Saving money is essential to a secure future, yet according to a recent Bankrate survey, one in five Americans is saving nothing at all, and 65% of Americans are saving below the minimum recommended rate of 10% of income.
Why aren't more of us saving the money we need? For 40% of Americans, the problem is that expenses take up too much money and make saving impossible. While covering expenses can indeed be a challenge, the good news is almost every family can find ways to cut spending so they can save more.
Here are some tips to help you slash your expenses so you can join the minority of Americans saving enough cash each year.
1. Make a budget
According to a Willis Tower Watson survey, just 35% of people have a budget, but around half of budgeters describe themselves as having no current or future money worries. Among spenders without a budget, only a quarter said they weren't worried about money at all -- and most were far more likely to be living paycheck-to-paycheck.
Making a budget may not be fun, but you can't tackle your expenses until you figure out where you're overspending and impose limits. To make your budget, start by tracking spending for about a month to figure out where money is going. Then, divide spending into different categories and set monthly maximums for each type of spending.
You could do this by taking a very broad approach, limiting spending on essential needs to 50% of your income, reserving 30% for wants, and saving 20%. You could also make a detailed budget specifying how much you'll spend on dining out, groceries, rent, utilities, cellphones, clothes, and every other item you buy on a monthly basis.
Whatever approach you take, the two steps that are most important are tracking your spending to see where your money is going and then setting realistic limits on spending while reserving enough money to save.
2. Tackle the big stuff
Chances are good that as you make your budget, you'll find expenses take up most or all of your income -- and maybe even exceed your income. Obviously, when you make this discovery, you'll need to find areas to cut.
Many people start looking for relatively small expenses to trim, such as cutting back on cable or spending less on entertainment. While it's important to do that (and we'll provide some tips on how in the next section), it takes a lot of little changes to make a big impact.
Instead of nickel-and-diming your way to prosperity, take a look at the big stuff -- housing, transportation, taxes, food, and utilities -- which eat up almost 65% of the paychecks of the average American. If you can find ways to save on these expenditures, you'll have ample extra cash. Some of the ways you could do that include:
- Downsizing to a smaller and cheaper home or getting a roommate in your existing house. According to a Trulia study, renters could save, on average, an amount of money equal to 13% of their city's median income by having a roommate.
- Investing as much as possible in tax-advantaged retirement accounts such as a 401(k) or IRA to cut taxes and accomplish savings goals at the same time. A $5,500 IRA contribution would cut your tax bill by $1,210 if you're in the 22% tax bracket, so the contribution would only cost you $4,290.
- Buying inexpensive and reliable used cars and driving them forever. If you pay cash for used cars and save extra money you'd normally spend on car payments, you could end up with more than $500,000 by the time you retire just from this savings alone.
- Becoming a one-car or no-car household. If you can share a car with your spouse or switch to relying on public transportation and ride shares, you'd have a lot of extra cash -- AAA found car ownership costs almost $9,000 annually, not including car payments.
- Making energy-efficient upgrades to your home such as switching to compact fluorescent light bulbs, adjusting the thermostat to use less heat or air conditioning, and unplugging electronic devices when not in use to avoid phantom electricity, which could add as much as $20 to $30 monthly to your electric bill.
- Making a meal plan. The average family in America throws out $1,365 to $2,275 worth of wasted food each year, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. If you plan your meals for the week and buy only what you need, you can reduce waste and have a lot more money for your future.
If you can make just one big lifestyle change, chances are good that alone would free up the money you need to save at least 10% of income. Just be sure you actually dedicate extra funds to saving by setting up automatic contributions to a retirement account and other savings accounts. Do this right away before you start using the money for something else.
3. Cut small expenses
Big changes make a huge impact, but small changes can add up. Some ways to cut your other routine expenses include:
- Institute a 24-hour rule before purchases: This will help to cut down on impulse buys and give you time to shop around for the best deals.
- Have a no-spend challenge: See how many days you can go in a month without spending on anything other than necessities (and define what a necessity is first). This can work especially well if you compete with a partner or friend to see who can go the most days in the month without spending, as the competition may inspire you to come up with creative solutions instead of buying new things.
- Use coupons and discounted gift cards: You can often get gift cards on sale around the holidays or from resellers for stores where you'd shop anyway.
- Eat out the right way: You don't have to give up on dining out, but opt for a late lunch instead of a more expensive dinner and skip the expensive drinks while dining out.
- Look for free sources of entertainment: Take a walk or host a movie screening of a free streaming movie instead of hitting up the mall or paying to see a film. Look for free concerts and events in your area, too.
You don't have to live a life of deprivation to save money -- just be purposeful and make sure the things you're spending on are actually things you get enough enjoyment out of that they're worth your hard-earned dollars.
You really can spend less and save more
While there are definitely some families whose paychecks truly don't go far enough and who won't be able to save no matter what cuts they make unless income goes up, this isn't the case for many of us.
By changing the way you use your money so you prioritize savings instead of spending on "essentials" that really aren't essential, you can put much more money in savings and set yourself up for a lot more financial security. Being able to cover emergency costs and retire without worry is worth the sacrifice.