With the economic downturn still fresh in the minds of most Americans, you’d think rates of saving would be climbing through the roof. Surely people recognize — at long last — the need to sock away more money. After all, the job market is unstable, the stock market uncertain, and housing values notoriously unreliable. But one recent study showed that American savings rates have increased only slightly in the past decade, from 2.9% to 3.6%. That’s substantially less than Americans were saving in the 1980s, and much lower than savings rates in some other developed countries.
So what’s to be done? How can we ramp up our savings? Clearly, cutting back on cable television channels, packing a lunch once a week, or dropping a magazine subscription won’t generate substantial savings. If you’re really committed to building wealth, it’s essential to focus on the big stuff. For many Americans, that means attacking household debt with a vengeance.
If your credit card payment is big, your car payment bigger, and your mortgage payment even bigger, your savings accounts may be starved. And without enough cash to cover emergencies, many folks resort to credit cards and lines of credit to cover unforeseen expenses. So the cycle continues.
How can you get ahead of the curve? First, build up an emergency fund before life’s inevitable crises happen. How much should you set aside? The general rule is enough to cover three to six months of living expenses. As a first step, track your expenses for a month. Discover how much you really spend on groceries, utilities, and dinners out. Then project those expenses out three to six months.
Next, look at your income. How stable is your job? Do you have one or two salaries? How long might it take to find another job in your field? Use those factors to determine the target for your emergency account. Finally, think about where to stash your savings. You want the funds to be available — without withdrawal penalties or tax consequences — when you need them. With that in mind, a money-market or interest-paying savings account is often the best place to park an emergency fund.
How can you stay on track? Once you have an emergency fund, follow these steps to keep your savings plan on track.
Treat your savings as your most important monthly bill. Write a check to savings first, or have your savings automatically deducted from your checking account or paycheck.
Tax-deferred retirement accounts offer a smart way for you to save money for retirement. If your employer offers a 401(k) or SIMPLE retirement plan, contribute the maximum amount allowed. If your employer offers no plan, contribute to an individual retirement account (IRA). The money you contribute to a retirement account can reduce your taxable income and grow tax-free until withdrawn.
When it comes to saving, think “control.” For example, control the use of your credit cards. The amount you pay each month in finance charges could go to savings instead. Also, control the use of your ATM card. Get in the habit of giving yourself a regular cash allowance, and try to live with it.
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