Everyone knows they should be finding ways to save money for retirement, but when push comes to shove, Americans are really just terrible savers. Data from the Federal Reserve just this past August showed that close to one in five Americans aged 55-64 have nothing saved for their retirement. Drop the age groups in their entirety, and closer to one-third of all working Americans have nothing saved at all. It's a dangerous and slippery slope that has to change.
Ask Americans why they aren't saving, and you're likely to get a myriad of answers ranging from "I'll do it later," to "wanting to live in the moment" since you can't take it with you. Regardless of their reasoning, people are doing themselves a huge disservice by failing to line their piggy banks and invest their income since time is man's greatest ally. Investing in great businesses for the long term is the not-so-secret recipe to retiring comfortably, and on your own terms.
Of course, finding smart ways to save money isn't always easy. As noted above, there are plenty of excuses people don't save, and far fewer reasons people actually do save. With that in mind, let's take a look at 20 smart ways you can save money.
1. Stick to a budget: Perhaps the easiest way to put extra cash in your pockets is to maintain a proper budget. By getting a better understanding of your cash flow, you'll be in a better position to save money and position yourself for a comfortable retirement.
2. Go see your doctor: No one likes to go to the doctor, but keeping up on preventative care visits with your primary physician can help you catch chronic diseases and disorders early so you can avoid costly complications later on in life.
3. Ask for generic medicines when applicable: Along those same lines, if you're prescribed medicine, ask your doctor if there's a generic version of that medication available. Generics typically cost between 80%-90% less than branded drugs, and they're approved by the Food and Drug Administration with the same rigorous safety and quality standards as an innovator drug.
4. Use cash for purchases: When making purchases this holiday season, and beyond, consider using cash instead of credit. Since cash is a tangible asset, and spending it results in you having less cash in your possession, it tends to make consumers more choosey about what they purchase.
5. Pay down/off your credit card debt: Paying interest on credit card debt can be a killer -- just ask a revolving cardholder for J.C. Penney or Best Buy, who could be paying as much as 26.99% or 27.99% in annual interest on their balance. Therefore, it's important you limit what you put on your credit cards until you've zeroed your monthly carryover balance.
6. Get a no-fee rewards card: From grocery stores and drugstores to retailers, many now offer a no-fee rewards card you can use to rack up points toward discounts or free items in the future. Keep in mind these cards may try to entice you to spend more to get a free item, but if used correctly, they can help achieve welcome discounts over the long run.
7. Negotiate your rate: Most people know it's a good idea to negotiate price when purchasing a car, but it's a little-known fact that you can potentially negotiate your interest rate with credit card companies, as well as your bill with your local utility, such as a cable company. It doesn't mean you'll necessarily get the result you want, but enough people are successful that it's certainly worth trying.
8. Buy your goods online: Buying items online comes with two unique advantages. First, you have the ability to compare goods on an apples-to-apples basis at the click of a mouse. Secondly, in some instances, you may be able to purchase items without paying sales tax, which can add up to big bucks on a large purchase.
9. Take advantage of employer-sponsored programs: Fully explore what discounted programs your employer might offer. Discounted gym memberships and reduced auto or home insurance rates are two common employer-based perks, but there may be plenty of other applicable discounts at your disposal.
10. Take good care of your car: Doing the simple things like inflating your tires to the right pressure, changing your air filter, getting a timely oil change, and not driving like Richard Petty at Daytona can extend the life of your car and save you from expensive car repairs.
11. Consider public transportation: Tired of sitting in traffic on your morning commute? Consider hitching a ride via public transportation. Chances are that riding the bus or taking a train is significantly cheaper than the gas you'd be wasting in your car sitting in traffic. Not to mention, having fewer cars on the road is beneficial for the environment.
12. Get a home energy audit from your local utility: Ask your local gas or electric utility company to come to your home and provide you with an energy audit. The advice you receive, or the implementations you make, may cost a little upfront, but it could save you a lot of money over the long run.
13. Refinance your mortgage or other big loan: Lending rates are still near historic lows, so if you're paying a considerably higher interest rate on your mortgage, home equity line of credit, or for a large personal loan, now could be a good time to refinance that debt. Although refinancing does cost money, you can often roll those costs back into the loan with minimal to no immediate out-of-pocket costs to you.
14. Consider banking with a credit union: As banking fees become more transparent, larger banks have begun raising fees in order to increase their profitability. These include checking fees for those who don't maintain a minimum account balance. Most credit unions, however, don't have a minimum balance fee and are thus a smart choice for consumers looking to avoid monthly checking account fees.
15. Use coupons: Coupons might be used to hook you on a product or for grocery stores to get a better bead on your shopping habits, but for the consumer, they can be free money if used properly. The next time you head to the grocery store, don't forget your coupons!
16. Make your own food: Americans spent $683 billion at restaurants in 2013. An easy way to reduce that amount is to consider eating at home or bringing your own lunch to work once in a while. Not having to pay the premium price of having a meal prepared for you could result in big savings.
17. Invest in tax-advantaged accounts: As an investor, one of the best ways to save money is to open or contribute to a tax-advantage retirement account such as a Roth IRA. A Roth IRA doesn't provide any upfront tax benefit, but any capital gains earned in a Roth IRA will grow completely tax-free for life as long as you don't make any unqualified withdrawals. Just imagine the money you can save in taxes over a lifetime!
18. Think long term: When it comes to investing, there's a big difference between long-term and short-term capital gains. Short-term capital gains are taxed as ordinary income (up to 39.6%) while long-term gains (equities held a year or longer) are typically taxed at 0%, 15%, or 20%. Holding for the long term can save you big bucks when you decide to sell.
19. Reduce or cut out vice product consumption: Vice products like tobacco and alcohol can be addictive, and the companies making these products usually have strong pricing power. Reducing your consumption of these products, or eliminating them in their entirety, can ultimately translate into big savings.
20. Set up auto payments on basic expenses: Lastly, consider setting up an auto payment plan for your most basic bills to ensure they're never late. Late payments can expose you to late fee as well as higher lending rates if it's a revolving account.
I wouldn't expect that all of these ways to save money will apply to everyone, but there's certainly a nugget of money-saving wisdom in here for all of us.
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.
The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.