Do your parents and grandparents proudly boast of the days when they could buy an entire house for just $50,000? And then proceed to lecture you for not stashing away half your paycheck towards an "emergency fund"? You're not alone, my friend. In today's world of rising inflation, trying to save money can seem like a tough, if not impossible, task. It's especially tough when you're just being told to "try harder."
A recent study by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis suggests that our impatience and inability to practice delayed gratification may be the reason why saving money is difficult. Uh, what? We think there's more at play here than just not having self control.
A Stagnant Minimum Wage
"Imagine you have $500 right now and must decide whether to spend it on something you want or use it to kick-start a savings account (a good and essential first step toward getting into the habit of saving)," the study says. "You decide to spend the $500 because the thought of having to wait to buy something new feels awful; it feels much more exciting to buy something new right now."
Well, sure. It's a lot more fun to spend $500 than to save it. But one of the main factors contributing to a non-existent savings account is the lack of pay increase in the United States. The federal minimum wage (currently an appalling $7.25 an hour) has not been increased in nearly 15 years, leaving many people struggling to keep up with inflation as the cost of basic necessities — such as food, housing, and health care — skyrocket.
There's no mention of minimum wage in the study. "Saving requires strategy and more effort than spending," the study says. "It also requires reevaluating current behaviors, such as frequently spending money eating at restaurants or online shopping." Or, you know, maybe the government could reevaluate the minimum wage and raise it to a level that helps people move away from living paycheck to paycheck?
It's Not Because We Lack Self Control
Over the past 15 years, the cost of food and rent in the U.S. has increased drastically, overstretching the budgets of many individuals and families. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the cost of food has risen by 9.1% over the past year, marking the most significant increase since 1981. Some items in particular — meats, eggs, and prepared foods — experienced even steeper price increases. The incremental rise amounts to roughly a 2% increase every year since 2006.
This means that a family of four that spent $150 per week on groceries in 2006 would now need to spend approximately $202 per week to maintain the same standard of living. So the next time grandpa says, "You kids can't save because you don't have self-control," tell him you're spending a lot more to keep food on the table than he did back in his day.
Similarly, the cost of rent has also risen dramatically in the past few decades. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a full-time worker would now need to earn an hourly wage of $25.82 (on average) to afford a two-bedroom apartment in the U.S., and a minimum of $31.18 per hour to afford a one-bedroom rental in California. This means that many low-income families are struggling to find affordable housing, with some spending as much as 50% or more of their income on rent alone.
Despite these challenges, there are still small steps you can take that might help build up your savings. We have a whole slew of tips for slashing your food budget, using budget challenges, and other simple ways to save money.
Breaking down long-term goals into smaller, more achievable steps can help you get closer to achieving a healthy savings. Which is a much more realistic strategy than "delaying gratification."
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