11 Tips to Be a Better Saver

Start early, set goals and follow these other steps to build up your cash reserves.

You don’t have to strike it rich on Wall Street, win the lottery or even earn a six-figure salary to build a comfortable savings cushion. You just have to play a few mental tricks on yourself to stay focused on spending less and keeping more cash. Small steps yield big results, and the best savings tips are the simplest. In fact, each of them could fit in a 140-character tweet.

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1. Start now

Don’t wait till you make more money. The more you make, the more you spend.

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2. Start small

Even $100 per paycheck will add up over time (see how much).

3. Keep your budget simple

Keep your budget and your goals simple. Zeroing in on your main objective will help you stay on course.

4. Write down specific goals

That makes them more real. Pledging to save $2,000 for a beach vacation is likely to get you there.

5. Set up an account for each goal

For education, vacation, car, computer -- or for large, recurring expenses, such as insurance premiums.

6. Have your boss take money off the top

Have your employer (or your bank) take money off the top of your salary for retirement or some other goal. You’ll never miss it.

7. Toss spare change

Toss spare change into a bank or glass jar and watch your money grow into enough to pay for holiday gifts or even a vacation.

8. Give yourself an instant reward

Each time you brown-bag your lunch instead of eating out, toss the savings into your cash jar.

9. Keep writing the check

Keep writing the check after you pay off a loan or a bill, and send it to a savings or investment account.

10. Build an emergency fund

Cindy Campbell of Upper Marlboro, Md., first appeared in Kiplinger’s Personal Finance in November 2007, when she shared her strategies for getting out of $7,000 in credit card debt. We recently checked back with Campbell, now 31, who has since discovered the value of a rainy-day fund.

Campbell was laid off from her job of five years in November 2009 and was out of work until April 2010. “But thanks to my savings and keeping my bills to a manageable amount, I was not worried or drastically affected,” she says. “I found out how important it is to keep money in an emergency fund.”

Campbell kept six months’ worth of expenses in her rainy-day stash and reduced her monthly bills by paying off her car loan, having zero credit card debt, eliminating cable TV for a year and finding a very low-cost phone plan. As soon as she found a new job, she focused on rebuilding her reserve fund, which paid off when she had a baby last year and took 16 weeks of unpaid maternity leave.

Campbell is now back at work and rebuilding her savings for future needs. “Thanks to my financial discipline, any life changes and/or setbacks do not hit me hard financially, and that’s a great thing,” she says.

11. Save for retirement early

If you want to be rich when you’re old, there’s no better way than to start saving when you’re young. Unfortunately, that’s also when you’re likely to think that you can least afford to save. But consider what happens if you start socking away $200 a month in a retirement account from the moment you land your first full-time job at age 22. Within ten years, you’ll have amassed a nest egg of more than $37,000; in 20 years, you’ll have more than $122,000. Keep it up and you’ll have a tidy $1.2 million when you retire at age 67. (The numbers assume you earn an average of 8% annually on your investments, a reasonable assumption for a long-term return on a diversified portfolio of stocks and bonds.)

What happens if you don’t start saving until you start earning more, perhaps at age 32? Assuming you save the same amount and get the same return, you’ll have just $494,000 at age 67. In other words, waiting one decade cost you about $700,000.

Naturally, the prospect of saving that much can be daunting, particularly if you’re in a relatively low-paying job. But it’s a lot easier if you participate in your employer’s 401(k) plan. These workplace retirement programs, offered by the vast majority of large companies, allow you to set aside money before taxes are computed. The IRS acts as if you didn’t earn the contributed money, so you pay less income tax.

The bottom line: If you’re paying 25% of your income in state and federal taxes, a $150 contribution to your 401(k) will reduce your paycheck by just $112.50. Better yet, most employers match worker contributions, typically at a rate of 50 cents on the dollar. That means your $150 contribution gets boosted to $225, thanks to the $75 “match.”

Now, with an out-of-pocket cost of just $112.50 -- less than $30 a week -- you’ve exceeded the goal of saving $200 a month. Do no more and you should have $1.3 million at retirement. If, however, you boost your savings rate as your salary increases, either you could be very rich at retirement or you could stop saving when your budget gets really tight later in life, such as when you’re putting the kids through college.

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