You're still committed to those New Year's resolutions, right? You've made a few gym appearances, you've cooked some healthy meals, and now it's time to focus on your finances.
For most of us, saving money isn't nearly as fun as spending it. Study after study concludes that Americans aren't great at setting cash aside for the future. According to Magnify Money, 29% of U.S. households have less than $1,000 socked away. And a Bankrate analysis concludes that 23% of Americans have no emergency fund savings. Another 22% don't have enough cash on hand to cover three months of expenses, which is the minimum recommended by experts.
The experts also give us some pretty dry advice on how to regain control of our finances. Create a budget, save first, and spend less than you make. These are wise strategies, for sure. But without any fun in the equation, they're hard to implement. That's why we're bringing you four savings challenges to fire up your competitive side. Kick off 2020 by seeing how much you can save over the next six months.
1. Designate a no-spend day of the week
A no-spend day of the week is exactly what it sounds like. Pick a day, say Thursday, and put a recurring appointment on your calendar. Each Thursday, you say no to coffee runs, drinks after work, and even trips to the gas station. To follow through, you'll have to plan ahead for food and other essentials -- and that's a very useful skill when it comes to saving.
A one-day spending freeze also forces you to notice when and why you spend. You may even realize that the urge to buy something fades pretty quickly when you ignore it. That can feel pretty empowering, especially if you're prone to impulse spending.
2. Find your biggest variable expense and cut it by 25%
If you're up for a more advanced challenge, try reducing your largest variable expense by 25%. Variable expenses are the ones you can control, like groceries, entertainment, eating out, and clothing purchases. Review your bank statements for the last three months to identify the expense you need to reduce. Then, get creative about cutting back. For example:
- If you spend too much on groceries, start shopping only from the store's weekly ad. Buy produce at the farmer's market instead of the grocery store. Check the clearance rack for discontinued canned goods and work them into your meal plan. See how long you can delay a supermarket run by creatively using the food in your pantry -- like your very own Chopped challenge.
- If you spend too much dining out, start packing your lunch for work and limit how often you can go out to dinner. When you do go out, take half of your meal home and eat it the next day. Or order dinner from the appetizer menu. You could also bring your own soda or limit yourself to water.
- If you spend too much on entertainment, try hosting movie nights or BYO cocktail hours at your place.
- If you spend too much on clothes, start shopping used garments on Poshmark or Thredup. Or use a browser extension like Honey that finds and applies coupons when you're making online purchases.
3. Increase your 401(k) contribution rate by 1%
This year, try increasing your 401(k) contribution rate by 1% or 2%. Raising your contribution from 3% of your pay to 5% may be fairly painless, but still makes a major difference in your retirement balance long-term. Say you make $1,200 weekly and you're currently contributing 3% or $36. Raising your contribution to 5% adds another $24 to your 401(k) each week. But, assuming you are single and claim zero allowances, your paycheck only goes down by about $17. This is because the higher 401(k) contribution is offset by lower federal income taxes.
If you're worried about the impact to your cash flow, test different scenarios using a payroll or 401(k) contribution calculator online.
4. Raise $1,000 by selling stuff you don't need
We all have stuff at home that we no longer use. Your old clothes, electronics, books, textbooks, gift cards to stores you don't like, furniture, and gifts from your ex are all waiting to be converted into cold, hard cash. Take stock of what's hiding in the closet, attic, garage, or basement. You'll find things you forgot you had -- perhaps a stained glass lamp gifted by your aunt or a pair of shoes that gave you blisters. Those forgotten goods are the first candidates for liquidation.
See how much dough you can raise and then tuck the proceeds into your emergency fund. Here are some marketplaces where you can list your old stuff:
- Sell clothes, purses, and jewelry on Poshmark.
- Sell electronics on Decluttr.
- Sell books and textbooks on Amazon.
- Sell gift cards on Card Pool or Card Cash.
- Sell furniture and other random things to people nearby on Letgo or Facebook marketplace.
Making saving fun
Saving isn't on anyone's list of favorite activities. But it can be tolerable, enjoyable even, if you turn it into a game you can win. Start with small challenges like no-spend days and then ramp up the stakes as you gain confidence. Stash the money you save in your emergency fund or use it to pad your retirement account. Let's make 2020 the year we master those finances.