Savings advice can sometimes seem like satire.
Start early. Save 15% of your income. Make sure it’s your pretax income. Do it for 40 years. Cross your fingers. Click your heels.
But in the real world, that’s not how it works for most people.
As a financial planner in New York City, I see firsthand how dismayed many people are by the standard savings advice. To those of us who work with money all day, 15% is just a number. But to someone who is trying to make ends meet, it can feel like a failing grade.
Benjamin Dixon captured this sentiment perfectly when he tweeted “I almost choked on my avocado toast” in response to a recent CNBC article that recommended having double your annual salary saved by age 35. The tweet has over 5,000 retweets and over 10,000 likes.
Clearly, Dixon’s comment resonated.
Although savings advice is well intentioned — and not wrong — there’s a disconnect between the advisers and the advised. Americans put away an average of only 3.5% of their income, after taxes and expenses, according to July data from the US Bureau of Economic Analysis.
Many factors account for the savings gap: student loans, healthcare, expensive housing.
So saving 15% today probably isn’t possible for most people. But that doesn’t mean you should throw in the towel. Perhaps you could save 1% more than you are now, or 3% more. Incrementally increasing your savings will help your account balances grow, but it does something else that’s even more valuable: It creates momentum. Once you start moving, it’s easier to keep going.
Speaking of momentum, it could be time to look for a new job with a higher salary. Getting a raise allows you to bulk up your savings percentage without cutting back on your current expenses.
Temporary savings hacks can do wonders, too. Saving aggressively by using the “starve and stack” method, for example, could make a huge difference in your future retirement account balances.
If guidelines help, there are plenty to follow, like those laid out by David Bach, a financial adviser, in his book “The Automatic Millionaire,” or charts showing how much you need to have saved to retire.
Ultimately, it’s important to be honest with yourself. Sometimes, saving isn’t going to possible. But the key word is sometimes. At other times, you will have the ability to save, and you should make it a priority while you can — even if that means moving to a cheaper apartment or trading a gas-guzzling car for one that gets better fuel economy.
As with any goal, you can’t be too hard on yourself. There’s never going to be a perfect week, or month, or year. All you can do is recognize the difference between when you truly can’t save and when you probably could do more than you are now.