Why aren't we saving more money?
According to a Harris Poll released early this month, 27% of Americans have no personal savings and 34% have nothing saved for retirement.
Of course, not all the news is bad. As a country, we're beginning to spend more than we did just a year ago when we were in the grips of the Great Recession, as The New York Times recently pointed out.
According to the same article, we were also saving more last year (in the second quarter of 2009, Americans socked away 7% of their disposable income, versus only 5.3% in December of 2010), the question is, why aren't we still saving? Clearly, we all can -- we just don't. Here are some of the excuses we typically offer up to explain why we don't save more. Let's see if we can't debunk them."I live paycheck to paycheck and can't afford to put anything away for a rainy day."
I'm very sympathetic to this excuse, having used it myself many a time, and I'm especially sympathetic to anyone working two jobs to make ends meet. With that said, plenty of us are living paycheck to paycheck precisely because we're not managing our money right -- we're either wasting our cash on purchases we don't need and/or borrowing on credit which we have to pay back later, money which then eats away at our monthly income.
But as Bryan Link, CEO and co-founder of SimpliFi, a free financial planning and advice service, says, "If you've got any money at all, you have some money to save."
Link says that it might help to think in percentages as opposed to hard dollars when it comes to budgeting. Here's why: "If you don't make any changes at all to your budget," Link says, "then you're being honest -- If you do everything this month that you did last month, then you don't have any money to save." But odds are, most of us really didn't need that burger and fries we bought several times for lunch last month, or that DVD of the latest blockbuster or the latest and greatest Xbox game.
If you're having trouble figuring out just how to start saving, Katie Libbe, vice president of consumer marketing and solutions for AllianzLife Insurance Company, offers the old chestnut of "paying yourself first." By getting in that habit, says Libbe, "you can ensure that you always take a portion of your paycheck for long-term savings and force yourself to work with the remaining funds in a more responsible manner."
But if you're truly down to your last nickel every month and can't put anything away, Libbe suggests you "consider asking for special projects at work that may bring additional hours or even taking on a second job. The reality is that in today's world, we're increasingly responsible for funding our own retirement -- so if we see our current paycheck doesn't allow for any savings, it might be time to put in some work."
OK, while we chew on that ... next excuse, please ...
"I'm going to save -- but not now. I'll do it later, when I'm making a little more money."
Sure, but what if that day never comes? The Employee Benefit Research Institute released a study last year suggesting that 47% of baby boomers, now aged 56 to 62 years old, aren't expected to have enough money to cover just the basic living expenses they'll need throughout their retirement years. That would be expenses like food, utilities and health care.
While it's true that some of that 47% may have had their retirement savings devastated during the Great Recession, it's a good reminder that a lot of baby boomers out there probably once said the same thing -- I'll save later.
In other words, you don't know what's coming between now and when you plan to retire. There could be more recessions that make saving money difficult, if not impossible. You may have to take a pay cut or, worse, lose your job. And you're sure to encounter other major expenses, such as a child's college education or wedding, or unexpected medical issues. While later may sound great, life happens and that means expenses happen. The longer you wait, the less "later" there's going to be.
"I'm already putting money away in a 401(k) or an IRA. so why should I save more?"
You may not need to, concurs Link. But are you saving enough, Link wonders? "This is probably the objection we focus on the most with our service," says Link. "A lot of people don't really know how much they should be saving. They'll put in some round number like $50 or $100 in their 401(k) [every paycheck] and will get that match, and that's it."
Link says that rather than just picking a number at random and hoping it all adds up to something worth retiring on, each of us should calculate what we'll need to put into savings in order to generate whatever amount of monthly income we'd like to have at retirement.
That echoes advice we heard from Jon Stein, CEO of Betterment, a company that manages an investment account that's designed to be user-friendly toward even novice investors. "Work backwards from where you want to end up and understand that you'll need to be patient with yourself and the markets." (If you need some help with this, check out this great piece by my WalletPop colleague, Jennie Phipps, who wrote a terrific piece about some of the online calculators out there that you can use to help you plan for retirement.)
And a lot of people underinvest, says Stein, "which has its own risk -- not keeping up with inflation. People tend to slack off after they've set up their accounts. That's like joining a gym and then never going to work out -- you get little benefit. It's important to stick to rebalancing, contribution and diversification routines, or if you're subject to slacking, like most of us, choose a service that does these important things automatically for you."
"I'm not saving, because I want to spend my money on the things I deserve."
"Consumer marketing is very focused on that idea -- that's a very powerful motivator," says Link. But, he said, that's no excuse for not saving; we're going to be no less deserving of nice things down the road. By saving, you can get even nicer things down the road. Let's say you want to take a $20,000 dream vacation. "Most of us don't have that amount of money to immediately draw upon," Link says, "but if you start saving for it now, you can have it in the future."
"I'm past the point of no return. I'll never retire, and it's too late for me to save for it to really matter."
The bottom line is, it's never too late. Even if you're about to hit your 65th birthday and it's certain you're going to be on a limited income because you haven't saved, I'd argue that you're better off working a little longer -- even at a part-time job -- and putting off retirement, and saving what you can for a rainy day rather than just giving up.
If you're several years away from retirement and you've given up, then you're simply not thinking things through. A few years ago, I interviewed a financial adviser who told me that if you're in your 40s or 50s and you haven't begun saving, you can still put away enough to make a difference in your retirement years. At the very least, if your company offers a 401(k), you should put in at least as much as your employer will match. And if you can afford to put away more, all the better.
Never once have I heard a financial adviser -- and I've interviewed plenty -- even remotely hint that there's a time when it's too late to stop saving. If you think it's too late, you may be feeling down, but you're definitely not out.
Geoff Williams is a regular contributor to WalletPop. He is also the co-author of the book Living Well with Bad Credit.
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