For years, there has been a steady drumbeat of surveys that tell us we aren’t saving enough.
Bankrate.com’s latest look at how people handle their money found that 63 percent of Americans don’t have enough in a rainy-day fund to cover emergencies that might run them anywhere from $500 to $1,000. Many people said they would have to use a credit card or borrow from family or friends if they had an unexpected expense.
A reader thought I would be outraged at the survey results, writing: “When I heard about it, I thought about you and how much it must make your blood boil that so many don’t have any emergency fund — even the relatively low amount of $500.”
As I replied, my blood doesn’t boil because, having spent so much time working one-on-one with individuals through various financial volunteer programs, I’ve come to understand why people don’t have savings.
Those of us who dream of saving more in our sleep can’t imagine not putting money aside for an emergency. But for others, it’s a struggle for a number of reasons:
●They never learned from their parents or guardians how to manage money.
●They don’t have enough income to cover their major expenses, let alone any extra funds that could be left untapped in a bank account.
●They are taking care of elderly parents or family members, and those expenses don’t leave room for them to save.
●They care too much about what people think, so they overspend to impress.
●They don’t see the point of denying what they want in the present to save for the future since tomorrow isn’t promised. (Seriously, someone actually said that to me once. Of course, he was young.)
●They are “triflin’” (and yes, the “g” is dropped for emphasis). That’s my go-to word for people who have no good reason for not saving. They have reasonable expenses and more than enough income to save.
But even for the last group of folks, I have compassion. They often don’t realize how much harm they’re doing to themselves until the worst happens. There were many people who thought they were financially invincible until the Great Recession hit and their good job was taken away.
I had all those non-saving people in mind when I created the 21-day financial fast and a book to go along with it. I was trying to find some way to get people to stop and really think about the money they spend — and what they would do should they have a financial emergency.
So join me starting Sunday for a three-week journey into why you do what you do with your money. Even if you don’t start Sunday, jump in when you can and just catch up. I’ll be posting daily encouragements on my Facebook page.
There’s one thing you can do to make the fast successful: Be consistent.
Lately, I’ve been taking aqua aerobic classes, and my instructor, Trevin Green, encourages us by posting messages on a white bulletin board we can see while working out in the water.
His most recent message: “Being consistent creates a habit.”
That’s how you have to approach saving. It has to be as consistent as the necessity to pay your rent or mortgage and buy food and gas.
“Once you create a habit, it becomes a way of life,” Green says. “It’s like when we all started to learn to walk. At first, we fumbled and failed, but the more consistent we became, we just walked. And now we don’t even think about it.”
Green’s motivation to get us to work out regularly can easily be applied to personal finance. The way to help start saving consistently is to shut down all unnecessary spending and shopping so that you can see that you probably do have money to save.
This reader is aboard: “This year I am trying to take the month of January to be very mindful of where my money goes. In November and December, I find myself buying ‘great deals’ instead of things I truly need. I am hoping that a solid month of thought will help me keep the impulse buys in check. I don’t know if this is exactly what you envisioned in your 21-day fast, but it definitely gave me the idea.”
That is exactly my intention. If you are consistent during the fast, maybe, even after it’s over, you’ll have taken steps to begin life-changing financial habits.
Write Singletary at The Washington Post, 1301 K St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comments may be used in a future column, with the writer’s name, unless otherwise requested. To read more, go to wapo.st/michelle-singletary.