Research says if you want to save, you have to use one of two tactics: be more mindful — or completely mindless.
New year, same sad savings scenario. According to a new Bankrate survey, one-third of households had a major unexpected expense last year costing at least $2,500. Yet only 39 percent of Americans say they would cover even a $1,000 emergency with savings. Look, everyone knows the recipe for financial success: Save more, spend less. So why aren’t we doing it? Because saving money is hard. If you want to succeed, research shows, you have to use one of two tactics: You either have to be more mindful — or completely mindless. Here are five new solutions that fall into both of those categories:
ISOLATE YOUR SPENDING MONEY FROM SAVINGS.
If you can assign your money particular “jobs” as it applies to meeting your goals, you’ll be more successful. That’s the idea at the heart of a behavioral finance concept called “mental accounting,” for which University of Chicago Economist Richard Thaler won the Nobel Prize in 2017. By isolating the dollars you want to save off the bat — as soon as you get paid — you’ll be more likely to actually save them. As for your spending money? Try putting it on a separate debit card, in your Venmo account (if that’s how you do most spending) or in cash. The latter still feels more real than other forms of currency, so it can make you think twice before spending (especially big bills). If you do buy something online, redeposit the exact amount you spent into your account from the cash, says Sarah Newcomb, behavioral economist at Morningstar.
USE APPS TO SUPERCHARGE YOUR SAVING.
Apps that help you auto-save for your goals are on the rise. First, there’s Stash, which focuses on both saving and investing. Its smart-save feature studies your spending and earning patterns to gauge when you have cash to spare. Then, little by little, it socks away money for you. (To avoid overdrafts, it doesn’t pull money when you have a low balance.) Your cash can either earn interest in a savings account or be invested in 40 different ETF portfolios. The app is free for the first month, then charges $1 per month until your account is worth $5,000. At that point, you’ll pay one-fourth of 1 percent of your investments (25 basis points) per year (or $12.50 on that $5,000). Savings app Digit is similar in the way it analyzes your spending patterns and socks away cash, but you can change how aggressively it saves on your behalf and set specific savings goals denoted by different emojis. There’s a no-overdraft guarantee, and it costs $2.99 a month (but median monthly savings are $110 per user).
KNOW WHETHER YOU’RE A “BIG-PICTURE” OR “DETAIL-ORIENTED” THINKER.
People could have more saving success when they apply a strategy opposite to their normal way of thinking, suggests a study published in the Journal of Marketing Research. If you’re a big-picture person, try giving yourself a very specific saving goal (like saving $5 a day or $35 a week). If you’re more detail-oriented, try a more abstract goal (like to save as much as you can). (If you’re not sure which type of thinker you are, think about the last time you planned a trip. Did you have every hour mapped out, or were you happier going with the flow?) This strategy likely works because big-picture thinkers, who are more focused on the why of doing something, tend to think of concrete goals as more important than non-specific ones. But detail-oriented thinkers, who like to focus on the how of doing something, often think of non-specific goals as easier to achieve. By following the way your mind works, everyone wins.
BUILD A BUDGET BUFFER.
Life happens. Friends you haven’t seen in a while suggest going out to dinner, a work tote you’ve been eyeing goes on sale, your prescription needs to be refilled or you forgot about your quarterly auto insurance premium (oops). Although the reasons behind this extra expenses change, the fact that they’re coming rarely does. That’s why it’s a good idea to build a buffer into your monthly budget for those unexpected budget busters that tend to come up every few weeks. Think about what you’re most tempted to spend money on, what you typically succumb to and add a cushion to your budget to support it. In effect, you’re acknowledging that you’re probably going to spend this money — so you might as well plan on doing it, rather than letting it trip you up each time. That way, you won’t be as tempted to reach into your emergency fund.
PUT YOUR MIND OVER MONEY.
Yes, mindfulness might be a trend, but incorporating it — even just slightly — into your daily life could mean better spending and saving habits. When you wake up in the morning, before you do anything else, take a minute or two to think about your savings goals. What are you aiming for? What does that life look like? (Visualization is important.) Later in the day, when you’re about to make a purchase, pause for a moment. Ask yourself: Am I spending intentionally or out of habit? Will this make me happy or take me further from my goal?