Enthusiastic saving is one of the central habits of a healthy financial life, and an absolutely vital tool on the road to financial freedom. Far from being reserved exclusively for Dickensian villains and stingy bastards, the life-altering power of saving is available to anyone with the right mindset and plan. The only things in our way are the all-too-common money saving mistakes that doom us to fail before we’ve even begun.
If you have been led to believe that you cannot save money, or that you should not, or that there’s no point in it, allow me to enthusiastically tell you that you have been severely misled.
It matters not whether you currently find yourself unable to save anything at all, or you’re steadily putting away a few dollars here and there, or even if you diligently save 10-20% of your income every month. Wherever you are right now, that’s where we’ll start.
Everyone has the potential to save a large percentage of their money. Everyone has the ability to compound those savings and convert that capital into life-altering wealth. And no one needs any major windfalls, sacrifices, or special money magic to get there.
With the right mindset, you can save for your future and build a prosperous and thriving life with money. And it starts with challenging these 11 devious money saving mistakes.
1. Believing That Saving is Only for Cheapskates
Admittedly, saving money has a bit of a branding issue.
What do you picture when you think of a frugal saver? Probably someone like Gary here:
Gary is a grumpy, Scrooge-like curmudgeon. He never leaves the house without a fat stack of coupons, has never once tasted an appetizer, and prefers not to acknowledge that brand-name products exist. He constantly brings up the price of everything, and he never pays a cent more than his share. Gary loathes gift-giving, and refuses to pry so much as a dime from his purse for charity. Plainly put, Gary sucks.
Here is the joyous news: you don’t have to be like Gary to be a saver. Gary is plagued with unhealthy money anxiety. And he chooses to make it everyone else’s problem, too. What I want for you is a relationship with money that is both healthy and joyful. Gary’s is neither.
In reality, the best savers in your life probably slip right by, mostly (if not entirely) unnoticed.
The best savers make intentional choices about their spending so they don’t have to sweat the small stuff like Gary does. They know what their expenses are and they work diligently to cut out whatever doesn’t make their lives better. So when it comes to splitting the bill, going out and having fun, and giving freely to others, they can jump in with both feet and keep being awesome.
2. Focusing Too Much on Income
If you’ve ever believed you’d save more money if only you could make more, then you’re not alone. It’s one of the most common roadblocks out there.
But it’s usually wrong. In reality, one’s income level tends to have very little correlation with one’s savings habit.
People at every income level have a nasty tendency to spend every dollar that comes in, and keep themselves financially trapped. Even many people at higher incomes, such as doctors, find themselves living paycheck-to-paycheck.
It’s easy to tell ourselves that everything we spend on right now is essential, and if we could just get a bit more (like our next raise), then we’d be able to save. But if you’re already in the habit of spending everything you make, then any increase in income will go straight to your spending, not your savings.
If you are already working hard at developing great savings habits, then an income boost can be a great accelerant on your path. But no amount of money will create a new savings habit that wasn’t there before.
Excepting only the farthest extremes (the mega-billionaires, and those struggling to find the money to survive), income has virtually no impact on one’s ability to save. It’s always great to work on increasing your income, but don’t wait for that before you start. A great saver can save on any paycheck.
3. Charging Ahead Without a Goal
One of the most nefarious money saving mistakes of all is to rob yourself of the joy of the process itself. Try asking yourself these three questions:
- What am I saving for?
- How much money will it take?
- How quickly can I accumulate it?
If you don’t have a clear and immediate answer to each of these three questions, then you are missing the beating heart of your money-saving plan. Like with any big pursuit in life, you need to have a deep, burning “why” to keep you going when things get boring, or tough.
Whether it’s a career change, moving to a new home, starting a business, funding your retirement, or getting out of debt, find the goal that will drive you. Knowing what you are saving for is what makes the whole process fun, thrilling, and satisfying. Avoid focusing too much on goals that are really just big purchases, like a car or a vacation. These are just another form of spending. They won’t help you achieve financial freedom.
Saving for the sake of saving is a joyless pursuit with no clear reward. Those who try without a clear goal will inevitably fail.
Give yourself something that you can really latch onto. Something to fight for; something that will make you feel excited to push forward. Then, nothing will be able to stop you.
4. Conflating Enjoyment with Happiness
The all-too-common defense that arises when we try to cut expenses goes something like:
“I can’t stop buying those, they make me happy! Why would you try to take that away from me, do you not want me to be happy? Why do you hate me?!?”
Or something, idk.
The mistake here is to take the brief pleasant feeling you get from buying some product or service, and get it confused with real, lasting happiness.
This feeling is nice, I’ll give you that, but it is not the same thing as happiness. For the sake of clarity, let’s call it enjoyment.
Consider the enjoyment of alcohol. Getting drunk is nice. Getting very drunk, all the time is not nice. Chasing this short term enjoyment as if it is the key to a better life is self-destructive, and will cause no shortage of problems. Enjoyment from spending works just the same way. And the hangover is just as bad.
Happiness, the kind that matters, comes from within. It is a skill that we all must practice, and involves building a healthy relationship with ourselves and the world around us.
You can live a happy life where you spend very little money at all, and you can live a miserable life where you spend lots of money. Happiness and spending money are not connected in this way. Anyone can learn to create happiness for themselves and others, but the enjoyment from spending money won’t get any of us there.
5. Trying to Force It
Saving cannot work sustainably when you try to do it in spite of yourself. This is why it’s so important to have a goal (see #3 above).
When you keep trying to force yourself to save money, you reinforce the narrative in your mind that saving money isn’t something you want to do. Sure, you may be able to overcome that distaste with brief spurts of determination. But the equilibrium that you will always drift back to is saving nothing at all.
The great news is, you don’t have to force yourself to save money. One of the most crucial shifts in becoming an excellent saver is to find the joy in it!
Envision yourself achieving your next big money goal, and how much easier your life will be. Imagine what you will be able to accomplish after that. Relish in the joy of finally taking charge of your spending, becoming an effective CEO of the business of your life. Enjoy paying yourself for once, instead of everybody else.
If you’re still trying to force yourself to save money, it’s because you haven’t figured out how to enjoy saving yet. And if you don’t find your way to the thrill of this journey, you will never succeed. Stop forcing yourself to save money, and allow yourself to love it for how awesome it really is.
6. Buying for Price Rather Than Value
Okay, here’s a thought exercise: there are two coats for sale, one costs $40 and the other $75. Which one does the frugal shopper buy?
The answer is: neither, necessarily.
This setup doesn’t offer enough information to make the best choice, because this setup tells us only the coats’ prices. If you really want to make the best decisions with your money, and save more than ever, you’ll focus not on price alone but on overall value.
Sometimes a cheaper option is less effective at its purpose, and will wear out quickly and need to be replaced, costing more in the long run. Sometimes a pricier option is twice the price for an identical item with a fancy label on it. Neither is necessarily the right choice on price alone.
It is always value, rather than price, that is key. Before making a decision, ask questions like:
- Why is this one more expensive?
- Does this one seem like it is more sturdy or reliable?
- Which seems like it will do the job better?
- Which will last longer?
- Does one feel better in my hands, or call out to me as the right one?
- Is the price difference worth what this one offers?
Always buying the cheapest option could end up costing you a great deal in the long run. And only ever buying the top-shelf option is equally reckless.
And of course, you can never save more money on something than by not buying it in the first place. (A good saver always starts by asking: Do I even need to buy this right now?) But if you’re definitely buying, then buy for value, not for price.
7. Corrupting the Word “Investment”
An investment, in a financial sense, is something that you put your money into, in order to gain a profit. It’s something that everyone worth listening to agrees is a good thing to do with your money.
But here’s the rub. The word “investment” becomes dangerous when we hijack its positive, financially prudent association and use it to justify unnecessary spending. For example:
- “Got my bonus check this week. I’m going to invest it in a new car!”
- “You really should invest in some new fall outfits.”
- “This TV was a great investment.”
None of these is an investment. These are purchases. They may even have been worthwhile purchases. That’s usually not the case, but it’s hard to say for sure out of context.
You may think I’m being overly snarky and semantic here. This is 100% true, but let me clarify why this really is a dangerous money saving mistake. We MUST stop confusing “spending we’re proud of” with “good financial health.”
You may have gotten that TV at a great deal, and you may love it. Again, it’s not for me to decide if you should buy it or not. If you’re happy with the purchase, I’m happy for you. But I can say for a certainty that it is not an investment and is not helping you build your financial future.
You need not feel guilty about every expense. But you should also be careful about patting yourself on the back for them. A new car is nice, but nothing compares to the freedom you can give yourself by saving more of your money and turning it into real, wealth-building assets.
8. Using the Word “Sacrifice”
Another word that tends to get all twisted up in our money saving misconceptions is the word “sacrifice.”
Recall from point #5 that forcing yourself to save money won’t keep you there for long. You may be able to pull it off in short sprints, but not forever.
Far too many people think of saving as sacrificing the things they love to reach a goal. Like they are nobly enduring today’s suffering to create tomorrow’s paradise. And while the fortitude of their character cannot be called into question here, the effectiveness of their attitude can.
To sacrifice is to give up something that you hold dear and will sorely miss, to serve some greater purpose. But, my Dudes: that’s not what healthy saving is. Like, at all.
Saving is about finding the expenses that aren’t making your life any better, and getting rid of them. It takes a little bit of practice to get the right feel for it, but once you really get your savings machine going, you’ll notice that you rarely (if ever) miss the things you stop spending on. And what’s more, you’ll now have a growing pile of capital moving you towards an easier, freer, more peaceful life. By saving you are actually giving to yourself, not sacrificing from yourself.
9. Letting Other People Tell You What to Do With Your Money
Just about everyone you talk to has big ideas about what you should be doing with your own money. The more you listen, the more you’ll hear it. And spoiler alert: most of those ideas are bad for your financial health.
Recognizing when other people are telling you what to do with your money, understanding why they are doing so, and being able to make your own decisions can be a life-saver on your financial journey.
Understanding motive and intent is key.
For instance, it’s pretty easy to spot a salesperson “advising” you to buy their most expensive product. If you’re trying to save money, your goal is the exact opposite of theirs. So we usually know to eye their words with caution.
But a sneakier one to watch out for is friends and family who suggest what you should buy, or where you should put your money. As often as not, they are just recommending something that they did, and they subconsciously want to feel validated by convincing others to do the same.
Most people (myself included) who suggest what you should do with your money, honestly intend to help make your life better. But it is still your responsibility to consider where that person is coming from, and actually process what they are suggesting, not just their confidence and enthusiasm. It will always be your job to decide for yourself what is best for you and your situation.
10. Under-Appreciating What You Have (No, Literally Though)
This is going to come off as super-soft, but this is for real here. Not appreciating what you have sucks money straight out the window.
Generations of leaps forward in the humans’ ability to manufacture new stuff quickly and cheaply, while very exciting from a futurist’s point of view, has led to an outbreak of consumerism and throwaway culture.
Be honest with me: when is the last time you threw something out (something you’d paid money for) because it wasn’t working quite right, a newer version came out, or you simply got tired of it?
This luxury of being able to toss something aside and replace it immediately is a very modern one. It’s also quite toxic to intentional spending. It reinforces the harmful habit of constant buying, almost completely regardless of want or need. We end up caught in a loop – always buying and never feeling satisfied.
Fortunately, there are several steps you can take to ameliorate this problem:
- Buy for value rather than price (see #6) – Focus on things that you love more and will last longer.
- Think like a minimalist – Get rid of things you don’t care for, and don’t replace them. Focus your attention on the things you really do love.
- If it is broke, do fix it – Simple repairs on damaged items can give them new life with added character, and help you love them more than ever, as in the Japanese art of kintsugi.
Throwaway culture drains your wallet, precludes happiness, and hurts your stuff’s feelings. Don’t be a dick to your stuff. Learn to love it better, and find yourself happier and saving more money than ever before.
11. Choosing a Pessimistic Outlook
The biggest money saving mistake of all, is to not believe in the potential of it.
A deeply pessimistic cultural conversation around money has led far too many of us to believe that:
- It’s not possible for a regular person to save money and still make ends meet, and
- Saving what little we can will never help us get ahead.
I am pleased to inform you that these statements are both entirely wrong, but only if you are willing to accept the alternative.
If you tell yourself that there’s no way for you to save money, you will be correct. But if you tell yourself that there are many ways for you to save money that you haven’t discovered yet, you will be correct in that also.
And once you start building a foundation with your savings, you will discover means of using that platform to create wealth like you never before thought possible.
A positive attitude is everything when it comes to money. There is so much that we can all do to find and plug the leaks in our budget, start saving, and then keep saving to momentous effect. With time these gains compound and snowball, building a near-unstoppable wealth-building machine. So long as you believe that there are greater possibilities for you and your money, there will be, and you will find them.