Fatten up your finances

Dedicate 10 percent of each paycheck to a rainy-day fund – and

It’s July: School’s out, summer’s on … and the financial
surveys are out in full force.
It’s July: School’s out, summer’s on … and the financial surveys are out in full force.

In recent weeks, a number of financial institutions trotted out their polling of Americans’ attitudes on their financial well-being, asking about everything from retirement readiness to spending confidence to emergency savings.

The consensus: a majority of Americans – nearly 60 percent – are pessimistic about the economy’s ability to rebound in the next 12 months. But when it comes to their own personal finances, they’re more upbeat than a year ago.

That’s good news and maybe not so surprising. But one recent survey finding did jump out: Only 24 percent of Americans have set aside the recommended six months of savings.

That’s the amount of living expenses you’d need in case of a financial emergency, such as unexpected medical bills or a job loss. Even among high-income baby boomer households, only half had the recommended six-month reserve, according to a recent Bankrate.com survey.

Saving doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time. And for those beaten up by job losses, foreclosures or other financial misfortunes, setting money aside can be tough.

But don’t get discouraged if you haven’t done much about it yet, said Greg McBride, spokesman for Bankrate.com, the financial information website.

Whether you’re trying to readjust after a job loss, or newly entering the workforce and saddled with student loan debt, the advice is simple: Start now. Start small.

“That six-months savings cushion is a destination; it’ll take awhile to get there. You start one direct-deposit at a time, from your paycheck or checking account, every payday or every month,” McBride said.

It’s what financial advisers call “paying yourself first.”

The trick is to treat savings just like you would any other bill or expense, say financial counselors at ClearPoint Credit Counseling Solutions, a nonprofit consumer help center with offices in 10 states.

“Regardless of how much you make, you can always save a little bit,” said Elias Del Gado, a ClearPoint spokesman. “Saving $10, $20 – any amount, as long as it’s a regular amount – will add up. At the end of a year, people see $300 or $600 they wouldn’t have had.”

You can set up direct deposit with your bank, automatically pulling a set amount out of every paycheck. Or if you’re a disciplined saver, open a separate bank account and deposit the funds yourself at regular intervals.

Another option, if you don’t expect to need the money soon, is to make deposits to a money-market account or short-term certificates of deposit that should earn a little more interest.

Even with today’s skimpy interest rates, the key is to “create the habit” of saving money.

“If you create that habit,” Del Gado said, “the interest is a good consequence but not your primary concern.”

Another easy way to start saving: Every night, drop your spare change into a piggy bank, a glass jar, even a coffee can. Enlist your kids to scour the car, under couch cushions and through closets, desks and drawers for pennies, dimes and quarters. At the end of the year, crack open the bank. “Guess what? it could be $200 you weren’t counting on,” Del Gado said.

Or motivate yourself with a savings goal: a vacation, a new set of car tires, back-to-school shopping, holiday gifts.

“When you get to $1,200 or whatever your goal is, that’s money you won’t have to put on a credit card and pay interest,” Del Gado said.

But don’t put off starting a savings account by waiting until you’ve got the car paid off or no more day care costs.

“If you wait until all the bills are paid, you’ll never save,” McBride said. “People often say, ‘Something happens and wipes out my savings and I’m right back to square one.’ They get discouraged,” said McBride.

But that scenario is proof that savings will work for you, he said. “Instead of an emergency expense getting tacked onto a credit card at 15 percent interest, you had some savings set aside to absorb it.”

Having a budget or a financial plan – a road map to your spending, savings and retirement – also helps.

“Budget is not a bad word,” said Del Gado, whose ClearPoint offices offer free budgeting advice to consumers. (For more information, go to www.clearpointccs.org or call 877-422-9045.)

Nearly four of five Americans – or 79 percent – claim to have a financial plan, according to a recent survey by the Certified Financial Planner Board in Washington, D.C. But of those, nearly half – 46 percent – said their plan is only in their head, while 11 percent had scribbled down some notes or ideas.

“Most Americans have a do-it-yourself approach to financial planning,” said Eleanor Blayney, consumer advocate for the Certified Financial Planner Board in Washington, D.C.

If you’re a DIYer when it comes to money, look for budget calculators that can help you map out your money priorities. Look at sites like Bankrate.com, Mint.com, PracticalMoneySkills.com or ChoosetoSave.org.

Want to feel like a millionaire? Both Bankrate and PracticalMoneySkills have “Save a Million” calculators, which let you set a goal and calculate how long it’ll take to reach it, based on your deposits and interest rates.

For example, let’s say you want to save $20,000 toward a down payment on a house. If you set aside $100 a month, earning 2 percent interest, it’ll take a little more than 14 years to reach your goal (including interest earned), according to the PracticalMoneySkills calculator.

To reach that same goal in five years, you would need to save $317.22 per month. And to save a million? You’d need $15,861.09 a month.

It’s stating the obvious, but those who take specific steps – setting aside savings, consulting a financial counselor, mapping out a budget – typically feel more confident about their money situation.

Or as Bankrate’s McBride says: “Nothing helps you sleep better at night than knowing you have money tucked away.”


– Don’t delay. Over time, even a little adds up.

– Dedicate 10 percent of each paycheck to a rainy-day fund. At year’s end, you’ll have socked away more than one month’s income, enough to get through most short-term emergencies.

– Get a part-time job and commit your wages to savings.

– Have a “money buddy,” someone to help you stay accountable. Never pull money from your savings account without his/her permission.

– Track your spending for 30 days. Without knowing where your money is going, you’ll never be able to plug spending leaks.

– Pretend they never happened. Put all raises, bonuses, birthday checks, etc., into your savings account.

– Save for a specific goal, which can be a great motivator. When you reach it, reward yourself.

– Never buy on impulse. Go home; take at least 24 hours to evaluate whether you truly need the purchase.

– Pay with cash. People who use cash typically spend 20 percent less than those who charge.

– Put your credit cards on ice, literally. Stick them in a bowl of water in the freezer so you’re not tempted to use them.

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