It’s hard to save money. That is a fact borne out by years of actually doing it (better at some times than others), discipline (never fun at all), and watching others try it (also with varying levels of success). It is interesting to look at why saving is so hard for most, and impossible for others. There have been many things said and written, ranging from cheap excuses to legitimate arguments. Let’s take a look at a few. In fact, let’s focus in on six opinions offered in The New York Times in a series of opinions published in “Room for Debate” in 2013. Those six opinions are better described as a series of cheap finger-pointing and blame shifting articles than legitimate explanations for a dangerously low level of saving in America.
Thomas Geoghegan, a labor lawyer in Chicago, wrote that the poor can’t save due to a lack of money and added that the failure of the middle class to save is because the lack of pensions due to “the collapse of unions.” Of course, pensions weren’t really disciplined saving, instead they were the union and employer trying to create a situation where the worker could be given a secure income in retirement without any extra effort. Geoghegan also excused any discipline or effort as ridiculous.
It is easy to apply that old adage that “if the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” Of course, a labor lawyer would focus on a legal issue with which he dealt, pensions. But providing a substitute for savings through an employment benefit or a government program isn’t saving, it is making someone else be responsible for you.
Mike Konczal of the Roosevelt Institute blames the lack of savings on bad mortgages from the housing bubble. For the Millennials lack of saving, he blames what was then a 9% unemployment rate for those with only high school or some college education. Those opinions ignore the fact that the savings rate actually went up following the housing bubble collapse from 2008 through 2012, reaching a high of 12% in 2012 (which was higher than any time after 1970). To further show Konczal’s error, the savings rate has fallen since 2012 even as unemployment went down. Certainly, in some cases, being upside down in a terrible mortgage has kept some people from some savings, but bad mortgages and 9% unemployment of Millennials didn’t then and doesn’t now explain a national savings rate that is dangerously low.
Daniel Gros, the director of the Center for European Policy Studies, argues that the personal savings rate doesn’t matter, “but what matters for a country is not only how much households save, but the national savings rate, i.e., the sum of savings of households, the corporate sector and the government.”
That, of course, ignores that pain felt in a family when a car or a kitchen appliance dies and there is no money to replace it. The national savings rate won’t pay for a new refrigerator or even a used alternator on a car.
Barbara Defoe Whitehead took an unusual approach, saying that “many Americans are saving. But their savings behavior is often overlooked because it takes the form of paying down debt.” She goes on to blame payday loans and the lack of government promotion of saving. Oddly, her article is entitled Saving Takes Time and Discipline, but she fails to mention undisciplined consumers and only addresses what she apparently believes is a lack of government and lender discipline. She ignores the lack of discipline in the lives of consumers.
Tom Cowan, a professor of economics at George Mason University, spreads out the blame, focusing on four causes, (1) stagnant household income, (2) people have “savings” in the form of education and earnings ability, (3) the lack of tax-advantaged savings, and (4) the ease of borrowing money. He ignores the facts that (1) household income has risen, but so has household spending and debt, (2) that people have always had education and earnings ability, so nothing has changed in that regard. Additionally, your education won’t pay for that new refrigerator or an alternator for a car, (3) that 401(k)s, 403(b)s, IRAs, and a myriad of other tax-advantaged savings plans exist, and (4) that the ease of borrowing does not require anyone to ever borrow anything; going into debt is often a choice, not a requirement.
My favorite of the six articles was Amar Bhidé, a professor of international business at the Fletcher School, Tufts University, who focuses his blame on easy lending and on the sellers of desirable goods. He claims that “without mass consumption, there could be no mass production,” ignoring the fact that with over 7 billion potential purchasers world-wide and over 327 million people in the US, mass production can exist without one person like Imelda Marcos buying 3,000 pairs of shoes or everyone having a cell phone in their pocket or purse. The problem does not lie in the ability of the sellers to produce the targets of his ire, “iPads and of Angry Birds apps,” it lies instead in the hearts and minds of the spenders.
Those articles all miss the real problem. Don’t blame the sellers or lenders. In fact, stop talking about “blame” altogether. Instead, talk about developing discipline and self-control. Galatians 5:22-23.
Stop blaming everyone else
It isn’t “their” fault. It is time people in general stopped pointing fingers and started recognizing that we have a breakdown in personal discipline, in spending, in eating, in health, in relationships – in virtually every aspect of American society.
It is easy to see each of these breakdowns – and more. Relationships are far out of kilter. Divorce rates are horribly high. Many can’t even define marriage. Road rage is rampant. Courtesy and politeness are at record lows. There are more daily random acts of hatred and violence than random acts of kindness, at least that is the case if you pay attention to the media.
Additionally, the health of the average American is declining. Obesity is at an all time high. Diabetes rates are soaring. Exercise is something more talked about than done. Drug use, both legal and illegal, continues to skyrocket.
Closely associated with health is eating. The average American diet has far too much salt, fat, and junk food adding up to far more calories and poor nutrition, thus affecting health and well-being. Health issues don’t just come from junk food. Fast food, processed food, and eating on the run just make health worse.
It is, however, in spending that the lack of discipline reaches the point of this article and the point so easily overlooked in the series of opinions in The New York Times. It isn’t the government’s or big business’ “job” to make people save rather than spend. The government, more laws, and meatier regulations won’t make people more disciplined; in fact, it will make them be less disciplined because the element of personal responsibility would have been eliminated. In spending, health, and relationships, it is possible to try to dodge personal responsibility, but only with disastrous consequences.
The lack of personal responsibility and misplaced expectations reminds me of the old joke:
A man driving home from work was stopped by a traffic officer. He was told that he failed to come to a full stop at a stop sign, and the officer handed him a ticket. “Don’t I get a warning?” he protested. The officer replied, “Sure, here’s your warning: If you don’t come to a complete stop next time, I’ll give you another ticket.”
U.S. journalist and author Sydney J. Harris said, “We have not passed that subtle line between childhood and adulthood until we stop saying ‘It got lost’ and start saying ‘I lost it.’” Henry Ward Beecher, a 19th century preacher, wrote, “Hold yourself responsible for a higher standard than anyone else expects of you. Never excuse yourself.” Both men are right. Go ahead and admit it. Your dog did not eat your homework! One major breakpoint between childhood and adulthood is the ability to accept personal responsibility for your own choices. The next breakpoint is the step to true maturity and that happens when an adult desires excellence and works with that excellence for God’s glory. 1 Corinthians 10:31.
Instead, our society has elevated passing the buck and the blame into an art form. Everything is always someone else’s fault.
So, accept personal responsibility for where you are, for past spending errors, for bad debts undertaken, for stupid purchases. You are where you are. Start from there. Nothing will change until you do that. How do I know? I know it from my own long list of past spending errors, bad debts undertaken, and stupid purchases – and there have been many. I was at fault then and even today I am still seeing many of the consequences. They are my fault!
Emergency savings are a must
According to a survey by the Federal Reserve, only 47% of Americans say they can cover a 3 month loss of income. Another 21% could borrow funds and cover their loss, while almost one-third of Americans would have no way to pay bills if they suffered a 3-month loss of income due to job loss or illness. Now imagine how much less painful the 2020 pandemic would have been for millions in American if they had saved up 3 months (or more) of household expenses.
46% of Americans can’t even cover a $400 emergency. Instead, they have to put it on a credit card and pay it off over time, resulting in interest charges at high rates.
The fix for that is what Dave Ramsey calls an emergency fund. Such a fund is one of the most essential tools for getting and staying out of debt. His approach is financially and psychologically sound. Build a 6-month emergency fund, even building it as you pay off debt. Life – and emergencies – happen: the car breaks down as the water pump, alternator or battery dies; you have an accident; an appliance breaks down; the oven or refrigerator stop; the air conditioner at home starts leaking coolant; the roof starts leaking; there are medical or medication bills not covered by insurance. That is not “bad luck,” that’s life!
By having 6 months of monthly expenses in readily available savings, you are prepared for the vast majority of emergencies, and better prepared than most Americans.
Getting out of debt has to be a priority
Debt, especially consumer debt, which is almost always high interest debt, is a financial disaster for most families. Getting out of debt has to be a priority, and that includes even your home mortgage and car loans. The power of compound interest that makes long-term investing so advantageous, also makes high interest debt disastrous.
In 2018 the average credit card interest rate was 17% as an annual percentage rate (APR). If you have $5,000 charged to that credit card and make only the minimum payment due (typically 4%, so $200), you would have $71 of interest added to the card balance. Instead of $4,800, you actually owe $4,871. If you miss a payment, you have lost ground back to where you started.
Now, assume you do not charge any additional purchases ever. If you continue to pay the 4% minimum every month, it will take you over 10 years, actually 10 years and almost 10 months, to pay off that $5,000 balance. Almost 11 years! Assuming you never miss even one payment for almost 11 years, you will have paid not $5,000 but over $7,600. That means you paid an extra $2,600 of interest – and have nothing to show for it.
Where this leads you is clear! Getting out of debt must be a high priority.
Reducing spending is essential
It would be rather foolish to get out of debt only to have a spending spree and get back into debt. Albert Einstein reportedly jokingly defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different result. In the area of debt and spending, there is nothing to laugh about when that form of insanity strikes.
Almost every family can cut expenses without extraordinary effort, even those who initially doubt it is possible. The list of target expenses is almost as long as the list of household expenses: cable TV (reduce the services and the bill), multiple cells phones with expensive plans; electricity use, especially for air conditioning and heating can be cut – dress differently at home, eating out, “comfort” shopping, etc. For additional ideas on how and where to save, see 7 Steps for Financial Progress, Americans in Debt, Budget Breakers, Getting Out of Debt, It’s Time to Start Saving, A Jump Start for Your Savings, Save, Don’t Store, and What About Debt?
Save even more
Once you have a sufficient emergency fund, don’t stop, keep saving. Now you are saving for your future. When you don’t save for your future, you are robbing someone – yourself in the future. Unless you want to try to live on Social Security (and you may be certain you do not want to do that), you need to save money to supplement any Social Security income you may expect. Social Security was never intended or designed to be a good and complete retirement income, (see Social Security Can’t do It All – A Primer), and it only provides a sustenance income.
The idea of living for today, carpe diem, seize the day, has some Biblical support, Matthew 6:33-34. But never did Jesus tell His disciples or followers to ignore tomorrow, only not to worry about it.
Saving must become a priority for your life, a part of your lifestyle. There is, however, a balance in life; frugal is good, but cheap? Perhaps not. Find that balance and you can both live and save for your future.
These savings are longer term and are better referred to as investments because no one except the bank gets rich on bank deposits. Is investing in the market risky? Yes, but not investing in the market is almost certainly guaranteeing yourself a loss against inflation. See Start Smart Investing – How to Get into the Market.
Consistent saving into investments over many years is the key to building wealth. See Consistency in Saving is the Key.
Tax advantaged savings in the form of a 401(k) or a 403(b), IRAs, and other tax-deferred savings tools can save thousands in taxes, put that money to work in your investment accounts, build wealth for you, and allow you to retire reasonably and without being forced to continue working into your 70’s unless you choose to keep working because you love what you are doing.
Save with a plan and a goal
The old saying “if you fail to plan you have planned to fail” is true. It is far easier to save if you have a workable plan and a desirable goal in mind as you save. Savings should be a budget category. In fact, until you have your emergency fund where it should be – at 6 months of your living expenses – you should have a budget category for “emergency fund” savings and a budget category for “other” savings, savings that can be for such future expenses as buying a home, buying a new car, having children, children’s college, and your own retirement. It is easier to save if you are saving for a goal or several goals that are in your desired future.
Here are a few ideas for goals that work. These will have to be altered perhaps due to your personal financial circumstances (high student loan debt may move getting out of debt into the long-term category), and your goals will change over time, but these are a few good starting points:
Short-term goals (1–3 years)
• Emergency fund (6 months of living expenses)
• Your next vacation
• Purchase a new car
Long-term (4 or more years)
• Down payment on a home
• Your children’s education
• Your retirement
The combined power of modern psychologically focused marketing and peer-pressure are great, but the power of a good plan and future mixed with some self-discipline is greater. Have a plan and commit to stick with it.
How can you develop a plan? Start here. Figure out how much you need to save, how much you can save, and then work to reduce the difference between those two numbers. The old saying about saving 10% of you income is doubtful; it is likely you need to save a greater percentage to reach desirable goals. See Save More – 10% Isn’t Enough.
The greatest challenge is for you to find ways to increase your saving by reducing your expenses. You can easily see, relatively small amounts can add up to real savings quickly. See 8 Financial Moves to Make in Your 20’s, regardless of your age. There are many opportunities in the typical household budget to save. See 7 Steps for Financial Progress.
Live within your means
Live this day and every day within your means, meaning that you should not go into debt today, rob your tomorrow, unless it is absolutely essential. Living within your means requires a budget, one essential step that will help you keep your expenses under control.
For details on budgeting, take a Financial Peace University or Crown Ministry course. Budgeting takes time but it will return rewards that make the investment of time a good and wise investment.
Start by looking back at your expenses over the past year. You can do it by looking back only a few months, but you will miss expenses that are annual, such as renewal of your driver’s license and vehicle registration, some insurance premiums, property taxes. You will also miss some of those irregular and somewhat unpredictable expenses like car breakdowns and home expenses.
Once you have those past expenses down for every month, you have completed your cash flow analysis. That can be blended into your budget with relative ease. Organize the categories of expenses into such categories as household expenses, work expenses, transportation expenses, food, etc. For some good ideas on a starting budget format, see The Balance. Just know that secular sites will never mention the crucial importance of giving to God as a basic starting point in any budget. For a good and Biblical start on budgeting, take Financial Peace University which starts out with budgeting.
Once you have a budget, it is time to really start thinking, because you need to see where there is room for improvement. There are online tools that can help you compare your expenses to others in a similar stage of life and you can begin to see if perhaps you can find room for improvement – and for saving more! See, for example, the Money Habits Spending Analysis Tool of the Bank of America. This online tool is not scientific or detailed, but can begin to give you some guidelines.
Be generous with your blessings
I put giving to God, giving thanks to God, and being aware of God’s grace last – but it should have been first. It makes no more sense (actually it makes less sense) to rob the Creator and Sustainer of all life, including your own, than it does to rob your own future. The Israelites tried it with very bad results. Malachi 3:7-12 and Haggai 1:1-11.
God gave you the ability to think and work, even to breath. Acts 17:24-25. He gave you life and He is worthy of your praise and of your tithes and offerings.
There is a conclusion to this idea of saving more now that is especially intriguing. 70% of all divorces and marital strife is due to money or financial disagreements. There is enormous stress involved with debt and financial problems, stress that worsens health and relationships. Why not eliminate the greatest stressor on marriage and relationships and focus on living a joyful, abundant and productive life without unnecessary struggles. Be disciplined and responsible for your own choices and your own life – and enjoy it!
It could not be said better than by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt,
“One’s philosophy is not best expressed in words; it is expressed in the choices one makes. In the long run, we shape our lives and we shape ourselves. The process never ends until we die. And, the choices we make are ultimately our own responsibility.”
It is time for you to choose wisely.
About the Author
John Campbell has retired from a 40-year legal practice as a trial attorney in Tampa. He has served in multiple volunteer roles at Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz, Florida where he met Jesus. He began serving as the Executive Director of the Idlewild Foundation in 2016. He has been married to the love of his life, Mona Puckett Campbell, since 1972.