According to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, the personal savings rate of Americans has ranged between -1% and approximately 4% between the years 2005 and 2009. Americans' nonchalance was reflected in the negative savings rate of fiscal 2005, which occurred as people reduced their savings and delved further into debt in order to purchase goods and services. Although the savings rate had rebounded to 6% by May of 2009, as global financial crisis forced many consumers to adopt more cautious spending habits. Despite the about-face in consumer spending habits, in many cases, the attempt at saving proved too little, too late. Read on to find out why you need to save no matter what the economic climate.

Why You Need to Save
While individuals should avoid excess (and high interest) leverage/debt and prudently manage cash flow, there is also a longer-term need to ensure one has adequate funding set aside for a comfortable retirement. Given historical trends in the U.S. stock market and overall economic performance, people can be lulled into becoming overly optimistic about how much they need to save and their projected life expectancy. The only trends that are relevant for the individual, however, are those that occur over the course of one's lifetime.

Many companies are transitioning jobs (such as back office functions, IT, research and even higher margin services such as consulting and financial services) to other regions of the world, including Eastern Europe, India and China. The economic dynamics and implications of such movement are not comparable to the business settings of the past 50 years. Additionally, medical breakthroughs and other health-related variables have increased people's life expectancy. Certainly, it is better to have a conservative outlook in order to help ensure one has adequate retirement funds. (See Facing The Financial Reality of Retirement to explore solutions to inadequate retirement planning.)

Financial Scenarios
Saving money and diverting cash away from unnecessary frills and wasteful spending into investment payments such as the stock market translate to huge differences in the size of one's retirement savings over the course of a lifetime. When you purchase a bicycle or go out for a lavish dinner, you are not simply incurring a cost of that bike or dinner (say $100). The amount of the receipt is actually misleading. When you incorporate the basic laws of finance, the opportunity cost of that $100 is much more.

If you eliminate $100 of wasteful spending per month and instead channel that cash to an investment vehicle that yields an annual interest rate of 10%, that translates to more than $75,000 over 20 years, and more than $500,000 over the course of 40 years. Granted, the buying power of figure is chewed up by inflation, but the prudent person still reaps the benefits of not wasting cash on unnecessary things.

Starting principal balance: $0
Monthly investment payments: $100
Interest rate: 10%
Future value: 20 years = $75,936
Future value: 40 years = $632,408

Starting principal balance: $0
Monthly investment payments: $250
Interest rate: 10%
Future value: 20 years = $189,842
Future value: 40 years = $1,581,019

Lets say you can't find a 10% return, and instead find a 5% return

Starting principal balance: $0
Monthly investment payments: $100
Interest rate: 5%
Future value: 20 years = $41,103
Future value: 40 years = $152,602

If someone were motivated enough to find $500 a month and put it away in the form of investment payments, the results lead to an exponential increase in comfort during one's retirement. With an annual rate of return of 10% over 40 years, the figure approaches $3 million for your nest egg.

Starting principal balance: $0
Monthly investment payments: $500
Interest rate: 10%
Future value: 20 years = $379,684
Future value: 40 years = $3,162,039

How much more would your nest egg be if you work for a company that matches your 401(k) dollar for dollar up to a certain amount? Given that the federal government's social safety net programs such as Social Security and Medicare are expected to hit fiscal challenges as the baby boomers retire, such anticipated uncertainties encourage individuals to take their retirement circumstances into their own hands. Secondly, the high cost of healthcare in the United States is a primary driver for individuals and couples filing for personal bankruptcy. The power of compound interest can help one to avoid financial straits in the future. (Filing for bankruptcy is usually a last resort. Read Declaring Bankruptcy Is No Easy Out to learn more about it.)

From Wasteful Expenses to Monthly Investment
To redirect cash that might otherwise be spent on junk or unnecessary spending, explore savings opportunities that can increase your monthly contributions to your retirement accounts. These might include:

  • Fewer restaurant lunches and dinners can easily save the typical professional between $100 and $200 per month. Using our numbers above, $100 invested monthly in retirement accounts that earn 10% annually becomes $75,000 in 20 years.
  • Purchase discipline at groceries and malls. At the end of your life, it is not the accumulation of objects that provides meaning. A lifetime habit of impulse buying has a tremendous opportunity cost when you realize the power of compound interest. Most people can save between a hundred dollars to several hundred dollars a month with greater spending discipline.

The Bottom Line
If you work for a company that matches your retirement savings contributions, absolutely take advantage of it. It is basically free money. Additionally, the increase in monthly contributions translates into an exponentially larger nest egg over the course of a lifetime.

For additional reading, take a look at Are You Saving Too Much? and Compound Your Way To Retirement.

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