How to grow your savings

For many Americans, keeping extra money in the bank is a serious challenge, leaving them in a bind if their car breaks down or the air-conditioning goes out at home or they get laid off.

A report from the non-profit Pew Charitable Trusts found that more than half of American households have less than one month of income available in readily accessible savings to use in case of an emergency. It’s also estimated that 47 percent of African-American families have no savings.

The good news is, it’s never too late to start building your savings. John Lopez, a clinical assistant professor at the University of Houston’s C. T. Bauer College of Business, said growing your savings takes a concentrated effort and must be a priority.

“Make sure that a percentage of every dollar that comes into the household goes into a savings account first,” Lopez said. “That means [putting] money into a savings account before anything else gets paid. Financial planners recommend between 10-15 percent of income go into a savings account.”

Walter Hopkins, a financial advisor with Wells Fargo Advisors, said saving more money requires knowing where it is going.

“Start by keeping tabs on your spending and maintaining an accurate record of where you stand with your personal finances,” Hopkins said. “Online tools are a great place to start. They can make the budgeting exercise easier while helping you build confidence and personal satisfaction in the process.”

Hopkins said you can begin by adding up everything you spend in a month.

“You can come up with your own ledger or use Wells Fargo’s Budget Watch,” he said. “This online tool pulls data directly from your checking, savings, credit card, and brokerage accounts. That allows you to quickly sort your spending into categories – from groceries to health care – to create a more comprehensive and accurate picture of where your money is going.

“”Divide your monthly spending into two categories: necessities, such as rent, groceries, and utilities; and discretionary costs, such as entertainment and shopping,” Hopkins said.

Here are other tips on growing your savings.

Set specific goals. Common goals include saving for a car, home, education, comfortable retirement, your children, periods of unemployment or medical or other emergencies. Give your goals price tags and deadlines to keep you motivated. Make your goals realistic so you won’t be discouraged.

Don’t dip into your account. Once you have a savings goal, set up automatic transfers from your paycheck to your savings account. “Make sure you don’t dip into those funds to pay for a dinner out or a spontaneous weekend getaway,” Hopkins said.

Build an emergency fund. Hopkins said an unexpected medical bill or house repair can quickly throw a wrench into a budgeting plan.  “Prepare for these unforeseen setbacks by building an emergency fund large enough to cover living expenses for three to six months,” he said. “This can help buffer your finances if a catastrophe strikes. Review your budget to see how much you can comfortably allot to an emergency fund each month.”

Earn more interest. According to the FDIC, if you have money in your checking account that you do not expect to use right away, moving it to a savings account or a certificate of deposit (CD) can be a good strategy for building short-term savings and earning more interest. A CD is a special type of deposit account with a bank or thrift institution that typically offers a higher rate of interest than a regular savings account. When you purchase a CD, you invest a fixed sum of money for a fixed period of time and, in exchange, the issuing bank pays you interest, typically at regular intervals.

Save “extra” money. If you receive funds that are not part of your normal budget, such as a raise or cash for your birthday or Christmas, use those funds to help grow your savings. Also, if you pay off a debt, such as a high-interest credit card, transfer the regular payment you used to make into your savings account.

Be willing to sacrifice. Growing your savings requires sacrifices, and might mean cutting back on eating out or engaging in social activities. If you buy a $2 cup of coffee every day and decide to give it up, that’s $730 a year that could go in your savings.