(And How to Win the War on Saving)
Saving money is hard.
You don’t need me to tell you that.
It’s not only hard, it’s also one of those “shoulds” in life that constantly nag at you and remind you that you suck.
Because you’re not doing it — or at least you’re not doing it enough.
So you’d rather not think about it. Life is exhausting enough — working all day, coming home to get dinner on the table. Helping the kids with their homework. Shuttling them back and forth to their activities. Trying to squeeze in the time and energy for a social life, and, dare you hope, a sex life to boot.
As a member of Generation X, you feel the squeeze from both ends. Kids that are growing and are either in college, or headed there soon. (Fingers crossed). And just when aging parents start to need more help than they used to.
Money passes through your bank account like water through a sieve. There’s nothing left over to save.
Now, I’m not one to blow sunshine up your skirt, so I’ll just come out and say it:
For the most part, your financial problems are on you. You own them.
No Baby, It’s Not Your Fault
That being said, it’s also true that it’s not entirely your fault that you struggle to save.
“How can it be my fault — and not my fault — at the same time?”
(side note: I have a thing for paradox)
Bear with me a sec:
On the one hand, only you can take the steps needed in your life to move out of a paycheck-to-paycheck existence and build real wealth. It’s all on you.
On the other hand, it seems overwhelming and intimidating, and maybe even impossible.
But that’s mainly because you’re at a serious disadvantage when it comes to the spending part of the money equation.
“They” ARE Out to Get You!
You see, there’s a war going on out there.
A war for your attention and your dollars.
Let’s call it the War on Saving.
This war is fought by an invisible army of “marketeers” who are highly trained in the subtle yet powerful art of getting you to open up your wallet and give them your money.
They know you. They know your fears and insecurities and weaknesses. What makes you angry and sad and frightened. They even know your delusions, and secret desires. Your hopes and dreams.
This invisible army gets paid *a lot* of money to push the right buttons in the right order, the triggers that cause you to give them your money.
You are defenseless as a kitten in this fight, because mostly you don’t realize you’re in a war, you can’t see the enemy, and don’t know what you’re up against.
Even when you know what you’re up against, even when you see your own buttons being pushed, they will still get to you.
“Because we desperately want to believe. We want to believe so much that a few simple testimonials and/or a floozy batting her false eyelashes at us causes us to suspend all disbelief and crack open our wallets.”
— Clayton Makepeace, Direct Marketing Legend
You might be able to resist — for a while. But eventually you get tired of resisting, your will power muscles get fatigued, and you give in and buy the damn shiny new car you deserve, or whatever it is.
I once bought a 5-year-old Honda. (Yay me!) Paid cash and invested a small amount to get some major maintenance items done like changing the timing belt and fuel pump, and replaced the sparkplugs. Drove the car 4 years with no problems, and no other expense besides changing the oil.
Everything was great.
Until the day came I got a hankering for a new car. Where did that hankering come from?
That old Honda was *fine*.
To be fair, it was slightly on the shabby side, had no air conditioning and manual crank windows that irritated me to no end.
I could afford a new car, why shouldn’t I have one? I managed to keep putting the thought out of my mind for several months. But it nagged at me, and I eventually gave in.
Within two months, the novelty of having a new car had worn off, and I was no more satisfied than I’d been before — except now I had a several hundred dollar a month car payment.
Like I said. They’ll get to you sooner or later.
This internal battle over whether “To Buy, or Not To Buy” gets played out over, and over, and over again. Day in and day out, all year long. Year after year after year.
In the history of the human race, there have never been so many cool and interesting things to spend money on as there are today.
I’m not knocking it, I’m just sayin’.
The thing the marketeers are best at is blurring the line between “need” and “want.” After a while, it becomes extremely difficult to tell the difference.
What to do?
You Gotta Play Defense
The way to defeat this invisible army is to set up some financial defense mechanisms that trick you into saving money, and into believing that you have less money than you actually do.
There are many ways to do this.
The most common and powerful method is the idea of paying yourself first.
And automating the process. (Important!)
You carve out a certain amount from your paycheck and have it direct deposited in a separate account, like an IRA or 401K — and/or a separate savings account, but at a different bank.
What’s left over is what you have to work with for the week or the month.
You don’t see the money come in, and so you never miss it. Whenever you get a raise, you give yourself a raise too, by bumping up your savings a notch.
Another strategy people use is to increase the tax withholding in their paycheck. The tax refund at the end of year is then put toward either savings or debt — never toward consumption.
Some might object to giving the government an interest-free loan of your money, but at today’s extremely low interest rates, it’s definitely a better strategy than remaining at the mercy of the marketeers.
Another possibility is sneaking yourself a little something on the side.
There are some cool fintech apps out there that can help you with that. Bank of America has a savings program called “Keep the Change”. It rounds up every purchase to the next dollar and siphons the difference off into a money market account.
A new app-based company called Qapital takes the siphon hack to a whole new level — connecting with all the apps on your phone, and allowing you to set “rules” that siphon off bits of change every time the rule is triggered.
For example, say you’re trying to spend less time on Facebook. You could set a rule where you ‘punish’ yourself by siphoning off a set amount of change every time you post something.
Sounds a bit kinky, no?
Personally, I’m skeptical about the idea of paying someone else to trick me into saving money, but I’ll keep an open mind. I plan to take this hack for a test drive and review it in a future post. So stay tuned for that.
Go On a Spending Fast
My all-time favorite strategy for saving large amounts of money is to go on a spending fast. Cold turkey.
As in, no spending money at all outside of bills and groceries and transportation.
I find this works well for limited periods of time, and for specific savings goals.
Maybe I saw some opportunity that I needed to jump on right away, and not having the cash on hand, put it on my credit card. I will then go on a spending fast until it’s paid off.
My last year in college I went on a spending fast. The summer before my senior year, I got the notion that I wanted to take a trip around the world when I graduated.
Over the next year, I worked two jobs and saved every penny I could. By the time I graduated I had enough cash saved, and so I sold all my belongings and bought a round-the-world ticket and took off.
Returned home 9 months later with some credit card debt (because Moroccan carpet dealers are *the* best salesmen in the world, I swear). I promptly got a job as a cab driver, and went on another fast to pay off the debt.
A spending fast is great for a couple of reasons:
It supercharges your savings, for one.
Almost as beneficial, though, is the opportunity to live lighter and simpler. It’s a liberating experience to spend a chunk of time NOT wrestling with the eternal question “To Buy, or Not to Buy.”
There’s no weighing pros and cons, no rationalizing why you deserve a little treat, no guilt-trip or buyers regret when you blow a wad on something ridiculous.
The answer is always just “NO.”
You may be surprised to find how much that frees you from the desire to buy in the first place.
The marketeers can’t touch you, because the answer is simply “NO.” You go through life unfazed by the tantalizing displays of crap to spend money on. You float serenely above it.
For me, I start to notice that I don’t really feel deprived and don’t enjoy my life any less when I’m not spending money. The internal space that opens up helps me discern what is most important — what I really want to use my money for.
Which is really the whole point of gaining control of your finances. You don’t save money for its own sake. Nothing interesting about that.
It’s what you can *do* with money that enhances your life — as well as the lives of other people.
This brings me to the second main reason why people struggle to save money:
The Future Isn’t Real
This is my personal theory, based on many years observing myself and people around me making spending choices.
People who struggle to save often do so because they don’t perceive the future as real.
The popular expressions “Seize the Day,” “Live for the Moment,” “Don’t worry about tomorrow because it may never come” express this deep-seated cultural belief.
There is something almost unnatural about provisioning for the future.
I remember being about 23 and my mother suggesting I start saving for retirement. Just a tiny bit each month, she said. I knew she was right. Mentally, I understood the logic of compound interest and time.
But I simply could not bring myself to set aside even $25 each month for the future me 40 years down the road.
I couldn’t comprehend the existence of me 40 years into the future. It wasn’t *real”.
Haha! The joke’s on me.
Thirty years on, I see much more clearly that the future is, in fact, real.
The future happens whether I like it or not, and whether I plan for it or not.
I mean sure, it’s true you or I could step off a curb and get hit by a bus, or contract a terminal illness. But in this day and age, in this country, the odds are overwhelmingly against it.
So, I will plan for the future I know is coming. And I hope you will too.
Wouldn’t it be great to meet up in our 70s at the Cha Cha Moon Disco and embarrass the kids!?
So, time to get your defensive game on. Get started today, and implement one- or all — of these strategies to defeat the invisible army, and win the War on Saving!
We’ll see you at the disco. 😁