How to Save Without Really Trying

Shutterstock

Worried about the size of your nest egg? Jean Chatzky shares five budget-boosting strategies to help put money in the bank

If you’ve ever saved your change, you know that little things truly do add up over time. Those pennies and nickels, seemingly worthless, turn into enough cash to pay for a date night, a haircut, a night of drinks with your girlfriends. You don’t miss them, you don’t feel like you’re saving — but you are. And believe it or not, you’re likely to feel the same way about other small tweaks to your financial habits. That’s what we’re talking about this week: The little things you can do that make a big difference over time.

1) Bump up your retirement contribution. You hear the advice all the time: Save 10 to 15% of your salary. That number can seem like an impossible dream, even when you factor in matching dollars from your employer (which, for the record, definitely count). But here’s how you get there: Increase your contribution by just one percent. On a $40,000 salary, that’s only an extra $400 a year, $34 a month. You’ll adjust, I promise. Once you do, bump it up another one percent. Continue to increase it on a regular basis – and add even more when you get a raise or bonus – and you’ll be on track in no time, with little to no pain.

Cash back: On that $40,000 salary, a one percent increase will net you an extra $83,786 after 30 years, assuming annual salary increases of 5%, no employer contribution, and 8% returns. Two percent and you’ll net an extra $167,572. And the difference between saving, say, six percent and the full 15%? $749,053.

2) Lower your expense ratios. Employer-sponsored retirement plans are notorious for being more expensive, in general. But there are ways to cut costs, says Diana Palmer, a certified financial planner in Ohio. “Sit down and take a look inside your retirement plan. Most plans have electronically traded funds (ETFs) or index options in addition to actively managed funds. Actively managed funds can be two to three times as expensive as index funds.” Passive funds, like index or ETFs, also generally perform as well as actively managed funds — so you’re likely not sacrificing much return.

Cash back: Palmer says that shaving just half a percent off your expenses inside your retirement fund could yield you a balance that is 13% larger after 30 years.

3) Use employer benefits. Health insurance and a retirement savings plan are just the tip of the iceberg. There may be other perks offered by your company that you’re missing out on. Particularly in times like this, when raises aren’t happening as often as they once were, you want to squeeze everything you can out of your job. Look out for flexible spending accounts, tuition reimbursement, discounted disability, life, and liability insurance, and TransitChek, which allows you to pay for public transportation with pre-tax dollars.

Cash back: If you pay 25% taxes and put $1,000 in a flexible spending account to pay for things like glasses and dependant care, you could save about $250. Just keep in mind a new rule this year: Money in FSAs can’t be used for over-the-counter medications unless you have prescription.

4) Lower your interest rates. Wait until you get a 0% balance transfer offer in the mail, then call up your credit card company. Cite a few reasons why you’re a good customer – you always pay on time, you have a long history with the company – and then explain that you have another offer and you’re going to take your business elsewhere if they won’t lower your interest rate. If the first person you talk to says no, ask for a supervisor.

Cash back: If you have a $3,000 balance on a card with an 18% interest rate, making just the minimum payment will cost you $6,351 in interest alone. Bump that rate down just three percent, to 15%, and you’ll save $2,643. Talk them down to 11% and you’ll save $4,394.

5) Pay attention. This is, I think, one of the single best things you can do for your finances, and it’s an easy one: Simply track where your money is going. Whether you find that $100 is blown on sandwiches every month or those little last minute trips to the grocery store are costing you an extra $250, knowing, as they say, is half the battle.

2 comments so far.

  1. avatar Lila says:

    Here’s an idea on the credit card rates: don’t pay ANY interest. Pay off your balance religiously. Don’t buy what you can’t pay off right away. Treat the card only as a convenient alternative to carrying large sums of cash.

    I have always kept my discretionary spending on a cash “allowance.” I put a set amount of money into my wallet, and once it’s gone, I don’t get any more until my next paycheck. This keeps my awareness up on what I am spending.

  2. avatar Chris Glass` says:

    We pay cash for our vehicles to get the best price and avoid interest payments. Each month we set aside a certain amount of money towards future large expenses, replacement appliances or vehicles so we are prepared when something happens. If we know that something is becoming an issue we start looking at the consumer guides then comparing prices and features usually buying on sale before we are forced to make a hasty last minute decision.