Published February 17, 2014
Getting on top of your finances can be a real bear.
On paper the idea sounds simple, but in real life, it’s easier said than done.
By the time you pay down your consumer debt, chip away at student loans, dole out money for the mortgage, what’s left for saving for your kid’s college education, not to mention your own retirement? The list of demands for your savings is long, yet online tools and advice from advisors suggest we can make it work—we just need to rethink our approach.
“Budget has the same emotional response as the word diet,” says Klontz. “Think about craving cheeseburgers and not eating them. Subconsciously we resist.”
Then there’s the tug-of-war between the hear-and-now and the distant future. Is it chocolate cake today, or some relatively-unknown reward 30 years down the road, explains Ravi Dhar, director of the Yale Center for Customer Insights “We just don’t feel it.”
Indeed, it is a problem. While experts recommend saving at least 10% to 15% of income for retirement yearly, a recent TIAA-CREF survey shows 44% of respondents who haven’t retired are saving 10% or less of their annual income. Another 21% aren’t saving at all.
Not only are we not saving enough, we are living longer, increasing our retirement fund needs. The survey shows 72% of respondents don’t know whether their retirement plan has a lifetime income option. It’s not about your bank account, but the need to convert that nest egg into lifetime income, says Daniel Keady, a certified financial planner and senior director of financial planning at TIAA-CREF.
Even Millennials, who take saving seriously especially when it comes to pegging savings with the needs of their current life stage, seem relatively unconcerned about retirement, according to MassMutual’s 2013 State of the American Family study. The 401(k) may be a reality for them, says Tracy Shaw, an assistant vice president at MassMutual, but more than half have not yet figured out how much money they’ll need to retire.
If anything, the MassMutual study says younger generations are more concerned with taking care of their aging parents and scratching their heads about how they will do it.
Good intentions notwithstanding, experts agree the saving versus spending conundrum is potentially overwhelming. Here are expert tips to get a healthy handle on saving:
Get real. If retirement sounds far away and “a rainy day fund” sounds kind of depressing, it’s time to rename these goals, advises Klontz. For short-term savings objectives, identify what you want to buy, be it a dream vacation to Hawaii or your youngster ensconced at your alma mater. The same extends to retirement. What does retirement look like to you: a house near the ocean, writing the next great novel, or helping kids in Africa? Visualize it. Then put a picture on your fridge so you can see it, Klontz recommends. “Do whatever to get the emotional part of your brain excited.”
Much like when you’re dieting, being specific leads to progress. Saying you’ll start saving Jan. 1 will likely get you nowhere, says Jamie Rosen, founder and CEO of dietbetter. Saying you’ll save $2.00 a week over the next month is likely to get results.
Dhar recommends identifying how much money you want to have socked away at various ages. Sixty-five may be hard to visualize, but intermediate goals targeted to 30, 40, and 50 will shorten your timeframes, making them more measurable.
Get started. The decision to save is based on a cumulative series of prudent choices, says Dhar. “You tell yourself you’ll save tomorrow and tomorrow never comes.” Any one month that you don’t save is not terrible, but a series of those choices over your lifetime has consequences.
And, starting early pays off, says Amy Podzius, a financial consultant at TIAA-CREF. While it’ important to save as much as you can, don’t think you have to stash away lots of money to shore up your savings or start investing, says Keady. Little bits work, and online tools and calculators will make the concept more real for you.
Make savings planning a family affair. Leaving a legacy is not just about providing an inheritance to your children. It’s also about passing down values, says Klontz. The money scripts we teach our children can be beneficial or crippling, even when we say we want our children to be well-prepared to manage their finances. Shaw advises having money conversations as a family and across generations to set spending and saving goals to keep everyone budget conscious.
Put your savings on autopilot. We’re leaving money on the table when we don’t contribute the maximum allowable amount to our retirement plan, says Podzius.
A precommittment to increase your 401(k) contribution by a percentage equivalent to your yearly raise will help you grow your pretax dollars before the money even hits your wallet, adds Dhar. Eliminating temptation is also important and he recommends daily strategies like less mall visits, carrying only a small amount of cash in your wallet or leaving your credit cards at home to reduce spending.
Hold your feet to the fire. When you do spend, ask yourself what else you could have done with the money, suggests Dhar. Making this a practice enables you to track your purchases and better analyze your spending habits.
Commitments also carrymore weight when we make them known to others, says Rosen, especially if we tack on a penalty for noncompliance. Bet on yourself. For example, if excessive dining out has burned a hole in your pocket, announce you’ll limit yourself to say, two dinners out a week for the next month. If you fail, tell your friend you’ll pony up $100. “It's all stick and no carrot but it's effective. People hate losing their hard-earned money.”
Go social. Sharing money-saving ideas or picking up tips from pen-pal like social media acquaintances on free sites like Mint.com and Moneyning can keep the process exciting. You might even consider injecting some enjoyable healthy competition, suggests Dhar.
Starting a money-saving competition not only holds you accountable, says Rosen. It also makes you more likely to stick with a savings plan and helps take your mind off your struggles.