Some time ago, a financial advisor who was helping me figure out what to do with a small inheritance remarked that I have a special talent for accruing savings by bits and pieces. Well, that does appear to be the case. As we noted the other day, by the end of this year my emergency fund will exceed $24,000—above and beyond the $21,000 squirreled away last year to pay off the Renovation Loan for the downtown house.
So…how d’you do that?
Truth to tell, I don’t know how others would do it. But here are the basics that work for me:
1. Get out of debt and stay out of debt.
At the outset of my financial journey, I paid off a five-year car loan in 18 months by adding principal prepayments to each regular monthly payment. This freed up the $300/month payments to put into savings. Within a few years, I also paid off the $80,000 mortgage on my house, partly by renting space in my home and using the income to deal with the mortgage.
Debt consumes an enormous amount of your income. Freeing yourself of debt payments effectively “increases” your income even if you never get a raise—you end up with more money to spend or save.
2. Build savings into your budget.
“Pay yourself first” is the operative principle here. This is another way of saying “spend less than you earn.” As I was paying off car and real estate loans, I also set aside a small amount for savings each month. Bare minimum has always been $200 a month. As debts dissolve, some or all of the amount you’ve freed up by paying down debt can be added to the monthly savings.
When you create a budget, an effective way to create savings is to find a place to put every dollar of income. In other words, rather than estimating what you spend on each category (such as food, housing, utilities, transportation) and stopping when those categories are accounted for, build a set categories that will account for your entire net income. One of the categories should be “monthly savings.” This approach is sometimes called “zero-based budgeting.”
My own approach to budgeting was to carefully track expenditures for a month or two, using Quicken or Excel. This provides a picture of where and how much you’re spending. Expense categories become evident after a month or so of observation. This exercise not only allows you to see where your money is going, it gives you some clues to where you might rein in unruly spending habits (for example, have you run amok at restaurants? did you really need all those clothes?).
Once I understood my spending patterns, I established reasonable amounts for each category, including a category for savings. Any difference between income and expenditure was added to the “savings” category. Raises in pay resulted in raises in savings; although I might not devote the entire raise to increasing saving (you do have to get a life sometime, after all), I did pay myself better savings on the rare occasions the university gave me an increase.
3. Build side income streams.
Find ways to earn above and beyond the income from your day job. A master’s degree in anything will get you an adjunct teaching job at a community college. Night courses are a lot of fun to teach, because they’re full of adults who are there because they want to be there. Such gigs are not well paid, but every buck counts. I put all my net pay from teaching directly into savings.
You’re not forced to stop with just one side job. If you have a marketable hobby, if you enjoy collecting junk and selling it in yard sales, if you can trade a skill or a product for someone else’s skill, products, or dollars, you can create income that also can build your savings account. In addition to adjunct teaching, I also indulge in freelance editing. Every penny that comes in from that endeavor goes…yep! Right into savings.
Besides helping to build savings, secondary income streams have an enormous potential benefit: you still have them if you’re laid off your day job. Having the experience and contacts in teaching and editing will allow me to ramp up both those enterprises in my coming enforced retirement, and, as we have seen, will support me in the manner to which I intend to remain accustomed even if I never get another full-time job.
4. Take full advantage of your employer’s 401(k) or 403(b) plan.
If your employer matches contributions to a retirement plan, for heaven’s sake, go for it! Every dollar your employer puts in means twice as much long-term savings for you.
Allocate these investments intelligently, putting 50 or 60 percent in stocks and 40 or 50 percent in bonds and the money market. You have to assume some risk to make money in your investments; keeping it all in so-called “safe” instruments means your total savings will not keep up with inflation. Though the market does drop every now and again (sometimes with operatic drama!), over time losses and gains level out and and your investments build principal. Put your money in low-load funds to the extent possible (if your employer allows you to invest with Vanguard or Fidelity, these are good choices), because management fees eat into profits at an amazing rate.
Outside of an employment-related plan, go for Roth IRAs. Although these are after-tax instruments, they have the advantage that withdrawals after you reach age 59 1/2 are tax-free, which is huge. Also, they allow you to pass money to your heirs without the nasty tax gouges inherent to 401(k) plans and traditional IRAs. Here, too, set up your IRA with a low-load provider such as Vanguard or Fidelity.
5. Cultivate a frugal lifestyle.
Try to stay sane about this. You don’t really have to live like Our Hero, Scrooge McDuck. But on the other hand, neither do you have to live like an investment banker riding high. Get over the temptation to buy every new gadget just because it’s out there; to accrue stuff because all your friends, relatives and neighbors accrue stuff; to own bigger things and more things than you really need. Learn to distinguish between want and need, and then train yourself to appreciate the nonmaterial riches of life.
Frugality and simple living are the keys to living within your means. Spending less than you earn makes it possible to build savings and, eventually, to achieve financial freedom.