We are no longer a nation of savers. In fact, says the National Center for Financial Education, the forces in our society promoting spending are far greater than groups motivating people to save money. Our national rate of saving discretionary dollars last year was just over 41/2 cents on the dollar, says NCFE, a non-profit education organization based in San Diego.
Learning to be a better saver is often a matter of learning to be a better spender, says Paul Richard, director of education at NCFE. "Everyday spending decisions have a greater impact on our financial future than do our investment decisions." These include such things as buying regularly from convenience stores or vending machines, how often to eat out this week, how much to spend on new clothes or furniture, how often to go to the grocery store, whether you shop sales and even how much to borrow for a new car."Money poorly spent erodes savings," says Richard. "A regular saver is one who saves a portion of all income received. Developing the new habit is a combination of utilizing better spending techniques and developing some financial self-discipline."
Here are some how-to tips from NCFE:
1. Begin saving a dollar (or dollars if you can afford more) a day and all pocket change. Save every day, including weekends. This should average $50 a month. It's important to save this way for at least a month before opening up a separate savings account to be sure you get into the habit. Doing something every day will become habit-forming in about three weeks.
2. Establish a payroll deduction plan for Series EE Savings Bonds. They are a good, safe investment and sell for one-half their face value from $25 for a $50 bond to $5,000 for a $10,000 bond. The government guarantees a 6 percent return on bonds held for at least five years. Interest earned is free of state and local taxes. Federal taxes are deferred until the bonds are redeemed, and if you meet stringent requirements, interest from Series EE bonds may be completely exempt from federal income taxes if the proceeds are used to fund college tuition.
3. Conduct a written review of all income and outgo, paying special attention to cash purchases. Separate expenses by fixed (a house payment or rent, car payments, etc.) and flexible expenses you control (groceries, utilities, entertainment, etc.). If money isn't regularly going into savings, it's going someplace. A cash-flow review is a good way to find out where.
People sometimes take the wrong approach to saving by trying to set up a budget, which does little but tell them where to cut back and what to do without. A more positive approach, says NCFE, is a spending and savings plan. This way you get to spend money, except you plan carefully in advance where it will go. As a guide, no single payment should be greater than any paycheck. Also, if monthly consumer installment debt payments exceed 20 percent of take-home pay after deducting house or rent payments, there is real danger of getting financially out of kilter.
4. Grocery and household items purchased account for more than 30 cents of every dollar earned. Plan grocery trips, use a list, don't go shopping hungry or with other family members, keep non-food items off the grocery list, take advantage of coupons and sales, avoid the aisles and shop the walls where they keep the basics; buy bulk and freeze where possible.
5. Spend cash, especially for things like groceries and household items. Nothing impacts the mind like peeling cash from the wallet. It causes us to think ahead for tomorrow's needs.
6. Ask for cash discounts, especially on major purchases. When asking for those cash discounts, be sure to talk with a manager or supervisor, and don't do it with an audience. Have the cash ready to lay out on the counter when making an offer. The fear of losing a cash sale often motivates a deal, especially with car, furniture and home electronics stores. Wait for special sales and ask when an item is coming on sale. Retailers will tell you to avoid having your spend at their competitors. Take advantage of rebates.
7. If you have credit cards, limit their use to essential purchases. Note in the checkbook register all charge purchases and deduct the money from the account balance as a way of insuring money will be there to pay the bill. Get rid of all but one or two of the most universally accepted credit cards and shop around for no or low annual fees and lower interest rates.
Some people feel they aren't abusing their credit cards because they are able to pay charge purchases in full each month. However, the real issue should be: Is there anything left over regularly going into savings each month? Think accumulation, not consumption.
8. Conduct a complete review of insurance coverage. This should include life, health, income, motor vehicle, household, property and casualty. Determine if it is adequate and ascertain if there is any coverage unneeded or if the same coverage can be had for less money. Can you afford higher deductibles? Unless you are uninsurable, avoid things like credit life, credit disability and credit property insurance and specialty coverage for things like travel accident, cancer and death or dismemberment policies.
9. Do things for yourself you might otherwise pay others for, like lawn maintenance, car washes, simple repairs, etc. Most of us can paint a room in our homes. Preparing a new recipe at home can pay huge rewards - dining out is among the worst dollar values. Renting videos for home viewing, especially for larger families, can save on the entertainment expense. Look around for free entertainment opportunities, concerts, exhibits, tours, etc.
10. Turn a hobby or craft into an income opportunity. Give gifts that don't cost out-of-pocket money, such as baby-sitting time, a special outing for a senior or home-baked breads for singles. Have a garage sale and sell off things you are no longer using. If you haven't used an item in the past year, consider selling it.