Why is Personal Savings Rate Important?

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When it comes to saving for the future, the most commonly asked questions are “what funds should I choose for my 401(k) or IRA?” and “how much should I save per month?”. If you’re like most people, you likely zero your focus in on the former. However, in the grand scheme of things, shifting your focus to how much money you should be saving per month is the smarter, more efficient way to build your funds.   

Every month, some money is added to (or subtracted from) your 401(k) or IRA due to factors beyond your control. Your stocks go up or down. A bond fund pays a dividend. In short, market stuff happens and with every month, you add some money to your account. If the amount of money you add is bigger than the effect of the market fluctuations, then your savings rate becomes significantly more important than your investment performance. 

What is the savings rate?

Your savings rate is the amount of money you save every month expressed as a percentage or ratio of your overall (gross) income.  The higher the savings rate, the more money you save per month. Your savings rate is often regarded as one of the most critical elements of your long-term financial planning. It’s also one of the few factors you can directly influence by making strategic choices. Ultimately, your personal savings rate can be one of the most telling percentages to account for when assessing your retirement savings success.

According to a 2005 Federal Reserve data report, the U.S. personal savings rate hovered between 2.5 and 3%. This rate is alarmingly low and indicates that it could take nearly 40 years of saving to equate one year of living savings in retirement. This past national average also signals back to the previous point— in 2005, more people were focused on building their retirement accounts than actually stashing away disposable income for future planning.

How to calculate your savings rate

Using the savings rate formula is a simple three-step process:

  •  Add up net savings

This should include all non-retirement savings and your retirement savings for the year (including employer retirement contributions). This number could very well end up being negative if you had net debt rather than net savings for the allotted time period. For example, taking a withdrawal from any savings account or taking a loan from a savings account would be a reduction against anything you saved.

  •  Calculate total income

Add your total take home pay plus any pre-tax savings (including employer contributions).

  •  Divide total net savings by total income

Take your total net savings from Step 1 and divide it by your total income in Step 2. Multiply the outcome number by 100 to convert it to a percentage.

Example: You make $50,000 a year and you save $5,000 to your 401K. You had to withdraw $1,000 from your Roth IRA earlier in the year to pay for an unexpected expense but you added $500 back to your Roth IRA by the end of the year. Your employer also contributes $2,500 to your 401K for you.

Your net savings is:

$5000-1000+500+2500 = $7,000

Your total income is:

$50000+5000+2500 = $57,500

Your Savings Rate is:

$7000/57500 = 0.1217

0.1217*100 = 12.17%

What influences the savings rate?

From the state of the economy and fluctuations in market interest to age and wealth, there are a number of different factors that directly influence the savings rate

Economic factors, such as economic stability and personal earnings, are critical for the calculation of savings rates. Intervals of extreme economic volatility, such as recessions and global crises, typically lead to a rise in investment as consumers minimize their usual spending habits in order to brace for an unpredictable future. However, on the opposite end, periods of exponential economic growth can also build optimism and trust that stimulates a comparatively higher percentage of consumption.

Income and wealth significantly affect the savings rate because there is a positive correlation between the per capita gross domestic product (GDP) and savings. Generally speaking, low-income households tend to spend the majority of their income on everyday essentials and needs as opposed to wealthier people who can afford to stash away regular portions of their income toward saving for the future.

Shifts in market interest can also have an impact on the savings rate. Higher interest rates may lead to lower average spending and higher investment levels. This is a result of the substitution effect— being able to spend more in the future outweighs the revenue effect of retaining existing income earned from interest payments for most households.

Personal savings rate example

To give a more concrete understanding of personal savings rate, let’s use a real-life example to better illuminate the purpose and meaning of this percentage. Say there are two people who work at the same job with exactly the same pay. One saves 5% and earns 10% annual returns while the other saves 10% and earns 5% annual returns. Based on the personal savings rate calculation, it will take over 25 years for the employee with the 10% return to come out ahead.

There are two key lessons here you can take away. First: on your first day of work, immediately save 10% of your gross pay and keep doing so forever. Mathematically, if you are employed and working for 45 years starting at age 20 and you consistently stash away 10% of your income, you’ll end up with enough money to retire comfortably.

The second lesson: if you hit the middle of your career and are still making avoidable investment mistakes like market timing, day trading, and performance chasing, consider changing your strategy. It’s a much more worthwhile venture to learn how to diversify your portfolio and keep costs and risk as low as possible to properly build a financially stable future.

How to increase your savings rate

Bolstering your savings rate is primarily about strategic budgeting, but there are a number of different elements to consider when creating a plan to improve your personal savings rate. Use the tips below to get a head start on building your savings rate.

Tip #1: Cut your spending

It’s vital to examine your current budget and evaluate the areas in which you may be able to cut costs. Identifying these places where you can eliminate ensures that you have ample opportunity to dedicate more of your monthly income toward savings. Every dollar counts, so when going through your budget, be meticulous and intentional about any spending shifts to maximize your saving potential.

Tip #2: Increase your income

The best way to save more money is by making more money. Though that is far simpler said than done, there are a few easy ways you can increase your income without making any significant changes to your existing lifestyle. 

Consider the following:

Tip #3: Automate your savings

Instead of depending on yourself to remember to stash away a certain amount of money toward your savings account, introduce yourself to automated saving. One of the simplest ways to do this is by setting up automatic recurring transfers. The moment you get paid, a specified amount of cash will transfer into your savings account, no manual switching needed.

What about investments?

How many people do you know who started saving for retirement at age 20 and haven’t been unemployed, or taken a 401(k) loan, or gone off to India in search of themselves, before they hit age 65? In their 2011 retirement confidence survey, the Employee Benefit Research Institute found that 70 percent of Americans believe they are “a little” or “a lot” behind schedule. The best thing we can do to increase our retirement nest egg is to (snooze alert) save more and spend less. In attempting to do so, many turn to making various investment choices.

Investment choices are undoubtedly important, especially once you’ve accumulated a sizable chunk of savings. It can be fun, scary, and mysterious, and with the chance of earning a huge amount of money if you play your cards right, investing is downright attractive. But it goes without saying that making money is a lot more alluring than saving money. And that’s exactly why it’s so important.

By focusing on bettering your personal savings rate, you’ll enjoy the long-term benefits without any risk or chance involved. By stashing away disposable income for future planning, you can effectively escape the game of chance and gain the assurance you need in growing your own savings on your own terms. Also, money makes money – the more invested, the more you will make.

The silver lining of saving more

Last question: is it better for your 401(k) balance to go up because you’re saving more or because your investments are performing well? Or does it matter?

It matters. Improving your balance by saving more is better. Once you retire, you’ll be using your savings to pay expenses. The lower your expenses before retirement, the easier it will be to cover them from your nest egg. And when your savings rate goes up, your expenses (as a percentage of your pay) have to go down, right? Or, you can just increase your savings rate each time you get a raise to cover the difference.

Maybe the secret of a comfortable retirement isn’t about savings rate or investment performance: it’s about redefining “comfortable.”

Matthew Amster-Burton is a personal finance columnist at Mint.com. Find him on Twitter @Mint_Mamster.