If you want to save big, dream big. But first start small.
That's the advice of Carol Keeffe, and it's exactly what a lot of people need to hear.
A new survey from the nonprofit NeighborWorks America found that a third of Americans — that's 72 million people — don't have any kind of emergency savings. Another current poll from personal finance website Bankrate.com, found that 28 percent of Americans save just 5 percent or less of their paychecks, and 18 percent of us save nothing at all.
Ideally, we should sock away 15 percent of our pre-tax income for emergencies and retirement, experts say. Unfortunately, those are the same experts who make managing your finances sounds about as much fun as eating a kale sandwich.
Focus on your dreams
That's why Keeffe, author of "How to Get What You Want In Life With the Money You Already Have," invented the Change Game. I've tried it and it's a simple and unbelievably powerful way to get focused on your financial goals. The first step: Don't focus on your financial goals — focus on your dreams.
"When people figure out what really turns them on, it's more likely to be a grand piano or a guitar or the trip they've always wanted," Keeffe says. "Those deeper core things are 100 percent of what people really, really want."
The interesting thing, Keeffe finds, is that once you focus on your deepest dreams and goals, basic important things, like financial security, take on real meaning, too. Now, instead of saving because you're "supposed to," you save because you want to start a business, or to protect your family if you're laid off, or to make sure you can tour the world capitals when you retire.
"Once you're on that journey to what you really want, then things that are deeper come up," Keeffe says. "So you don't throw out the grand piano idea, but you also commit to the emergency fund."
Start with a piggy bank
You start by not saying "no" to yourself, whether it's a big dream — like a trip to Paris — or a smaller one, like new shoes. By not blocking your own goals, no matter how seemingly impractical, you can put things in perspective. So maybe the Paris trip takes a back seat to building your retirement fund or getting out of debt, but there's no reason you can't do both, and start taking French lessons right now for that eventual trip. Then save for both those goals with Keeffe's change game.
Start with a box or an envelope or a piggy bank or a coffee can. Label it with your goal: "$4,000 for Paris Trip" at the same time you increase your payroll deduction to your retirement account by 2 percent or $25 a week. Then collect all your spare change around the house and put it in your Dream Box (or Dream Coffee Can) because making that first step is crucial.
Keeffe knows that it can seem childish or inconsequential, but scraping up $3 a day equals more than $1,000 a year. At that rate, you're bound for Paris in four years. And if that seems like a long time, consider this: In 2019 you can be four years older, or you can be four years older and going to Paris.
If you don't get a lot of change, make some other rule, such as whenever you have a $5 bill, it goes into the Dream Box. Or whatever cash you have left in your purse or wallet on payday goes in the box. Or whenever you save money with grocery coupons you put that amount of cash in the box. You'll find all kinds of strategies to round up stray cash here and there once you're committed to something you really want. And definitely use cash — seeing real money start to pile up is a huge motivator.
When she was a school teacher, "My ex-husband laughed at the five dollars I was saving, as I was finding a little bit here and a little bit there," Keeffe says, "but he didn't complain when he walked away from the marriage with half of the $30,000 annuity I'd built up."
Get excited about saving
The point of too much of money management advice is all about saying "no," Keeffe says. You can't have a vacation if you're paying off student loans. You only get to keep what's leftover at the end of month instead making your savings goal a priority of some kind, even in a small way.
"It's so small, don't you feel stupid NOT putting it away? But you're so happy because all your dreams are taken care of," Keeffe says. "Wallow in your dreams."
Why not? For years people have listened to the money scolds who'd have us wallow in guilt, wallow in frustration and wallow in never making any progress when it comes to our finances, and never ever getting excited about the idea of saving. So maybe it's time to wallow in success — and our dreams.
Because, let's face it: You're never gonna get excited about a kale sandwich.
Brian O'Connor is author of the award-winning book, "The $1,000 Challenge: How One Family Slashed Its Budget Without Moving Under a Bridge or Living on Government Cheese."