- Even if you bring home a big paycheck, it doesn’t mean you’re building wealth.
- If you can barely pay your bills each month, aren’t saving any money in a retirement plan, or are spending more than 30% of your income on housing, you’re probably not saving enough money.
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Are you setting aside enough? To help you evaluate, we’ve rounded up nine red flags that indicate you’re off track.
Kathleen Elkins contributed to an earlier version of this article.
1. You can barely pay your bills each month
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Are you just meeting your obligations each month? Living paycheck to paycheck makes it nearly impossible to build up significant savings.
How to improve: You have two options: Earn more money, or spend less. If you go the first route, consider looking at some lifestyle changes to make, steps to negotiate a raise, and ways to make extra cash while working full-time.
If you’re aiming to spend less, consider saving strategies from everyday people who retired early. You may also want to think about reducing your largest costs, like your rent, transportation, or food spending.
2. You tell yourself you’ll save more when you start making more
“How you manage $100 is likely how you’ll manage $100,000,” she says. “You’re the same person with the same attitude, and the same behaviors and habits. It’s not about getting more money. It’s about being more disciplined with the money you have.”
Plus, she adds, “when I earn more” isn’t a date of action. “Someday is not a day on the calendar. We really have to do a better job of buckling down and saying ‘I’m ready to take action.'”
How to improve: Don’t wait until the new year, after graduation, for a birthday, or when a tax refund arrives in the mail to start saving.
Think about your savings as a fixed cost – something you must pay every month, like rent and your cell phone bill – before you spend on dinners out and other “wants.” Next, consider setting up a recurring automatic transfer from your checking account to a savings account – this way, you’ll never even see the money and will learn to live without it.
3. You haven’t started saving for retirement
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Saving for retirement can’t wait, no matter how far off it may seem.
If you’re putting it off, you’re not alone: A third of Americans have $0 saved for retirement, according to a GOBankingRates survey. Moreover, the survey found, 80% of Americans have less than $1,000 put away.
How to improve: Saving for retirement can take a few different forms – a company-sponsored 401(k) or an IRA are two of the most popular savings vehicles – but no matter how you choose to save, the best thing you can do is start early.
Many experts recommend setting aside at least 10% of your income. That being said, if you’re only comfortable with setting aside 1%, it’s better to start there than not get started at all.
Here’s exactly how to figure out how much money you need to retire.
4. You don’t set aside money for big, upcoming purchases
It’s important to contribute money toward a retirement fund, but you can’t neglect other major expenses.
You’ll want to have savings if you’re planning on having kids – Merrill Lynch estimates the average cost to raise a child at about $230,000, and that doesn’t include college – or looking to buy a home, which often requires significant savings just for the down payment. Other big purchases you may want to think about include a car, graduate school, or vacation.
How to improve: Start by establishing what is important to you and what you want your future to look like, which will make it easier to create savings goals. Next, you’ll want to figure out how much you would have to save, how long you would have to save for, and at what rate of return you might need your investments to grow in order to reach those goals.
For shorter term goals, consider setting up a high-yield savings account, or multiple at the same bank, in order to save for specific purchases.
5. You haven’t started investing
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Investing can be considered the single most effective way to start building wealth – and the earlier you start the better, thanks to the power of compound interest. If you feel like you don’t have any money to invest, then you aren’t saving enough.
How to improve: Retirement savings are one way to invest, but if you want to get more involved, there are other avenues to explore: Start by researching low-cost index funds, a conservative approach recommended by Warren Buffett and financial planners’ top recommendation for young investors.
6. You don’t have an emergency fund
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Establishing an emergency fund is one of the most important steps you can take with your money and should only be put on hold if you have credit card debt. If you haven’t prioritized your rainy day fund, chances are you aren’t saving enough.
How to improve: Create an emergency fund as soon as possible. Many experts, including billionaire John Paul DeJoria, agree that it’s smart to have six months’ worth of savings tucked away. You may personally need more or less depending on your situation.
Make sure you’re storing it in the right place, too. A high-yield savings or money market account is ideal, where it can grow by earning 2% or more in interest and be there when you need it.
7. You spend over 30% of your income on housing
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The standard measure of housing affordability in the US is 30% of pretax income. If you really want to make progress on building wealth, try limiting rent to 30% of your after-tax income.
How to improve: Consider downsizing – it’s more than possible to live large in a smaller space. If you’re shopping for a new home or apartment, establish your price limit and stick to it. You’ll also want to consider all of the hidden costs that come with buying a home and factor those into your budget.
8. You don’t track your expenses
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Most of us know how much cash is flowing into our bank accounts each month – but just how much is flowing out? It’s probably more than you think – and chances are, there are areas to cut back.
How to improve: Track your cash flow by recording each purchase you make in a spreadsheet or notebook. Better yet, try an app that will categorize and monitor your monthly and annual spending, such as Mint, You Need a Budget, or Personal Capital.
Once you’ve figured out where you can cut back, redirect those expenses towards a retirement account, where it can accumulate and grow into thousands of dollars over time.
9. You can’t pay more than the minimum on your credit card balance
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If you can’t pay more than the minimum month after month, you’re overspending and headed straight towards credit-card debt, where meeting any savings goals will be much harder. You should always aim to pay your credit card balance in full to protect your credit score and to stay out of debt.
How to improve: Divert money from another part of your budget or cut back on spending to free up your cash to pay more than the minimum. And most importantly, avoid adding to the credit card’s balance.
If you have credit-card debt, work towards eliminating it immediately. The longer you wait to pay it down, the more you’ll owe, thanks to interest, which can sometimes end up costing more than what you originally borrowed.
- Read more:
- The 7 best ways to build wealth starting today, according to financial planners
- A financial planner says the best way for most people to save for retirement is the same
- I spent years struggling to save for retirement as a freelancer until I found a strategy that increased my savings by 300%
- The 5 money lessons I taught my teenage daughter that helped her save $10,000