Your saving habits and even your savings accounts are making it incredibly difficult to save any real money and build a nest egg.
According to a recent survey from TD Bank, saving is on U.S. bankers' minds -- if not their to-do list. Roughly 52% of people consider having enough saved to cover an emergency a sign that they've "made it" in life. Meanwhile, 69% of Baby Boomers (ages 53 to 71) would tell their 20-year-old selves to start saving or investing now, while 44% of Boomers say the best piece of financial advice they've been given is "don't spend what you don't have."
They're lessons that people seem to heed more often when their financial well being is entwined with someone else's. About 58% of couples include savings in their budget, while 80% of couples who include savings in their budget say they stick to the savings budget always or most of the time. The average American in 2007 saved 2.95% of disposable income, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, but started socking 5.85% away by 2016 (what a difference a recession makes). That sounds great, but that means the average American is only saving $2,540 per year. Try replacing your vehicle's transmission with that.
"When it comes to saving, start early," says James Capolongo, head of consumer deposit Products at TD Bank. "Even though retirement seems a long way off, the earlier you start, the more your money grows."
But how much are those savings working for the folks socking money away. With the Federal Reserve raising interest rates in December and facing down yet another this month, even folks who are just stuffing money away in savings accounts could be taking advantage of better interest rates than what they're currently working with.
The folks at financial site NerdWallet note that savings accounts are fairly low-interest now, but the disparity between the interest rates currently available is substantial. If every American worker had and account with a low interest rate of 0.01%, he would earn $51.5 million, collectively, based on the average amount of personal savings. However, if he all had high-interest accounts, he'd earn $5.7 billion.
According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, a high-yield savings account pays about $275 more per year than a low-interest account on savings of $25,000. Unfortunately, a "high-yield" rate today sits at only 1.1%, compared to 4.5% back in 2016. That current rate increases U.S. savings by an average of $28 per year over the $2,540 you'd save with a 0.01% savings account. That may not sound like much, but when the Fed increases the prime rate, that high-yield rate goes right along with it. As rates rise, banks will want to lend more money, which means they'll have to offer increasingly high-interest yields to get consumer to deposit more into checking and savings accounts.
"Consumers shouldn't wait to switch," says Sean McQuay, NerdWallet's credit and banking expert. "Banks aren't going to wake up one day and announce dramatically better annual percentage yields, so I recommend consumers switch over to a high-yield account sooner rather than later to make sure they capture as much of those gains as possible."
So where do you find those higer rates? Online-focused banks that don't have to pay a lot of overhead for branch locations and ATMs are a good start. NerdWallet also recommends credit unions, which come in handy for a variety of other reasons. According to a study by Bankrate.com, 84% of credit unions encourage customers to save more by offering free checking accounts. That's not only up from 76% last year, but it compares well to the 38% of the nation's largest banks who do the same. Mant accounts that aren't outright free offer waivers to avoid the fee. Altogether, 98% of the accounts surveyed are either free or can become free with direct deposit or a certain amount of transaction activity.
"Don't discount credit unions in your search for a good checking account," says Greg McBride, Bankrate's chief financial analyst. "Credit unions have made great strides in offering broader ATM access and more free accounts to their members."
Beyond that, 64% of credit unions charge an ATM fee for going outside the network. However, the most common fee is $1.50, compared to $2.50 at banks. Those savings do their best to offsets low yields at average 0.08% per year.
However, any small contribution helps when roughly 66 million U.S. adults -- nearly a quarter of the adult population -- have absolutely nothing saved for an emergency according to a Bankrate.com survey. Roughly six in ten Americans don't have enough savings to pay for a $500 car repair or a $1,000 emergency room bill.
"It's not a matter of if, but when an unexpected expense will pop up," says Jill Cornfield, Bankrate.com analyst. "Our survey shows that just under half of adults surveyed said they or a family member had a major expense in the past 12 months."
While 41% who said they would use their savings when faced with an unexpected expense, 21% would finance the expense on a credit card. Another 20% would reduce spending on other things and 11% would borrow from family or friends. However, even those who have savings may be overestimating their cushion. With an average emergency fund of $2,540, replacing a transmission ($2,650 on average), would wipe them out. It also wouldn't make a dent if they were unemployed for a stretch and took the average $11,000 hit to their income.
So how do you get started, or even start saving more? Start small. Add an extra $50, or 1% more of your net income, to savings every month. Once you have a bigger base to build from, widen the gap between income and expenses. That means budgeting, and it's only as hard as it has to be.
"The best budget is like a good diet — one you can adhere to happily every day without it feeling like sacrifice," McQuay says. "Finding that kind of approach to budgeting takes time and practice, but it's worth it."
TD Bank's Capolongo recommends an old adage: pay yourself first. If you want to save $1,200 in 12 months, set up an automatic transfer to your savings for $100 every month. Have money deducted from your paycheck before taxes and placed into your company's 401(k) plan. If your company has a matching percentage, meet that percentage and make free money just by saving. That removes any temptation of dipping into your savings, but you can further tamp down that temptation by setting up a prepaid card for splurges like coffee, meals out or movies. All of the above qualifies as "budgeting," but if you feel you need to make a spreadsheet to see what's coming and going, by all means do so.
"Along with your typical expenses like housing and food, don't forget to budget for retirement savings and an emergency fund," says Capolongo. "Be disciplined with putting a small amount into an emergency fund each month. This will keep you from turning to your credit card when unexpected expenses, whether it's car repairs or plane tickets for an upcoming destination wedding, pop up."
Editors' pick: Originally published March 15.