For most people in the world, starting to build wealth is extraordinarily difficult. In particular, volatile incomes can rapidly deplete the savings balances of even frugal people.
Unfortunately, people facing tight financial situations face an almost impossible situation. Savings are more important than ever when money is tight, but it’s harder to find the money to save.
This article is designed to give a few ideas for people with small or volatile incomes to use “micro-savings” to grow a nest egg. These ideas aren’t any substitute for growing your income, but they can provide a stopgap.
Whether you’re a student who isn’t earning a full-time income, a new graduate facing a lower-than-expected income, or someone who has spent years earning an insufficient income, you may be able to apply some of the ideas to start growing wealth in your situation.
If you want to jump right into saving, check out Chime. They are a bank, but have a great app, and allow you to enroll in automatic savings to automatically save 10% of every paycheck. Check out Chime here.
Should You Still Prioritize Savings When Money is Tight?
One of the craziest statistics that I’ve ever seen on the importance of savings came from the Urban Institute’s 2010 Paper entitled Can Savings Help Overcome Income Instability? In this paper, liquid savings (think cash or money in a savings account) of just $2,000 to $10,000, reduced the frequency of financial hardships by 10.3%. By comparison, increasing income by $1,000 per month reduced those hardships by 5.3%.
If your goal is to improve your quality of life, grow wealth, and find better opportunities, building up savings is the key. Nobody is saying this is easy, but it is necessary. Once you’re covering basic necessities (such as food, basic shelter, and medicine), saving needs to be the next priority.
How to Get Started Saving
If you’re convinced of the value of savings, the best place to start is by opening a bank account. A bank account with no monthly fees will allow you to start saving, and reduce the hassle associated with cashing or depositing checks.
Two banks that offer fee-free accounts are Simple Bank and Chime. Both banks also offer great savings features that can help you get started with savings. To qualify for these accounts, you must be at least 18 years old and a citizen of the United States.
If you don’t qualify to open a bank account in the United States, a good alternative is the Bluebird Account by American Express and Walmart. This account also has a “set aside” option that allows users to get started with savings.
Once you have a digital place to put money, it’s time to start putting money there. The first bit of savings is likely the most difficult to get into place. Once you have a savings habit in place, growing the account becomes easier. Here are a few ideas to get your first $100 in a savings account:
- Sell a few items that you no longer need. Deposit the savings right away.
- Skip meals and coffees out for a whole month. Put the savings into the account.
- Find a way to cut back on a regular bill (for example, lower your cell phone bill or negotiate for a lower car insurance rate). Put the savings into your account.
- Try to work overtime or take on a side job just to put the money into savings.
- Add an extra (paying) roommate to your house to cut back on housing expenses. Put the savings into your account.
Accountability and Automation
Once you’ve got some money in a savings account, the key to growing wealth is to keep the money in the account, and to add more money to the account. The two most important factors for this are accountability and automation.
Accountability is the idea that an individual can use social pressure to prioritize saving over spending. I have to say, I’ve heard of some pretty crazy methods for this.
One man I know gave $500 to his mom and told her it was his emergency fund. Now if he wants to tap this cash, he needs to ask his mom.
One friend was a member of a savings club (called a sou-sou) that required her to contribute $50 per week to the club. Once every 12 weeks, she would get paid $600. If she ever missed her payment, she would have been kicked out of the club (talk about pressure).
I’ve heard of people taping a picture of their kids to their debit cards, so they remember to save, so their kids can have a better life.
As important as accountability is automation. With volatile incomes, automating savings can be a huge challenge. However, automating a small amount of savings can go a long way. For example, saving $25 per week yields $1,300 in savings over the course of a year. A savings account with $1,300 puts you ahead of more than half of Americans when it comes to savings.
The easiest way to automate savings is to set up a separate draft straight from your paycheck. If you work a regular job. Set up a $25, $50, or even $100 deposit directly into your savings account. The remainder can go to your checking account. You could also set up an automatic 401(k) contribution if your employer has that option (though 401(k) funds are less accessible than other funds).
Check out our favorite automatic savings apps here.
Deciding When to Use the Savings
The hardest part of using micro-savings to build a nest egg is that you’ll probably experience a lot of temptation to raid it. Should you let your phone service go off, or take $50 from your savings account? Rent is due tomorrow, and you’re $60 short. Do you raid the nest egg?
In the early days of savings, you can expect to withdraw from your nest egg fairly frequently. Even though that’s not ideal for building wealth, it is helpful for your short- and long-term savings rates. Having some cash at the ready can ultimately save you money in the long run.
By paying your bills on time, you’ll eliminate late fees and start saving more. Plus, having the money on hand will reduce decision fatigue, and give you more mental space to focus on either cutting expenses or growing your income.
In time, your savings fund should transform from an emergency fund only to an actual nest egg. Eventually, you’ll even want two separate accounts, an emergency fund and a nest-egg fund.
Once you’ve achieved this level of stability, the key to growing a nest egg is continuing to add funds, and only withdrawing when you have a plan. For example, you might plan to use your funds to pay for a new car, buy inventory for a business, or contribute to a retirement account. Ideally, you’ll use the funds to buy assets (invest) or to purchase items that will reduce your expenses in the long-term (or both such as buying a house to house hack).
What Will You Do to Start Saving Today?
Getting money in the bank is the key to building wealth. That means you’ll need to start saving as soon as possible, even if money is tight. What will you do to start saving and building wealth?
Robert Farrington is America’s Millennial Money Expert® and America’s Student Loan Debt Expert™, and the founder of The College Investor, a personal finance site dedicated to helping millennials escape student loan debt to start investing and building wealth for the future. You can learn more about him on the About Page, or on his personal site RobertFarrington.com.
He regularly writes about investing, student loan debt, and general personal finance topics geared towards anyone wanting to earn more, get out of debt, and start building wealth for the future.
He has been quoted in major publications including the New York Times, Washington Post, Fox, ABC, NBC, and more. He is also a regular contributor to Forbes.