Do you have trouble finding cash to set aside in your savings account? You're not alone. Just two out of five American households report "good or excellent progress in meeting their savings needs," according to a recent survey by America Saves Week.
Fortunately, there are simple ways to boost your savings. Here are six ideas to get you started.
1. Set up automatic contributions to your savings accounts
A critical part of a successful savings strategy is actually putting your money into an account where it can accumulate, and there's no better way to pay yourself first than to automate your savings.
In employer-sponsored 401(k) plans, contributions are often made automatically whenever an employee is paid, but you can easily automate contributions to your other accounts. Banks and financial firms allow consumers to schedule regular money transfers to a savings or money market account.
When you automate your savings, you build savings into your monthly budget, just like an automated payment to a utility company. Plus, it's more convenient and efficient than scheduling transfers or writing checks every month, said Brent Neiser, Senior Director of Strategic Programs and Alliances at the National Endowment for Financial Education. It's a way, he said, to be "saving while you're sleeping."
Of course, how much you have to save often depends on how much you're able to cut back on your spending. That's where the next five tips come in.
2. Don't underestimate the power of grocery store coupons and sales...
There are certain large expenses that you can't do much to change, like your monthly rent or mortgage payment. But one major expense may be largely within your control: food.
Americans spent an average of $7,023 on food in 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics, making it the third-highest household expense after housing and transportation.
Intent on taking a bite out of your grocery bill? The way to do it is to plan your grocery list around coupons and sales listed in your grocery store's circular, says Stephanie Nelson, the founder of CouponMom.com, a site that aggregates sales, coupons, and promotions.
"You could save 25 percent off your grocery bill just by planning your shopping list around what's on sale on the store that week," Nelson said. "When you talk about adding to your savings over the course of the year, that's significant."
Of course, in the digital age, many people don't get newspapers delivered to their homes, meaning they miss out on the coupons often included within their pages. Fortunately, many coupons are now available online, through smartphone apps offered by various stores or straight from the manufacturer if you subscribe to email updates.
Several online programs, Nelson noted, also provide cash back for certain purchases for customers who upload their grocery bills. One coupon caution: Only buy what you know you'll eat; otherwise you may end up throwing out the food and with it any coupon savings.
3. ...but be "brand flexible" and strategic in your shopping
It helps to be "brand flexible" when shopping -- if your favorite shampoo isn't on sale but a similar one is, you could buy the less expensive one, for instance, Nelson said.
It's also important to make sure that what's advertised as a deal really does save you money. For example, you may have a coupon for brand-name mustard, but even with that coupon, it may still be more expensive than the store-brand mustard.
"Just because you have the coupon, it doesn't mean you have to use it," Nelson said.
4. Review your recurring expenses and look for better deals
Certain "fixed" expenses may not be so fixed after all.
"A real big one that people miss a lot is monthly or bimonthly expenses such as your cable bill or your phone plan," said NEFE's Neiser.
You might want to see if you can save money by changing service providers or by talking to your current provider about less expensive plans that would still meet your needs, Neiser said.
"Are there parts of what you're paying for on a regular basis that you don't use? Ask the customer service representative, 'What's an alternative if I didn't want a premium channel on my bill?"
(In some cases, you may find it worthwhile to cut out certain monthly expenses completely, such as an unused gym membership, as The Alert Investor recently reported. Learn more at Subscriber Beware: The Trouble With Recurring Charges.)
In the case of insurance, it's also worth checking if your current provider is willing to give you a discount based on something you've done, Neiser added. Property insurance companies, for instance, may give discounts for certain structural improvements, while car insurance companies may give discounts to drivers who have taken defensive driving courses.
5. Take advantage of free public entertainment and recreation opportunities
It's may be a little too easy these days to buy a book with a few clicks or to stream a movie to your computer or TV. But it's important to remember, Neiser said, that public libraries still provide books and DVDs for free, and taking advantage of these library offerings can help you cut back on your entertainment spending.
In a blog post for the National Library Association, library staffer Alan Mask said that members of his library -- La Crosse Public Library in Wisconsin -- could access shows more quickly through the library's DVD collection than through paid streaming services.
"We buy enough copies and circulate them fast enough to ensure that I can get the new titles long before they are available through Netflix streaming," Mask wrote. He added that while a streaming service can be cheap, "free (at the library) is the best price."
If you're interested taking part in an educational activity, libraries also often offer enrichment classes or access to virtual online courses. The public library of Billings, Montana, for instance, boasts access to more than 500 free continuing education courses on subjects ranging from gardening to web development for their library card holders, while the New York Public Library offers more than 3,000 online courses to card holders.
If you're interesting in more physical activities, public parks and recreation centers often offer opportunities for athletic activities free of charge or for at a relatively low cost, making them a more affordable alternative to health clubs.
"Parks, recreation centers and libraries," Neiser said, "can provide entertainment and learning in a very low cost package." Tapping into such local resources, he added, can help you "feel great pride in your community."
6. Shop around for a better bank account
Interest rates are still relatively low, but that doesn't mean all bank accounts are created equal. Internet savings accounts, for instance, tend to offer higher interest rates than savings accounts at brick-and-mortar banks because they don't have to contend with the costs of operating physical branches, said Ken Tumin, founder of Deposit Accounts, a bank account comparison website. (Learn more about online savings accounts here.)
Consumers may also be interested in exploring so-called "high-yield reward checking accounts" -- checking accounts with relatively high interest rates. Customers may be eligible for higher interest rates if they meet certain minimum activity requirements, such as those related to debit card use or direct deposits. Such accounts may not always be a good replacement for savings accounts, however. High-yield reward checking accounts may stipulate maximum balances to limit how much they pay in interest, Tumin noted. Be sure to read the fine print.