Traditional Chinese bridge over water in Southern China
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In September 2018, I had less than $400 in my savings account. I was a sad statistic.

A recent Bankrate survey found that six out of 10 Americans would not have enough savings to pay an unexpected $1,000 expense, such as a car repair or emergency room visit — and the same was true for me.

My goal of paying off debt quickly had taken priority over saving to my detriment. I live and teach English in China, so having such scant savings left me in a precarious position. What if I needed to book an emergency flight back to the U.S.? What if I got hurt or became sick and needed to take time off from work?

To be honest, I felt dumb and disappointed in myself for not having a better cushion between me and an emergency, knowing that I could have saved more.

So I set my sights on saving $10,000 in seven months. Here’s how I did it.

To start, I assigned real numbers to worst-case scenarios.

With just $400 in my bank account, I risked getting deeper into debt or becoming a burden to my family if an expensive emergency was to arise.

To fix this, I asked myself some tough questions. “If I had to pay three months’ worth of bills in the States, how much would that cost? If I lost my job, how much money would I need to live comfortably in China based on my current expenses?

I came up with amounts for the following scenarios:

  1. $1,500 – Three months of my current bills in the U.S. (This includes my student loan minimum payment, insurance premiums and a few monthly subscriptions.)
  2. $1,500 – An emergency flight from China to the U.S.
  3. $2,000 – Starter savings for miscellaneous, unexpected expenses
  4. $2,200 – Three months of Chinese rent
  5. $2,300 – Three months of Chinese expenses

The total: $10,000!  Having concrete numbers gave the goal some heft and created clear milestones to hit.

Next, I set a deadline.

Setting a deadline just seven months away kept the $10,000 goal top of mind and pushed me to make big deposits consistently. The tight deadline also made me look for more ways to get paid and cut expenses. Seven months seemed doable based on my teaching income, expected side hustle money and spending cuts.

I broke down my large goal into smaller chunks.

 Ten thousand dollars is a big number. Daunting, frankly.

I needed to tackle a smaller goal first, much like marathon runners who try to take it one mile at a time instead of the whole 26.

Each of those five worst-case scenarios became markers along my savings journey. I first saved $1,500 to cover three months of bills in the U.S. Then I saved another $1,500 for the China-to-U.S. flight.

Each subgoal had a purpose and motivated me to keep going. When I reached a milestone, I celebrated having more security and being one step closer to the big, scary goal.

I separated my savings and spending money.

Before my paycheck hit my account, I budgeted what would go into savings. On payday, I quickly put savings into accounts separate from my spending money. This reduced temptation to dip into my savings for impulsive purchases.

I even put a sticky note on the debit card connected my savings account to remind myself not to spend cash on non-emergencies.

I cut expenses and worked extra jobs.

My expenses are quite low in China because my school provides free housing and reliable, public transportation is available. But I still cut back on eating out and unnecessary spending to shift money toward savings. I even turned down a trip to Bali for my birthday!

I named my savings goal and told my friends about the mission.  

I shared my “Sock away 10K” goal with close friends and Instagram followers to get support. Knowing I’d have to share my goals every month fueled the fire to keep going. Every time I posted a big number, the much-needed support rolled in.

Lastly, I tracked my progress visually.

I updated and shared a savings chart each month. The chart included 100 squares. Coloring each $100 box helped me evaluate my current progress and get excited about shading in some more boxes. I colored the 100th and final box a few weeks before my April 30 deadline.

Within weeks of crushing the savings goal, the floodgates opened. My mom asked me for $150 to cover bills. I thought I’d have to spend $200 to replace my battery-powered bike. And the bank didn’t shell out my salary on time.

Even though I had $40,000 left in graduate school loans when I paused extra debt payments to save, I know I made the right decision — and I have the peace of mind to show for it.

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