Managing Money The Secret Habits of Super Savers

by Polly Brewster | May 21, 2019

They keep their rainy-day funds funded. Their bring-lunch-to-work game couldn't be stronger. And retirement savings? Their IRAs deserve A+’s.

It’s tempting to think of great savers as unicorns. And with good reason: A 2018 GOBankingRates survey found that 16% of Americans have $300,000 or more in retirement savings, while 42% have stashed away $10,000 or less.

What do people say holds them back from saving more? A 2018 Bankrate poll indicated that expenses, underpaying jobs and debt are among the most common challenges. Life gets in the way, too: Roughly one in six respondents reported that they simply haven't gotten around to saving.

Whatever your reason, know that it is possible to start saving and make a dent in debt — just take it from other people who have adopted some smart money tactics and joined the ranks of super savers.

The money coach

Ashley Feinstein Gerstley began her career in investment banking but came to realize the field didn’t suit her. “I was making a lot of money, but working long hours,” she explains. “I was eating take-out food at my desk every night and leaving at 2 a.m.” After getting her annual bonus, she decided to quit and make a lifestyle change.

Gerstley invested in workshops and classes to help find her next career, but also splurged on dinner and drinks with friends — a habit from her days as a high earner. “I realized pretty quickly that my bonus was almost gone, and my lifestyle was unsustainable,” she said. “I had to figure out my money stuff.”

Through a certification with the International Coach Federation, Gerstley became a money coach. In her newfound role she not only helps clients get more organized with savings and investments, but also guides them over any psychological hurdles they encounter along the journey. Here are the top financial tips Gerstley shares with clients (and takes note of herself):

1. Talk about money

“People think everyone is doing better than them,” Gerstley says. That mindset may make you hesitant to talk or seek help with your own financial problems, and, by extension, vulnerable to unintended peer pressure to spend more money. “Like when you’re at dinner and there’s pressure to have another round of drinks — another round of $17 cocktails. It’s not [your friends’] fault, they just don’t know that you are trying not to spend so much money.”

Share your money story — in terms you’re comfortable with. Decline that pricey cocktail, and simply explain that you're working toward a goal — like paying off student loans or buying a car — and would rather that $17 go into a savings account.

Gerstley says when you speak up about your own financial concerns, you may see your friends follow suit. From there, plan less expensive gatherings, like potluck dinners and game nights. Then sock away the money you save.

Share your money story — in terms you’re comfortable with.
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2. Make a money journal

In Gertsley’s book, The 30-Day Money Cleanse, she suggests documenting every penny you spend and how it makes you feel in a journal. This can help you identify the things you really care about spending money on and expenses you can cut.

“Like a food cleanse, if you quit dairy and sugar and coffee, you might realize that you don’t miss them.” Gerstley informs. This all leads up to Gerstley’s main lesson: Change your money mindset. “Successful money cleansers always experience this shift where personal finance is not ‘a have to,’ they realize it is a gift and an act of self-love,” Gerstley says.

3. Put savings out of sight

Many people have linked checking and savings accounts. It’s convenient, allowing you to access your savings balance by transferring funds to checking. But some may find it helpful, in the spirit of better savings habits, to create at least one savings account that is not connected to your checking account, Gerstley suggests.

You can still set up deposits to it through your checking account or deposit straight into it each month like any savings account — but making it separate can click something in the brain so it doesn't seem as accessible. Consider assigning this “lock box” a purpose — to cover emergencies or a home down payment.

Likewise, Gerstley says, "View the money in a 401(k) or IRA accounts as untouchable until you retire.” They're not intended to fund a car purchase or a wedding.

4. Don’t delay

Many people, believing that a bigger paycheck — and therefore a more forgiving budget — is always on the horizon, and put off saving till they get older. Gerstley flags this thinking as a huge problem. If you happen to lose your job or face medical issues, savings will be a crucial cushion. The time to start saving was yesterday.

woman taking notes as she refers to her mobile device

The frugal lawyer

Holly Carroll worked as an associate lawyer at a New York law firm in her late twenties and early thirties. The money was amazing, she says, but the hours were brutal. “I knew I couldn’t keep it up,” Carroll says. “I just decided to pay off my school loans and sock away as much as I could.” So while her fellow associates lived in doorman buildings and dined out at five-star restaurants, Carroll developed frugal habits and shared a modest two-bedroom in Brooklyn. She still went out for drinks with friends and made the occasional splurge, but she developed some smart strategies around limiting her spending.

When she quit, she and her husband decided to move back to her hometown of Pittsburgh, PA, where their income went much further than it did in New York. They found a three-bedroom home in her dream neighborhood — and she had saved up enough money to pay for it in cash. Carroll is now a stay-at-home mom and avid crafter. Her top advice:

1. Don’t overspend on work attire

“When I first started at my [attorney] job, there was another associate I worked with who always looked sharp; [she] wore the same suit a few days a week and rarely wore designer heels,” Carroll says. They were chatting one day, and her colleague explained her work dress policy: She considered money spent on work clothes as cutting directly into her salary.

That idea was like a light bulb moment for Carroll. She had always been a simple dresser, so she developed a strategy of sticking with a set color palette so that she could easily coordinate all of her work pieces into multiple outfits — it often seemed she had a larger wardrobe than she did.

2. Set a weekly cash allowance

“I set a budget for weekly walking-around money and take out that amount in cash,” she says, "then I try to only spend that much.” Physically seeing how much money she has to spend usually keeps her from making impulse purchases or going shopping on a lunch break.

Set a budget for weekly walking-around money and take out that amount in cash.
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The young saver

When Haley Evans graduated from college and moved to Dallas, TX, she had very little student debt and earned a healthy paycheck. “But I spent it all on Dallas nightlife,” Evans says. By age 24, she says, “I was kind of trapped in this cycle” — unfulfilled in her job, and compensating through happy hour, brunch and shopping. Evans was taking advantage of all that Dallas had to offer, but that lifestyle quickly went beyond her financial limits.

Now, five years on, Evans has remade herself as the model of a buckled-down saver. Her husband’s pay covers daily expenses, and she puts her income toward business school and savings — both investments in her future. Here is her top advice:

1. Create frugal joys

A profound moment helped end her cycle of wasteful spending. “One night I was out drinking and just realized I wasn’t getting any joy out of it,” she says. "I felt like I wasn't really getting to have deep talks with friends since it was always so loud and it just didn't seem worth it anymore."

The next time a friend suggested a big night out, she countered with a nice long walk and home-cooked dinner. “I got to have real one-on-one time with her,” Evans explained. “I call it finding frugal joys.” Five years later, she and her friend are still doing those walks and joined a discount wine club to enhance those dinners.

2. Get more out of your bank accounts

One concrete piece of advice Evans offered: Find checking and savings accounts that offer high-interest rates. Evans and her husband did a lot of research to discover a savings account that offered much higher interest rates on their balance. “We put our wedding fund in there and the down payment for a house,” she says. “It’s awesome to see that [additional] money each month.”

3. Find healthy splurges

“There was a period of time after [my] money cleanse where I was crazy thrifty because I am so competitive,” Evans says. “But when you go too extreme, you feel deprived and then you binge.” So, she figured out what regular splurges would bring her the most rewards. The top one was her gym. “I pay $105 a month — which is a lot for a gym here — but it brings me so much joy. It’s community and women-based, and I go at least three to four times a week.”

two women cooking

Learning how to save money isn't like learning a new language. Just doing smart, simple things like skipping out on pricey dinners or finding a high-interest savings account can help you accomplish your own financial feats, like paying down debt and building savings that can help you make a big purchase or take that dream vacation. Frugal joys and healthy splurges can make all the difference.

Polly Brewster

is a freelance editor and writer based in Brooklyn. Her best savings tip is to cut the costly cable cord. She has written for O, The Oprah Magazine, InStyle and Entrepreneur.