Have money directly deposited from your paycheck or even your checking account into a dedicated savings vehicle. This can be done concurrently with other goals, such as paying down debt or saving for retirement, not instead of those goals. You won't miss what you don't see. And putting your savings on autopilot is a great way to reinforce the savings habit when unplanned expenses inevitably come along and chew a hole in what you've saved. You're only one paycheck away from beginning to replenish your savings balance.
Get a high-yield savings account
When it comes to savings accounts, "high yield" seems like a gross exaggeration when the top-yielding accounts barely pay 1 percent.
There are three requirements you should have when you create your rainy-day fund. It must be liquid, meaning you can get to the money whenever you need it. It must be free of investment risk. And you must earn a return that preserves your buying power against the erosive effect of inflation.
The top-yielding savings accounts insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and money market accounts meet the first two of those requirements. And while returns presently trail the rate of inflation, they are the first to eclipse inflation should the pace of price increases fall or interest rates eventually pick up.
Best of all, these accounts can be found with little or nothing in the way of a minimum deposit and are available to consumers anywhere in the 50 states. Check Bankrate.com's search engine for the highest-yielding, FDIC-insured savings accounts available nationwide.
Find a free checking account
Having the wrong checking account can take hundreds of hard-earned dollars out of your pocket every year. According to Bankrate's own checking survey, the average interest-bearing checking account charges a monthly service fee of $14.15 and requires maintaining a balance of nearly $5,600 at a near-zero rate of interest to avoid fees. Instead, look for an account that charges no monthly service fees or per-transaction fees and doesn't require a minimum balance.
Bankrate.com found that 45 percent of large banks and thrifts in markets around the country and 76 percent of the nation's largest credit unions still offer a noninterest, free checking account.
Even if your bank has eliminated free checking accounts, that doesn't mean you're stuck paying the fee. Many banks and credit unions will waive the fee for customers with multiple accounts or even for something as simple as signing up for direct deposit. Check out Bankrate.com's story on how to avoid fees, and use Bankrate's search tool to find a free checking account that meets your needs.
Track your monthly spending
Fewer than 6 in 10 Americans, just 58 percent, track their spending against a monthly budget. Whether you call it a budget or a spending plan, getting a handle on your spending accomplishes two things: It helps you determine where you can cut back, and it helps maximize your savings efforts.
Begin by tracking your spending for a two-month period. Then take this information and build a realistic monthly budget. Each month, track all of your expenses -- everything from the $1 tip to the grocery store bag boy to the monthly mortgage payment. At month's end, tally up your spending against the budget and see where you did well and where you didn't. If you spent less than planned, move the excess into your high-yield savings account or use it to pay down debt.