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What If You Just Can’t Save Money?

Just Can't Save Money

This site is mostly about things you can do to get your personal finances in order and, if you’re tenacious, reach financial independence and retire early as well!

On paper it’s ridiculously easy to do, but in practice it’s a completely different story. Sometimes there just isn’t enough money left over at the end of the month for you to save.  And if you just can’t save money, you can’t reach FIRE.

So what if you just can’t save money? What are you supposed to do then?

What if you just can’t save money?

The first thing you need to do is figure out why you can’t save and then react to that.  The steps to build wealth has three areas that you can focus on:

  1. Spend less money than you make
  2. Invest the difference
  3. Eliminate, then avoid debt

If you’re currently in a position where you just can’t save money, then #2, Invest the difference, is something we’ll ignore right now, so let’s cross that off the list.  What’s left are the two areas that you can focus in on:

  • Spend less money than you make
  • Eliminate, then avoid debt

Like I said earlier, easy on paper but much harder in reality.

Spend less money than you make

If you can’t save money, then you’ve either got an income problem, or a spending problem.  Maybe even both.

Long term the best option is obviously to make more money, but in the short term, finding areas in your budget where you can cut back will give you much quicker wins.  Getting these quick wins will motivate you to keep pushing.

Start by carefully reviewing your spending.  When you look back at every single purchase you’ve made over the past three months I can almost guarantee you’ll be shocked to find that you’re spending more in one or two areas than you realize.

For me, that area was is fast food.  I assumed I was spending a couple hundred bucks per month at restaurants and was FLOORED to see that I was spending SIX HUNDRED bucks per month.  Holy &#!7! 

Looking at every purchase you’ve made over the past three months is easier than you realize thanks to free wealth management applications like Mint.com and (affiliate link alert) Personal Capital.   I’ve had accounts with both of those services for years, but I use Personal Capital most and that’s what I recommend on this site because I feel that it’s the more powerful and useful tool.

Eliminate, then avoid debt

The other way you can make quick improvements to your finances is by eliminating some of your debt – and it might be easier than you think.

In my own case I was able to make some HUGE gains FAST by selling our two new cars and replacing them with older cars that we paid cash for.  Not only did selling our cars wipe out over $20,000 in debt, but it also freed up about $500 per month in payments.

Selling the cars left us with about $5,500 in cash, which we used to buy our replacement vehicles.  My wife went from driving a brand new Dodge SUV to rolling in a 10 year old minivan.  I gave up my GMC pickup for a 20 year old car that I paid $700 bucks for.

Replacing our nice, new rides with old, ugly vehicles wasn’t easy on the ego, but being poor sucks and those new cars were keeping us poor so they had to go.

These “new to us” cars were old, had high mileage, and they weren’t much to look at, but they were all mine!  And when I stopped shelling about nearly $500 per month in car payments I was able to do some serious damage on my other debts!

You might not be able to sell your cars for one reason or another, but you can do something.  Figure out what you can do to wipe out debt and free up your money. Whatever you decided to do may seem drastic at first, but remember that it doesn’t have to be permanent.  Besides, if you’re in a spot where you can’t save money then you’re in a desperate situation, and desperate times call for desperate measures.

You can do it.  Now go do it.

Next steps

I’ve said before and I’ll say it once again, this is pretty easy on paper.  The most difficult part is deciding to act, then following through.  Start by scouring your expenses and cut back where you’re overspending.  Look at your debts and get rid of what you can.

If that’s all you do then you can very quickly wipe out HUGE amounts of debt and free up cash flow each month that you can use to eliminate other debts, or save some money.

If you’re feeling particularly aggressive, here are a few more ideas for you do if you just can’t save money right now:

  1. Begin creating solid financial habits (eating at home; brown bagging it; reading finance books).
  2. Work on increasing your income; create your own blog or start another side hustle.
  3. Get a second job.
  4. Check out this list of unusual ways to save money.
  5. And if you do have a few extra bucks to spare, start your own business!
  6. Pay yourself first.  I love this quote from Warren Buffet (the third richest man on the planet): “Don’t save what is left after spending, spend what is left after saving.”
  7. Reader tip: Ask for help!
    • Emily from The John and Jane Doe Guide to Money & Investing had a great thought in the comment section below.  Sometimes, you just need to ask for help.  If you’re in a situation where you’re truly unable to save money, then this would be one of those times when asking for help would be a very wise move.  Thanks, Emily!

The best thing you can do to start improving your financial situation is to get started.  Doesn’t matter where – just do something, you can always re-adjust later.

Getting rich quick takes time, but it doesn’t need to take a lifetime.  Do something today to improve your situation tomorrow, no matter how small or insignificant you think it is.  By doing that you’ll start to set yourself up for success and then, when you are in a spot when you’re able to save and invest, you’ll be able to knock the hell out of your goals!

Chime in!
Have you ever been in a spot where you were unable to save money?  What did you do?  How long did it take you to turn things around?  If you’re currently in a position where you can’t save, what are you doing about it?

By Ty Roberts

Ty Roberts is the founder of Camp FIRE Finance, and a husband and father of four living in the Seattle area. He's a fan of the 4% rule, 80s movies and music, dad jokes and cast iron cooking.

19 replies on “What If You Just Can’t Save Money?”

I had a hard time saving when I was freelancing, but I wasn’t too proud to ask friends if they needed any help…I even cleaned my guy friend’s toilet…and you don’t want to know the shape that was in. It was horrible. But I did what I had to do.

That reminds me of a guy in College who would clean your bathroom for $40/semester. When we found out and asked him to do this for $40, he declined. Apparently it was too little after he had done it for a semester.

“Replacing our nice, new rides with old, ugly vehicles wasn’t easy on the ego, but being poor sucks and those new cars were keeping us poor so they had to go.” SO true. When we first started our DTI was 65%. But eventually we just started putting a few bucks – literally like $5, and $10 a month away, just to get into the habit of saving. Then we jumped up to 1% of our net income, and kept (and keep) moving up in our savings ratio as our debt drops. Another tidbit of wisdom I would add to encourage others is that when you are paying off debt you are essentially saving money. Less money owed out is more money you own, especially where your mortgage is concerned. Think positive. It can be done! Great post, Ty!

I don’t want to be a Debbie Downer, but for those who say they truly can’t save, they have to be willing to change. More often people are going to come up with excuses rather than change. They either don’t want to do the work, or are still living with wishful thinking and believe something magical is going to suddenly happen, without them ever changing their behavior. I lived paycheck to paycheck for a long time. Ultimately I had to change careers because it no longer worked with the goals I had in life. It didn’t happen overnight and it was painful, but you can’t continue doing the same things over and over if you want a different result.

+1 Mrs. Groovy!!! A total mindset shift is often necessary. You have to want it and you have to want it bad enough to take the action to make the changes. Sometimes that means it has to get pretty painful before that happens too.

We were there when I quit working to stay at home with the kid(s). It was tight, to say the least. I side hustled a little when I could and we cut every expense we could reasonably cut (I had the grocery bill down to $100 at the time – but that was over a decade ago!).

Like you we sold expensive cars and bought older much less expensive ones. We also cut cable, stopped eating out, cut back on some hobby spending and sold a few things we were no longer using. Oh and changed jobs eventually to earn more. Takes discipline and time as you said, but can certainly be done. Good advice Ty!

Sometimes I think the best thing you can do when you “can’t” is ask for help. When I got in debt trouble as a 20-something, my parents didn’t pay it off. They did, however, let me move home for a way reduced rent and helped me find a better job. Between the two, I paid off my cards and started investing.

Not everyone can get that level of help, but sometimes you just need someone with an outside perspective to look at your situation and give a few suggestions to help you turn yourself around.

I like that, @emilynancejividen:disqus! If you can’t save, then you’re in a bad spot and it’s probably time to ask for help. We’ve leaned on our parents for non-financial support as well! I’m going to amend my post w/ this tip from you – thanks!

Ahhh, I was this way in College but it was completely my own fault. I chose to take it easy and not find an on campus job. Even worse, I would drive my car far away to go work over break and sometimes on the weekends.

That fast food is really bad for your health. Honestly, I am more worried about the physical effect it has on you than the actual costs. Unless you are an Olympic marathon runner, this will add weight and make it hard for your heart to function properly. As you know, health is wealth.

Congrats on selling the two new cars. That was a great move. I still drive the 2001 Acura CL Couple, although rarely, that my wife bought brand new in 2001. Most days, since I bicycle commute, I just ride my bike and don’t drive at all. It’s a great way to live.

Hey @financepatriot:disqus – very often I find that the *thought* of doing something that I don’t want to do is far worse than actually doing the thing I’m worried about. Selling the cars is a good example of that. It really wasn’t a big deal. Same with my bus commuting – I thought it would be some HUGE pain, but once I figured out the routine, it’s actually pretty easy (and a HUGE money saver for us).

Sometimes you just need to find opportunities where you least think they’ll be. And use your skills. You’ll be amazed at what you can turn your hand to that will earn a little extra here and there, and a little extra here and there soon builds up!

Freeing up cash flow by selling a newer vehicle and dumping the car loan is a tool that so many families can take advantage of, but few do. We did it a number of years ago, and was a real difference maker for us. Owning a vehicle payment free, even if it’s high mileage, is one of the best feelings when it comes to your money…great post, Ty!!

Hey @mysterymoneyman:disqus! In a single transaction you can significantly improve your financial situation! I’m actually kind of surprised that I don’t hear about more people doing this. Short term sacrifice for a much better financial future.

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