I can't save money, because how can I save money with no money? Click to find common reasons why saving money feels impossible, and how to fix them.

desk with peach roses, money clip, money, notepad, text overlay how can I save money with no money?Do you feel like it's impossible to save money?

Saving money is hard.

It doesn't have to be, but if you a) have never done it before, and b) aren't making a lot of money to begin with, then it probably seems hopeless.

It's not — I promise.

You're actually talking to someone who prides herself on being able to get others to save MUCH more money than they ever thought possible (in fact, I call it “saving beyond your means” — because I want people to save beyond their means, not spend beyond their means).

And I'm not talking about the kind of saving money on the end of receipts. I'm talking about saving money in an *actual* savings account, where it sits there and doesn't do anything but earn you interest.

You see, there are signs everywhere that show you how much money you are “saving”. Like at the at the bottom of your grocery receipt, on the bottom of your CVS or Walgreens receipt…I've even been told how much money I saved while buying a stick of gum at the convenience store.

But where exactly are these “savings” at? In your pocket, or in your savings account? No. This type of “saving money” that marketers love to tell you you're doing is not adding anything to your savings account. It only does that if you physically move money into savings.

Which is precisely what we're going to work on getting you to do.

But first up? We have to talk about common reasons why saving money is hard to do.

Five Reasons Why It is Sometimes Difficult to Save Money

You would think that there are only two reasons why it's sometimes difficult to save money:

  1. You don't make enough money to save money.
  2. You spend too much money to save money.

But guess what? There are at least five reasons why it's hard to save money.

Let's tackle this issue further, because once you see some of these reasons, you're going to get clarity not only around your own situation, but around how to FIX it.

Reason #1: You're Experiencing Lifestyle Inflation

Generally speaking, your income and mine increases over our lifetime. As we gain more knowledge, more expertise, and more experience in learning how to earn money, our income *should* rise (averaged over the years).

This means that saving money should be EASIER to do as we age, not harder.

But, if your extra money you're earning is being put into upgrading your lifestyle? Well, then saving money might actually get HARDER to do.

For example, if you use a raise as an excuse to go out and lease a new, better car, then you likely have absorbed that extra few hundred dollars per month in a new expense.

Did you use your bonus to go on a vacation one year, instead of putting at least 50% of it in your savings or investment accounts?

Some lifestyle upgrades are nice, and warranted. But many don't actually bring us any extra happiness. Instead, you could use that extra money to increase your savings account, which will bring you added security and the ability to start to design your life. And those two things CAN you bring you happiness (and peace).

Reason #2: Saving Money is Not a Priority for You

I want you to take this section seriously. Because honestly, most people will SAY that saving money is a priority, but they either don't know what making it a priority really looks like, or they're not being honest with themselves about why they can't save money.

Let me show you what it looks like to make saving money a priority.

People who prioritize saving money: 

  • Set up automatic withdrawals from their checking account to saving account each month (and sometimes they do this as a direct deposit from their paycheck!)
  • Routinely audit various bills and fixed expenses — like property taxes, health insurance premiums, and cable — in order to pay less so that they can save more money in their bank account
  • Cut expenses to the bone so that they can find more money to send to savings
  • Experience savings inflation instead of lifestyle inflation, meaning that as their income increases over the years, they save even MORE money (instead of spending that money to upgrade their life, leaving their savings rate flat)
  • Routinely set aside 50% or more of any tax refunds they receive to put into savings

Now…can you tell me that you are truly making the effort to prioritize saving money in your life?

If the answer is yes, then don't worry — I've got more fixes for you. If the answer is No? Well, it's time to re-calibrate your priorities.

Reason #3: You're Not Aware of Savings Programs Out there

If your income is just too low — meaning your basic living expenses cannot be covered by your paychecks — then you need to know about resources out there to help you with saving money.

Now, hear me out: I said BASIC living expenses. If you are leasing a new car every two or three years, or your wardrobe includes more than 4-5 pairs of shoes, or your Facebook feed is full of vacation photos AND you can't save any money? Well, it's not an income problem — it's a priorities problem (see Reason #2 above).

I've detailed 4 Savings Match Programs you might qualify for that can help you still save money, despite a low income.

Savings Match Programs include:

  • Individual Development Accounts (IDAs)
  • Private savings match programs
  • IRS tax incentives for saving money
  • Employer-matched savings programs

Any of these could make the difference between being able to save money each month, and finding saving money too hard to do.

Reason #4: You're in an Expensive Season of Life

I get it – I became a mother over 3 years ago. If you're building your family, or building a business, or any other number of things, then you are in an “expensive” season of life.

I don't say that to make excuses, meaning that's not a good enough reason to not save money. But it does need to be addressed.

I know firsthand how much our own expenses have increased with just one baby — with our hybrid childcare approach, upcoming preschool payments, increased spending on food, the formula we had to buy since I couldn't breastfeed, the higher health insurance premiums, the doctor bills…I could on. But you probably understand all that firsthand, yourself.

Reason #5: You and Your Partner Aren't on the Same Page

Listen — lots of couples aren't on the same financial page. In fact, it's pretty common to get a “saver” in a partnership with a “spender”.

You need to learn how to work together so that you're not constantly working against each other, and getting nowhere towards meeting your savings goals.

Here are some resources to get you started building what I like to call financial intimacy with your partner:

No Matter How Hard I Try, I Can't Save Money

Let's circle back to this idea about how stores LOVE to tell us how much money we “saved” on the bottom of our receipts, but how that's not actually saving money (in the sense of putting extra money into your savings account — only YOU can do that).

If you find it hard to save money, then you're likely experiencing one of these savings sabotages below.

I'm going to talk about each of these reasons, and steps you can take to solve the problem.

Savings Sabotage #1: Spending More Elsewhere, so You Never See the Savings

Have you ever saved $27.94 at the grocery store…only to spend it on something else because you still had that amount left in your budgeted spending? Maybe on something you weren't even planning on purchasing? Whether you did so consciously or unconsciously, somehow you never really saw that “savings”.

Instead of sticking to your budgeted spending amount, you filled it to the brim (which is a strategy in itself that is great for stretching a buck, but not so great for growing a savings account).

Problem Solver: I challenge you to do something that I tried several years ago (and yes, it worked). Bank it instead. Every time you are notified of how you just “saved” money, make it tangible. Take that exact dollar amount and transfer it from your checking account to your savings account.

Savings Sabotage #2: Using More of the Product than You Normally Would

My husband is a coke addict (you know, the coca-cola kind), or at least he used to be. He's successfully weaned himself down quite a bit, not least because of how expensive they can be.

I know that the stock-up sweet spot – the absolute lowest price for a 12-can refrigerator pack – is around $2.50. In the past when I've seen this price, I've purchased 5-6 thinking that I had just stocked us up for the next two months.

Except that when Paul has seen these extra cokes lying around, he automatically would increase his intake probably by double, thus making the price as much or even more than it normally is. Doh!

Problem Solver: There are a few ways you can potentially stop this savings sabotage depending on what product you are talking about. The first is to create a safe spot in your home that is out of normal view where you can store those low-price items you scored and mete them out according to your normal usage (after you return from your next regularly scheduled grocery trip, simply grab one and put it in your cupboard). For us, we started putting the coke boxes in the closet in the laundry room. Another option is to use the bigger item to fill up smaller-sized containers for things like club-sized giant tubs of mustard or mayo. (Clean out the old jars/containers first).

Savings Sabotage#3: Having Less of the Product to Use, Causing You to Buy Another

The financial hit retailers took during the recession, coupled with consumer's growing sensitivity to price increases (and not being afraid to tout them on Social Media), has brought about an interesting new way to get more money out of you: underhanded product resizing.

Yogurts that used to contain 8 oz. went down to 6 oz…with the same cup size. Chip companies kept the same sized bag and simply filled the top with a bit more air. Several of the large ice-cream companies kept the same lid size so that when you picked up a carton it looked the same, but then they tapered down the bottom part of the container.

So instead of increasing the price for the product and waiting for the backlash, they (in most cases) deceptively decreased the amount of product you received for the same price.

Problem Solver: For this one, you've either got to find a cheaper substitute (with the quantity you need to keep you going through to your next shopping trip), or consciously use less of the product. For example, in the link above you can see how one paper towel company went from 121 to 111 sheets in the last few years. Can you use a kitchen towel more often to make up for less product? That way, the cost is still the same to you.

Savings Sabotage #4: Because the “Savings” are Actually Bogus

Sometimes I like to do experiments where I save sales flyers for a certain store for a year, or save all of the credit card offers I receive from particular companies for a year, and see if their sales and deals they are shouting at me are legitimate.

I can tell you with certainty that sometimes, they're just lying. A store may say that an item is on sale, and for many of its consumers, they don't know the difference because they either aren't price sensitive, or they don't know how much that item normally costs.

Just check out this Macy's disclaimer, where they say that “Regular” and “Original” prices may not have actually been in effect for the past 180 days (meaning, they make up any old price they want to call regular so that their discount is super shiny).

Problem Solver: Honestly, you can only deal with this issue by becoming more aware of it. I'm not suggesting keeping a lengthy price book or anything, but rather just keep your eyes out on the product you wish to purchase. Shop around, find out what it's going for, and then you will know when it is actually on sale or not. You could use a price comparison tool like Nextag.com, and always take a look at Amazon.com.

Is it Easy to Save Money? Not Always

You’re about to hear the bad and the ugly, because up until now you’ve mostly only heard the good.

You see, I’ve been blogging for four and a half years now and have rarely shared with you the financial catastrophes that have fallen on our household. You’ve witnessed us paying off our $25,000 in debt, and followed along as our annual savings from take-home pay increased year to year from 29.8%, to 38%, and then 40%. Recently I was able to share with you how we are taking on some lifestyle design by me quitting my day job to write and blog full-time. These were tremendous and purposeful acts on our part that make us feel unbelievably blessed.

However, I’ve noticed something: the comments and emails coming through from many of you make me think that you are feeling like you could not possibly reap the same results as us.

I feel as though it is partly my fault that you’ve come to this conclusion, as I am an optimist at heart. I don’t like to discuss all of the sub-par and sucky financial situations we’ve had to conquer over the years. Sure, I’ve given glimpses here and there, but not really enough to drive home the point that we have met these financial goals despite what befalls the normal person. I would rather stomp my foot once or twice about it, deal with the situation, and then move on to the part where we count our blessings.

But by doing so—by being myself—I now realize that it does not paint the entire picture. And because you have not had a glimpse into our financial catastrophes, you think that you could never achieve what we have.

I’m here to prove you wrong.

This is not a woe-is-me article, and I am not writing this for sympathy. Rather I am writing this to share with you all of the crappy things that have happened to us so that you can see we are normal, just like you, and that you, too, can achieve what we have.

Employment Snafus

I wrote about my unemployment “vacation” of 2008, but failed to mention that this was the secondtime I had been laid off in three years. In 2006, just one year after I began my new job as an International Sales and Marketing Specialist in a start-up company, I found myself laid-off. The president of the company wrote a letter detailing that it was through no fault of my own and that I came highly recommended, but that, coupled with a two-week severance, barely took the sting off. Three months later, after the hunt to find movers was over, I found myself moving to Florida and taking on my second job in market research and marketing. Another two years later and Paul got a phone call while visiting me in Florida telling him that he was being laid off. Because of the extra time on his hands he extended his trip. Coincidentally, within one week I came home with my own box and eyes brimming with tears. We decided to lift our spirits a bit and take advantage of the fact that we were both unemployed and in Florida at the same time by booking an overnight trip to Disneyworld (using hotel points from my previous job).

Positive Flip: You are experiencing the fruits of my optimism right now. Instead of languishing on the couch (well, besides the week after getting back from Disney World), I created Frugal Confessions. While still not sure of where I would source income, I spent $150 to have a head shot taken because I had a great idea coupled with a whole lot of faith. Did I mention that Paul and I being laid off within two weeks of one another was perfect timing? It meant that we could take our relationship to the next level by moving to the same city for the first time. And the rest, is history.

The “I’d-Like-to-get-Our-Home-Inspector-on-the-Phone” Home Repairs

After getting engaged in 2009 we decided that we wanted to purchase a home together. At the same time, we also worked on paying off our $25,000 in debts and paid cash for our wedding/honeymoon. Needless to say, it was a busy financial time for us. We knew our home was the one for us as soon as we laid eyes on it, and have continued loving it ever since. However, we’ve learned that you should take heed when people say you will spend 1-3% of the home’s cost each year in repairs and maintenance. And if you have a semi-older home like ours (1975), then bank on even more. Since 2009 we have had to replace the downstairs Central A/C and heater (originally a staggering $7,800, but we had a $1,000 credit from the sellers, a $1,500 tax credit, and $1,100 from our home warranty policy purchased by the previous owners to help offset the cost), foundation repair due to the terrible drought we suffered in 2012 ($3,500), plumbing repairs in the amount of $1,200 due to shoddy plumbing work, chimney cap installation ($450), and dishwasher/washer/dryer replacement after breakdown of each appliance ($1,300). Whew.

And there is more work to come: currently our master shower has been unusable due to having no shower pan and the tile peeling up, one of the burners on our stovetop started sparking, the upstairs Central A/C and heating is not working right, and we just found out that our water heater installation was not done to code. Actually, that’s not even the entire list.

Positive Flip: Purchasing the home during the $8,000 first-time homebuyer tax credit really helped with each of our goals at the time. We put $1,000 of this in our emergency fund (thank goodness, as you’ll see why below), and $7,000 towards debt repayments. We also were able to take advantage of a $1,500 tax credit for energy efficient central A/C units. Did I mention that we absolutely love our home?

They Don’t Call them Beaters for Nothin’

I love beater cars that we can pay cash for, and will most likely drive one for the rest of my life. Most of the time this has worked out beautifully. But it does have its downsides. At some point in the life of each of my beater cars I have been faced with a repair that would cost more than what it is worth (or sometimes more than I actually paid for it). This very thing happened just one month after we plopped down most of our savings towards our first home. My beloved Chevy cavalier, at 222,835+ miles, needed a $1500 repair. I only ever paid $1300 cash for it six years earlier, and had hardly any work done to it over its life. Overall we had a great track record of beater cars, but the next car we chose proved to test that. We purchased a 1999 Nissan for $3500…and one and a half years later it was deemed un-drivable without approximately $3,500 in repairs.

Positive Flip: After our last beater car ended rather abruptly, we learned to have a third-party mechanic check out any used car purchase in the future. To give ourselves plenty of time to look for a new beater car, we commuted together to work for two months. It was nice to sneak in some extra quality time (and nap time)! To replace that car we purchased a 2003 Chevy Cavalier after paying a mechanic $100 to inspect it. Thus far, it’s been great. Also, we were able to donate our Nissan to Purple Heart for a $1250 tax deduction. Since I do something super-nerdy like track car expenses over the years and divide this by the number of months each car lasts, I know that we’ve saved lots of money by going the beater car route. Now I understand the need to continue setting aside money each month into a car fund should our beater decide to die.

Lessons Learned

Let our lessons learned help you to set aside more savings, even as the sh*t hits the fan:

  • Set a Target for Savings: After reading all of this you may think that we’ve stopped trying to target a specific amount of savings each year. It’s not true. Though we have a healthy respect for how life can pull the rug out from under us at the most inopportune times, we still set a target savings and find that it helps us to keep working and progressing forward instead of becoming distraught.
  • Maintain an Emergency Fund: I cannot emphasize enough the importance of having an emergency fund, or rather, an “oh sh*t” fund. Without one, we would have been asking others for help or charging up our credit cards after many of these surprises popped up.
  • Save When Times are Good: While it is important to live your life to its fullest, you really need to save as much money as possible during the good times. This will buffer your accounts and help when the bad times come.

Throughout all of these situations that snuck up on us, we were still able to sock away that 29.8%, 38%, and 40% each year into long-term savings (meaning savings we did not tap to pay for any of these items). You may brush this off as us having an obscenely large income. While I would not like to share our salary, I can tell you that we do not have a large income. Aside from that, this argument doesn’t work as most people in America spend right up to the penny, and sometimes more, than their income no matter if they make $20,000 a year or $100,000+. This was purposeful saving and frugality on our part, despite the many fireballs life has thrown our way.

What are some of the financial headaches you’ve dealt with over the last several years? How did this impact your savings goals/debt repayment goals for the year?  

Why is it Hard to Save Money in America?

For the last four years I have saved up a lump of money for no real purpose. I knew that I would probably need large amounts of money in the future, and that one day I would like to be wealthy, so saving as much money as possible seemed like the logical step. In December of 2006, I opened up an ING Direct online savings account and began funneling money into it through monthly automatic withdrawals. Each month I watched the money grow, delighted with the interest payment I received (back then, it was 5%!). I nurtured it, I dreamed with it, I watched the interest add its own interest.

Fast forward four years, and most of this money is now going towards our down payment on a home. It’s time for my money and I to part ways, but on relatively good terms.

Sometimes I look at the sum I have saved in the last four years compared with the income that I have earned in the last four years, and wonder where it has all gone to? But yesterday I had a much kinder thought: had I not been so diligent with my saving plan, I could be looking at an almost empty account today instead of one that holds the promise of home ownership.

So, where could all of this money have gone to instead of in my savings account? I have gathered some thoughts and calculations on this topic for common things people spend their money on. This includes categories that, if I had my way and a limitless bank account, I might have spent my money on as well. Here is what I found:

ItemCostFour-Year Cost
Lattes During the Workweek (200 days a year)$2.00 per day$1,600
Membership Dues to a Gym$40 per month$1,920
Weekly Manicures$20$4,160
Car Lease (for this example, the popular Honda Accord Ex at $24,495)$239 per month, 36 month lease$8,604 (and I would not own the car at the end of the three years)
Pay Off Credit Card Debt (average for household is $8,000 @ 14.94% interest)$219.67 per month$8,000 paid off (hurrah!)$2,544 lost to interest (bummer!)
$18,828

 

Perhaps it seems to you that your everyday purchases, habits, and financial commitments do not add up to anything. But in the example above, it adds up to $18,828 in just four years (not including the credit card debt you paid off—which is great, but does not equal money in your savings). For each of the examples above, there is an alternative that I have used.

  • Instead of the daily lattes, I went to Starbucks once every other week to write and enjoy a delicious treat, which was $1,392 cheaper
  • Instead of working out at a gym, I signed up for periodic yoga classes and ran/walked outside, which was $1,440 cheaper
  • Instead of weekly manicures, I did my own at home, and went to the salon for a manicure and pedicure twice per year, which is $3,600 cheaper
  • Instead of leasing  a car, I paid cash for mine ($1500) and have driven it to 227,000 miles thus far, which is $7,104 cheaper (plus I own the car)
  • Instead of having credit card debt, I paid off my credit card each month (I have gotten away with only one $39 finance charge due to changing banks and not changing the automatic withdrawal), which was $2,505 cheaper than the average household credit card debt (also I have earned over $800 in gift cards for reward points from this credit card)

I could look at my account today and sigh at all of the dinners out, new car smells, trips to Bermuda, and clothes that I have missed out on over the last four years. But I don’t see it that way at all. I am alive, I am well, and I have a down payment waiting for the house of my dreams. To not have this down payment would be the true sacrifice in my mind.

Keep these sabotages and problem solvers in mind, and your savings account will grow. Well, so long as you actually hit “send” on a transfer of money from your checking to savings (you can do this!).

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Amanda L. Grossman is a Certified Financial Education Instructor, Plutus Foundation Grant Recipient, and founder of Frugal Confessions. Over the last 10 years, her money work helping people with how to save money and how to manage money has been featured in Kiplinger, Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report, Business Insider, LifeHacker, Woman's World, Woman's Day, ABC 13 Houston, Keybank, and more. Read more here.
22 replies
  1. Little House
    Little House says:

    I think I’m somewhat guilty of #1. A year ago I started to save a bunch of money on NOT going to Starbucks everyday, but I didn’t really bank that savings. However, I did end up increasing my monthly auto-deposits into my savings account this year, so perhaps I’m making up for it now. 😉

    Reply
  2. Suzann
    Suzann says:

    I calculated this a long time ago–$2.00 was my limit for a 12 pack
    of 12 oz. cans which equates to 93.7 cents per 2 liter bottle. I actually
    like the 2 liter Refreshe diet cola (Randall’s) better than diet Coke or Pepsi and when you buy 4 it is $0.75 each.

    Reply
  3. Rebecca @ Stapler Confessions
    Rebecca @ Stapler Confessions says:

    Great points! I was completely guilty of #1 until I decided to empty the checking account at the end of the month into a student loan. That way, whatever we saved that month — by not spending — was immediately used and we actually “saved” the money instead of spending the savings. It also encouraged us to stop spending as much, because the feeling of making a $1,000 extra payment into our student loans was so rewarding.

    Reply
    • Amanda
      Amanda says:

      What a great shift you took, Rebecca. Now imagine when your loans are paid off…and you can make that same deposit – except into your savings account!

      I’m rooting for you:).

      Reply
  4. Bryce @ Save and Conquer
    Bryce @ Save and Conquer says:

    Good points to consider. We drink diet sodas in moderation. As long as a person can control their urges, and only drink a glass or two a day, the cheapest way to purchase name-brand sodas is in two-liter bottles, which is what we do.

    You definitely have to pay attention to what is really a “sale” at any store. There are lots of furniture stores around here that seem to have perpetual “going out of business” sales. And as you mentioned, any retailer can set whatever price they want for an item, and then mark it down in the name of a sale. It pays to shop around and use resources on the internet.

    Reply
  5. Prudence Debtfree
    Prudence Debtfree says:

    This is a timely post for us. We’ve been looking at paying $10,000 for a new roof over the last few months, and this week, we learned we’ll have to put down another $2,000 to have a tree cut down. (It’s a beauty, but it’s starting to rot, and it’s a hazard.) I’ve been maintaining a “This too shall pass” attitude, and your post encourages me to continue doing so. You’ve made great strides despite major setbacks. We will too.

    Reply
  6. lee
    lee says:

    We don’t exactly buy a beater car, by the way they are called an ”old banger” here in the UK, but we pay cash for a 2year old car, maintain it really well and drive it till it falls apart !
    Our last car kept going for 17 years and we have had our present car for nearly 9 years now.
    We had both cars overlap by 5 years, so we were a two car family for a while.

    Reply
    • FruGal
      FruGal says:

      I like that phrase, “old banger”. Thanks for sharing! Sounds like you have had great luck. My longest lasting (and cherished “piece of wonderness”) was six years, and I had only paid $1300 cash for it with minor repairs. It was a beauty!

      Reply
  7. Little House
    Little House says:

    You made an excellent point; save when times are good! Our biggest hurdle has been irregular income. When things are good, we do a great job paying off debt, but not such a good job saving money. Then, when income dries up, we struggle a bit and end up in more debt. I’m trying to get us out of this repetitive cycle – and now with one stable income, I’m making a bit of headway.

    Reply
    • FruGal
      FruGal says:

      Thank you! At least you have identified a cycle; now you just need to make the changes so that you can move ahead more confidently with irregular income. Good luck to you!

      Reply
  8. retirebyforty
    retirebyforty says:

    Our 4 plex has been causing us a lot of financial grief. There are a lot of repairs that were put off by the previous owners and we have been slowly fixing them. I knew there were repairs so at least they were expected. I think we are done with the repairs though so hopefully we’ll have positive cash flow for a while.
    We set aside some money for this so it wasn’t a big deal for us.

    Reply
    • FruGal
      FruGal says:

      I am crossing my fingers for you Joe that you are finished with repairs and onto making lots of profit. Good luck!

      Reply
  9. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    Our biggest set back came in the form of foundation repairs. We moved to a new house, did the home inspection etc and after about 3 months in the home we discovered a crack in the foundation that require the one side of the house to be hoisted up, footing re-poured and foundation walls rebuilt. Adding insult to injury part of the driveway needed to be pulled up to access the house so after 15K in foundation repairs we got to through down another 5k for a new drive way.

    Reply
    • Amanda L Grossman
      Amanda L Grossman says:

      Ouch Lisa! I am sorry to hear about going through that (and can understand the stomach knots). I think one of the hardest things is knowing that a good size of money was spent on something that has no aesthetic appeal, and that wasn’t fun or a new experience. You know what I mean?

      Reply

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