“Is it worth trying to save money when I earn so little?”

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Do most things is a special series about ambition – how we define it, use it and overcome it.

I’m 26 years old and earn $ 18 an hour working as a pastry chef in a restaurant, which is actually a pretty decent salary for my area. (I also get health benefits and paid sick leave.) I like my job and my co-workers, and I hope to be able to get into the restaurant industry. But right now it’s really hard for me to save some money. My rent is $ 1,100 a month with roommates. Once I have paid all my bills – rent, phone, food, student loans (and before you ask, no, they are not on break because they are private, not federal) – there is just not much left. I could save maybe $ 100 to $ 200 a month at best.

I know I should have a pillow for emergencies. In addition, it would be smart to invest in the future. But it also seems silly to give up the basic fine things I can afford, like a wedding present or the occasional beer or a trip to visit my family, just to save what would probably amount to about $ 1,000 per year. In other words, the difference between saving nothing and saving a pretty small amount would make me quite unhappy. And especially after the last few years we’ve had, I do not know if it’s worth it – I want to enjoy my 20s. So how do I get the math right? Is it possible to save without taking away all the pleasures of my life? Or would it really be so bad if I postpone saving until I hopefully make more money in a few years?

I understand why it’s not worth saving for you right now. Your efforts would be completely disproportionate to the results. Sure, you can spend the rest of your 20s tinkering and hoarding a few bucks here and there, but you would miss weddings and birthdays and dinners and drinks with your friends and family and colleagues – and you would only have a few thousand bucks to show for it. That sum is nothing to sneeze at; That’s more than many Americans have on hand. But if it comes at the expense of important relationships and milestones – not to mention your basic enjoyment of life – what’s the point?

Still, it is better to save a little than to save nothing. And the habit of saving is most important of all. This is why you should focus less on amount you save and more in the usual way of saving money, even if it is not much.

This probably seems counterintuitive. Most of us believe that goal setting is a crucial part of our motivation – a specific dollar amount gives us a brilliant goal to work towards. But researchers have found that this is not true and can even backfire when people do not reach their goals and give up. In one study, people who did not reach their monthly savings targets stopped spending More than those who did not set goals at all because once they had failed, they threw in the towel and spent with abandonment. (This is also known as the “What the Hell Effect” – the human tendency to fall off the cart completely when you deviate from your decisions, such as finishing the whole box of cookies after you have germinated and eaten one.)

In addition, studies find that abstract goals – such as “saving more” or “investing for retirement” – can also be self-destructive. This is because more immediate priorities will always outweigh vague future needs. You will not skip a good friend’s birthday dinner just because you might want the money for a hypothetical emergency or to pay for a nursing home when you are 90.

Instead, psychologists have found that people are more likely to save money if they make it a consistent part of their lifestyle, regardless of income. This is similar to all good habits: The best way to continue doing it is to make it feasible. Just like you should not run a marathon if you hate jogging, you will never save money if it prevents you from spending important time with your loved ones. So you need to find a way to make saving more pleasurable and less disruptive to your life. It should not take out your willpower.

The good news is that there are many tools to help you with this, says Kyle McBrien, a Certified Financial Planner with Betterment, a financial advisory platform. “Automating your savings is a great way to make it happen without feeling deprived,” he says. “Getting started is the hardest part – the first $ 1,000 is always tough, but know it’s going to be easier.”

Many people (including me) automatically deposit a piece of money into a separate savings account each month, preferably when their paycheck first reaches so they do not even miss it. You can try it, but there are additional ways to make saving money even more incremental and insidious, including apps and debit cards that will round out all your purchases and add the extra change to a savings or investment account. To save money, you can try Qapital or Chime; For investments, check out Acorns or Robinhood prepaid cards. I personally use Digit, which withdraws money from my checking account every day and deletes them to a separate account so I do not notice that it is gone. (Some of these services incur a fee, up to $ 2.99 a month, so do a little research before choosing one that is right for you.)

These tools are a great way to get your savings started. You will probably not save a ton, realistically speaking, but you will collect something and you will prove to yourself that you are capable of it. Once that happens, the next step is to find out a major savings plan or strategy – like building an emergency fund and starting investing.

I’m not going to pretend that by changing your “money thinking” or making minor adjustments to your lifestyle you will become a millionaire at 35. That would be false. In reality, there are only two ways to save at a higher rate: You have to spend less or you have to earn more. Right now, it sounds like you’re being pushed at both ends here, especially the expense part – you live frugally, and cutting back on more costs would make your life significantly less enjoyable. You also say you love your job, which is great! But if you want to be financially secure (ie save more), you probably need a higher income.

I know you pay your dues in your industry, and it’s admirable and will hopefully pay off. But if there is a way to supplement what you do even a little bit – by going with a dog, catering, babysitting, whatever – so that you can deposit extra dollars, it can be the difference between dealing with an emergency (a expensive medical bill for example) and forced into debt over it. In addition, it can allow you to invest and benefit from compound interest over time.

(Another suggestion: Many private lenders are offering student loan breaks right now, even if they do not freeze payments completely. It’s worth calling yours and see if they can lower your monthly bills for a while so you can deposit that extra money instead.)

In addition to saving money, McBrien recommends that you research creating a Roth IRA, which is a type of retirement investment account that can save money in taxes and allow you to withdraw money after five years (unlike most other retirement accounts, which penalize for you withdrew money before you reach retirement age). It is a good option for a young person who does not have a pension plan through their employer, which it sounds like you do not have.

Consistency is the key here, but at the same time you should not freak out if you back down sometimes. Remember that habit is more important than quantity at this point, and you’re playing the long game.

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