Have trouble saving money? Time for some mind games.
Hide cash via direct withdrawals. Get free money from banks. Name an account for a goal. Make your savings “one-way,” i.e., really hard to tap.
The unemployed and underemployed may feel — with good reason! — that they can’t afford to save. Even those with decent salaries might feel squeezed by the rising cost of basic needs like food and utilities, especially if they’re repaying student loans.
Here’s a cold, hard fact: You need to save anyway — and not just for an emergency fund, but also to augment your eventual retirement. (And when you’re my age, “eventual” is closer than it may appear in the rear-view mirror.)
Maybe you really do need need every dime to keep creditors at bay. Or maybe a little budget-tweaking could free up some extra bucks for your Someday Fund. Even if it’s just a tiny amount at a time, it’s something.
Easy does it
The simplest way to save is to automate it. Have a small amount siphoned off each payday by your financial institution (I use an online bank for this) and learn to live on what’s left. Increase the amount slowly — an hour’s pay at a time, perhaps? — to give yourself time to adjust your spending.
See if you can get to the 20% mark suggested in the 50-30-20 budget. Since that 20% refers both to savings and debt repayment, get those cards paid off so you can salt away more at a time.
Incidentally, that does not mean exile to the Island of No Fun At All. The “30” in that plan allows for 30% of earnings to go to “wants.”
Some ways to inch closer to the 20% savings mark:
- Save flexible-spending and/or work-related reimbursements. Set up direct deposit if possible. If not, make it a point to deposit the checks rather than cash them. And if you need that money to balance the books? Pledge to keep at least a dollar (preferably $5) of it in the account.
- Save your raises. That is, assuming you’re lucky enough to get them. If you were already managing on what you earned, pretend you didn’t get a raise. (Curse you, short-sighted bean-counters!) Then raise the biweekly (or whatever) automated savings.
- Save your bonus. That is, if you’re super-double-lucky enough to get one. But give yourself permission to spend 10% of it on something you really want. Come on, you know you want to buy Stuff from time to time. Just about everybody does.
- Get symbolic. Want to retire at 50? Start depositing $50 a month, or per week if you can swing it. Make a weekly or monthly deposit equal to your current age; that’s easy to sustain since it goes up just a buck a year.
- Drop a habit. It’s tough to quit smoking or, for that matter, to stop buying so many comic books. But as you taper off, put what you would have spent on coffin nails or anime into long-term savings.
- Round’em up! Not cattle — coins. When you use your debit card or write a check, record it for the next dollar up (e.g., $7.29 becomes $8). At the end of the month, add up the differences and transfer it to savings.
- Challenge yourself. Take the dollar-bill challenge by removing the Washingtons from your wallet every night. Super-flush version: Take the $5 challenge. Super-tight-budget version: Save your coins and wrap them every so often.
- Bank your coupons. You saved $6 on the groceries? It’s not savings unless you save it. Tuck away the amount you saved using manufacturers coupons and your supermarket customer loyalty card.
Every dollar — and every dream — has a name
One financial planner I interviewed sends his clients monthly “invoices” for their long-term goals, e.g., “pay cash for next car” or “comfortable retirement.” Think of your savings account as a line item on your budget, and pay it along with the rest of your bills.
Another planner told me her mom always said, “Every dollar has a name.” Those bucks had some pretty prosaic names: Rent, Utilities, Groceries. But the lesson stuck, and the little girl grew up to include a name in her own monthly budget: “Savings.”
My own experience with naming was not a line item but a targeted account called “Home.” (As in, “a home of my own some day.”) I started it with one of those “free money from banks” deals and beefed up the account with any extra cash I got: manufacturer rebates, a little holiday bonus, wrapped coins, babysitting jobs, pet-sitting gigs, mystery shopping.
Whether you do long-term savings as a budget line item or as a targeted account, you’re giving your dollars a name. You’re sending them to a specific area to do a specific job. You’re being proactive about your financial future rather than just heaving greenbacks toward that amorphous entity called The Bills.
A glimpse of the future
Maybe you need a more tangible reminder of your goal. Some people slip photos of their kids between the cellophane and the cigarette pack to bolster their efforts to stop smoking. I’ve also heard of folks who rubber-band pictures of their dreams (new house, Mini Cooper, whatever) to their credit cards to discourage in-the-moment spending.
I once interviewed a woman who created a computer-drawn design of her dream kitchen. Then she pinned up the picture by her desk as a reminder of why she needed to save. It worked: She paid cash for the remodel.
Another woman I spoke with changed an online shopping account password to the year her kid would start college and the preferred university’s acronym. Retail therapy wasn’t nearly as important when the sign-on became something like “2014UCLA.” It was a sobering reminder that baby needed textbooks much more than mama needed a new pair of shoes.
These same tactics could work when the goal is beefing up savings vs. getting yourself some gorgeous granite countertops. Personally, I recommend solid-surface counters. Some of that counterfeit stone is so good you could take it for granite. (Sorry. I couldn’t resist.)
Make it tough to touch your funds and they’ll remain safe from moments of temporary insanity. (Back away from the comic book store! Hands where we can see ’em!) I’ve got a few suggestions for isolating your dough:
- Opt for inconvenience. Don’t pick the bank or credit union with a branch in your neighborhood. You don’t want it to be easy to get at this money. There’s no need to go there in person because you’re using direct deposit. (Aren’t you?) Again, this is not for liquid funds but rather for the long-term scratch.
- Choose an online bank. That way it takes a couple of days to get the money. You might come to your senses by then and realize that investing in Action Comics futures might not be the best use of your funds. Bonus frugal points for putting the buckage into laddered CDs; there are penalties for early withdrawal but since the CDs mature on a regular schedule you could access some money in a true pinch.
- Don’t get an ATM card. Ever have one of those days when you think, “I don’t care! I’ve been good for too long! I’m gonna get all the Green Lantern books — and maybe a Slurpee, too!” If you had to drive to the financial institution and fill out a withdrawal slip, you might have time to realize that the expense is not strictly necessary.
But don’t save every dime. You need categories like “discretionary spending” or “riotous living” in your budget, too. (Or just cut to the chase and create a line item called “bail bondsman.”) Spend it any way you like — but once it’s gone, that’s it until the next pay period.
If you don’t spend it all, you have the choice of depositing it into savings. While it can be really satisfying to watch that balance increase, I’d caution against banking the surplus every month. Live too close to the bone for too long and you might eventually knock yourself off the wagon. Allow for some wants along with the needs and you’ll find it easier to stay within the budget the rest of the time.
We all need goals
In a perfect world you wouldn’t need a bag of pecuniary tricks. You’d just pay yourself first as a matter of course. Life isn’t perfect, though. Some days it’s not even above-average.
Don’t feel you have to do it all. You won’t get kicked out of the movement if you don’t embrace every frugal hack extant. Sometimes it’s still hard for me to spend money, but I recognize that I need to loosen up lest I reflect the worst attributes of Hetty Green (miserliness) without any of the advantages (shrewd business sense, huge net worth).
Thus I don’t lose any sleep if I neglect to bank my coupon savings or to save every dollar bill that comes my way. In fact, my “Home” account is no more — at least as a private entity. When I got mugged a few months ago I had to redo my bank accounts since my personal information had been compromised. I realized it didn’t really make sense to have a separate account, so I merged it with my regular savings.
Yet it still exists in my mind as the seed money for a smallish house with a decent southern exposure for gardening (mostly things I can eat) and a front porch swing. We all need goals. The possibility of homegrown tomatoes keeps me tucking away the savings. But I make sure to shake loose a few bucks for the bail bondsman fund, too.
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