Saving is hard to do. Most Americans admit that these days. But frugality seems to come into and go out of fashion about as often as the miniskirt. "That's because some of that miniskirt stuff has to do with the legs underneath," says John Rutledge. "Savings is the same kind of phenomenon."
According to the maverick economist who runs Claremont Economics Institute and the Claremont Fund in California, a dramatic shift in demographics is behind America's almost nonexistent pattern of saving today. "The savings problem is really simple," he says, defying the complicated theories of most other economists. "There are too many baby boomers."
It's those demographics that make Rutledge optimistic despite the current savings dearth. While it is true the personal savings rate -- how much income Americans don't spend -- is about as low as it ever has been, the problem "is not that people are behaving so differently today," he says. "The problem is that we have different people today. We have an abnormally large number of 30-year-olds. And when people are 30, they spend more money than they make. When people are 50, they make more money than they spend.
"What happens to a country that has too many 30-year-olds as opposed 50-year-olds? The answer is it buys too many houses and doesn't save its money." He compares the U.S. savings rate to Japan's current 16 percent and explains that the Japanese suffered a similar savings problem 10 to 15 years ago. In fact, 20 years ago, the U.S. savings rate was close to 10 percent.
"Savings have evaporated since the late '60s," he says, "but that is the same period in which the baby boomers have grown up and learned to spend money."
Rutledge maintains that it's mostly a matter of maturation before the "Reebok-Perrier-BMW generation," as he calls big-spending boomers, reaches its threshold for thrift. He mentions a Seattle couple who typifies the problem: Both are 35 years old, both happy, with two incomes totaling $50,000, two children (ages 7 and 10), a new car and a house; but they owe on credit card debts, a mortgage, a car loan and have zero savings. This couple's goals in life: to educate their children as well as they were educated and to retire on their own money and not on public assistance.
Rutledge says that couple's belief that they could accomplish those relatively modest goals if they started now to save 5 percent of their take-home pay is also typical. It is what many economic experts recommend. And it is mistaken.
Using a computer program that projects retirement nest eggs by factoring in inflation rates, raises, kid's college costs, investment returns, savings and other predictable pluses and minuses in family finances, Rutledge calculated that with 5 percent savings, on retirement day, the Seattle couple would be looking at minus $37,000.
"And that's after sending their kids to a state university," Rutledge says. "They're going to retire on welfare. They're not going to achieve any of their goals in life." But he adds that "when you show them what arithmetic implies of their behavior," they realize the alternative is incompatible with the most important and most deeply held values in their lives -- and they generally try to change.
On his advice, the Seattle couple cut back on projected costs of sending their children to college, increased their savings to 10 percent of their take-home pay, and sold their boat and trailer for $10,000, after the husband realized it was more economical to rent a boat for his occasional fishing trips.
Rather than stagnate that $10,000 in a low-yielding savings account, the couple invested it in a long-term, diversified mutual fund that, according to Rutledge's computer, would increase their real return by 2 percent per year.
Saving 10 percent is tough for most people to do. "Now on retirement day, they are going to have a third of a million dollars," says Rutledge. Acknowledging that saving 10 percent is tough for most people to do, he maintains that it is a "relatively small change" to get back into control of one's financial future.
"The savings problem is like an automobile approaching a brick wall at 70 miles per hour," says Rutledge. "You don't have to ask if it is going to stop. The only question is how."
A few years ago, Rutledge, 38, had to answer that question for himself when he found his family "too much in debt" with few thoughts about the future. "I did to my family what I do for corporations," he says, "and figured out how are we going to restructure our finances -- saving more, paying off credit card debts. I felt a lot better after writing down the solution ... and didn't do any of it. A year later, I figured out that talking about it isn't enough."
But it is a start. Rutledge believes the savings rate is going to improve one family at a time over the next five to 10 years. "Not everyone is going to start saving next week," he says. Not that he doesn't recommend it while Wall Street is still riding a bull market and there is money to be made from investment savings.
"You don't want to be the last guy on your block to save money," he warns. "The first to start saving have the most to gain."