Saving for a down payment on a house is a worthy goal. So is putting money away for retirement.
But the first goal for any consumer should be saving up enough money to meet an emergency expense like a car repair, appliance replacement, or medical bill. Having an emergency savings account not only provides peace of mind, it can help prevent a growing credit card balance with a very high interest rate.
Unfortunately, many consumers are struggling to put any money into savings, and instead are living paycheck-to-paycheck. A recent survey shows more than half of consumers don't have as much as $1,000 in a savings account.
Allie Vered, Director of America Saves, a non-profit that tries to motivate consumers to save money, has drilled down into the numbers and doesn't like what she sees.
Spending habits and worrisome statistics
"What's worrisome to me is that 42% of women have nothing saved, versus 28% for men,” Vered told ConsumerAffairs. “When you look all the way through, from emergency savings to retirement savings, women consistently save less."
Part of that could be because men still earn more than women. But over time, that gap appears to widen.
"Females only make 82% of what males make upon graduation, but 10 years later women are making 69%," Vered said.
Vered says Millennials also seem to have more difficulty saving. Coming of age during the 2008 financial crisis, they tend to be thrifty but are burdened with student loans.
“They have whole different sets of challenges with managing income and savings that we don't really understand," she said.
Consumers today generally spend a larger percentage of their income than they did in the past, in part because society encourages it. As young people, the World War II generation was encouraged to be thrifty because there was war-time rationing. There were a limited number of consumer products to buy and this generation carried that thriftiness through life.
Today's consumer culture encourages people to spend money. Vered says technology also plays a role.
"Spending habits are being driven, in part, by social pressure that hasn't been there in the past,” she said. “You can show your wealth, and more broadly, to different audiences via social media. That, it turn, can create pressure to have misplaced priorities."
First steps toward saving
To get on the path to proper savings priorities, the personal finance experts at the American Bankers Association recommend “paying yourself” before you pay any of your bills. That means making a regular deposit, no matter how small, into a savings account.
The best way to do that is automating it, using your online bill pay account to move money from your checking account to a savings account each month. If you wait until the end of the month to see how much money you have left for savings, chances are there won't be any.
Next separate your spending into two categories – wants and needs. Look at the things you need to spend money on – things like the rent or mortgage, the utility bill, insurance, etc.
Then look at the spending in the “want” category. It not only includes dinners out and impulse buys, it might also include cable TV and smartphones.
There are increasingly more ways to “cut the cord” with cable by watching more content online at less cost. And while you probably think you can't part with your smartphone, you might be able to spend less on a phone and a service plan if you just shop around.
Freedom from financial worry
Finally, don't feel like you have to get to $1,000 in your emergency saving account overnight. The point is to build a modest amount into your budget so that you don't really notice.
If your budget is tight, start with $25 a month. You can increase it slightly as you pay off debt and find ways to trim spending.
“This small goal can lead to a lifetime of practice,” Vered said. “Saving isn't an amount, it's an activity that you build into so that you can get to your goals.”
And reaching goals is a big part of America Saves' mission. While some people find gratification in spending money, there is also gratification in saving it.
For one thing, it brings freedom from financial worry, making it a little easier to sleep at night.