Ah, financial freedom. Who doesn’t like the sound of that? But start thinking about what that takes, and you might be tempted to bury your head under the covers and hit snooze (again). But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Financial freedom is simply the ability to make your own decisions about where your money goes – although the details of each individual’s definition are different, one thing’s for certain: everyone is striving for it. And knowing how to save money is the way to achieve it. Truth: it’s going to take more than just skipping your pricey morning joe — but it’s far from an impossible task. Here’s how to get started.
Know where you stand.
To figure out how much you can save, you’ve got to take a good look at your income and expenses. If you don’t have one already, now is the time to come up with a budget. Don’t worry — creating one doesn’t have to be complex. For a quick-and-easy starting point, try the 50/30/20 plan.
How detailed you get with your budget is entirely up to you. But no matter what budgeting method you follow, the point is to know what’s coming in, what’s going out, and what’s left over.
Define your money goals.
If you’re like most people, you have a lot of things you want to save for. It’s easier to achieve your savings goals if you divide them into short-, mid-, and long-term money goals.
Your short-term goals are things you’re working toward for the next year or so. Those might include gifts for the holiday season, an anniversary weekend getaway, or a new mountain bike.
Think of your mid-term goals as the expenses that land within a 10-year window. Things like making a down payment on a home or car, fully furnishing a room, or turning your backyard into an entertaining oasis are common mid-range goals.
For most people, long-term goals typically include the big one: retirement. But you may have other long-term things you’re saving up for, too, like a vacation home or starting a business.
Get those priorities straight.
Once you’ve listed your savings goals, decide which ones are most important to you. The results may surprise you, and, if you’re in a relationship, will probably require some compromise.
Once you give it some thought, you may realize a new car is further down the list than, say, a once-in-a-lifetime girls’ trip with your college friends.
Two things you should not kick down the road: an emergency fund and retirement savings.
A healthy emergency fund can keep unexpected expenses — job loss, car repair, broken bone, you name it — from causing a financial disaster. Experts suggest having enough savings set aside to cover three to six months of necessary expenses.
This handy emergency fund calculator can help you visualize a target amount to save.
Retirement may seem a ways away, but there’s a reason every older person you’ve ever met has told you that time flies. So take advantage of the time-value of money and the magic of compounding interest to get the most from your retirement savings.
Many experts recommend you put 10% of your income aside for retirement. Of course, your goal amount will vary according to your expected lifestyle and tax bracket, among other factors. It’s a good idea to consult a professional familiar with your situation to help you evaluate or set up a solid retirement plan.
In the meantime, you may want to learn how IRAs can add value to your long-term plans.
Be sure paying down debt makes your list.
You know high-interest debt (read: credit cards) works against you. Put paying down debt — any debt, including student loan debt and personal loans — on your list of savings priorities so you can be realistic about tackling it. Remember, the sooner that debt is gone, the sooner you can put that money toward your other savings goals.
Added bonus: Reducing your debt load can improve your credit score since it lowers your debt-to-income ratio.
Make a savings plan.
Once you’ve made a list and assigned priorities, it’s time to crunch the actual numbers.
List your priorities (besides retirement, since that has its own plan) and give them each an ideal dollar amount and deadline. If you take the total amount for each one and divide that by the number of months it’ll take to achieve it, you’ll end up with a general amount to save each month toward each goal.
Your list might look something like this:
Stay positive — and realistic.
Don’t expect to end up with a perfect plan the first time you run this exercise. It’ll be a little messy and you’ll likely find that you can’t set aside as much as you want for every goal right away.
Play around with lowering your target amounts and adjusting target dates. Find creative ways to increase your income or reduce necessary expenses.
And don’t forget that once you achieve one savings goal, that monthly amount is freed and can be put towards the other goals on your list.
As your circumstances change, you’ll need to revisit and reprioritize.
Discover and develop your money-saving habits.
You’ve probably heard most of the savings tips out there, but it pays to revisit them. Find what works for you and recommit to good money habits as part of your own saving mindset. Some of the most effective include:
- Live below your means. It’s common sense that bears repeating. After all, how can you really grow your savings if you spend more than you make? Grab that budget and make adjustments where necessary. One easy adjustment: Eat in instead of going out. You’ll be amazed at how much you can save on food by hitting up the supermarket instead of grabbing take-out every day.
- Pay yourself first. There’s a reason so many personal finance experts tout this simple principle. Socking away a portion of your paycheck before you start paying your other bills can really help get your savings on track. Make it easy on yourself and put those deposits on autopilot.
- Track your spending. Whether you keep track of every penny or you just make sure you stay within your designated parameters, it’s important to know where your cash is going. That way, you can make sure your spending is intentional. For a list of ways to cut spending, check out our A to Z guide on how to save money on just about everything.
- Open dedicated savings accounts for different purposes. Multiple savings accounts may help you keep your hands off funds earmarked for specific goals and can make it easier to see your progress, too.
Where you put your money matters.
If you’re going to put all that energy into saving money, you want to be sure to put it where it’ll do you the most good. There’s no reason to let your savings languish in a sub-par account.
Find a reputable bank with competitive rates, like Ally Bank, and keep an eye out for other things that make for a good financial fit, too. How often the bank compounds interest and how easy it is to access your funds, for example, are important factors when selecting a savings account.
Be sure you understand the terms of any account you consider, including potential maintenance fees or minimum balance requirements.
Pro tip: Online banks often offer some of the most competitive APYs (annual percentage yields) because they don’t have the overhead expenses of traditional brick-and-mortar banks.
One final note: a savings account with a great rate can help your money grow, but you should also consider other deposit accounts, like money market accounts and certificates of deposit. You may find the rates and features of these types of accounts can help you reach your savings goals, too.
With the right mindset and a little dedication, you can save money and give your future self more options. That’s financial freedom — and it feels great.
Remember: It’s never too late to get started with your savings!