Some thoughts on saving that work all year long

Perhaps the most famous lines in personal finance were written by 19th-century novelist Charles Dickens. In "David Copperfield," the kindly but debt-ridden Mr. Wilkins Micawber advised a young David, "Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen-nineteen-six: result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six: result misery."

Sadly, Dickens knew what he was writing about. His father had been sent to the debtor's prison.

We don't send people to debtor's prison anymore. Still, millions of Americans feel trapped by too little savings and too much debt. Even though the recession officially ended in June 2009, people are struggling to improve their household balance sheets.

January is a traditional time to take stock of our finances. Here are some thoughts to help you maintain your savings resolution all year.

First, think of time as a scarce commodity. Think about how hard you work for your money. The median-income, two-parent family works 9.6 hours a day, on average, compared with 7.7 hours in 1975, according to calculations from the Brookings Institution. Besides your job, you're raising a family, trying to keep up with the latest technologies, volunteering in the community, eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly. Whew!

Now, on top of all this, you're trying to save more. You need to be realistic about how much you can accomplish. Your time constraints dictate keeping the savings task as simple and easy as possible.

That leads into my second suggestion: Automate savings. Anyone participating in a retirement savings plan like a 401(k) has the money automatically taken out of every paycheck. You don't even think of spending it because it's gone before your paycheck reaches your checking account. You can do the same thing with your bank accounts. Every month have some sum of money -- no matter how small -- automatically moved from your checking account into your savings account.

Third, many tricks of the savings trade work, such as leaving the credit card at home in the freezer, paying for everyday expenses with cash and steering clear of expensive restaurants. But not all of them are appropriate for you and your household. Embrace the techniques that reflect your lifestyle, and forget the rest.

Also, think big at different points throughout the year. It pays to step back every once in a while and ask yourself: "Where do I want to be a year and five years from now?" Even a loose plan helps you maintain the savings discipline. Good luck, and Happy New Year.

Chris Farrell is economics editor for "Marketplace Money." Send questions to cfarrell@mpr.org.

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