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Is there something that you should be saving for, but aren’t because you’ll just start tomorrow? Keep reading.
I’m going to show you how to save money without having to think about it all the time.
There is too much financial advice out there that tells you to cut back on things like your morning coffee, bagel, night out, whatever, in order to save more. While the thought is genuine and sounds good, the problem with this is that when you try to follow through, you end up not saving anything and feeling bad because you know you should be saving.
I know from personal experience.
One of my readers said,
“I could also definitely be saving more if I [______] less but that clearly that isn’t happening even though I tried cutting back this year.”
(her thing is raving, but I’d like you to fill in the blank with some thing or activity that you really like. We’re all in the same boat here)
I was curious about what she did to try cutting back. She said,
“When I got this job I was excited I could afford all the [______] so I went a little crazy last year. I literally [______] every weekend from last weekend of August through October. Then I [______] another 4 times in November. So I cut back significantly this year in comparison. Now I do like average 2 maybe 3 a month. But financially it’s about the same probably since I buy my boyfriend’s [_____] too since he pays for like 80% of all dates and outings.”
Oh, yea. I know that feeling. The feeling of how great it will be to buy all those things and do all these activities from all the cash that will be coming into my bank account from the new job or raise I just got.
But, the world has a funny way of evening things out. As soon as I thought I was going to get ahead, something (manything) comes up and I wonder where all that money I was supposed to have went.
At this point, most of the advice you’re going to get is to (1) keep a budget and (2) avoid lifestyle creep. Great theoretical advice. Sometimes I think that the people giving this advice don’t actually follow it, just like how the people that design SF streets don’t actually drive on them.
(1) I believe keeping a budget is a must, but it does not guarantee that you will save for that thing you want, even if you have it as a line item.
For example, one reader, who already keeps a budget, said this:
I feel like i’m overspending every month and don’t have a good savings. I do [keep a budget], but it’s like, a lot of my own self control/discipline, which is kind of hard to have when it comes to budgeting.
You can always move money around in a budget, a good benefit that can also work against you. If you overspend in one category, you can easily move money from your savings category and – that’s right – just start saving again next month.
(2) Getting a new job or getting a raise makes us feel like we’re suddenly flush with cash, so we make changes in our lives that immediately consume the increase, often more, in income we just worked so hard for.
But you cannot avoid lifestyle creep. As you enter adulthood, you will take on more responsibility. You will move out from your parents house. You will start paying your own bills. You will start a family. You will find those drones you are looking for. That’s just life.
There is no way that you can keep your expenses the same as you progress through life. Imagine starting a family and being adamant about staying in the apartment you share with three other housemates because you want to avoid lifestyle creep. You won’t have a family for long.
The good news is that we can create a system does not require our constant self control or discipline.
The things we want to do, we don’t do. But the things we don’t want to do, we do. Keeping this fact of human nature in mind, we design a simple system that will allow us to save without thinking about it.
Glad you asked. I’ll show you the concept, then how to implement it.
But first, the most important thing you must do is realize that whatever you want to save for is so important to you that you’re just gonna do it. There’s no way you’re not gonna do it. If you’re not sure about what it is, it’s the thing you’re not saving for that gives you the heebie-jeebies when you think about it.
The thing could be retirement, education funds for your children, a down payment, early retirement, a new car, it doesn’t matter. Whatever your reason for saving, this method will work.
The way that most people try to save looks something like this:
They try to save whatever is left at the end of a month of willy-nilly spending. It’s not certain that there will be any left. If money is not manually moved from the account, whatever is left may end up being used in the future. It’s not a good system. Actually, it’s not a system at all.
Instead of saving as an afterthought, our mindset should be to save before we spend:
Of course, we will end up having less money to spend than before, meaning we will have to cut back on some things. If your reason is strong enough, this will be no problem.
A nice thing about this is that we can still go out do willy-nilly spending with what we have left after we’ve saved.
With a strong reason and understanding of the concept, let’s look at how to put it into practice. I’ll also show you my personal, real-life example of how I put this into practice, with numbers and everything.
The best way to put the concept into practice is to build an automatic system that puts your savings out of sight, out of mind. You could log into your bank account every month and manually move money into a savings vehicle, but since we are already struggling with discipline and self-control, we know that’s not going to last long. We want something that we can set and forget.
In it’s simplest form, your personal financial system looks like this:
You are in control of every aspect of this system: money comes in based on your skills, abilities, and investments; money goes out based on what you decide to do with your money. You should know how much money is coming in and going out. If you do not know, you’re flying blind, hoping that Money In is greater than Money Out. See prerequisites.
Let’s look at the the personal financial system in a slightly different frame. Your setup may not look exactly like this, so please apply your imagination.
We often live by the balance we see on our bank account. In my past life, I would make decisions simply by looking at my checking account balance. If it looked healthy, I’d go out, buy drinks, get steak. If it was getting close to zero, I’d have Top Ramen.
When I was feeling motivated to save, I would transfer some amount into my savings account. This didn’t happen very often and the shiny objects in the storefront took priority.
The other problem was that the money in the savings account was earmarked for different things at different times. Sometimes I said it was for a down payment. Other times for buying a car. I would use it in an emergency without replenishing the money. Its purpose depended on how I was feeling that day.
Anyway, we’re here to learn the way to save without thinking about it, and here it is:
Slight change from before. Let me explain what’s going on here.
Okay. Your paycheck goes into a staging account.
A no-fee online checking account makes most sense for the staging account.
Okay. From the staging account, you set up an automatic monthly transfer into a savings vehicle that happens a day or two after you get paid.
It is not necessarily a savings account, because the timeframe of what you are saving for will determine which vehicle you use. For example, if you’re 30 and saving for retirement, you’ll want to use a vehicle that gives much higher return than if you are saving up to buy a new laptop in a year.
Okay. From the staging account, you “pay yourself” a certain amount every month into what I like to call a spending account. You use this account to pay rent, utilities, food, credit cards, withdraw from ATM, everything.
A no-fee checking account makes most sense for the spending account. You may want to choose an bank with ATMs in your area. In most cases, the checking account you already use is perfect.
Okay. The yellow enclosure is what you see and deal with on a day-to-day basis. The amount that you “pay yourself” is your new income, because that’s all that you see coming into your account.
The wonderful part about this is that you can go about living your life without worrying about saving for that important thing because you’re taking care of business before you even get your money.
That’s all there is to it.
So simple, right?
Next, I’ll go over some questions you may have at this point and then show a personal example.
Question: how much should I be saving?
You can determine the amount to transfer from staging account into the savings vehicle by doing some basic math.
For short-term goals in low-to-no-return savings vehicles:
For long-term goals in high-return vehicles, you’d want to include interest in your calculation. You can use a nifty savings goal calculator.
Question: how much do I need to pay myself?
To find out, start a budget, get to know yourself, and figure out how much you truly need each month to live.
If your spending exactly matches your income, you are going to have to cut back. Since you’ve implemented this system, this will be no problem, because you will cut back automatically due to your artificially lowered income. You don’t have to think about it anymore!
Here’s the system that I set up two years ago. It follows the principle of the example we just saw, though it’s a bit more involved.
The yellow enclosure is what I saw and dealt with on a daily basis. I lived as if I was making $1200/month (I was living at home at the time… not recommended). I didn’t have to check up on any of the savings amounts because they would get to where I wanted them to be when they were needed.
I also had about $500 each month that was accumulating in my staging account because it wasn’t allocated to a savings goal. I guess I didn’t have anything to put it towards at the time so I just let it sit. A smarter thing to do would have been to save for another thing or increase the amount for something I was already saving for.
I was also paying all of my credit cards manually back then and recording the payments in a spreadsheet. Duplicate effort from the budget. A waste of time.
This system kept chugging along with minimal maintenance. Most importantly, when I got raises at work, the amount of money I was “making” didn’t change. More would just build up in the staging account. When I had a new thing to save for, I’d just set up a new savings vehicle and corresponding transfer.
If any of these apply to you, I recommend that you do not implement an automatic savings system at this time because it will not last long.
- You have debt. Aside from a mortgage, if you are in debt the only thing you should be saving for is a starter emergency fund before paying down all of your debt in full as quickly as possible. You should not use this method to do that.
- You are spending more than you make. If you’re spending more than you make, automating your savings will hurt more than it will help. You first must stop the leak. It makes no sense to save for something because you’ll eventually have to use those savings to keep yourself afloat.
- You do not know how much you spend. Start a budget start tracking where every dollar is going. You should make sure that you’re not in situation 2.
- Your income is very unstable. The risk you run is that your staging account will dry up. While the system works well with W2 income, it may not be initially be a good fit if your income greatly fluctuates from month to month.
While I won’t cover these here, I will make posts on how to pay down debt faster and make budgeting as simple as possible.
- Find a reason to save.
- Figure out how much you need to save each month to save for that thing you want.
- Set up a system which saves the money before you get your hands on it.
- Stop worrying about not saving for that thing.
- Share this post if you found it helpful.
- Live good together.