Though Americans are technically doing a better job of saving now than in past years, most of us still have a lot of catching up to do.
In fact, an estimated 57% of U.S. adults have yet to accumulate $1,000 in a savings account, while 39% have absolutely no money saved at all. If you’ve yet to amass a respectable sum of savings, there’s a good chance one of the following factors is to blame.
1. You don’t have a budget
Following a budget is a crucial component of saving money, yet most Americans don’t take this easy step. Only 41% of households maintain and stick to a budget, which means that most folks are missing out on a key opportunity to track their spending and identify ways to save.
If you’ve yet to create a budget because you’re not sure how, the answer is simple: Just write out all of your monthly expenses, or list them on a spreadsheet, see how much you’re spending on each one, add up your costs, and compare that number to the amount you take home in your paychecks.
If your expenses exceed your earnings, or eat up your income entirely, then you’ll need to start making lifestyle changes to free up some cash.
2. You bought a home that’s too expensive
If your home is your greatest monthly expense, you’re not alone. Americans, on a whole, spend more money on housing than any other individual necessity, but if your housing costs exceed 30% of your take-home pay, it could explain why you’re struggling to save money.
No matter your income level, you should always keep your housing costs — including your rent or mortgage payment, insurance, and property taxes, if applicable — below that 30% threshold. Cross that line and you risk not only indefinitely postponing your savings efforts, but falling short on your other bills.
That’s what’s happening right now, in fact, to a whopping 39 million Americans who have gotten in way over their heads by taking on too much house. If you’re one of them, it’s time to consider downsizing, lowering your housing expenses, and putting the difference directly into the bank.
3. You have a ton of debt
The average American household carries roughly $16,000 in credit card debt, and that’s only one piece of the personal debt puzzle. Throw in things like student loans and auto financing, and it’s not surprising that so many working adults don’t manage to save any money. If you’re saddled with debt to the point where any spare cash you get your hands on is eaten up by credit card and loan payments, it’s time to work on breaking that cycle.
Your best bet is to tackle your credit cards first, because they’re probably costing you more than any other type of debt you have. To this end, it pays to try transferring your various balances to a single card with a lower interest rate than what you’re currently paying.
If your credit is decent, you’re likely to get approved. Similarly, you can try applying for a personal loan with a lower rate than that of your various cards, and use it to pay off your balances. You’ll then need to repay the loan itself, but it’ll be cheaper to do so.
As for your other debts, your best move is to focus on cutting expenses to free up as much cash as possible to apply to those balances. You might even consider taking on a second job to chip away at your debts more quickly.
Just remember that, while paying down debt is a smart financial move, it actually shouldn’t trump short-term savings. In other words, you can, and should, work on eliminating debt, because once you do, the money you’re wasting on interest can go into savings instead. But if you work a side job that brings in, say, an extra $400 a month, and you’re sorely lacking in savings, then you might consider applying half of that sum to your existing debts, and sticking the other half in the bank.
4. You think you’re immune to emergencies
One final reason a number of us don’t save is that we get used to living paycheck to paycheck. The problem with that approach, however, is that the minute an unplanned bill lands in your lap, you’ll be fresh out of luck.
Many people don’t feel compelled to save money because they think a financial emergency won’t happen to them. But in reality, financial emergencies can happen to anyone, and if you’re not prepared, you risk racking up loads of costly debt, destroying your credit, and messing with your ability to rent or buy a home, among other things. That’s why you should always aim to have at least three months’ worth of living expenses socked away in the bank — because you never know when you might lose your job, fall ill, or find yourself in financial hot water.
No matter why you’ve been unable to save money to date, the key is to pinpoint the reason and work on overcoming it. The sooner you do, the sooner you’ll feel better about your finances, in general.
CNNMoney (New York) First published October 10, 2017: 10:14 AM ET