“How do I start saving?” This has to be the second most-common question I get, right after “How do I stop spending on stupid stuff?” And I’ve realized that when people ask about saving, they really need a clear plan.
So here’s the plan. There are only two steps. First step, you trick your brain into building up the habit of saving.
Let’s say you’ve got nothing saved. You need to start somewhere. You start with 20 dollars. You tell yourself, “20 dollars is zero. I can’t go below that.” So that’s zero now, in your mind. So if you have more than 20 dollars in your checking account, you have a positive balance.
Celebrate when you have more than 20 dollars in your account.
Next, move it up to 50. Your mind says, “that’s zero.” Again, celebrate when you have a positive account balance.
Now, move it up to 100. Once you get used to having 100 dollars in your account, move it up to 200. Then 500. Then 1,000.
Eventually, get to the point where you have 6 months of living expenses in an emergency fund. (If you have credit card debt, feel free to stop at three or four months and then move on to debt reduction. And yes, you need to build the emergency fund first before focusing on debt.)
If you can get to the point where you have 2 years of living expenses in an emergency fund, you will be amazed at all the terrible decisions you avoided by having money in the bank. And you will be shocked at how easy life is when financial stress has disappeared entirely.
Now here’s the second step: Save your future raises. When it’s time for you to start investing in a 401(k) or other retirement account, this is the best way to do it. When you save your future raises, your lifestyle can’t creep up along with your income. And that’s it. If you can master step 1, you can do step 2 easily.