I might be making some enemies with this post, but here goes, anyway. *Rolling up sleeves.* What would happen if your hours got cut back at work, and you were given a mandatory 10% pay cut? That would stink, but you would find some way to survive, right? You would downsize your life or cut back somewhere to get the bills paid anyway, wouldn’t you? Many, many people feel like they’re making barely enough to squeak by, but if the screws are tightened just a little bit more, virtually none of us throw up our hands and get thrown out on the street. We find some way to survive. Here’s the point: nearly every one of us, no matter what we make, can afford to put something in a savings account, or pay something towards eliminating debt. You just have to challenge yourself to save, and stop making excuses. If you’ve put off saving for retirement or your emergency fund because you’ve told yourself you just can’t afford to save, it’s time to cut the crap. No more excuses!
A shocking number of Americans are living from paycheck-to-paycheck and not saving. News headlines on the topic are everywhere: 76% of Americans are Living Paycheck-to-Paycheck. Almost Half of Americans Aren’t Saving Nearly Enough. Most Americans Have Less Than $1,000 in Savings. It’s terrifying. And honestly, it’s pretty sad. For the 54–60% of people who have just the minimum balance requirement or less in their savings accounts, and the 21% who don’t even have a savings account, that huge number of people have told themselves that they can’t afford to save. So they don’t save at all. They keep earning what they earn, spending what they spend, and saying “oh well” to their ever-increasing credit card debt and their diminishing hopes of having a comfortable retirement. Don’t let that be you!
The First Step to Financial Health: Examine Your Spending and Start a Budget
You can budget, even if you’ve never budgeted before. Don’t know where to start? Read this: Start Budgeting with Zero Risk of Failure. The important thing is to get started, NOW, before the next emergency hits. The fastest way to get on track with saving and spending wisely is to be informed about the current state of your finances. If you haven’t started a budget because you’re afraid to look at the true state of your financial affairs, then that’s exactly why you need to start looking.
The way you can incentivize yourself to start taking a hard look at your finances is by promising yourself that you’re not going to beat yourself up for what you find at first. Do it right now: raise your right hand, and say “I swear I will not mentally flog myself for doing a crappy job with finances so far.” Did you do it? Honestly, do it. Say it out loud. Then go ahead and take a hard look at your finances. Track where all of your money has gone for the last couple of months. Don’t forget to keep your promise to yourself—Do NOT beat yourself up! Making yourself feel bad at the outset stands a good chance of derailing your plans.
Once you’ve looked at where your money is going, see if there are expenses that jump out at you that you can shave off fairly painlessly. Are you one of the 83% of households still paying for cable or satellite TV, for example? That’s an easy one to ditch. If you’re in an area with fairly high-speed internet, you’re probably already paying for internet services anyway. Cut the cable cord and save yourself a healthy chunk of money every month. My cable bill had crept up to about $80 a month over time, without any premium channels, until I finally cut the cord and got a Netflix streaming plan ($8.99/mo), a Hulu subscription ($7.99/mo), and a digital antenna (one-time cost of $40). I get more high-quality content than I ever did with cable for only $17 a month. Take whatever savings you have from your TV budget and commit to putting it in your savings account each month.
Start Saving, and Build Your Momentum
Hopefully you’ve gotten your first budget done and you have an idea of where you can cut back on your spending, and how much you can start allocating into your savings account. If you’ve skipped that step for now, and you just want to get a jump start on saving, then fine. I do recommend that you go back and do it at some point in the near future, because it will make it easier for you to save without feeling too much pain. But hey, I get it. I’m an impatient person sometimes, too (only without the “sometimes”).
So one way to start saving is simply that—transfer some money to your savings account. Whee. That was underwhelming, wasn’t it? That’s because you didn’t plan anything around it. Set a goal for one year from now, and then break it into smaller chunks. Say you decide that you’re going to accumulate at least $1,000 in savings over the next year. (Pick a number that is slightly challenging for you, but manageable.) Divide that up by the number of paychecks you get between now and then. Make it a rule that you immediately transfer that much into savings with each paycheck, and stay on track. The one-time transfer may not be exciting, but checking in periodically and seeing your account continue to grow will be motivating.
For an extra motivation boost, challenge yourself to save even more. Can you break your savings goal by 10%? 20%? You can set little rewards for yourself with every goal that you beat, but try to make it a non-spendy thing. One reward might be to skip an hour of housework and take a relaxing bubble bath instead, guilt-free. Or go hang out outdoors, either taking a walk or surrounding yourself with puppies at the dog park.
Break the Cycle of Being Broke
I have known several friends who have repeatedly trapped themselves in the cycle of being broke, and it’s a very hard thing to watch. You probably know at least one person who falls into this category. They run themselves short as it gets closer to payday, and then they have to take out a payday loan, or borrow from friends, or even intentionally overdraft their account (sometimes multiple times) to buy necessary items at the store and to get cash or put gas in the car. This is crazy self-torture, and if it describes you, you need to break the cycle immediately.
But I can’t afford to break the cycle, you say. YES, you can. You know how I know? Because you do this to yourself every pay period, and you’re paying a lot in overdraft charges and interest every time you do it. In California, payday loans are capped at $300, and it will cost you $45 to borrow $300 for just two weeks. If you want to borrow the funds for another two weeks, you have to go in to the payday loan office with $300 in your hand, pay the money back, and the payday loan company will hand you $255 back for another two weeks. Every two weeks you’re paying $45 to borrow the same $300. Just by staying $300 behind, you’re costing yourself $90 per month. It’s an expensive cycle to be stuck in, and you’ll never pay a higher interest rate anywhere else.
I was in the car with a friend of mine once, and she sheepishly admitted that she was going to have to buy some items at Wal-Mart and incur the overdraft fee, and then she needed to get gas at the gas station, which would cause another overdraft fee. I said wait—why don’t you buy the things you need at Wal-Mart and get cash back with your purchase, so you only have one overdraft fee, and just pay with cash at the gas station? She hadn’t thought of that. I just saved her $18. She had been stuck in the same cycle for so long that she didn’t bother thinking of a way to try to get herself out of it. Bounced check fees were the norm. In the months and years after that, she slowly dragged herself out of that situation. I don’t credit myself for her turning her finances around, but sometimes we all just need that little shift in perspective to get our brains working on a way to break the cycle.
Another friend of mine would habitually run out of money a couple of days before payday, and he would always need gas. No joke, he asked me to meet him at a gas station at least three times to loan him $20 just so he could make it home, and as soon as he got paid (a day or two later), he always paid me back. I was just sick of seeing him do that to himself, and sick of having to run out of work to meet him at the gas station. I said “look, I’ll loan you the $20, but instead of paying me back, you’re going to put the $20 in your glove box. You’re not allowed to touch it, because that’s MY money. Every time I see you, I’m going to make sure the money’s there, so you can’t spend it. If you run low on gas right before payday again, you can use the $20 for that, but then as soon as you get paid, you have to pay the money back to your glove box again.” It worked. I never got the emergency phone call to the gas station again, and he had finally learned to keep a little something in reserve to make sure he didn’t get caught without a way to get home. What a concept.
Challenge Yourself to Save — NO MORE EXCUSES
Whatever you do, don’t trap yourself in a bad financial position because you’d rather make excuses for being where you are. Nearly everyone who has money either started with very little money, or had a phase where they earned very little money, and they figured out a way to make it work and to pick themselves up from there. You may have started broke and stayed broke for a long time, or you may be newly broke and feeling like you’re never going to regain your momentum again, but if you let yourself get stuck with negative thoughts, that is going to get in your way. Here are some excuses that people make, and why you shouldn’t let them be part of your vocabulary.
“I don’t make enough money to get ahead.” Yeah, you and everybody else. But if you took a pay cut of 10%, or even as little as 5%, I guarantee you wouldn’t starve. You would find some way to either spend a little less or earn a little more, or both. Drive for Uber or Lyft for an afternoon, or house-sit or pet-sit for someone, or sell things on Craigslist. Pretend you just took a pay cut, and put your “pay cut” in your savings account and don’t even look at it. You can get there, little by little.
“The economy is stagnant. Wages haven’t risen in ages, so the rich are getting richer and the poor (like me) are doomed to stay poor.” Well, with that attitude, you are. If you want to stay where you are, then go ahead and accept it and don’t complain about it. But if you want to be making more money, look for a way to make more money. Get a side job. Sell some stuff. Start a blog. Go back to school and earn a degree or certificate so you can earn more, or charge your clients more money.
The bottom line is that you’re falling behind now, you’re never going to get ahead unless you change something. Everyone has the ability to save at least some amount of money. You may have to change your housing situation, or change the car you drive, or take a side job, or cut your cable TV, or stop drinking out with friends (order sodas or smuggle a flask in instead), or earn a degree or certificate by taking classes at night or on weekends and get a higher-paying job after you graduate. Just don’t let yourself get stuck in your current position because you can’t think of a way to improve it. Challenge yourself. Push harder. You can get there.
In what ways have you challenged yourself financially? Are there financial hurdles that you just can’t seem to clear? Scroll down and let me know in the comments.