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5 Realistic Ways to Save Money

Get on the path to saving money by following these tips

Saving money and working toward a goal are never easy tasks to tackle. Whether you’re saving for a house, your first car, or a vacation, you will have to do battle with several psychological barriers to get there. It turns out we are almost hard-wired to be bad at saving money. Whether it’s our need for instant gratification, fear of missing out, or digital envy, everyone struggles to do the right thing and build up savings. 

It’s such a struggle that literally thousands of articles online detail all kinds of ways to save money—from “quick and easy” to “effective and simple”—but how do you know what is right for you? How do you know what might actually be a realistic way for you to save money?

Follow these five realistic ways to save money, and you’ll be well on the path to building that nest egg you always dreamed of, saving for the kid’s college tuition, or taking that long-awaited trip to Bali.

Figure Out How you Spend your Money now

The first step in saving money is to figure out how you are currently spending your cash today. You can’t plan for the future if you don’t have a good idea of what is going on at this moment. Getting a snapshot of where you stand today is an excellent way to figure out where you want to be down the road and where you might have some personal finance “blind spots.” 

Blind spots include things like reactively paying bills instead of focusing on and planning for them and proactively paying them. By planning for our bills rather than reacting to them, we can change the psychology around our spending behaviors and feel more in control of our money, rather than letting it control us.

Perhaps you fall into the “That will never happen to me” camp? In some ways, we all do because no one likes to think about or plan (or save, as it turns out) for the worst. According to a recent Bankrate study, nearly three in every ten households don’t have an emergency fund at all. While one in four does have a rainy-day fund, most don’t have enough in those savings to cover three months worth of living expenses, the amount recommended by leading experts. 

You may also be blind to small things that bleed your savings accounts dry—things like monthly subscriptions you never use or that smoothie you always get after your workout at the gym. These small things, usually adding up to less than $30 per month, can cost you in the long run. As this story at Business Insider points out, if you had three $30-per-month subscription services that you didn’t use, you’d end up wasting $1,100 per year. That’s money you could be putting toward your dream vacation or your 401(k).

There are plenty of tools out there to help you get ahold of your finances and give you a clear idea of how you are spending your money today. You can choose to use online tools like Personal Capital, Mint, or You Need a Budget to track spending. You can also do it the old-fashioned way and simply write down everything you spend. It’s best to track your spending for at least a month to get a good handle on where you might have a financial blind spot. Once you have a snapshot of how you spend, you can move onto the next (generally dreaded) step: making a budget.

Make and Stick to a Spending Plan (Don’t Use the “B” Word!)

Your parents probably drilled this one into you the same way that they insisted you eat your vegetables. That’s probably why most of us are so bad at it. 

Many argue that the sentiment around the word “budget” is on par with the way we feel about words like “dieting.” To us, it brings up thoughts of restriction, misery, denial, and ultimately deprivation. So how do you do battle with such negative connotations? Experts suggest changing your outlook on the topic.

For one, know that sticking to a budget and getting your financial house in order can improve your physical health and well-being. A 2018 study by LendingClub showed that financial and physical health were closely linked—the better off you were financially, the better you felt physically.

You can also reframe the idea of a budget: Think of it as a “spending plan” instead of some odious restrictions that you are required to follow. A number of psychologists say that reframing the way you think of a budget can help you work with your natural tendencies rather than fight them.

The basics of a spending plan at its elemental level deal with cash in versus cash out. To  create a sustainable spending plan, you should follow the well-known 50-30-20 rule. This rule allows for 50 percent of your income to go to your required needs (housing, food, transportation, etc.), 30 percent of your income to wants (new clothes, new shoes, a new lawn mower), and 20 percent of your income to savings and debt repayment. This kind of balance can make a budget or spending plan more palatable for your brain—and your life.

Pay Off That Pesky Debt (and Then Stay Out of Debt)

It’s no secret that debt is a problem for everyone. In July, consumer debt surged to record highs, and according to The Balance, the average credit card debt per household in May of 2019 was $8,402. That’s no small burden to carry. 

There are plenty of theories and suggestions about the best way to pay off debt—and oddly, a lot of them have snowy connotations. There’s the “snowball method” and the “avalanche method,” as well as several other debt repayment methods that gamify the payments to make them easier for people to pay off.

The simplest and most effective way to pay off debt is to tackle the debt that carries the highest interest rate first. That usually means tackling credit card debt first. Do your homework and list your debts by their interest rates, beginning with the highest rate. Bankrate suggests that you direct up to 20 percent of your income toward paying down particularly egregious credit card debt before you even start tackling savings. In most cases, this makes sense because you will be paying out more in interest on the debt than you could be earning by saving money. 

Once you have paid down your debt, it’s time to strive to keep away from those deadly credit cards. Do your best to operate within your household means and keep credit card spending down. If you do spend on a card, pay it off as soon as possible—don’t let the total amount due just pile up. Use your spending plan as a guideline and stick to it. 

Set a Realistic Savings Goal and “Pay Yourself First”

One of the key ways to ensure that you will be successful at saving is to set realistic goals for yourself and your family and always pay yourself first. 

To set a realistic goal, choose something you feel motivated to save for. It can be the purchase of a house, sending your kid to college, buying a boat, or simply taking a vacation. Whatever it is, research just how much you might need to save to reach that goal in your set period of time. Once you know how much money you need, put a plan into place to slowly move closer to your goal.

Your plan should include something that personal finance and retirement experts call the “pay yourself first” method. This method is an automatic form of savings in which you route part of your paycheck or income directly to a savings account or other investment account. Because it automates the savings, you don’t have to think about it, and the balance will slowly grow toward your goal.

Gamify Your Savings: Use the 10-percent Rule

It’s no secret—gamification, or applying game-playing rules to real life, can alter outcomes in the real world. There is evidence that gamifying savings works well, too. Plenty of apps you can download play into this idea and help you save. But if you aren’t interested in playing a savings game, perhaps the 10-percent rule will work for you.

The 10-percent rule states that when you aren’t sure exactly how much to save, aim to keep 10 percent of your income in a savings account each month. By aiming for (and knowing that it’s okay if you don’t always attain it) that 10 percent, you can always ensure that you are living below your means and putting away cash that will help move you closer to your savings goals.

By following these five tips for saving money, you’ll be sure to hit your savings goals and provide a secure and safe future for you and your loved ones.

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