Americans are still using piggy banks and a lot of other creative strategies to squeeze savings out of their hard-earned paychecks -- sometimes by as little as a penny at a time.

An informal survey of consumers around the country recently showed most felt they were way behind in the savings game. But those who reported even modest nest egg successes said they did it through a combination of self-discipline and creative strategies.

Yet, extracting personal saving strategies from them was almost as hard as, well, saving. Judging from the reaction of people asked to disclose their saving styles, it would appear that the traditional saver who regularly tucked away money for a rainy day is an endangered species.

About nine out of 10 of those asked to reveal their savings tactics said one or all of the following:

"Where have you been? This is the 'plastic' era. Who can save?"

"You've got the wrong person."

"Save with what?"

However, those who were willing to share their savings strategies (most preferred that their names not be used) invariably revealed some distinctive styles for success. A Manhattan waitress, for example, said she saves for nice vacations every year by never spending her change. She stashes all the "coin," as she calls it, in a table-high piggy bank at home.

"When it fills up," she says laughing, "I know my vacation is paid for and will be a good one. I crack it open with a sledge hammer." Under the "never spend coin" part of the savings plan, she always tries to break a bill when buying something -- "even a 10 cent item" -- to give her more change to stash in her big piggy bank.

The bit of trickery and healthy dose of self-discipline in her strategy were common components in the savings secrets disclosed by others. Among the innovations that consumers who need help in the savings game might find worth copying:

Put away coupon refund money. Keep it in a jar. Spend it for a luxury you couldn't afford otherwise. One woman in Glendale, Ariz., spends hers on expensive shoes.

Save pennies. Count them every three months. A two-paycheck couple here in Washington contends, "It usually adds up to $15, which is enough to pay for a Sunday brunch." The male of this saving duo adds that he also buys U.S. Savings Bonds through payroll savings. "The money is tied up for at least six months," he says.

Cut insurance premiums by selecting the highest possible deductible for policies covering both house and car. A Westport, Conn., couple says the only trouble with this one is that in the first place you need to have in savings enough to cover the deductible if something bad happens to the house or car.

Instruct your payroll department to deposit your salary automatically, designating that a portion be put in your savings account. Savings experts at the American Bankers Association and the U.S. League of Savings Institutions agree this strategy works. The premise: It is easier to save if you never get your hands on the money.

When you buy something on sale, pay yourself the difference between the sale price and the regular price. Set the money aside at home and when it gets significant, bank it for a vacation or some luxury. A Fairfield, Conn., computer programmer who does this claims the strategy puts fun back into saving.

Sue Reynolds, a secretary at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, saves by using coupons when stores are paying double. "With a 50-cent coupon for $2.55 nylons, I get $1 off," she explains. "That's not bad."

Don't declare the children as dependents so more money than is necessary is held out of the paycheck for federal taxes. You should get a nice income tax refund. Put it in savings. Of course, your lack of discipline to save it yourself costs you the interest on the money while Uncle Sam holds it.

Nelda Crowell, director of communications at Thunderbird, the American Graduate School of Management, in Glendale, Ariz., tries to pay her entire credit card bill by the due date, avoiding high interest charges. She also saves nickels, dimes and pennies in a jar. "When the jar is full," she says, "it's about $60 and I put it in {a} savings {account}."

By depositing every other weekly paycheck in their savings account, the wife of a two-paycheck family was able to build savings. When the pile reached $20,000, the couple used the money for a down payment on a country house that is now worth several times the purchase price. Economists say buying a house is the best way to make yourself save. You have a contract to pay off the mortgage. Economists view this as "forced saving." And with the historically ever-rising value of homes, there also is the added boost to equity as the house appreciates.

A New York bachelor puts his monthly paycheck into his checking account. When the next paycheck comes around, he switches the checking account balance into his savings before depositing the latest check.

"By definition, anytime you cut back on consumption, you are saving," says Lamar Smith, chief economist of the American Bankers Association, headquartered in Washington. "Americans are saving less today than a year ago -- something like 3.9 percent. Americans are also increasing consumption as a percentage of income. It may be due to the big rise in the stock market. People feel wealthier.

"A lot depends on demographics, too. A big portion of the population, baby boomers, are in the high-spending cycle of a lifetime. They have a lot of bills for household durables and are spending for college. That cuts saving down."

Smith says Americans traditionally have saved 4 or 5 percent of their income a year -- adding that "8 or 9 percent would be better."

The current 3.9 percent saving rate -- a 25-year low -- is almost an aberration, according to F. Thomas Juster, research scientist at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research, in Ann Arbor. He believes the low rate in 1986 was due to people switching assets around and buying things to beat changes in the federal tax laws.

The American consumer, he maintains, is an optimistic breed whose optimism about the economy has been sustained by a trend of increased growth, year after year. "If people believe this, it will influence what they do," says Juster. "But there may be a downturn ... If so, people may regret being improvident."

Juster, who is also a professor of economics, says there is not much evidence people save for vacations or even cars "now that payments can be spread out five years." Most save for a down payment on a house, the economist reports. In his view, college is the second biggest reason for saving.

"Taking a loan out for college is forced saving," he said. "It's like buying a house. You are forced by a contract to pay it back. Normally, most people are pretty undisciplined and not rigid about budgets or saving."

James Christian, chief economist for the U.S. League for Savings Institutions, in Washington, reported that Americans are carrying an unprecedented high load of $1.6 trillion in mortgage debt -- plus installment debt for cars and charge accounts of $578 billion. "That's an historical high of $2.2 trillion {total}," he says, "and it is rising very steadily."

The U.S. Commerce Department reports that Americans saved $114.2 billion last year. That's equivalent to about one-fourth of the nation's total health care bill, or about one-third of all the money spent on education.

The simpliest savings strategy? Christian advises "pay yourself first" when you get your paycheck. Put something in savings. "Do it on a regular basis," he says. "That way is much less painful. In three or four years, it gets to be serious money.

"As you see it grow, the trick is to not use it for a boat or a camper. That would be a mistake. Think of your financial security. You should have six months of salary in savings." United Press International