To be fair, socking away a portion of your paycheck can seem daunting if not downright impossible, thanks to fun stuff like rising student loan debt and employment gaps, among other socioeconomic factors. But having even a little money stashed away in an emergency fund can mean the difference between getting that faulty car radiator fixed and walking five miles to work every day.
“The [emergency fund] goal is three to six months’ of fixed expenses, but that's hard for a lot of people,” says Shannah Compton Game, a certified financial planner and millennial money strategist. ”I would say if you have a regular, W-2-type job, maybe you aim for one to three months. If you’re self-employed or running your own business, lean more towards six-months-plus. I always tell people if you can only get to one month, consider that a victory. And once you get to one month maybe you try to get to the second month.”
Good advice, right? Yes, but not by way of being able to implement it. This time of the year, many people turn to the 52-Week Money Challenge, an incremental savings plan in which you bump up the amount you put away each week, starting with $1 during week one, $2 during week two, $3 during week three, and so on. After a year of the challenge, you will have saved $1,378. While it’s an easy-to-follow approach, the 52-week money challenge can get tricky during those final weeks, where your amount of savings could end up equaling a, uh, healthy percentage of your paycheck.
Don’t fear: There are better ways! Here, six financial experts weigh in with their favorite savings strategies—and some may land you way more bills in the bank.
6 super-smart ways to save meaningful money every single year
1. Set it and forget it
“My number-one savings strategy is automation: The trouble with the 52-Week Money Challenge is that it's a different amount each week, which makes it impossible to automate. That means relying on the faulty method of human willpower to save. Instead, let's use algorithms and the basics of automation to complement our feeble human powers to accomplish something machines are just better at anyway: Doing the same thing over and over again, at the same time, every time.
"In practice, this can be as simple as participating in a 401(k) plan or setting up a consistent transfer-to-savings each time you're paid or on a regular basis, like weekly or monthly. Another super automation strategy is to direct a portion of funds to savings through direct deposit with payroll. Automation takes the temptation to spend away by saving money before we get our grubby human hands on it.” —Kristen Euretig, CFP and founder of Brooklyn Plans.
2. Keep your $5 bills
“I know it sounds incredibly silly, but one technique I use is to save each $5 bill I get when paying for purchases in cash. Of course, lots of people don't even use cash much anymore—but if you do, then this is a great way to challenge yourself to save a little bit more. I saved over $1,000 in 2018 alone with this technique, and it all went into my honeymoon fund. You can also change the denomination to $1 if $5 feels too high.” —Erin Lowry, author of Broke Millennial Takes on Investing
3. Tackle the money game plan challenge
“I do another kind of 52-week challenge, if you will, where I break up [the year] into three-month increments. In the first three months we aim to save 5 percent of take-home pay. [Depending on your situation, it's possible you wont] even feel the difference in your bank account. And then once we hit three to six months, we’re aiming for 10 percent; and then at six to nine months, we’re aiming for 15 percent; and then nine to twelve months, we’re trying to stretch to 20 percent. And those are just goalpost markers.
"If you can only do 1 percent that's okay. Plan out your year spread where your end goal is maybe 5 to 10 percent. But I like the idea of, rather than setting a firm number, seeing if you can constantly stretch yourself to increase that savings percentage.”
—Shannah Compton Game
4. Calculate the price of your goal
“Saving can be a challenge because it is a form of delayed gratification. For some people that may feel like deprivation, and for others, it may just seem confusing—especially if they don’t know what the future holds. One idea to help is the tried-and-true action of goal setting. This helps with both the delayed-gratification dynamic, and confusion around why you are depriving yourself. By setting a financial goal, like buying a house, going on a trip, or upgrading some furniture, you have a future expectation of gratification. Once you have the sum of money you need to save determined, then you can figure out when you want or need to make the purchase. You can then divide the total amount by the number of pay periods, and save that amount each pay period, building up the proper amount by the time needed.” —Melissa Donohue, author of Financial Nutrition for Young Women
5. Cut expenses to save hundreds
“One percent of your day is only 15 minutes. Here are a few things you can tackle in about 15 minutes to save a couple hundred dollars or more over the course of a year:
- Check to see if your employer offers any discounts on cell phones, gym memberships, insurance, etc., and have them applied to your current services.
- Shop your car insurance, or call your current carrier to negotiate lower rates.
- Call your cell phone, cable, and/or internet provider to negotiate a lower bill.
- Call your bank and negotiate a lower interest rate on credit cards. If you are an excellent customer and accidentally made a late payment, ask them to waive the fee.
- Review your 401(k) contributions and increase them to maximize your employer's match.
- If you find yourself buying the same items (e.g. diapers and wipes) on a regular basis, set up a subscription through a service like Amazon or Target. Prices are lower, and you'll save time by having things shipped directly to you. You'll also be less likely to make impulse buys.”
—Cathy Derus, CPA, founder of Brightwater Accounting
6. Save your raises
“Even if you can't save much right now, you can and should increase your savings contributions as you progress in your career. For example, if you get a 5 percent raise this year, consider increasing the percentage of your salary that you're saving by 2 or 3 percent, too.” —Stefanie O'Connell, millennial money expert and author of The Broke and Beautiful Life
While you're paying attention to your savings plan, you might want to give your whole financial profile a refresh–here's how. And while money's important for a well life, don't forget the value of your time.
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