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It can be hard to save, especially during tough economic times. But the coronavirus pandemic has also given people the chance to rethink their spending habits, and if you're lucky enough to still have a job, it can be a really smart time to make some positive changes to your financial habits. That might include increasing how much you save each month.
A common piece of advice is to automatically save at least 20% of your income every month for future expenses including emergencies and future life plans (e.g. buying a home). Unfortunately, many Americans aren't consistently hitting this mark.
We spoke to two financial planners in different cities who both were quick to point out the two areas where people are not saving nearly enough. Washington, D.C.-based planner Alicia R. Hudnett Reiss, CFP and New York City-based wealth advisor Anora Gaudiano, CFP both agree that many Americans shortchange themselves when it comes to saving for emergencies and retirement.
"I am always struck because everybody writes about emergency funds," Hudnett Reiss tells CNBC Select. "But a lot of people don't know that they need to have this extra pot of money that is not invested in the stock market."
People are usually interested in jumping straight into investing without taking the time to assess whether they have a safe amount in cash savings to take on the risk, she says. But you do need a pile of cash that's not tied to the market.
"You need to have [an emergency fund] during not only your whole working life, but also into retirement," Hudnett Reiss argues. The typical recommendation is to save three to six months' worth of expenses, but Hudnett Reiss, who is "more conservative," typically has her clients save up enough to cover expenses for six months to a year. This goes up to two years' worth for retired clients, who are living on savings linked to an IRA, 401(k) or other investment account that is vulnerable to market fluctuations.
It might feel like emergency savings money is "just sitting there," but that's the point. Your emergency cash reserves should be easily accessible in case your income is adversely affected or a major unexpected expense arises.
"Most personal bankruptcies are due to medical issues," Gaudiano tells CNBC Select. If you become ill, the last thing you want to worry about is how you'll pay your bills.
The second expense that people under-save for is retirement. Though it's easy to automate your retirement contributions through either an employee-sponsored or individual retirement account, it's best to reevaluate at least once a year whether you'll actually have enough to live comfortably in your older years.
There are two major retirement costs that people always forget about, says Hudnett Reiss. For one, people always forget that traditional 401(k) accounts will be taxed. That means, if you have $100,000 sitting in your account, its actual value is much less and depends on your tax bracket when you withdraw from it.
"When you look at those balances, you actually still owe taxes on that money," she says. Though the amount you'll owe will vary, plan on allocating about 25% of your money toward taxes. It may not be so much, but this is a safe estimate, according to Hudnett Reiss.
For this reason, she recommends that young people also open a Roth IRA account in addition to a traditional 401(k). With a Roth IRA you contribute money after taxes, so you don't have to pay additional taxes when you withdraw in retirement.
People also tend to underestimate the cost of health care in retirement, says Hudnett Reiss. When you reach age 65, you'll be eligible for Medicare, which isn't exactly free like many expect.
"You will have Medicare premiums," says Hudnett Reiss. "Also Medicare doesn't cover everything, and you might have to pay for a supplemental plan."
People don't always include these additional expenses in their retirement savings budget. It could be that they don't realize the intricacies of Medicare until they actually enroll, but often people simply can't save enough even though they are well aware of the costs ahead.
"Saving is a lot easier when you have money," says Gaudiano. "For the middle class, you can be frugal and save for retirement, but it takes a lot of discipline and what looks like sacrifice to do that."
The general formula, says Gaudiano, is the popular 50/30/20 budgeting rule. "You spend half [your budget] on necessities, save 20%, and 30% is your discretionary money. You can spend this 30% on things that are not necessities, but pleasurable."
This formula works if you have enough income, argues Gaudiano. But depending on your salary and where you live, you might find this budget impossible to follow.
"If you are low income, then as much as 90% of your money goes toward necessities," Gaudiano says.
If you are unable to save because, like many Americans, you're earning just enough to make ends meet, Gaudiano recommends identifying the priorities that matter most to you and not stressing about the rest.
When it comes to building an emergency fund, using a high-yield savings account can help you reach your goals quicker.
We analyzed and compared dozens of savings accounts offered by online and brick-and-mortar banks, including large credit unions, and here are our top five picks:
- Best overall: Marcus by Goldman Sachs High Yield Online Savings
- Best for checking/savings combo: Ally Online Savings Account
- Best for easy access to your cash: Synchrony Bank High Yield Savings
- Best for earning a high APY: Vio Bank High Yield Online Savings Account
- Best if you want extra help saving: Varo Savings Account
The Marcus by Goldman Sachs High Yield Online Savings is our best overall pick because of its no fees whatsoever and easy mobile access. It's the most straightforward savings account to use when you want to grow your money with zero conditions attached.
Annual Percentage Yield (APY)
None to open; $1 to earn interest
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