One of the greatest ironies about the United States is that we have one of the wealthiest populations in the world, but we barely save anything from this overabundance. The average household brings in more than $52,000 per year -- yet is only able to save 5.6% of that amount.
And that's just the average. The wealthiest households in America surely pull that average up, as they're able to increase that wealth by saving and investing large sums. Compare this to Austria, Belgium, or Germany, where the governments rely heavily on tax revenues, and yet the average family is still able to put away almost twice as much as Americans are.
The Internet is chock-full of ways to help the average American stop living paycheck to paycheck and start saving money. Much of the advice involves the laborious process of breaking down your yearly spending, making targeted cuts, and saving the difference. That process might work for some; but I intend to give an easier alternative below, which allows you to follow three very simple steps. Instead of a massive undertaking, this will involve a little bit of effort every day for a month -- that's it!
First, a word about to whom this applies
There are some families out there for whom escaping this month-to-month anxiety is not as easy as a three-step process. If you're stuck in a low-paying job due to lack of education, experiencing a serious illness in the family, or living through some other unfortunate life circumstance, you may need to make more herculean efforts to actually stop living paycheck to paycheck and start saving money.
But don't throw yourself in that group unless you truly meet such unfortunate circumstances. There are likely hundreds of thousands of families out there earning a salary who would be the envy of most anyone on earth; yet they're saving almost none of it. Many times, it's due to unconscious spending. Here's how to solve that.
Step One: Automate a 5% savings rate
Most gurus will tell you that you should save 10% to 15% of your income for retirement. Those are good starting points. But if you're really living paycheck to paycheck, and you aren't saving anything right now -- just start with a 5% savings rate.
There are a number of ways you can do this. You could talk to your employer about automatically withdrawing 5% of your salary and putting it into your company retirement plan -- which also could help you get a company match. If that's not possible, simply set up an automatic withdrawal from your bank account each month for 5% of your salary, and put that money into a Roth or Traditional IRA.
Step Two: Un-automate your spending
One of the ways that we find ourselves in the never-ending hamster wheel of spending is that we spend without thinking. Every month, without it ever entering my mind, I pay more than $100 for things like Netflix, Internet access, and baby diapers via Amazon.
While some may argue that all of these are necessities, they're not. You'll survive just fine without all of them for one month -- assuming, of course, that you go shopping for the diapers. I suggest that you take all such non-essential automatic spending and cancel them for one month. If you find that you're missing something you truly need, like the Internet, you're experiencing the point of the exercise -- identifying what you really do need.
One quick note -- many of our expenses that are necessary on a month-to-month basis are also automated. I'm talking about rent/mortgage payments, car payments, or insurance of any form. I do not suggest suspending those, at all. They are a necessary part of life.
Step Three: For everything else, pay cash
Here's where the real psychological power of this month-long experiment comes in. It's one thing to pay for groceries with a credit card with one simple swipe. It's another thing altogether to take out six $20 bills and hand them over. Our sense of loss is activated by this transaction in a way that swiping a credit card completely ignores.
Carry this over to literally everything that you buy for one month. No credit card -- just cash. See what the results are. Although there are no guarantees, I have a feeling that you'll see much more left at the end of the month than you thought possible.
Take that cash and add it to your (meager) 5% savings rate. Believe it or not, each incremental percentage will bring you that much closer to financial independence. This is the point when you can stop working because you have to, and start doing only what you want to.