Building an emergency fund is an essential part of financial security. One constant is that you will face unexpected expenses throughout your adult life and many Americans are unprepared to face them. According to a 2015 study by The Pew Charitable Trusts, 60% of Americans experienced a “financial shock” in the past 12 months and the average cost was $2,000.
If you don't have at least that amount in an easy-to-access emergency fund, you could turn to credit cards or expensive loans to cover it. This approach could quickly snowball and place you in dangerous debt, especially when you consider another part of the Pew survey: 47% of those who did suffer an unexpected financial setback “also had serious financial shortfalls” in the same year.
Get Rich Slowly contributor Lisa Aberle recently suggested putting 10 percent of income in a savings account. She provided guidelines in “How to save money each month” – tried-and-true techniques like having a yard sale, cutting the cable, dropping the landline, raising insurance deductibles, eating at home and lowering the thermostat.
Suppose you've done all that stuff already, you're living pretty close to the bone — and you still need to build your emergency fund. Time for some stealth savings, i.e., small tweaks that can add up to big bucks.
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.
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Maybe you really do need every dime to keep creditors at bay. Or maybe a little money-massaging could free up some extra bucks for your Someday Fund. Even if it's just a tiny amount at a time, it's something.
Although not every tip works for every person, you can probably find a few (or a lot) of tactics to plump up your financial cushion.
Increase savings through automation
1. Automate it. First, have your bank or credit union siphon off a small amount each payday. Next, learn to live on what's left. Increase the amount slowly to give yourself time to adjust your spending.
2. Bank your rewards. Switch to a cash rewards credit card and use it to pay for everything you can (but never more than you can pay off). Save the cash-back.
3. Bank your raise. If you got one, fantastic. Now pretend you didn't get one, and keep on keeping on with your previous take-home pay. Automate the rest into savings.
4. Bank your bonus. If you get any kind of extra cash at work, spend 10 percent of it on something you really need (or want) and save the rest.
5. Bank your reimbursements. Getting paid back for work-related expenses or a check from your flexible spending account? If at all possible, put it into savings rather than checking.
6. Bank your coupons. You saved $6 on the groceries? Swell! But it's not savings unless you save it. Tuck away those discounts from manufacturers coupons and/or your customer loyalty card.
Thinking about your habits
7. Drop bad habits. It's tough to quit smoking or, for that matter, to stop buying comic books. But as you taper off, put what you would have spent on coffin nails or anime into long-term savings.
8. Recognize good habits. Rather than having a “swear jar” with a penalty for every F-bomb you drop, why not have a “Go you!” jar? Maybe you packed a lunch today instead of eating out — go you, then, and put a quarter (or more) in the jar.
9. Recreate favorite habits. Do you meet friends for brunch or lunch every weekend? Replace at least one of these gatherings per month with meals at home (and take turns hosting). Hooked on opening-night movies? Learn to appreciate the bargain Saturday matinee, right after a big breakfast that will keep you from dropping a fortune on popcorn.
10. Round it up. 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 to savings.
11. Pay it forward. Finally made the last installment to the auto dealer or the orthodontist? Keep making that payment, i.e., transfer it into savings each month. (Can't quite swing that? Save half the amount, then.)
12. Launder some funds. Every time my partner and I do a load of wash, we put $2 in a jar. Try this — you'll be surprised how quickly it adds up!
13. Swipe some cash. Look at your checking-account balance on the day before payday. If there's $117 in there, send $7 (or $17, or more) into savings.
Make it a challenge
14. The spare-change challenge. Dump some or all of the change from your wallet/pocket into a jar every night. Once every couple of months, wrap it and bank it.
15. The dollar-bill challenge. Remove all the Washingtons from your wallet every night. And here's the super-flush version: Make it the $5 challenge.
16. Random number challenge. Pick a number, then check your wallet nightly for bills whose serial numbers end in the digit you've chosen. Set them aside to bank.
17. Weekly challenge. Actually a monthly challenge: Set aside $1 the first week of the month, $2 the second week and so on. Bank the resulting $10 to $15 per month.
18. Calendar challenge. The first week of January, bank $52. The second week, $51. Etc. This can be tough at first, but by the end of the year you'll have banked $1,378!
19. Savings buddy challenge. Get a mildly competitive relative or friend interested in building a cash cushion too. Set a time limit and a reward, e.g., “If I save less than you in the next six months, I have to pick up all the dog poop in your back yard.”
20. I Spy challenge. See a dime on the floor at the checkout counter or a quarter in the vending machine's coin-return slot? Once you start looking, you'll see money everywhere. (My found-coin totals dropped when I moved back to Alaska. But even so, I found $14.27 last year. Mine goes to a local food bank, rather than into savings.)
21. Get symbolic. Deposit your age, or your children's combined ages, every week or every month. Suppose you want to retire by age 50? Deposit $50 into savings every month, or every week if you can swing it.
22. Bill yourself. Turn savings into a monthly obligation, and pay it. The “bill reminder” feature on sites like PowerWallet or Mint.com make it easy to hold yourself accountable, so to speak.
23. Remind yourself. Rubber-band a picture of your dream (new house, backpacking trip, whatever) to your credit card to discourage in-the-moment spending.
24. Remind yourself, Part 2. Change an online shopping account password to something with personal resonance. Signing on with “Sept2016uClA” will remind you how soon your oldest kid starts college — which in turn might help you apply the want-or-need filter before you click “purchase.” Talk about password protection!
25. 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?)
26. 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 a new fishing rod isn't the best use of your funds.
27. Name your bucks. Does your financial institution let you set up sub-accounts? (I've got two named for my great-nephews' college funds.) Contributing to the “new car for cash” or the “summer vacation” fund has its own special frisson.
28. Keep the Change. This program, specific to Bank of America, rounds debit-card purchases up to the next dollar and then transfers the difference into savings. (Example: If you pay $29.38 for gasoline, 62 cents will go into savings.)
29. Engineer some discounts. Pay for the items you need most often with discounted gift cards bought on the secondary market. For example, buying a $100 PetSmart card for $87 and a $50 Walgreens card for $44 means you could transfer $19 into savings.
Readers, how do you save?