Right up there with working out and losing weight, saving money often tops the New Year's resolution leaderboard. And it's a worthy goal in theory. Why shouldn't 2016 be the year you cut your expenses, boost your net worth, and spend every night dreaming of a fully funded retirement account?
But let's get serious for a minute. Saving money takes work, and sometimes even the most financially savvy of us fall victim to temptation or unanticipated costs. If you're committed to saving more money, then you'll need to make it a priority, which means your brain should be wired to think about saving money all the time. Here are a few tips to help you get started.
1. Create a budget and stick to it
Do you really know where your money is going each month? Without an official budget, you may be spending more than you realize or need to. Creating a budget will help you keep tabs on your spending so you can make adjustments and have more money left over after your expenses are met. Even better, you can draw up a budget that includes a line item for savings, instead of just breaking out your costs and hoping there's money left over to stick in the bank at month's end.
Plus, tracking your expenses is easy if you use an app like Mint, which lets you link your various accounts and create a personalized budget based on your income and savings goals. Though it takes a bit of time to set up, once you get past that initial step, tracking your finances becomes an automatic, seamless process. Another nifty budgeting tool is Wally, which tracks your spending and lets you know whether you're meeting your financial goals. Though the app requires you to have an iPhone and be willing to regularly update your purchases, it'll help you stay on course in your personal spending categories.
2. Lower your tax burden
The less you owe the government in taxes, the more you'll be able to save for the future. For example, you can shield up to $2,550 from income taxes with a health flexible spending account. Just figure out how much money you're likely to spend on out-of-pocket medical costs and arrange to have that amount in pre-tax dollars allocated toward your FSA for 2016. Just err on the side of underestimating your costs, as FSAs operate on a "use it or lose it" basis; if you have not used all the allocated funds by the end of the year, you can only roll over a maximum of $500 to the next year. Also see if you're eligible for tax-free commuter benefits, which allow you to allocate $130 per month in pre-tax dollars toward transit costs and $255 per month toward parking expenses. And don't forget your 401(k) plan. For 2016, the maximum pre-tax contribution limit is $18,000 for employees under 50. Those who are 50 and older can also take advantage of a $6,000 catch-up contribution.
3. Do it yourself
Go the DIY route whenever possible. Don't hire a handyman when you're perfectly capable of tackling home repairs on your own. If you have the tools, you could easily save yourself $100 an hour every single time an issue arises. Handle one repair a month, and you could save more than $1,000 over the course of a year. Similarly, you can skip that landscaping service and spend some quality time with your lawnmower when the grass needs cutting. Most lawn services cost $1,000 or more for the season. Spend $300 on a mower, put in the time, and you could shave hundreds off your yearly property maintenance costs. Also avoid regularly ordering in food, where you'll pay a 300% markup, and crank out some home-cooked goodness instead. If you substitute even one restaurant meal per week for one you prepare in your own kitchen, then you could easily save $15 a pop, which, over the course of the year, would add up to $800 in savings. The more you forgo convenience items, the more money you'll be able to bank.
4. Prioritize your health
There's a reason health plans offer free preventive care: It's in their best financial interest to have you stay healthy. Preventing health issues from arising or nipping them in the bud is worlds cheaper than having to pay for medical treatment. Eat better, make time to exercise, and see your doctor if you have a pesky cough, nagging pain, or any other health problem. A suspicious rash, for example, could be a sign of infection, but if you fail to get it looked at, it could lead to an ER visit or prolonged course of treatment. In this case, spending $25 on a doctor visit could help you avoid hundreds of dollars in hospital bills. Similarly, you may be inclined to neglect a toothache because you're not crazy about dental appointments or because you're avoiding that $100 visit fee. But if you ignore it and end up needing a root canal or two, then you could be looking at a $2,000 bill instead, not to mention a lot of prolonged pain.
5. Don't pass up free money
If your employer offers a matching contribution to your 401(k) plan, take it. Otherwise, you're giving up free money for no good reason. Furthermore, taking advantage of matching dollars can help you build up your balance early, leaving you more time for that money to grow. Let's say you max out your employer match and wind up with an extra $2,000 in your 401(k) plan. With an 8% return, over 30 years, that extra $2,000 can turn into $20,000.
Saving money is as much a mind-set as it is a goal. If you're serious about ramping up your savings in 2016, then you may need to change the way you think about money. Before you make a purchase, be it large or small, ask yourself: Do I really need this, and is there a way to get it for less? Embracing thriftiness as a way of life could spell the difference between a meager savings account balance and a stellar one come year's end.