“If you don’t start saving your money when you’re young, you’re going to die impoverished, overworked, and alone!” says every personal finance blogger ever to young people just starting out in the world.
And while it’s only a slight exaggeration, this kind of enormous pressure can be overwhelming and demoralizing when you’re just starting to get your financial life under control and barely bringing in enough money to make ends meet.
So what’s a young, financially inexperienced person to do? What’s anyone with bills and debt to do with the specter of an empty savings account looming and no solution in sight?
The answer, as with most personal finance, is to start small. Because when saving, your little savings really do add up.
First: are ya sure this is what you need?
There’s two basic ways to have more money: you can spend, and you can make more. (Damn, we’re just BURSTING with revolutionary observations, ain’t we?)
Today I’m going to talk about how to save more. But before I do, I want to note that it may not be what you need to be focusing on. Because in general, we’ve noticed that a lot of people focus too much on the former and too little on the latter.
You can shave down how much money you spend on food, transportation, clothing, and housing—but you can’t ever get them down to nothing. You’re a living person! Food and shelter are biological necessities, and you deserve to enjoy your one and only life. We’re not among the many personal finance gurus who gleefully urge you to optimize every shred of human joy out of your daily existence.
So keep that in mind! You can’t budget your way out of poverty. Personal finance can’t erase decades of depressed wages. So if that’s where you’re at, maybe you should let yourself keep your small luxuries and focus on building a plan to grow your income?
That said, we will focus today on saving. Because some people do struggle more with controlling their spending. Or they want to build a lifelong habit of finding contentment living below their means. Maybe the “making more” part is up in the air because it’s the harder one to influence and control! Whatever the case, here’s how to start the savings-ball rolling.
How do we define “savings?”
When you get down to it, there is really only one way to “save” money: by not spending it. (There we go again, cementing our legacy as visionaries!)
You can be creative in your method of non-spending. You can cancel memberships and subscriptions, clip coupons, walk or bike instead of driving, or look for discounts and freebies—anything counts, and you don’t have to do everything!
No matter how you do it, at the end of this labor-intensive process, you will have “saved.” Congrats, you’re a responsible adult!
But if you then turn around and spend those savings on something else, then, well… they’re not really savings, are they? Even if you just ignore your savings and let them sit in the same bank account as the money you spend on all your expenses, they’ll eventually get used up or forgotten.
So the trick is to actually save your savings.
Opportunities to (literally) start small by saving small
Every time you save money, put it in your savings account (or floating in a sealed baggie inside your toilet tank, depending on your personal level of paranoia and/or facility with online banking). Then literally save it!
- You just got a free coffee with your frequent buyer card at the coffee shop? Awesome! Transfer the money that coffee would have cost you into your savings account.
- You just saved $8 on parking by taking the bus instead? Way to go, you splendid phoenix of fiscal and environmental responsibility! Put it into savings.
- Did your roommate pay you $35 in damages because her spiteful old cat pissed in your herb garden, murdering all of your frugally fragrant photosynthetic babies?! Well, winter was coming anyway, so save that money and also QUIT STEALING MY LIFE.
If you’re paying attention and putting a little effort into reducing your spending, you’ll find these kinds of opportunities to start small by saving small everywhere. By themselves, they’re puny. But if you start at the stage where moths fly cartoonishly out of your pockets, the gains are huge.
Trust me. Build the habit now, and your future self will wanna kiss you on the lips so deeply that it will technically qualify as masturbation!
If you spend it, you didn’t save it
Yesterday I saved $10 on my grocery bill between coupons and my Kroger membership, an amount helpfully pointed out on my receipt. Ten whole dollars! Yippee! Three cheers and a tiger!
I could’ve taken that to mean that I was justified in treating myself to a refreshingly cold beer or two at the brewery after work. Which I clearly am! (Defensive sip.)
But instead I thought about my dreams to travel abroad… and transferred it into savings. It’s not enough to buy a plane ticket to Argentina. But multiply it by my weekly grocery bill for an entire year, and I can practically taste the grass-fed beef and locally sourced Malbec from here!
Small savings really do add up, you sparkling diamond of creative thrift
I’ll be honest: I get a little fed up with friends who express a desperate need to build up their savings, but wave off my suggestions to save small amount of money.
“Spotify Premium is only $10 a month!” they say. “Why should I cancel it if it’s going to save me so little?”
Look. It’s totally fine to pay $10 a month to not have one’s music constantly interrupted by commercials that must have been specifically engineered for maximum irritation. No judgements there. But it doesn’t really matter if the cost is small or not. Every purchase is an active choice to prioritize it over any other potential use for that money.
And it’s willfully ignorant to pass up every such small opportunity to save money! Salespeople and companies intentionally try to frame their products in the cheapest way possible. Why do you think they say it costs $10 a month instead of $120 a year?
Making multiple efforts to save small amounts of money can and does lead to a substantial lump sum in your savings account. But you have to actually take those opportunities for small savings when they arise. Walking instead of driving? Hunting for a meter spot instead of paying for a parking garage? Buying generic instead of name brand? Cutting conveniences and subscriptions? Using coupons?
You don’t have to do every single one of them. But you can’t dismiss them all just because they seem like a pittance in isolation. Because together they really do add up.
I practice what I preach
A few years ago I took a good hard look at my spending to see where I could eliminate multiple small expenses in order to save money.
I thought I’d maybe save a couple hundred annually. To my delight (and consternation at Past Me for taking on such expendable costs in the first place) I was able to save over a grand.
Take a look:
|EXPENSE||MONTHLY COST||ANNUAL COST|
|Name brand prescription||$10||$120|
|Eating lunch out during work week||$45||$540|
|Driving more than 4 days a week||$11||$132|
|TOTAL ANNUAL SAVINGS:||$1,177|
Some of it was simple. Canceling my gym membership involved a single phone call. Changing my prescriptions needed two. Packing a lunch every single day took a bit more time, but it also made the biggest impact overall.
Some was a little more complicated, as it required the dreaded maths. I calculated the daily cost of commuting a total of 40 miles between my home and office. In doing so, I realized that if I was able to work from home just one day per week, not only would I save money, but I’d save a life because it was only a matter of time before I murdered someone in a fit of rush hour road rage. Well worth it!
So I talked to my boss and got work-from-home Fridays written into my contract. Money, time, and sanity saved. (And before you ask, yes, I wrote a guide on how I finally got him to agree.)
BOOM. $1,177 in the bank. For me, that meant three round-trip flights home to visit my parental units, or maybe a new computer! Or more boring-er stuff like maxing out my IRA and beefing up an emergency fund. Sorry, it can’t always be exciting!
Just keep swimming
If you factor in all those other little savings—shopping wisely for groceries, driving less, using the library instead of buying books and media, getting stuff secondhand or off the clearance rack, rounding up to the nearest dollar—it adds up even more. It’s the same theory as putting all your coins in a change jar: add to it little by little, watch it grow, and with patience you suddenly have that safety net of savings that felt so impossible before.
It’s not easy, and it’s not fast. But along the way you will develop habits and thrifty muscles you didn’t even know you had.
You can save, because you are a bad-ass, super-human, money-saving angel and it’s time you accepted this truth about yourself, goddammit!
In conclusion, here’s a few other methods for saving that sweet sweet cash:
- The Debt-Killing Power of Rounding up Bills
- How to Shop for Groceries like a Boss
- Not Every Savings Account Is Created Equal