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Have you reached a savings plateau?

It's a financial truism: When saving money, starting is the hardest part.

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That's true, until you do start and then find out that, after trimming the fat, perhaps again and again, the effort is not paying off.

Most of the debt is gone, the frivolous take-out meals are a faint memory, money is even being shuttled to a savings account automatically, but the financial milestones just don't seem to be getting any closer.

Sooner or later, there comes a point on the path to financial righteousness when all the forward motion seems to have stopped. You've reached a savings plateau.

You still have options, big or small.

A simple solution
The so-called "voluntary simplicity movement" offers a way to jump-start a stalled financial plan.

Stan King, a San Francisco Bay area leader of simplicity circles, says the point of his group sessions is to help people reduce consumption without feeling deprived. He calls it "conscious living," and it encompasses everything from weighing every purchase to biking to work to living in a smaller house.

"It's a journey, and you can start with small steps," King says. "Some people chuck it all ... but I think it is better to make small changes."

Don't get rid of the second car just yet. Park it. Try doing without it for a month. Try it for a year.

Grow some tomatoes. Bike to work. Learn to change your own oil.

Then check in. Did it save money? Did it give something a little more meaning or provide more family time? Was it worth it?

"How drastic the measures are depends on the importance of the goal, and somewhat on the willpower to stick with it," King says.

Outside a monthly budget
You can take incremental steps that don't involve hours of coupon clipping.

Keeping monthly and weekly expenses down is clearly important, but things that come up once or twice a year can do just as much damage, says Ilyce Glink, author of "50 Simple Things You Can Do to Improve Your Finances" and editor in chief of ThinkGlink.com.

The holiday season is a great time to take control of what might be a gaping hole in an otherwise very tightly controlled budget. "Gift giving is hugely expensive," she says.

Start with some creativity. Giving of your own time is the most precious, Glink says.

For family members, a magazine subscription or a framed family photo is thoughtful. For a hostess or co-worker, a little jam wrapped nicely or a plate of homemade treats is fine, she says.

Also, watch for the hidden expenses of hosting. There is nothing wrong with potluck for the holiday dinner, served on the same table cloth that comes out every year. It is, Glink says, too easy to get wrapped up in the spirit and glitter of it all, and then feel the financial repercussions in January.

But the holidays are not the only time of year when generosity gets the best of shoppers' judgment. Glink says it's important to consider irregular expenses all year long, especially for children's birthdays.

 
 
Next: Don't skip the free money.
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