Struggling to save? Treat savings like a monthly bill


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Your mortgage, your credit card, your car.

No matter how much you would like to take a luxurious vacation or enjoy an elegant seven-course gastronomical experience, you find a way to pay your bills. Especially the big ones. After all, what good is foie gras if you’re homeless?

The problem is that you don’t think about putting money in your savings account in the same way you think about your mortgage. Come hell or high water, you’re going to pay your mortgage. But if your savings slips one month or two, after all you’ve been looking forward to that trip for so long, so what’s the big deal?

Instead of thinking about savings as a discretionary endeavor, try to trick your mind into believing it’s something that has to be done, every month. Because it does.

Americans struggle to save

Of course, this is easier written than achieved. Health care and education costs have skyrocketed in recent years, while your pay has largely stagnated.

The unprecedented actions by the Federal Reserve to keep the economy from plunging into a depression also reduced what savers could earn on their cash. While stocks keep climbing, most Americans aren’t invested, especially outside of tax-preferred retirement accounts.

Millions of Americans, from millennials to seniors, muddle through with extraordinary student loan obligations, while rising home prices have pushed more people to rent for longer.

As a result, the state of the American pocketbook is decidedly not strong. People are saving less and less, while accumulating more and more credit card debt. The median household had $4,500 in their checking and savings account in 1998, and has $4,500 now. That’s almost two decades of lost savings.

A recent Bankrate survey found that 39 percent of folks wouldn’t have the savings to pay for an unexpected $1,000 expense. That dovetails with Federal Reserve survey data.

Only half of Americans save in a retirement fund, and most will have a tough time maintaining their standard of living after they stop working.

Change your mindset

If you find yourself behind in your retirement savings, behind in your emergency fund, and behind on credit card debt, perhaps it’s time for a change.

Ben Carlson, CFA and portfolio manager at Ritholtz Wealth Mangement, had an interesting idea on his blog, A Wealth of Common Sense. Turn savings into an obligation.

“I view savings as something like a bill payment I have to make each month,” he wrote.

That’s the first step. The next step is to automate the payment.

“Each account I have automatically pulls money from my checking account on a periodic basis so I know I’ll never be tempted to spend it in the first place. This is huge from a psychological standpoint to make savings less painful.”

If you directly deposit a portion of your paycheck into a savings account of one stripe or another, you won’t see the money in your checking account in the first place. And then you’ll be less likely to consider impulse purchases.

This little mind trick will do little to raise your pay if you’ve gone years without a real bump, but it might help you better live within your means while the tide rises all around you.