Americans are snapping their wallets shut and socking money away amid economic doldrums. The nation’s personal savings rate—hovering at zero just two years ago—has risen to about 5 percent—the highest rate in 15 years, according to the U.S. Commerce Department.
Experts say paying down debt and saving more is a sensible response to job layoffs, declining home prices and dwindling 401(k)s. Smart people, particularly those age 50-plus, are going to have to save. “If you don’t want to work forever, ultimately you’ll be responsible for paying for retirement,” says Dallas L. Salisbury, CEO of the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI).
Still, saving money seems like dieting. You know you should do it, but it isn’t a lot of fun. “Financial entertainment”—programs, incentives, games and devices that make thriftiness more fun—can help ease the pain. Here’s how:
Watch the pennies, and the dollars will take care of themselves.
American households have an estimated $10 billion in spare change stashed in jars and piggy banks, according to Coinstar, maker of coin-counting products. For years, Akron, Ohio, welder Wesley Lance, 63, emptied his pockets into a growing collection of coffee cans. When Lance’s credit union waived coin-sorting fees during Roll Your Change week last year, his wife, Linda, 59, a bakery worker, hauled 20 cans into the bank using a child’s red wagon.
The teller announced the mounting total as she fed the sorting machine. “Everybody stared at me while the teller called out, $1,000 … $2,000 … $3,000,” says Linda. “It was just like winning at the slot machines in Las Vegas.” The final tally—$4,120.18—was a shock. “If we’d known we had that much, we’d have stuck it in a CD.” Meanwhile, it’s stuck away safely, waiting for interest rates to go up.
Roll Your Change is one of many programs around the country sponsored by America Saves, a national campaign sponsored by nonprofit, government and corporate groups to encourage money-saving habits. Check AmericaSaves.org for more information.
Stash your credit and debit cards and pay cash for purchases—you’ll spend up to 20 percent less, studies show.
Credit cards, gift certificates and debit cards are like Monopoly money, says Priya Raghubir of New York University’s Stern School of Business. However, if credit cards are a necessity, she suggests keeping a record of expenses by categories like food, gas or entertainment.
“Cash has a face value, so it feels more real, more transparent,” Raghubir says. “There’s a little pain attached to parting with it.”
Fred Ecks, 43, of Boulder, Colo., learned long ago to live on half his gross income from investments. In the mid-1990s, the former computer programmer slashed spending to pay down $12,000 in credit card debt. He banked half his salary, investing it mostly in bonds. He was so thrifty, he would eat at home before joining friends at a restaurant, then just order a beverage.
“I didn’t get money from my parents or hit it big in stock options or win the lottery,” he says. “I just saved the majority of every paycheck for years. It’s not very sexy, but it sure does add up.”
These days, Ecks says, he volunteers about half time and goofs off a lot. He lives “like a king” on about $1,200 a month, including $609 on entertainment and electronics, $300 for food—he cooks at home—and $93 for health insurance. He has a bike instead of a car. He paid cash for his house, a three-bedroom, one-bath bungalow. He tracks every penny to eliminate mindless expenditures. “A Starbucks cappuccino costs $4—but how much will I enjoy it?” he says.
Think about what makes you happy, says Avi Karnani, vice president of strategic innovation at LendingTree.com. “Choose your smiles and cries, we say. Sure, you can bring coffee from home, but maybe a Starbucks latte reminds you of your former work life and energizes you for the job hunt.”
Avoid status purchases, he adds—shared experiences bring more happiness than material goods. For free online tools to help track expenses and save money, check out MoneyRight at LendingTree.com.