By Laurel Thompson
Saving money is possible with these tips and tricks from local finance pros
Tax season is upon us, bringing finances to the forefront of our minds as we look back on a year that put our savings to the test. While we sift through our tax returns, organize our expenses and search for potential write-offs (the home office counts as a deduction, right?), many of us begin to wonder what became of all our hard-earned cash.
It’s moments like these that force us to take a long, hard look at something we love to ignore: exactly where and how our money is being spent. But according to the pros, that’s the first step toward creating a future that affords us the financial freedom to spend more on the things we really care about. Then it all comes down to how well we adhere to these tried-and-true money-saving tips.
Save Every Day
Though it may seem obvious, setting aside a percentage of every paycheck is critical to build up your savings and secure a safety net for rainy days. In fact, experts suggest that individuals have approximately six months of savings in the bank, and that business owners have an additional two months of savings on top of that. Lucas Casarez, certified financial planner and founder of Level Up Financial Planning of Fort Collins, says it’s all about self-discipline and finding what motivates you to save.
“Whether your goal is to build an emergency fund, get out of debt or start socking money away for a big life change, like having a baby or buying a house, there needs to be something driving you to contribute to your savings every time you get paid,” he says. “Also, make sure you’re taking advantage of any low-hanging fruit, like your employer’s matching 401k and compound interest that is accrued by contributing to your savings over time.”
For those who are good about adding to their savings but find themselves tempted to make withdrawals, putting up artificial roadblocks just might do the trick. Toby Clary, licensed CPA at Soukup, Bush & Associates in Fort Collins, suggests finding ways to keep those funds out of reach so you don’t drain your savings on unnecessary things.
“Setting money aside before it even hits your bank account is one of the easiest ways to save,” he says. “If that money is deposited straight into your savings account rather than transferring it over yourself, you’ll only ever see the funds you are immediately able to spend in your checking account. I even suggest that people keep their savings at another bank so it’s more of a hassle to transfer money out of your savings on a whim.”
Get a Realistic Budget
Next comes the paralyzing part for many people: figuring out where the rest of their money should be spent. Usually, their top priorities are the basic requirements for living—food and shelter—but the percentage people allocate to those areas varies based on the type of lifestyle they want to live and to what extent their income supports that lifestyle. Once you’ve accounted for your “fixed expenses,” or non-negotiables that you have little control over, then you can start to think about the next tier of necessity.
“Budgeting is all about priorities, so youreally need to sit down and think about what is most important to you,” Casarez says. “Food and cars are two areas where people tend to overspend, but it’s perfectly fine to allot a good chunk of your money for those things if they are high on your priority list and you’re not going above your budgeted amount for those expenses. If it’s important to you to only eat organic or to drive a newer car, you’ll likely have to make sacrifices in other areas, like entertainment.”
Whatever your budget looks like, Clary saysit has to be realistic in order to be successful. He recommends that you approach the task of balancing your finances like you would any other challenging endeavor and that you set benchmarks for success rather than biting off more than you can chew in the beginning.
“Whether it’s dieting, exercising or saving money, it’s going to be hard at first,” he explains. “You don’t want to make your budget impossible to stick to, because the first couple months that you’re not able to achieve those goals, you’ll want to throw your hands up and walk away. If your expectations aren’t realistic, you’re going to lose that discipline immediately and go right back to your old spending habits.”
Live Beneath (Not Within) Your Means
We’ve all heard the phrase, “live within your means,” when it comes to saving money, but today’s financial gurus will tell you that’s bad advice. Casarez and Clary both say it’s better to live beneath your means than to spend every last penny—in other words, you should only spend some of what remains after your savings has been taken out of each paycheck.“
Your goal shouldn’t necessarily be to max out your budget every month,” Clary says. “Most people will inevitably end up going over their budget at some point because there are always unexpected things that come up. Try to be a little conservative with your numbers when you’re creating a budget, so you don’t find yourself in debt if you do overspend in a certain area one month.”
If you’re particularly skilled at spending every last dollar in your account right before payday, Casarez might call you a “budgeting ninja,” though that’s not necessarily a good thing. He says that’s how people end up hurting themselves—they might not be going into debt, but they also aren’t saving as much as they should, and that might come back to bite them in the event of an emergency.
“One of the main reasons why living within your means isn’t as accurate of a goal as it used to be is that people are living longer than they used to,” he says. “Not to be morbid, but our great-grandparents usually died within a handful of years after retiring, and social security could handle that, but now that the average life expectancy is in the upper 80s, what happens is that we retire at age 65 and we rely on additional funds for retirement to address any unforeseen costs that come up as we get older.”
Cut Down on Superfluous Spending
Aside from the life expectancy gap, there’s one other main thing that differentiates our great-grandparents’ lifestyle from ours: the amount of things available for us to spend money on. And those aren’t necessarily the essentials (though there are lots of options when it comes to food and housing)—they’re mostly discretionary things that are “up to us” to spend money on, even though we may view them as essential to modern life.
“Finances are very much about human behavior and the psychology behind spending, so it’s important to differentiate between what society says you should spend money on versus what will actually be beneficial to you,” Casarez explains. “People tend to compare their ‘needs’ to the ‘needs’ of others around them and upgrade their lives accordingly. If one friend has the latest iPhone and another friend has a new car, for example, we start to form this notion that that’s the standard everyone lives by, but the reality is that those things are probably just high on their priority lists.”
With so many things to buy and subscriptionsto sign up for, the line between wants, needs and unnecessary (or even useless) extras becomes even more blurred. It’s not so much that we all need unlimited phone data, five streaming services and meal kits delivered to our door, but that we have grown so accustomed to the convenience these things offer that we have a hard time imagining life without them.
“If you’re not sure where to cut back on spending, take a look at your credit card statement to see what you’re being charged for versus what you actually use, then eliminate the things you’re mindlessly spending money on that aren’t really worth it,” Clary suggests. “Still, you can’t just go from living a lavish life to enforcing all kinds of strict austerity measures overnight. Even when you’re cutting back, make sure you leave a little room in your budget to have fun.”
In fact, cutting back on unnecessary spendingdoesn’t have to feel so limiting—it can be really empowering to regain control of where your money is going because it allows you to spend more confidently on the things that matter to you. And we’re seeing more of that lately as people shift their spending habits to fulfill themselves in ways they never would have before.
“Instead of dropping $100 on dinner and a movie or hitting happy hour every day after work, more people are rediscovering the joy of doing things outside for free,” Clary says. “And when they are spending money, it’s to make life at home more comfortable. Maybe they’re redirecting their travel fund into a kitchen remodel or they’re investing in home gym equipment to stay in shape. It really comes down to identifying what’s important to you and spending your money accordingly—after you’ve already put a portion in savings.”
Laurel Thompson is a Fort Collins native and CSU alum. When she isn’t writing for local lifestyle publications, you’ll find her soaking up the sun, cooking something delicious, or reading a good book while sipping an iced coffee. To comment on this article, email firstname.lastname@example.org.