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Consumer prices are soaring. Here are the best ways to protect your savings

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While inflation is at the highest it’s been since the early 1980s, many people — especially those living paycheck to paycheck — may be struggling to save any money at all.

Inflation is likely to remain high, with most economists polled in Bankrate’s Second-Quarter Economic Indicator survey predicting inflation will remain as expected or heat up even faster. With consumer prices sky-high, inflation continues to outpace wage growth and savings rates, making it difficult for Americans to find room for saving.

Still, it’s important to save — or avoid spending what savings you have — especially with the potential for a recession. Until the beast of inflation is tamed, there are some strategies you can take to soften its blow on your finances, protect savings and develop better financial health overall.

1. Budget for savings first

Often it can be easy to spend your income and then run out of money for savings before you’ve even realized it. That’s why it’s important to plan ahead and figure out how much you can comfortably save from each paycheck — then put that amount into savings from the outset.

“If you put that savings first, you can find a way to live within the bounds you set for yourself,” says Sam Lewis, founder and financial planner at SJL Financial in Wilmington, Delaware.

The amount you should save depends on a couple of variables, including your total income, household size and what savings goals you have. A common budgeting strategy is the 50/30/20 rule — 50 percent of your income goes to needs, 30 percent to wants and 20 percent to savings.

However, it may not be realistic for many, especially those living paycheck to paycheck, to stow away 20 percent of their income. What’s important is trying to cut down on expenses and outline a plan to contribute some money at the beginning of the month to a savings account, with the goal of not tapping into that savings for daily spending.

There are various budgeting apps that can help you stay on track with a savings strategy and help save on time, too. Some of these apps even analyze your income and spending to help you determine how much you’re able to save each month.

2. Set spending priorities, focus on paying down debt

Once you’ve set aside a certain portion of your budget to build a decent savings cushion, consider what might be the best way to allocate spending — looking out for where spending could be trimmed. Being more aware of your spending can help to eliminate impulse purchases.

“Become more intentional about the amounts within your spending categories,” Lewis says. “What is the best use of your limited resources?”

A good strategy is to prioritize paying down credit card debt or other types of consumer debt. If you get out of debt sooner, you can save more in the long run, by limiting the amount of interest accumulated. Plus, in a rising rate environment, what you’re saving on future debt payments could be more than the rate you’d get from a savings account.

“If you have any credit card or other personal debt, you will most likely get a better return by paying down the debt than putting the money in savings,” says Jay Zigmont, PhD, CFP, founder of Childfree Wealth, a financial planning firm based in Water Valley, Mississippi.

For credit card debt, consider moving your balance to a balance transfer credit card, which may come with an introductory period of no interest charges for a year or more.

3. Cut back on energy bills

Two areas facing the highest rates of inflation are food and energy.

The high costs of utilities like water and electricity can chip away at potential savings. You can save on energy, especially during the hotter months, with a few simple lifestyle changes. Plus, doing so helps reduce the overall consumption of limited resources and contributes to building a greener nation.

The U.S. Department of Energy offers a guide with numerous tips for reducing utility bills. Here are several of those pointers:

  • Save up to 10 percent on heating and cooling by turning the thermostat down seven to 10 degrees Fahrenheit for eight hours a day during the fall and winter, or turning it up during spring and summer.
  • If you have access to your water tank, insulating it can save 7 to 16 percent annually in water heating costs.
  • Put scraped dishes in the dishwasher instead of hand washing them, and only run the dishwasher when it’s full.
  • Cover and wrap foods in the refrigerator to prevent moisture from being released, which can reduce how much energy is needed by the refrigerator’s compressor.
  • Use small appliances (such as microwaves and toaster ovens) for small meals, rather than a large stove or oven, which can save on cooling costs during the summer by generating less heat.
  • When doing laundry, using warm water instead of hot water can cut the amount of energy used for the load in half.
  • Unplug electronics when not in use, or use advanced power strips that prevent the electronics from drawing energy when turned off. Electronics that use up energy when turned off can add 10 percent more to a monthly electric bill.
  • Switch to energy-efficient LED lightbulbs; you can save up to $80 in electricity over the course of the lightbulb’s lifetime.

4. Shop for cheaper alternatives

When it comes to high costs, it’s probably apparent that grocery prices have faced some of the biggest price increases. The price of eggs rose by 33.1 percent in June compared to a year ago, with other essentials like butter and milk not far behind.

As you shop for groceries or home goods, compare brands and see if there’s a cheaper option. Look for store brand items, which are often significantly cheaper than other brands, and shop for local sellers of produce.

Also consider substituting certain ingredients with other, cheaper alternatives. For example, you could use oil instead of butter for cooking.

If you get in the habit of comparing prices and choosing cheaper alternatives, “you’re not going to immediately feel the impact, but over time you’ll see it in your savings,” says Lewis of SJL Financial.

5. Consider a side gig

The reality is that we can’t completely stop ourselves from making purchases that aren’t totally necessary. But it’s possible to offset these costs by putting in a little extra effort to pay for them.

“If you are in a cautionary mode about spending and saving, but you still want something that’s unnecessary — you can do that once you earn enough money from a side gig,” Lewis says.

Some of the ways you can make some extra cash on your own time include:

  • House-sitting or babysitting
  • Dog-walking
  • Filling out paid surveys, such as with Survey Junkie
  • Reselling your clothes online, such as with Depop or Poshmark
  • Teaching English to children in different countries with programs such as VIPKid (you don’t even need to speak another language)
  • Freelance writing

Look for side hustles or gig work that aligns with your interests. Then, you can generate more income while also developing skills in something you’re passionate about.

6. Negotiate for a raise

If you’ve been thinking about asking for a raise at work, now is the time to do it.

“When inflation is high, and especially when the labor market is friendly to workers, there tend to be more pay increases,” says Zach Teutsch, a financial advisor and founder of Values Added Financial based in Washington. “This might be a great time to ask for a raise, especially if your team has lost another worker recently.”

A pay increase is a great savings opportunity. You can use the extra cash to pay down debt or contribute to an emergency fund.

Plus, you can use the opportunity to demonstrate to a supervisor or employer all of your achievements and contributions to the workplace. Doing so can help you make strides toward advancing in your career and realizing broader career goals.

Bottom line

Between highly inflated prices on everyday items like groceries and fears of a recession, it’s easy to feel defeated in today’s economy. But now is a good time to develop financial literacy and look for what opportunities might come about.

Certainly, paying down debt is one of the most important things to prioritize with your finances. You can work on paying down debt while committing to putting at least a little bit of money into an emergency savings fund, which can help you stay more financially prepared in the long term.

You can also cushion savings with some extra cash by cutting down on utility bills, picking up a side gig here and there and negotiating for a raise at work.

Written by
René Bennett
Banking writer
René Bennett is a writer for Bankrate, reporting on banking products and personal finance.
Edited by
Consumer banking reporter