Addressing the issue of saving money is the most fundamental, yet neglected aspect of personal finance in the U.S. today.
According to a 2012 survey by Credit Donkey, almost 50 percent of Americans don’t have more than $500 in their emergency savings accounts, which not only puts a kink in savers’ finances in the event of an unforeseen expense, but also creates undue stress for failing to prepare a safety net adequately.
So in our latest Money Mistakes series, we highlight the top 10 money mistakes Americans make when it comes to saving money.
Top 10 Money Mistakes
1. Not Budgeting
There are a number of philosophies on the best approach to take when budgeting your money, but at times, the thought of sitting down with statements, bills and an expense sheet is just too stressful. This mindset is an easy trap to fall victim to, but is one of the worst money mistakes to make if you want to grow your savings fund.
Hope A. Rising of Clearwater, Fla., learned this lesson the hard way.
“Rather than make savings a part of my life I ‘lived for the moment’ and now have virtually no savings for emergencies,” Rising said. “For example, my car recently broke down and I had to borrow money to have it fixed, rather than just being able to take the money out of the bank.”
2. Saving Too Little
It’s commendable that about half of Credit Donkey’s survey participants had saved up some cash, but often, individuals don’t save enough money to carry themselves through a challenging and sudden financial crisis.
A common recommendation when it comes to the appropriate amount to save in a nest egg is about three months’ salary, or six months worth of expenses (i.e. mortgage, auto loan, utility bills, gas, etc.).
For instance, the average American in 2013 made $42,693 before taxes. Take away about 25 percent of that income for taxes, and the average person walks away with $32,020 annually. Three months of net income (the ideal emergency fund amount) is about $8,000 to help keep you comfortably afloat in an emergency.
3. Not Setting Specific Goals
Determining what exactly you’re saving for, and when you need to save by, is a helpful motivational guide to follow. It acts as a constant reminder of what you’re working toward, and lets you know when your efforts have been successful.
Examples of this include saving money for a down payment on a car in the next six months, or getting more specific like committing to saving $200 per month for the next six months, to achieve this goal.
4. Failing to Track Spending
Creating a budget is the start of the savings process and setting a goal is the end of it, but there has to be a quantitative way to follow your progression in the time between. Tools such as Mint.com or even a simple spreadsheet are great ways to avoid this money mistake.
5. Living Paycheck to Paycheck
When budgeting your spending allowance, don’t stretch your money to the last dollar. Not allowing yourself about a $100 per month buffer sets you up for disaster, as small, seemingly harmless purchases quickly add up.
6. Overdrawing an Account
Overdrawing a checking account is usually the result of making one of these other money mistakes, but expensive overdraft fees are a cost you have complete control over. A $35 overdraft fee might not sting now, but as more pile up on your account statement, the damage can become apparent in a short period of time.
Simply put, overdrawing is a money waster and an entirely avoidable circumstance if you stay diligent with your savings plan.
7. Claiming the Wrong Tax Withholding
Claiming the lowest withholding allowance when it comes to your federal taxes is a mistake that Americans commonly make. When you do so, the government takes away more income taxes throughout the year, and you’re left with a fat tax return check.
Don’t let this windfall fool you — what you’re doing is essentially giving Uncle Sam an interest-free loan and getting nothing back in return. Instead, you can claim the withholding allowance you rightfully qualify for, and use the extra cash in each paycheck to grow your savings fund in a high-interest savings account.
8. Signing Up for Low Deductibles
One way to increase the amount of cash you can save each month is to lower your premium and raise your deductible for auto and health insurance. This means you assume more risk up front by paying a lower monthly premium, with the expectation to pay more out of pocket in the event you have to file a claim (which should be no problem if you’ve saved that emergency fund).
According to the Insurance Information Institute, increasing your deductible from $200 to $1,000 can lower collision and comprehensive coverage premiums by at least 40 percent.
9. Buying Name Brands
More customers are employing frugal tactics like passing on branded products in lieu of a generic version. Similarly, retailers have caught onto the fact that shoppers are looking for a frugal alternative in today’s challenging economic times.
That’s not to say you should never splurge on a brand that’s worth it, but most generics are the same product as their pricier counterparts. Look for generic products on the lower shelves of grocers aisles.
One of the worst money mistakes you can make is procrastinating on getting started with your savings plan, since achieving a savings goal can take longer than you might expect. Paying $500 per month toward an emergency fund at the income outlined in mistake No. 2, for example, would take the average American 16 months to save up three months’ income.
Photo credit: gregoconnel