You might be asking yourself “why can’t I save money?” Sometimes the answer might be obvious, and other times it can feel like a total mystery. You might be making moves in the right direction, but still feel like your savings account balance doesn’t change.
If you’re curious about why you find saving money hard, you’re in the right place. With a little reflection and creative choices, you can break the cycle of not having enough and start to work your way towards financial freedom.
Disclaimer: This post is for educational purposes only and should not be construed as financial advice.
Top reasons you can’t save money
There are lots of reasons why people struggle to save money. For some, they’ve grown up with poor financial literacy and were never introduced to the concept of saving money. For others, they’ve built up debt and are facing an uphill battle to stay on top of it.
Below, let’s take a look at some of the most common reasons that get in the way of savings. Some of the main reasons why people can’t save money include:
1. You don’t have a budget
You’ve probably heard the saying “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.” If you don’t have a plan for your money, it’s very hard to meet any financial goals, including saving.
The first step in most budgets, for example, is to track spending habits. If you don’t have a crystal clear view of where money is being spent, how will you come up with a way to actually save any of it
Similarly, not having a budget plan can lead to unintentional overspending, which decreases the amount of money that can be saved.
Remember, the purpose of a budget is not to restrain you and make you feel miserable, but to empower you to reach your goals.
2. You don’t believe in the importance of saving
Money mindset may sound a bit “woo”, but there is something to be said for the fact that your thoughts trigger feelings which trigger behaviors.
If you believe in your ability to save and the importance of savings, you may find yourself working towards that goal. If you embrace more of a “YOLO” style approach to finance – it might be tough to keep extra cash in your bank account.
When people do not recognize the value of savings, they are more likely to spend impulsively and put their money towards short-term gratification rather than long-term financial stability. It can be tough to save up for a car, a home, a new business venture, or even just enough to get a month ahead on your bills.
3. You’re living beyond your means
Living beyond your means can have a major impact on your ability to save money. When you spend trying to keep up with the Jones, it can leave no money after paying your bills at best – or create a cycle of mounting debt at worst.
Remember that living a great life doesn’t have to mean a huge home, a fancy car, or expensive clothes. (If you have the funds to support that and those things make you happy, by all means – you do you.)
But if you’re struggling to save, take a look around and see if there are any ways you are living above your means. Do you really need a big car payment, or could you buy an older used car for cash? Is your mortgage crushing your ability to get through each month – and if so, could downsizing be an option?
These are the big ones but you can look at all aspects of your spending too. Figure out what fits in your own values and financial situation, rather than what it seems like you should buy.
4. You’re spending money on impulse buys
When you buy something without thinking about it first, you may not realize the true cost of the item until later.
For example, you may have grabbed those cute curtains at Target – but are you now short funds to pay for your daughter’s soccer season? You may decide to upgrade your car on a whim at the dealership – but is the payment now too much for your income, causing you to go into debt each month?
Impulse purchases are typically decisions based on emotion rather than practicality or planning. You may be more likely to purchase an item simply because it appeals to some goal (i.e.. having a beautiful home or portraying wealth), rather than considering how necessary the item is and how much it will cost in relation to our overall budget.
This can lead to missed opportunities for saving money – both as far as waiting for an item that you really need to go on sale, as well as avoiding purchases flat out for things you don’t really need. It can also lead to buyer’s remorse, leaving us feeling guilty and embarrassed, which can ruin the relationship we do have with money.
5. You’re living in a high cost of living (HCOL) area
In a HCOL area, you’ll be spending more on housing, transportation, food, and other basic expenses. Any luxuries or experiences that you might love – like a monthly pedicure – might also be much higher in price.
As a result, people living in these areas may find themselves scrimping and saving every penny just to stay afloat financially, particularly if their income isn’t high.
While this may feel like an unchangeable obstacle, the truth is there is almost always some type of choice that can be made. You could move to a low cost of living area, you could job hunt for a new position in the HCOL area that pays more, you could ask for a raise, you could downsize your home in the HCOL area, you could get a side hustle to support your lifestyle in the area…I’m sure you can think of others too.
6. You’re working at a low wage job
While even six-figure earners can still have trouble managing money and many live paycheck to paycheck, those working low wage jobs are even more likely to struggle with saving money. Lower wages mean less money to pay basic expenses, which can put a pinch on savings goals.
Additionally, many employers who offer lower wages may not provide benefits like healthcare, paid time off, and retirement plans. This can leave people in a precarious financial situation, making it difficult to manage unexpected expenses and health care costs.
These low wage jobs can create a cycle of poverty and financial insecurity that is very difficult to break out of. However, it’s not impossible. Finding temporary support from government and community resources, reaching out to local organizations that provide free or inexpensive job training, and looking for higher wage jobs can help you start making progress in your savings goals.
7. You’re spending money on unnecessary expenses
This kind of falls in line with living above your means or not budgeting, but I think of this more as money that was spent on unnecessary bills or subscriptions.
This might include…
- Cable TV (not usually necessary with the abundance of streaming services these days)
- Streaming services (do you need Netflix, Hulu, Prime, AND Disney+?)
- Landline (often unnecessary but this may depend on where you live and cell coverage)
- Music streaming services
- Gym memberships (are you actually going enough to justify the cost?)
- Subscription boxes
- Storage units (if you have stuff in storage, it’s probably a better idea to either sell the stuff or figure out a way to actually use it)
None of these are inherently “bad” to have or use – if you have a gym membership and go regularly, that’s probably a great expense for you! The point is figuring out what you actually do use and cutting the rest that you don’t.
8. You’re supporting family members or friends financially
You’re a caring person that doesn’t want to see loved ones in trouble, so you’ve started supporting a friend or a family member. Maybe it was lending them money, or even (eek) co-signing on a loan.
These decisions may seem good in the moment, but can often have a detrimental impact on your own finances. It can be difficult to stay within your budget when you’re trying to help out someone else, especially if it’s a recurring expense or a loan that you’re now on the hook for.
There’s a saying I once heard: “never lend money that you expect to get back.” In other words, if you have the financial flexibility to gift money to someone in need, by all means – feel free to do so in line with your values. But loaning money that you need to others is not a smart option, as it will affect your own financial security.
9. You had unexpected financial emergencies
Maybe you had a medical emergency and ended up hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, or there was an earthquake that destroyed your home. These serious financial disasters can be difficult to tackle on your own.
If you’re struggling with situations like this, please know that I understand you’re probably not going to be able to coupon your way out of it or make a massive impact by cutting eating out. There may be major changes that need to occur (a new job with far more income), or you may need to look into other options.
But for those reading that are not currently going through this, note that some (but of course not all) unexpected financial emergencies can actually be planned for in some regard.
For example, according to Lending Tree, twice as many households without medical insurance carry medical debt compared to households with insurance. Having insurance can help put a cap on your out of pocket payments in the event of an emergency.
Similarly, a car breaking down or typical household wear and tear (i.e. needing a new roof after 20 years) are always going to happen. By planning for them, you avoid the shock and financial burden.
How to actually start saving money
If some of the reasons above feel familiar, don’t worry — you’re not alone. Many adults don’t have a stash of savings and struggle with the idea of saving money. There’s no overnight fix, but you can take steps today to build good financial habits for the future. In time, you’ll be able to start building your savings a few dollars at a time.
It’s often our smallest habits and routines that make saving money difficult. Here are ways you can change the way you think about and spend money, so that building a savings habit feels easier to achieve.
1. Create a monthly budget
First up, you’ll want to create a monthly budget. Track your income and look at your expenses for the last few months. From there, you can decide how to move forward.
For a budget to work, you need to make more money than you spend. If you are currently spending more than you make, the only ways to make the math work are to a) earn more, or b) spend less.
If you are lucky and realize that you have plenty of cash flow but have just been spending it willy-nilly (do I sound like I’m 90 using that term? 😉 ) – then you can easily set a defined spending and savings plan to guide you.
There are many different types of budgets that may help you meet your goals. Here are three examples you may want to check out:
2. Look for ways to increase your income
For some people, the main reason they can’t save money is that they don’t earn enough money to be able to. While we should look for ways to cut back on our expenses, sometimes the most impactful route to saving is to add extra money to our income.
Increasing your income can look different for everyone. You can typically break it down into four different options:
- Ask for a raise at your current job – With inflation, if you’re making the same amount at your job year after year – you’re actually making less money comparatively, because all your living expenses have gone up. Ask for a raise, noting what you’ve accomplished in your role and the value you bring to the team. The worst the company can say is no.
- Switch jobs – Don’t like your current role? Company not willing to increase your wages despite hard work and value? Time to look for a new position, which can give you leverage to request a higher salary. In fact, according to the Atlanta Fed’s Wage Growth Tracker, you’re more likely to have better earnings when switching jobs than staying with the same employer.
- Get a second job – There are lots of part time jobs out there, whether standard W-2 part time positions,, or gig jobs. A standard part time job might be something like working at a gym’s childcare center, waitressing, or shifts at a retail shop. A gig job could be something like Uber, Instacart, or Amazon Flex, which offer a bit more flexibility for your schedule.
- Start your own business – This doesn’t necessarily mean up and quitting your full time job to pursue a dream. But everyone has skills they can monetize, and starting your own part-time side hustle could be a great way to bring in extra cash after your normal work hours. For example, you might do freelance writing, teach piano lessons, clean houses, do yardwork, or pursue video editing. Who knows, maybe those skills could lead to you working on your own full time down the road.
3. Save first
Building our savings isn’t often a priority, especially if we’re short on cash. If you can identify space to save each month — even if it’s only a few dollars — build a positive habit by paying yourself this first into a savings account.
The first priority for many people’s savings accounts is building an emergency fund. This might be a small goal to start – like $500 – and then over time you work towards 3 to 6 months of expenses saved. That emergency fund will be key in the event of an unexpected home repair, job loss, or other tough time.
You can’t save first if you don’t know what your essential expenses are and what you have coming into your checking account, which is why having a budget is a non-negotiable. Understand what you could save, then move that money across to a savings account as soon as it lands in your bank account. (Sometimes you may be able to set this up automatically with your paycheck deposit system from work or through your bank.)
4. Evaluate financial decisions before you make them
If your savings troubles are related to making poor financial decisions or impulse shopping, try and be more conscious about your spending habits. Overspending is a quick way to make saving money hard, so focus on money management and making good decisions.
For example, think about whether you really need to pick up lunch tomorrow, or if you can take leftovers or make a sandwich instead. Before you buy a new car on a loan, consider buying a more affordable used car instead. If you frequently go out to eat with friends to catch up, see if they might be willing to grab a coffee or go for a walk instead.
Consider your options before you make financial decisions so you can align them with your goals.
5. Make some lifestyle changes
Alongside increasing your income, reducing your living expenses and making lifestyle changes can make it easier to save money. If you change the way you live and embrace frugal life hacks, your expenses change too.
For example, you could…
- Comparison shop for insurance plans and cell phone plans to cut costs
- Meal plan to reduce food waste and unnecessary food purchases
- Use apps like Flashfood and Too Good to Go to save money on food costs
- Shop at thrift stores and embrace sales for items you must buy
- Turn off electronics when not in use
- Walk or bike when possible, rather than drive (or use public transportation if costs are reasonable and that’s an option for you)
- Eliminate any unnecessary subscriptions or services (cable, alarm system, landline, streaming services, gym, etc)
- Embrace free activities for entertainment
Also, remember frugal does not mean cheap or miserable. There are ways to live a frugal life that’s full of joy and that doesn’t negatively affect others around you or cause you to be miserable.
6. Set goals and track progress
It’s easier to get into a savings habit if you know your “why” behind it. For example, are you hoping to pay off debt and finally have financial freedom? Are you trying to save money for your child to attend college? Are you saving so you can actually explore the world and finally travel?
Your goal can definitely be personal to you – there’s no right or wrong answer.
Set realistic goals based on your budget, and remind yourself of that “why” as you’re working towards them.
It’s also smart to track your progress towards these goals. For example, you might print off a savings challenge printable or a mortgage payoff tracker that allows you to visually see the progress you’re making. This can continue to motivate you towards those savings goals.
The Bottom Line
Taking steps to make saving easier now can help secure a better financial future. Use these savings tips to help you become better at saving money and build good habits to reach your goals. You’ve got this!