10 Common Questions about Saving

The median American household had only $11,700 in savings and 29% of households have $1,000 or less, according to a recent CNBC article. Whether it is retirement savings or savings for a specific long-term or short-term specific goal, there are many reasons why we should crank up our savings and boost our financial security.

This third article in the “10 Common Questions…” discusses the essentials of savings, including how much savings you should have, your savings rate and what you should actually be saving for.

Q: What classifies as savings?

Savings can include a variety of things. Some people refer to just their money in a savings account as their savings, but there are a few more savings to consider. Really “savings” refers to “any money you have set aside waiting to be used at a future time”. With this definition contributions to retirement funds as well as investments made can also be classified as savings.

Another way to describe savings are “any payments that improve your long-term finances”. This adds yet another option: paying off debt. After all, by paying off debt, you take away the interest charges as well as your dependency on your creditors.

In short, savings can be any or all of the following:

  • savings account
  • retirement fund
  • investments
  • debt payments

Q: How can I save if I never have any money left over at the end of the month!

A not uncommon situation that many people can find themselves in is that they have no money left at the end of the month, let alone any money to make those savings contributions.

But the solution to this problem is answered by the problem itself: “I never have any money left over at the end of the month.” If you wait until the end of the month to set aside money to save, other expenses become a priority. Whatever you allow to be paid closer to the beginning of the month, will naturally have a higher chance of being purchased as there is a higher likelihood that money is still available, whereas the closer towards the end of the month you leave a payment, the lower the probability that there is any money left over.

So in order to start saving you need to change your habits: put your savings allocations to the start of the month and make this one of the first payments you make. Then, with whatever is left, you need to make ends meet and not spend more than you have coming in. By switching the order around you ensure that you hit your savings targets AND stay within budget for the rest of the month.

Q: But currently interest rates are terrible!

At the time of writing, interest rates are indeed extremely low, often even below inflation. But there are several pro´s to keeping up your savings rate:

  • An emergency fund means that you don’t need to borrow money and go into debt if you need money for an emergency.
  • Cash is king, and having some funds available immediately when needed is a huge peace of mind.
  • If you are looking for higher returns upon investments, instead of setting money aside into a savings account, consider investing the money or adding more to your retirment funds.
  • Another way to use your money if you don’t want it to sit idly in a savings account is to pay off debt faster. In this way you avoid the accummulation of interest payments.

Q: How much should I save per month? 

You should save how much you can and want to save each month, but a common answer to this question, at least to start with, is to save 20% of your net income. (This is based on the 50/20/30 rule that says to aim to spend 50% of your money on essentials (rent, food, utilities), 20% on savings goals and 30% on discretionary or fun expenses (holidays, nights out) ). Of course, these are only guidelines, and since your situation is unique you need to decide for yourself how much you can really save. But it’s a good starting point if you are not sure what a good amount would be. As your lifestyle is so different to other people’s, using a savings rate is much more helpful than using specific amounts.

Q: What’s so important about this savings rate?

Your savings rate tells you how much of you income you don’t need for your day to day life. The higher your saving rate, the less you live off. This is helpful in two ways:

  • If you lost your job or were without an income for a while, it means you need to eat into your savings less simply because you’ll need less money to pay your bills.
  • The more you save, the sooner you hit your savings goals.

Let’s look at an example. Say you earn $2,500 net a month and that you save 10% of this money $250 and therefore spend the remaining 90%: $2,250. That means it would take you 54 months to save up for a 6 months living fund ($2,250 x 6 / $250).

If instead of saving 10% you were able to set aside 20% each month, your monthly savings would be $500, your spending would be $2,000 and it would only take you $2,000 x 6 / $500 = 24 months to get together that 6 months living fund.

Q: What is my savings rate?

You can quickly calculate your savings rate by looking if you know your last month’s income and savings. If you keep a register of everything that you spend and save, this process is even easier, but even if you don’t and you need to work of approximations, that is fine too. To calculate your savings rate, find out how much money you allocated to  savings expenses: this includes contributions to your savings accounts, retirement provisions, paying down debt and investments. Total these amounts, then divide this by your total net income.

If you set aside $50 in your savings account, $100 towards your retirement, $75 to pay down debt and invested $75, your total savings expenses were $300. If you take home $2000 each month that gives you a savings rate of 15%.

Q: What should I be saving for?

  • Emergency fund – for any emergency expenses that are unexecpected and that you have to make in the moment, for example when your car or washing machine breaks
  • 3 – 6 months living fund – to cover your expenses if you suddenly find yourself without an income
  • Specific targets (vacation, new car, children’s education) – these can be adapted depending on some of your own personal short term and long term plans
  • Retirement – this can be in the form of a retirement fund or your own private investments

Q: What are some savings targets I should aim for?

Although there is no ONE answer to how much you should have in savings, here are some common guidelines that you can use in order to decide for yourself how much to save:

 

Q: paying off debt, savings, retirement funds, investing… what should I be doing? 

In order to truly cover yourself in all financial areas, you want to be doing pretty much everything. But of course, you’ll likely not have heaps of money available to do all at the same time to the maximum amount that you’d ideally set aside. So what should you be focusing on? Here’s a helpful guideline that you can use and adapt to make it work for you.

  • Start doing ALL of the above, but start small with those that are less of a priority right now (for example investing) if you still have other ones that are more urgent (paying off consumer debt or saving at least 1 months of expenses).
  • Decide how much $ you can put aside each month, then allocate a % of that money to each of your savings, for example: 70% paying off debt, 15% saving, 10% retirement fund contributions and 5% investing.
  • Every 3 months, re-evaluate your % as well as your monthly total amount you can save and re-adjust where possible. You might decide that once you’ve paid off all your consumer debts with an interest rate of over 4%, you reduce your % to pay off debt to just 40%, using the remaining 30% to boost your savings or to one or several of the other saving goals you have.
  • I’m a huge fan of scheduling dates as those three months will otherwise fly by and be forgotten about, so block in this appontment with yourself already!

Q: Where should I start?

  1. Begin by putting away a set percentage of your wage. If you need to begin small then that’s okay. This could be 5% or even just 3%. It’s better to start small than to not start at all.
  2. Set saving goals and if possible open different bank accounts for each one. Saving goals can be anything from short to long term.
  3. Decide on your savings allocation for each goal: Of all the money you set aside each month, set aside 50% for goal A, 30% for goal B, 10% for goal C and another 10% for goal D for example.
  4. Little by little start increasing your savings rate, until you get to your ideal savings percentage..

This article is part of the “10 Common Question series”, where I address issues about some key financial areas, including Financial Independence, paying off debt, increasing your income, retirement provisions, saving, investing, financial protection and much more. If you want to find out more about Financial Independence, you can sign up to my newsletter to stay up to date or get a free sample of my book 100 Steps to Financial Independence. 

Image by Andreas Breitling from Pixabay

Step 80: Your Savings Rate

Step 80 of the 100 steps mission to financial independence: Your Savings Rate
Step 80: Your Savings Rate

Now that you’ve got a bigger picture of your long-term financial goals, it is equally important to identify ways to achieve those goals. Hopefully by now you’ve set yourself some big financial goals to work towards to in the near future. These could range from earning some extra cash, becoming debt-free and paying off your mortgage, to reducing your work hours or retiring early.

Why exactly do so many people still have debt or no financial or pension plan for their future? Ask anybody in your environment and a vast majority will say that they just don’t have enough money to pay off their debt or to throw at their pension fund. They’ll tell you that they might plan to pay off their debt as soon as they get that promotion and accompanying pay raise. But by now you probably know that even when they get that increase in income, they still most likely won’t be using that money to pay off their debt, nor will they tuck it away and use it to invest in their pension. They’ll simply spend it on new things and without them even realizing it, their lifestyle will gradually inflate to a new level.

And are you maybe still telling yourself a version of this story as well?

Let’s think about how you can speed up your savings goals. Simply speaking and as we have already discussed in earlier steps, there are generally two ways to increase your savings:

  • increasing your income
  • decreasing your expenses

The disadvantages of looking at achieving your savings goals in this way however is that it is easy to focus on the finding excuses for not saving more: “I don’t make enough money”, “If only I earned another $1000 a month”, “It’s so much easier for my neighbor, he earns a lot more than me”, or: “I wish I didn’t have a mortgage for 30 years, it’s a big expense each month”, “It’s easy for you to say, I came out of university with a $50,000 debt”, “I have two young children, do you know how expensive they are?”…. And the list goes on and on and on. Continue reading “Step 80: Your Savings Rate”

Step 77: Make a Year Budget

Step 77 of the 100 steps mission to financial independence: Make a Year Budget
Step 77 of the 100: Make a Year Budget

We’ve looked in detail at making a monthly budget where you carefully plan your expenses per category per month to ensure that you achieve your goals, both short-term as well as long-term, especially when it comes to savings, pension and investment goals. Without a budget it is easy to overspend and to lose the overview of where your money goes each month.

In addition to making a monthly budget it is wise to also draw up a yearly budget in which you make a yearlong plan for your expenses. We’ve already touched upon this a little when we discussed making a monthly budget, when we looked at the importance of bearing in mind certain yearly expenses that don’t come up every month but might come up just a few times or even just once a year.

A yearly budget doesn’t only ensure that you remember to budget for these expenses though. The added advantage of a yearly budget is that you can make a better and more accurate plan for your expenses by bridging the gap between your long-term financial goals with your day-to-day spending patterns. Of course, having a monthly budget already gives you the opportunity to plan expenses far better than if you just spend without being fully aware of your monthly total spending pattern. But it won’t give you as much insight into whether you are on your way to achieving your long-term financial goals or whether you are still quite a long way off. By making a budget for a full year you get a far better overview of this. Continue reading “Step 77: Make a Year Budget”

Step 19: Budget with the 50/20/30 rule

Step 19 of the 100 steps mission to financial independence: Budget with the 50/20/30 rule
Step 19: Budget with the 50/20/30 rule

When you were making your first budget in step 17, you might have felt it was a bit of a stab in the dark. Maybe you would have appreciated a simple formula that indicated how to allocate your money in a way that would just make it faster and easier to budget. A formula that also ensured you’d work towards you goals. Or maybe you were happy to rely on your own methods but would now like to find out about a general indicator of how much to allocate to each area.

In this step we are going to have a closer look at a very common concept in budgeting, the so-called 50 / 20 / 30 rule. I’d like to think of it as a guideline more than a rule, as depending on your financial position and your goals, your expense patterns change and you might spend more or less in certain categories at certain moments in your life. It is therefore wise to not just adopt but to adapt this guideline and adjust it to your own specific needs and circumstances.  Continue reading “Step 19: Budget with the 50/20/30 rule”

Step 12: Identify your Savings Expenses

Step 12 of the 100 steps mission to financial independe: Identify your Savings Expenses
Step 12: Identify your Savings Expenses
So one last one to go: your savings expenses. Saving expenses are any expenses that you have that are related to improving your financial situation now or in the future. They are payments that you make towards your financial goals and include debt payments that you are making to pay off a loan, savings plans that you are paying into, investments that you are making and any emergency or rainy day funds that you have.

When you were looking at your fixed expenses you might have been wondering what to do with these savings payments already, or you might have even included them, as many of these can look like fixed expenses that you have monthly. The reason why we want to take these out and identify them as a different category however is that they are generally very different in nature to a fixed, variable or discretionary expense, as they are focussed on achieving a financial goal, as opposed to the other categories. Continue reading “Step 12: Identify your Savings Expenses”