The personal savings rate fell in the U.S. to just 4.2 percent in November 2013, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. To put it in perspective, the last time the savings rate hit that level, the economy was on its way to the most recent financial crisis.
While spending can in some ways help trigger GDP growth, when it comes to your personal economy, having a higher rate of saving vs. spending is key.
Here are five ways to get on a savings track:
Set savings goals. Have a worthwhile target in mind, such as a luxury vacation or (thinking more long-term) happy retirement, to help you remember that saving is really about working toward future rewards. Attach a dollar amount to your goal to help you determine how much you'll need to save each week and month. Be specific. Writing down your goals will make them more real and more likely to achieve. For instance, telling yourself to save for the future is admirable but vague. Making a written pledge to save $2,000 for your vacation to Cancun next summer, is much more tangible and encouraging.
Use financial tools. There are plenty of online tools that not only help you manage your saving goals, but also provide easy to follow visuals that track the goals you set. Many sites offer a comprehensive look at your finances, including how you're spending within specific categories such as dining, shopping, utilities and more. After a few months you'll have insight into where you can easily cut spending and redirect that money toward savings. These tools also make your savings goal more concrete by turning it into a deadline-driven objective complete with recommended monthly contributions to help you get there.
Start off small. Even if your salary is on the low end, you can always save a little bit. In fact, the best way to start saving is with really small amounts that will eventually add up over time. For example, stash away just $25 a week, and in six months you'll have saved $650. In a year, your cash reserves will grow to $1,300. Starting out slow with small amounts also reinforces the habit and makes you less likely to slip a month.
Make savings automatic. Put away money for things you want to do in the future before you spend money on paying bills or buying discretionary items. Set up an automatic savings plan that directs your money into the appropriate saving accounts. You will have slightly less money to spend, but you'll adjust to a new spending habit while making progress on your saving goal. Another way to save faster is to put all unexpected income directly into savings. If you receive a bonus or a cash gift, put all or most of that money toward saving for a goal, an emergency fund or a retirement account.
Boost your 401(k) contributions. Retirement may seem far away, but putting money aside for it now is one of the most important things you can do to set yourself up for financial stability later. Find out if your employer matches contributions to your 401(k), and contribute at least that much – it's like getting free money! If your employer doesn't, consider an Individual Retirement Account or Roth IRA. If your employer offers a Roth 401(k), your contributions are made with after-tax dollars, meaning withdrawals in retirement will not be taxed at all.
Increasing your personal savings rate doesn't have to be painful. If you don't limit yourself too much from what makes you happy, and if you focus on making smart money choices, chances are that savings account will grow faster than you expect.
Hitha Prabhakar is a consumer spending and retail analyst and mint.com spokeswoman, a leading web and mobile money management tool that helps people understand and do more with their money.