Money

Follow the easiest plan to save money in 2015: It starts with just $1!

Is saving money one of your new year's resolutions, or something you want to make a priority in 2015? Then keep reading!

Take the 52-week Savings Challenge with us, and you’ll end the year with $1378 to your name.

That’s a big deal. According to Bankrate.com, 26% of Americans have no emergency savings at all, and the number of those with enough to cover six months worth of expenses shrank from 45% a year ago to 40% today.

There are different ways to save — some people save their windfalls, like tax refunds or bonuses — but the very best way to do it is habitually (i.e. every week) and automatically (so that you don’t really have to think about it.)

Enter: the 52-week Savings Challenge. Here’s how it works:

In week 1, you save $1.

In week 2, you save $2.

In week 3, you save $3.

No, there isn’t a lot of money flowing into your savings account (yes, it goes into an account, not a jar, more on that in a moment) in the beginning, but you’re building a habit.

By week 26, when you save $26, you’ll have $351.

By week 40, when you save $40, you’ll have $820.

And by this time next year, you’ll have $1378! But more importantly, you’ll be a practiced saver. As you follow this plan, keep checking back for a new tip each week on how to maximize your savings. Here are my tips to get you started for the first six weeks:

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Week 1: Save $1Total Savings $1

1. Open a free no-minimum balance, high-interest savings account and schedule your first month of automatic transfers. Why do you need a separate savings account? Because think about what happens when you go to the ATM and you pull out some cash. You look at the number on the receipt and think: Oh, that’s how much I have left to spend. If savings are buried in your spending account, they get spent — not saved.

So, where are the best savings accounts? Well, you have to remember interest rates are still very low, so you’re not going to earn a bundle on your savings…yet. But they are expected to start to rise later this year, so you want to be positioned to earn interest when that happens. In general, you’ll earn the most from online banks (they can pay you more because they don’t have a brick and mortar presence) and credit unions (because they’re not-for-profit).

2. Schedule your first four weekly transfers. (Note: Some people worry this will impact their credit rating. It won’t!)

Week 2: Save $2Total savings $3

Explore alternate ways to do the challenge. There are some people who believe — and perhaps rightly so — that they’d do better if they could save more earlier in the year (when they’re jazzed to get going) and less around the holidays next year. So, here are three variations on the challenge. You can pick and choose, but each one will allow you to celebrate victory with us at the end.

· Level the playing field: $26.50. If you're wondering how much you’d have to save every week if you wanted to just sock away the same amount every week, that’s the answer. If you’d rather play it this way, go for it. You can schedule your transfers for the entire year!

· Jumpstart: So you want to get the tough weeks out of the way. Good for you! Start at Week 52 by saving $52, and work the challenge backward. By the time the holidays roll around, it’ll be easy, breezy for you. (Or perhaps you’ll be inspired to save even more — and tell me about it!)

· Savings Bingo: If you want to play it fast and loose, that’s okay, too. Print out the list of how much you need to save each week, and tape it to your fridge or computer (somewhere near the place you do your online banking). Then, every week you can decide how much you feel like saving, and cross that number off. By the time you get to the end of the year, you should have crossed off every one.

Week 3: Save $3Total Savings $6

Get visual. Okay, so you’re on board. But do you know why you’re doing this? Do you have an actual picture of what you’re saving for in your mind? You should, because research shows that when we actually have an image of our goals, we’re more likely to meet them. For many of you, I’ll bet this challenge is a great way to build an emergency cushion. So maybe the image is you looking more relaxed — and less stressed out — about money than you do right now. But maybe you’re doing this so that you can take a trip next winter, or so you don’t have to float the 2015 holidays on a credit card. Whatever. If you can see it, you can be it. So, once you hit that target of nearly $1,400 what are

Week 4: Save $4Total Savings $10

Stay the course. Right about now you may be thinking, I’ve been doing this for a month and I only have $10 saved! There’s a reason we take it slow and steady, and that reason is backed by science. Think about running a 10K race (no, I’m not trying to palm you off on #TeamJenna, I’m trying to make a point). If you have never run before and you lace up your shoes and head out for multiple miles, you’re going to fail, and you’re likely going to hate it. But if you build by a half mile a week, or you walk/run until it becomes easier, you’ve got a greater chance of making it to your goal. Same here. We’re getting you in the habit of saving. You’ll start to see the dollars add up soon enough.

Week 5: Save $5Total savings $15

1. Schedule your automatic transfers for the next four weeks, just like you did at the start of the challenge.

2. Blab to your friends. If you share your goals with friends and family, you’re more likely to keep them — if only for the fact that it’s embarrassing to fail in front of others. But it’s also helpful to have a support system in place. Just like with a fitness goal, it’s easier to stick with your workout regime when you have a personal trainer or buddy to work out with you. So consider sharing the fact that you’re on the savings challenge with a friend — if that friend wants to join you, it’s not too late! — and committing to checking in with one another. There is definitely power in numbers!

Week 6: Save $6Total savings $21

Make tiny tweaks. As the number of dollars you need to save each week starts climbing, it’s going to be helpful to think about small changes you can make in your life to make coming up with that money easier. That $6 could come from bringing leftovers for lunch one day this week, or carpooling to work to save on gas. You could join forces with a friend to get a birthday gift for another pal, rather than going it alone. Or you could make sure you use the loyalty card at the supermarket. The last time I did that, I saved more than $20. Just keep asking yourself: Is there a way to do this less expensively?

Week 7: Save $7Total savings $28

Start visiting your savings once a week. There are few things better for your financial health than deciding to become a saver. Unfortunately, saving money isn’t necessarily fun – that’s why many people just don’t do it. But having money saved is fun — and just might make you happier. Thirty-eight percent of people who have savings accounts report feeling extremely, or very happy, compared with 29 percent of people who don’t, according to research from Ally Bank. The research also shows that the more you save, the more likely you are to be happier, and that, overall, saving money can affect happiness more than your income. It’s also easier for you to control.

Week 8: Save $8Total savings $36

Chew gum in the grocery store. Or, alternately, wear headphones. What? Both of these things are likely to reduce the amount of money you drop in the checkout line. Stores have a number of tricks that they use to get you to buy more. They pump great smelling scents (fresh baked bread near the bakery, anyone) to get you salivating, they play music designed to make you feel so comfortable you want to stay in the store even longer (the longer you say, the more you spend). Gum and headphones are your defenses. Coupled with the ultimate defense – a shopping list that you stick to – you should be able to spend less, save more.

Week 9: Save $9Total savings: $45

A member of the Today crew shared his family’s savings tip with me – and I think it’s so brilliant I wanted to share it with you. Save every $5 dollar bill. That’s it. Every time they get a $5 – in change from the store – they pull it out of their respective wallets and stick it in an envelope. By the end of the year they have hundreds of dollars. This could fund your savings for weeks to come. Is it a bit of a hack? A mindgame? Sure, but so are many of these tips. The idea is to figure out the way to save that works for you. Personally, I’m a fan.

Week 10: Save $10Total savings: $55

Welcome to the double digits. Starting this week, whenever you buy something that’s a want rather than a need, I want you to start to think about it in terms of how long you had to work to buy it. How many hours did you put in to buy that pair of blue jeans, that video game for your kids, that mediocre dinner out? And if you’re not sure how much you earn per hour, that is definitely a number you want to have at your disposal. Here’s a shortcut to figure it out. Take the amount of money you earn in thousands per year and lop off the last three zeroes. Then divide by two. So, if you earn $60,000, it becomes $60, divided by 2 is $30. You earn $30 per hour. Those jeans could cost 3 hours, the dinner out even more. Is it worth it? Chances are you now have an entirely new perspective.

Week 11: Save $11Total savings: $66

More than $3,500. That’s the average size of a tax refund for 2015 (so far, refunds tend to be bigger earlier in the season because people who are due refunds want to get them.) But the fact is, 8 out of 10 filers will get a refund. You could fulfill your entire savings challenge for the year by using a portion of your refund to satisfy your commitment. Whether you like that idea or not, a windfall like this is a chance to sock away substantial savings all at once. Don’t blow it.

Week 12: Save $12Total savings: $78

Involve the family and friends in your savings quest. The next time you’re all together – around the dinner table, perhaps – talk about the fact that you’re trying to save a little more this year. Then ask your spouse, the kids, your friends for ideas on how to supercharge your savings efforts.

And if you find an idea you’re willing to adopt, I want to know about it as well! Tweet it to me @jeanchatzky or email it to me at jean@jeanchatzky.com.

This post has been updated.

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