Ready to save more for rainy days, and retirement too? People who have saved much more than their peers offer financial lessons we can all use.
Brandon Schaffer has four kids and is a night nurse. Erica Leresche works as a mortgage loan underwriter. Talia Rodkey got a job out of college as a tech company applications engineer.
This trio, with ordinary jobs and everyday bills, share an extraordinary similarity: They’ve stashed as much as they can (in some cases about 24% of their salary) in retirement accounts.
Their focus? Spend on the things that matter, save steadily and incrementally, and take the long view. “I just try to prepare and be self-sufficient the best I can,” says Leresche.
Here’s what they’ve done (and keep doing) that you can use as inspiration to help you save more, too.
1. Start retirement savings as soon as you can.
Before he became a nurse, Schaffer was a coal miner in Wyoming, where he participated in an employer-sponsored retirement plan. He saved just enough to get the company match.
“It didn’t click with me that if I did more, I could retire earlier,” he says.
But unlike most, Schaffer had gotten a head start saving for retirement as a teenager. When he was in high school, his mom encouraged him to start a Roth IRA; he stashed $50 a month from a part-time job. “We grew up on a farm in South Dakota, and the best thing I learned was to work hard and start good habits early,” he says.
Leresche and Rodkey also leaned into early savings. Leresche began her retirement savings at age 21 through her employer’s plan; when she left that company after several months, she rolled the money into an IRA and didn’t touch it.
Rodkey has been at her latest position just a few years but already defers nearly 18%. “I want to save as much as I can now so that I can save later for other things,” she says.
2. Spend on the stuff that matters.
Leresche loves horses and rides twice a week. She and her partner own their home, too. Schaffer and his family live on a small hobby farm and like to travel. Rodkey saves for retirement but adds to a vacation fund as well.
Travel, hobbies, small indulgences: Even though their savings rates are extraordinary, each makes sure their budgets have room for what matters. “We might sacrifice a few things in the short term, but we choose what we value and focus on those things,” Schaffer says.
A side gig bartending is helping Rodkey reach a goal of paying off student loans on a shortened, but not drastic, timeline of 10 years. “That allows me to live life now instead of totally focusing on paying them off,” she says. “I don’t want to be miserable for a few years. I’m content with this choice.”
All three have doable saving behaviors:
- Live within or below your means.
- Pay credit card balances off monthly or don’t use credit cards.
- At a minimum, defer enough of your salary to receive the maximum employer match.
- Defer as much of your salary to employer retirement plan as you can—15% if possible.
- Create an emergency savings fund.
- Increase your retirement deferral rate each year you receive a raise.
3. Trick yourself into spending less and saving more.
Rodkey, Leresche, and Schaffer each has an emergency fund, although the total ebbs and flows with their feelings on the economy and competing financial needs. And each also uses a trick of some kind to help them save more (and maybe spend less).
For example, Leresche puts all her expenses on a credit card; when she pays it in full every month, she “taxes” herself 10% and puts that amount right back into savings. It both discourages spending too much and gives her savings an additional kick.
And when Leresche and her partner found a move-in ready three-bedroom home, it was at a price they could afford if they had to work for minimum wage, not their current incomes. “It just involves looking at priorities and figuring out what’s important. Everyone is different,” she says.
4. Count on yourself for retirement savings.
Leresche, Rodkey, and Schaffer don’t expect Social Security to supplement their retirement savings. If it does, great, but if it’s gone, they won’t be caught empty handed. They also acknowledge what they’re saving now might not be what they save in the future; it’s adaptable.
There’s no dollar total they’re aiming for—they’re just saving as much as they can for as long as they can. “I’m always telling people to up their savings by a percent or two,” says Schaffer.