NEW YORK (MainStreet)—Americans are notoriously terrible savers and typically save less than 5% of their disposable personal income each year.

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The American consumer is woefully lacking in saving for both emergencies and their retirement.

A survey conducted by Harris Interactive found that Americans would rather stay debt-ridden and often put their physical appearance ahead of their financial state. A whopping 72% of Americans would rather keep their current debt than gain 25 pounds and be completely debt free. The June 2013 survey was conducted online among 2,021 Americans ages 18 and older.

Nearly two-thirds of adults (64%) think about their physical appearance more than their debt. 68% of women were more likely to agree with this statement than men (61%). The survey also revealed that 70% care more about their physical health than their financial health.

"We've become somewhat of a country of excess and the ability to borrow has been so cheap and easy," said Ken Lin, founder and CEO of Credit Karma, a San Francisco-based financial management site which tracks consumers' debt and assets and compares it to others. "The abundance of credit in the U.S. has given consumers a lot of reasons to spend instead of saving. Our spending behavior is very much keeping up with the Joneses. You really need to have a lot of self discipline."

Most Americans wait too long to start saving for retirement, said Greg McBride, senior financial analyst for

"Americans like their stuff," he said. "It is a lot of materialism."

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The household savings rate 30 to 40 years ago was 10% compared to 4% now.

"People don't save enough," McBride said. "Savings is unfortunately not the priority that it used to be."

Incomes have also not kept up with expenses compared to 30 to 40 years ago since consumers are now buying larger houses, families own more than one car and there are TVs in every room, he said.

Individuals now have more "burdens for future healthcare costs and retirement," McBride said.

"The need for savings is even greater," he said.

Only one in four Americans has adequate emergency savings or at least six months of savings, and that percentage has not changed much in the past couple of years because of stagnant income and high household expenses, McBride said. Long-term unemployment is more of an issue now compared to a few decades ago.

"People now recognize they are not having a whole lot of success in moving the needle," McBride said.

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Consumers should force themselves to live on less money and have a portion of their paycheck direct deposited into a savings account.

"You have to prioritize your savings," McBride said. "That is the essence of building wealth. If you want to build wealth, you have to spend less than you make."

In addition to examining your expenses and looking for ways to cut back, shopping around for car and home insurance can save you hundreds of dollars. Refinancing your mortgage still remains an option.

"Track your spending and know where every dollar is going." he said. "That is where you are going to maximize your savings opportunities."

A recent National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) online poll revealed that close to one in five consumers or (18%) believe that carrying credit card debt over from month to month is a responsible way to manage his or her finances.

"This data suggests that not only are many Americans are using credit cards to fund a lifestyle their income can't support, but they are comfortable doing so," said Gail Cunningham, spokesperson for the NFCC.

One way to add money to your budget is to adjust your withholding allowances, she said. The average income tax refund in recent years is near $3,000. This means that people could have an extra $250 each month. To find out the proper number of allowances to claim, go to and type "withholding allowances" in the search box. A worksheet will come up that the employee can complete and be told the right number of deductions for his individual situation.

"People always tell me that they can't afford to save," Cunningham said. "My answer is that you can't afford not to."

Brian Kim, who is a teacher, investor, writer and speaker, believes the best way to save more money is to make a bit more money through a flexible, part-time job in addition to your regular job. He recommends working one to three hours several times a week as a tutor or customer service representative at the local home improvement store.

"The usual money-saving tips stress not spending money," he said. "These tips are fine, but they stress frugality to a degree that most Americans cannot live up to. So make a bit more, buy yourself that latte or a new dress with the extra income and save the rest. The extra income is that extra margin of error that we all need to save more."

The extra income he earns as a tutor motivates him to save even more as he watches his earnings accumulate.

"When I want to treat myself, I can do so with confidence and enjoyment," Kim said.

Consumers can also get organized and sell unneeded items on eBay or Craigslist or hold a yard sale. Even small proceeds can accumulate surprisingly quickly, said Kevin Gallegos, vice president of the Phoenix, Ariz. operations for Freedom Financial Network.

Redeem your credit card rewards and see if you can convert the rewards into cash or gift cards, he said.

Join a warehouse club - many people tend to overlook it, Gallegos said.

"Many things don't come in large quantities and don't perish easily and there are many 'individual' items ranging from gift items to books to automobile tires," he said. "Or team up with friends, neighbors, or family members to split large purchases."

--Written by Ellen Chang for MainStreet