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Good savers, good habits

The Baltimore Sun

We hear so often that Americans are poor savers that we forget there are plenty of workers who amass sizable sums with little fanfare.

They might be in the next cubicle, next door or next-of-kin. It's not that they save because they make tons of money. Many good savers have modest incomes. They just don't spend every penny of it.

Savers say they don't deny themselves the fun things in life. They spend on things that are important to them but don't waste dollars on the other stuff.

But you can't help but wonder: Why are some people such good savers while others - even those with healthy six-figure incomes - live from paycheck to paycheck?

Interviews with self-described savers and financial experts reveal that savers share certain habits. Here's a list of them. Let's call it, with a tip of the hat to Stephen Covey, the Seven Habits of Highly Effective Savers.

1. The saver's creed: Pay yourself first. Before paying the bills, buying groceries or spending on entertainment, they set aside money. Put savings last, and you'll likely have little or no cash left by the month's end to sock away.

2. Savers have goals. A goal isn't necessarily grand or long-term. It may be a weekend getaway or something else that inspires them.

James Lawrence, a retired subway station attendant in Baltimore County and "a young 71," says his first goal as a youngster was a bicycle. More recently, his goal was to send his daughter to college. She's now a college sophomore and wants to go to medical school. Helping her get there is Lawrence's new goal.

"You have to have goals," he says. "I always wanted to have peace of mind. Believe me, if you get yourself in a lot of debt, you don't have peace of mind."

(Tip: Retirement shouldn't be a goal, says Don Blandin, president of the Investor Protection Trust. It's too broad, too dull. "It has to be something exciting," he says. "Something that jazzes you. Something that motivates you to practice good fiscal management." Instead of retirement, focus on what you would do if you no longer had to work. Maybe you would travel to seven countries or switch to another field of work that doesn't pay much but is more fun and rewarding, Blandin says.)

3. Savers make saving automatic. Money moves directly from their paycheck or checking account and into savings. "What you don't see, you don't miss in most cases," Lawrence says.

4. Savers track their progress. "It gives you some confidence to see those amounts building up," says Sue Stevens, director of financial planning at Morningstar.

5. Savers don't leave money on the table. That often means taking advantage of employer benefits. Katherine Roche, a Parkville bookkeeper, says she contributes enough to her 401(k) to get the employer match. "If someone is giving you extra money, why would you turn your back on it?" she says.

She also uses a debit card that pays her cash back. "That's free money," she says.

6. Savers use credit cards for convenience, paying off balances monthly. "They don't put on a credit card something they can't pay for," says Nancy Register, national director of America Saves program.

7. Savers enjoy saving. And they love a bargain. "I shop at Goodwill," Roche says. "I go there all the time. I look for sweaters." (Her tip: Goodwill Industries marks its clothing half off the last Saturday of each month.)

Some even make a game of saving. Register says savers send in their saving strategies to the America Saves program. A woman born in 1924, for instance, says she saves every $1 bill she comes across that has "24" in the serial number.

Questions? Comments? Write personal.finance@baltsun.com.

ONLINE: MORE AMBROSE Find Eileen Ambrose's column archive at baltimoresun.com/ambrose

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