How to Save Money Without the Hassle

I don't have much income; what now?

With the world and the country the way it is, there aren't many people who can say that they aren't hurting even just a teeny bit in the money department, but is that any excuse to give up on a future plush life?

No, it's really not.

And even with a small income, it's possible to not only make ends meet, but to squirrel little bits away and save them up for a rainy day. It's not easy, and it's not fast, but you know that old saying, 'slow and steady wins the race'? In situations like this, it's not only true, it's the only way to go.

You could have this!

Photo: Marie Claire Publications.
Photo: Marie Claire Publications.

First things first

Before any saving of money happens, you have to rearrange your brain a little. Our culture sort of encourages us to live beyond our means and to always want more and to never be happy with what we have, but that's unsustainable and it's counter productive. The goal is to save money, not to spend it like it's bottomless-- one look at the checkbook register will show you that it's not.

So to start out, do this: Instead of looking at your paycheck and thinking of all the things you need and want to pay for, think about how much you can keep. Just keep, and put away, and use later. It's simple, but it recasts everything in a totally new light.

With that in mind, let's head into the meat of the discussion.

Organization!

Next, get organized. One of the worse things that can happen to your budget and your personal finances is a disorganized system. How can you pay bills and put aside savings if you don't even know how much you have?

Yes, most of this process is planning and set-up, but that's why it's so easy when you actually get down to it.

Start like this: make a list of everything you need to pay for in a month. Then make a list of the things you should pay in a month. Then make a list of the things you want to pay or pay for in a month. 

Figure out how much you can reasonably expect from your pay in that same month.

Then make a budget. Keep everything in one place, all the wants, needs and shoulds, and any other expenses that come up along the way. If you're the sort that needs details, go ahead and budget every last dollar. If you're a looser sort, make a rough budget, but not so rough that you can forget where you are and let too many things slide.

Get to work!

The best time to start is when you have leeway-- once or twice a year, there should be a time when you have an 'extra' paycheck in a month if you're paid weekly or biweekly, and if you aren't paid that way, there's things like bonuses or tax refunds. If you don't get either of these, give yourself a few months lead-in so you can scrimp and build up the equivalent of a paycheck-- the point is to be one pay ahead instead of living strictly paycheck to paycheck.

It'll be tight in this first stage, but it loosens up soon.

Once you're a month or so ahead, you'll need to change how you handle your accounting. Instead of putting the money in the bank, writing it in your register, then whittling away at it until it's gone, do this:

Write in your deposit, then go ahead and deduct everything you need to pay for in the first part of the month-- the stuff you would have paid out of next paycheck. Then, effectively, all that is accounted for and you know exactly how much money you actually have to spend, if any. At the next pay period, account for the one that would have been after, always keeping one pay ahead of the bills so they can all be paid on time and as close to in full as possible.

Now the most important part...

After you know how much 'free' money you have each pay, it's time to start divvying it up and seeing how you can increase it. We'll talk about this second one first.

It's standard advice: Look for ways to cut spending, even just a little, without sacrificing quality of life. See if you can downsize your phone, internet, cable or other luxuries-- look at how you actually use them, and cut the fat; you won't even notice the lack of things you don't use anyway. Shop cheaper when you shop-- buy replacement items less often, and spend your money on better things that won't needs as much replacing. Find ways to lower your electricity and water bills. Eat out less, and cook at home more, using seasonal ingredients because they're fresher, taste better and cost a lot less. When you get home at night, empty any change in your pockets into a big jar, and when it's full, cash it in and deposit it in a savings account.

Now for the divvying: Decide on a set portion of your income that you'll put into savings-- say, ten percent, or five percent, or even just ten or twenty dollars a paycheck-- and stick to it. Remove it at the beginning like it's another bill to account for, and you won't even miss it, same as when the government takes out taxes before you get the check to begin with. 

Decide also on a set amount to feed into a 'buffer' for your checking account, and remove that from the register, but leave it in the account. Slowly, as you repeat this action every pay deposit, you'll build up a literal buffer in the account, leaving space for unexpected costs, emergencies, holidays, all the sorts of things it's hard to budget for. When you get to a point where you can, say, pay a whole month's bills out of your buffer, continue to remove the buffer money, but move it instead to a savings account or a retirement fund where it can gather interest and will grow on it's own. Just remember, though, that if you use your buffer, you need to replenish it the way you grew it to begin with, and you need to do so before you can whittle it all away and set yourself back to square one.

From there, you can invest your second-stage buffer, or you can give it to an IRA, or you can set yourself up a nice retirement fund, or a college fund for your kids. 

Conclusions and notes

It's slow going at first, but the more you save, the more you'll have, and the less you'll have to worry about it. Stick with it, brave it out, and it'll become empowering-- you're the one in charge of your finances, not banks, not creditors, not bills, and not the culture that tells you you need to always have more than you need.

Notes:

- If you have a lot of debt, use the money you would use for the buffer to start paying it off, as much as you can each month-- or at least split the buffer allowance, giving some to the buffer and some to the creditors, so long as it's more than the minimum payment so you aren't just maintaining the debt and you avoid failing to pay it off. Make sure you keep careful records of how much you owe and how much you've paid and when, so you can see the balance shrinking and can stay active and encouraged.

- If you're the sort who likes to buy shiny things, also set up a splurge fund as soon as you get a little leeway. Each pay, put a little into it, just five dollars or something, and be patient. Plan your purchase, window shop and research, compare prices and read reviews while you wait, and when you have enough to buy it, if you still want to, go ahead. It's outside the budget and you saved for it. If there are lots of things you want, make a list and keep it up to date and ranked; buy things in order as you save up enough for each.

- The whole process teaches self-control, and that's almost the most important part. That, and financial independence. 

- You can do it!

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