One-third of adults don’t have enough cash to cover the cost of an unexpected $400 expense, according to a May 2021 report from the Federal Reserve. The same report notes that 20% of adults had to cover unexpected medical expenses during the previous year, and that 16% experienced financial problems due to severe weather or a natural disaster.
You can’t predict whether you’ll be affected by illness or natural disaster, or things such as divorce or job loss, but you can save for emergencies. Some personal finance experts say you should save three to six months’ worth of living expenses. Others suggest having a year’s worth.
If you’re retired and living on a fixed income, saving might seem impossible. Sometimes people really do need every dollar just to pay bills and keep food on the table. But it’s often possible to find “extra” money in even the tightest of budgets.
If that’s you, start with a very modest goal, such as “This month I will set aside at least $10,” and then use some of the tactics below to make that happen. Although $10 doesn’t sound like much, it becomes $120 in a year and $600 in five years.
Not all of these tactics will work for you, but some of them will work for everyone. Bonus: Some of them are even fun.
1. Spare change challenge
You might remember having a mayonnaise jar (or a water jug) full of coins back in the day. Get one going again. Every night, empty your pocket change into some kind of container. Every couple of months, wrap and deposit the money.
Note: Not every bank accepts rolled coins. If yours doesn’t, ask local store managers if they need change. During the pandemic, stores were screaming for coins—and they might still be happy to take yours.
2. Dollar bill challenge
This is a variation on the spare change challenge. Every night, put all the ones in your wallet into a jar. Although many people use credit or debit more than cash, plenty still use folding green, and it adds up a lot faster than coins.
3. Weekly challenge
Put $1 in a jar the first Monday of the month. The second Monday, put in $2 and so on. By the end of the month you’ll have $10 to $15.
4. Found money challenge
See a penny? Pick it up. The sidewalk isn’t the only place to find money, though. Look in coin-return slots of vending machines, and especially in coin-cashing machines. You can drop it in your spare-change jar, or start a new jar just to see how it adds up.
5. Pantry challenge
Food delivery services have made it so easy not to cook. But at least once a week, make it a point to use up what you already have in the cupboards, refrigerator and freezer. Then figure out what you might have spent on takeout and send it over to savings.
Bonus: You’ll get the most from your grocery budget this way, because you’ll use up fresh food before it spoils and canned stuff before it passes its best-by date.
A savings habit
6. Set it and forget it
Arrange for a monthly transfer from checking into savings at your bank or credit union. Even as little as $5 to $10 will add up. Increase the transfer amount as you feel comfortable doing so.
(Pro tip: Online bank accounts tend to have higher interest rates, so consider having your transfer sent to one of those.)
7. Think of it as a bill
Include “savings” in your list of monthly obligations in your budget. The amount might have to change from month to month, depending on your other expenses. But set a reminder on your phone to send at least $5 to savings on the day that your check or Social Security benefit lands in your account.
8. Save it forward
You finally finished paying off that credit card balance or those energy-efficient windows. Now, keep making payments—or, rather, transfer that amount into your savings account each month. If that’s too big of a burden, try to transfer at least one-third of that amount.
9. “Launder” some funds
Each time you do a load of wash, put at least $1 in a jar. Try for $2 or $3 per load, if you can swing it.
10. Name your fund
Some banks or credit unions let you assign a name to sub-accounts. (My online bank lets me do this; I have two for my great-nephews’ education funds and one called “replacement washing machine.”) Naming your account “emergency fund” or “pay cash for Christmas” reminds you why you save.
11. Save a goal
Suppose there’s a milestone anniversary or a 50th class reunion coming up. Make it a weekly challenge to save the month and day of that event. For example, suppose your reunion is scheduled on July 11 of next year. You’d save $18 (seventh month plus 11th day) per week. In 52 weeks, you’ll have stashed $936.
If your budget is tight, try to save those amounts each month instead of each week. That’s still an extra $216 toward your anniversary dinner.
12. Remember your goal
Suppose a big family reunion will take place three states away from you next year. Change your debit card PIN to the day and month of the event. Every time you want to use your debit card on something that’s not strictly necessary, those four numbers could help you remember the bigger picture. Then go home and transfer the money you would have spent into your savings account.
Other simple savings tricks
13. Save your savings
When you get an AARP discount or use a digital supermarket coupon, transfer the amount you saved into savings. Again, even if it’s only 99 cents it will add up to real money. (Especially if you’re using more than one tactic from this list.)
14. Change a habit
Maybe you buy coffee from a coffee shop on your weekly grocery run. Try cutting back to a cup of coffee every other shopping trip. Do you meet a friend for lunch every week to catch up? A couple of times a month, suggest meeting up for a leisurely walk after lunch, which will save you both money.
No matter what kind of habit you change, be sure to bank the difference.
15. Steal from yourself
View your checking account balance the night before your Social Security or pension funds are deposited. Suppose there’s $212 left and all monthly bills are paid. Transfer $12 to savings. Or transfer a little more, if you can do it without jeopardizing the next month’s finances.
16. Dare a friend
Got a family member or friend who’s in the same financial boat as you? Suggest a challenge: “I dare you to save more than I do in the next two months. If you win, I will clean your house/mow your grass/bake your favorite dessert. If I win, you’ll do the same for me.”
Here’s the best part: No matter who winds up with the biggest savings, you both win because you both have more money than you did two months previously and because you’ve started a savings habit.
The bottom line
In terms of emergencies, even a relatively small savings account can make a big difference. While it might not cover every unexpected expense, it will at least reduce the amount that you need to finance.
Some months you’ll be able to set aside more than others. The amount doesn’t matter as much as the consistency. Make savings a set-in-stone habit. Don’t let yourself skip a few months because of whatever special events might distract you from the big picture. Decrease the amount you save that month—but do save it.
No one wants to think about emergencies or not having enough money to enjoy even a few small luxuries. However, with a little creativity, you can position yourself to ride out the next storm that comes your way and truly enjoy your retirement.
Not that saving is only for emergencies. Having a cash cushion over and above everyday expenses can help you enjoy hobbies, travel, treating your kids and grandkids to gifts for birthdays and holidays.