Compared to the rest of the developed world, Americans aren't very good savers. The latest data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis shows that the U.S. personal savings rate is 5.1%. While this is a vast improvement from the 2% to 4% rate between 2005 and 2007, it's still well below the 8.4% average savings rate of the cumulative 1959-2015 period in the United States.
By comparison, examination of personal savings rates from the 34 developed countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, or OECD, in 2011 yielded 10 countries with savings rates above 9%! Citizens in Ireland, France, and Germany socked away 19.3%, 16%, and 11.4% of their respective income as of 2011.
Seven ways you can save money with minimal effort
This vast disparity in savings rates compounded with so many Americans (see the state of baby boomers) struggling to reach their retirement goals is a slap in the face for Americans to get off their behinds and put a plan of action in place to save money. Yet, even though we know we should be making a better effort to save money, some of us still don't t.
With that in mind, today we're going to look at seven ingenious ways you can save money over the short and long term while putting forth as little effort as possible. That's right, my fellow procrastinators, I'm talking to you so listen up!
1. Use tax-advantaged retirement accounts
I believe one of the smartest moves you can make is to open up and max out your contribution to a Roth IRA. A Roth IRA is a retirement account that provides no up-front tax benefit, but allows your investments to grow completely free of taxation for life as long as you make no unqualified withdrawals. There's also no minimum distribution requirement with a Roth, and you can continue making contributions past age 70. Keep in mind that Roth IRAs do have income limitations, which you can view on the IRS' website.
If you don't qualify for a Roth, a traditional IRA could be a smart move. You will pay ordinary income tax on your investment gains when you begin making withdrawals, but there's an up-front dollar-for-dollar tax benefit on your contribution that helps lower your taxable income in the current calendar tax year. Also, traditional IRA contributions stop at age 70 and you must take a required minimum distribution before age 70 1/2 and every year thereafter.
Lastly, don't forget about employee-sponsored 401(k)s, which, like a traditional IRA, allow your money to grow on a tax-deferred basis. The maximum employee contribution limit in 2015 is $18,000.
2. Go see your doctor regularly
We may not be thrilled to go to the doctor, but over the long haul, it could be one of the smartest moves we make. Getting regular checkups with your primary care physician allows him or her a better opportunity to spot diseases and disorders early before they become a serious and potentially costly problem for you later in life.
This is one of the long-tail, cost-control methods the Affordable Care Act employs. The presumption is that if more people have access to health insurance, they'll be more likely to visit their doctor and get regular checkups. This should lead to early detection and prevention long before diseases or disorders get costly for the patient and health-benefits provider.
3. Take advantage of today's low lending rates to refinance your debts
If you're like most Americans, you see lending rates tick up 25 basis points and you sit on your hands, refusing to pull the trigger until the rates come back down again. I'm here to tell you that doing so is just plain silly.
Over the last six years, the Federal Reserve has kept its federal funds target rate at historic lows. The lending rate you can get at your local bank or credit union now is almost assuredly lower than anything we've seen prior to 2009. Thus, if you have a pre-2009 loan (either a mortgage, home equity line of credit, commercial loan, or auto loan) still unpaid, it might be time to lower your monthly payment by contacting your bank and refinancing. This way, you can pocket the difference into your savings or investment account.
4. Be a smart shopper
I freely admit that I'm a terrible consumer in that I generally despise all forms of shopping, but that doesn't mean you can't save money while spending your money.
For instance, if you buy goods online, you may not have to pay sales tax. In addition, online sites typically have lower overhead costs than bricks-and mortar stores, meaning you'll often get more competitive prices.
Also, consider buying in bulk (be a Costco-type shopper). As a single guy, this doesn't work that well for me, but for the tens of millions of families in the U.S., buying in bulk can save substantial amounts of money over the long run.
For those of you willing to put forth a little extra effort, consider using coupons when hitting the grocery store. In 2012, 2.9 billion coupons were redeemed for total savings to the American consumer of approximately $800 million!
Finally, consider using cash anytime you can. Even though credit cards can offer rewards, there are no strings attached to using cash. Thus, no worries about late fees, interest charges, or annual fees when breaking out the Benjamins.
5. Cut vices out of your life
Are you a smoker or an alcoholic beverage connoisseur? Well cut it out -- literally! The amount of money you can save by cutting vices out of your life can be staggering at times.
Last year, my Foolish colleague Selena Maranjian looked at cigarette costs per pack in all 50 states. The data, which came from TheAwl.com, examined how much it would cost an individual to smoke a pack of cigarettes per day over the course of a year and over 20 years (assuming no inflation). New York, which led the nation with a $12.65-per-pack price, would cost $4,690 over one year and $93,805 over 20 years. By comparison, if you saved and invested that $4,690 each year and managed an 8% rate of return (which is the historical average of the stock market), you would have $253,300 in 20 years. Note: If you invested in dividend-paying companies and upped your dollar savings amount by the rate of inflation, the difference would be even more magnified.
So do yourself a favor and give up those vices.
6. Be smart about your car
Another easy way to save yourself money now and over the long run is to be smart about your car.
For example, keeping up on simple maintenance such as regular fluid changes and manufacturer-recommended services helps keep your car running in tip-top shape. The alternative? If you ignore these preventative repairs, you could wind up paying a fortune for a new engine or transmission, not to mention the costs for towing your car to your mechanic as well as higher labor costs associated with more intensive repairs.
Also, how you drive can help save you money. I'm not talking about using your AC or driving with the windows down, either. Instead, I mean driving courteously and following the rules of the road so as to avoid traffic citations or increase your chances of a collision. A clean driving record could save you hundreds of dollars or your family more than $1,000 per year in insurance premium costs.
7. Make some sacrifices around the house
Lastly, consider making a few sacrifices around your home to save some extra money.
For instance, lowering your thermostat by a single degree in the winter time will save about 3% annually on your heating costs. This works out to about $20 per year for natural gas customers and $27 per year for the electric heating costs.
Sticking with thermostats, pre-setting your thermostat to be active when you're home and not so much when you're away could save the average American household around $180 per year. Smart thermostat devices such as Nest could quickly pay for themselves over the long run.
Finally, consider cooking for yourself at home rather than dining out so much. Preparing food in your own home will almost always work out to lower costs than what you'll find on a restaurant menu, and you'll save the gas money to get to the restaurant in the process.
The tools to save money are certainly within reach of the average American; the question now is whether they'll take the minimal but necessary steps to begin saving for retirement.
Sean Williams has no material interest in any companies mentioned in this article. You can follow him on CAPS under the screen name TMFUltraLong, track every pick he makes under the screen name TrackUltraLong, and check him out on Twitter, where he goes by the handle @TMFUltraLong.
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