value for money. But there are very few companies benefiting," said Dairo Murata, a retail analyst at Credit Suisse in Tokyo.
Bookstores display notebooks for recording household accounts for the new breed of careful consumer.
Despite the savings made by these thrifty homemakers, some experts say many housewives may be forced to seek work outside the home as families increasingly struggle to cover their expenses on a single income.
"Even if it only pays 50,000 ($540) or 60,000 yen a month, it will help ease the pressure on the household budget," said financial journalist Haruko Ogiwara, who has written several books on budgeting and saving.
Full-time housewives, she said, were a luxury Japan could no longer afford. "Even if that means people can't keep detailed household accounts, they will still be better off."
Finding a job, though, will be easier said than done as the economy slumps.
Suzuki says she'd like to work part-time if she could find a job within walking distance of home. But for now, fear of what the downturn may bring is spurring new levels of frugality.
"I worry about whether my husband's company might go bankrupt," Suzuki said in an e-mail interview with Reuters, referring to the food manufacturer where her husband works.
"We don't have children now, but will we be able to have them and bring them up? Will we have an old age without worries?"
The couple have cut back on leisure trips. Suzuki tries to cook as much as possible. Her repertoire includes vegetable soup and tofu dishes that cost under a dollar.
"My husband is very cooperative, so we have fun saving money," she said. "I'm not that good at cooking, but he tells me what I serve is better than a restaurant, which helps me carry on."
At the end of each month, she analyses her receipts to try to spot weak points, but Suzuki admits she still has a way to go before catching up with some champions of thrift.
A glance through recent editions of "Lovely Wife" reveals some are feeding a family of four on 10,000 yen a month. Though many of them say they enjoy finding new ways to cut corners, frugality is more than a hobby.
"When it comes down to it, there are actually quite a lot of people in Japan who don't have much money," said thrifty book author Ogiwara.
Editing by Megan Goldin