If most of your paycheck seems to vanish as you pay the weekly bills, the last thing you’re probably thinking about is saving money for the future. It’s easy to get in the mindset of telling yourself, “Someday, when I have a little money left over, I’ll start saving.”
But this is exactly the wrong approach. Even if your budget is tight, you need to start saving NOW. It may sound counterintuitive until you realize it’s really not about the money you have (or don’t have); it’s about human psychology.
Outwit human nature
The fact is we’re all a little too tempted to spend the money we have on things we don’t need. As a result, we never seem to have enough to stash away into a savings account, IRA or 401(k).
So, when you pay yourself first, you’re removing part of that temptation by first investing for your future. It’s a strategy for building wealth slowly for more important needs down the line.
And it’s an easy way of outwitting the inherent weaknesses of human nature: procrastination, laziness, shortsightedness, and spending money on temptations you’ll later regret. That’s why financial pros have been recommending this strategy for decades to people at every income level.
Put your savings on automatic pilot
Automatic payroll deduction is the easiest way to start the process. When you arrange ahead of time to have a set amount of money deposited into a 401(k) or a savings account, you’re locking in a good habit.
You’re bypassing the need to be disciplined with your paycheck and eliminating the temptation to stay in a rut of endless bill paying.
Emergencies will happen, so plan for them
The Federal Reserve Board has estimated that 40 percent of Americans do not have even $400 set aside for an unforeseen emergency. Given that disturbing reality, wouldn’t you rather have a little cash on hand for emergencies than add to your debt burden?
You never know when a medical expense, a necessary home repair, a big car problem, or some other minor or major disaster will hit.
Create a budget first
Get a good grasp of how much you make per month, what your expenses are, and how much you have left over (for discretionary spending). If you already have substantial credit card debts with high interest, then your first priority is to pay down the credit cards with the highest interest rates.
After you achieve this goal, you can think about saving for the future. As you compile your budget, you may notice expenses that you really don’t need or that you can reduce: If your credit card debt is massive, do you really need to spend as much every month on your cable, phone, and music services?
Start thinking long term
Don’t let yourself get trapped in the here and now, in that seemingly hopeless cycle of living paycheck to paycheck. Think about your future financial goals and start saving to achieve them. There are many things you can do with savings created by the pay-yourself-first strategy.
For example, a health savings account is always a good idea. These tax-advantaged funds provide needed cash for medical expenses that your health insurance won’t cover. If you have children, it’s never too early to start saving for their college tuition. This, too, will reduce your taxes.
And, of course, don’t forget your retirement. It may seem a long way off, but you can use the decades ahead to slowly build a comfortable future so that later you won’t have to worry.
If your employer offers a 401(k) plan and matches part of your contribution, by all means take advantage of it. Financial experts are fond of calling this arrangement “free money.” Why would you pass that up?
The bottom line
Adjusting your mindset to save money can make all the difference to your future. Instead of arranging your life around a negative (what you owe), focus on a positive (your financial goals) and actively work to make your dreams a reality with this pay-yourself-first strategy.