Cash and Dollar

Simple Ways to REALLY Save Money This Year

It was shocking to read that 47% of Americans would experience significant financial distress in order to handle a $400 emergency. Apparently, nearly half of us just do not know how to save money.

Lotta Schelin standing next to a woman

I know how easy it is to think we are saving money by buying things on sale, turning down the heat, making our own cleaning products, and other ways we can think of to spend less. Heck, we even congratulate ourselves on doing that, right? But hear me on this:

Unless you are diligent to take the difference between the regular price and the sale price—or say the amount you didn’t spend on your bills last month the way you have in previous months—and actually deposit that into a savings account, are you really saving money?

Nope. You’re just spending less. And you can “spend less” right through your entire paycheck. You can trust me on that because I’ve been there, spent that. Nearly ruined my life.

While being careful to keep spending under control is admirable, it’s easy to fool yourself into believing that you’re a money-saving genius, when in truth you’re just spending all that you earn, wishing you made enough money so you’d have enough to save some of it.

Getting started with actual savings (and by that, I mean money that is put away in a safe place), can be difficult if you have a spending habit, a small budget, or some of each.

The secret is to start small—and then stick with it. 


$5 challenge

Whenever you get a $5 bill, do not spend it. Save it. Put it in a special secret place you have designated for $5 bills. Make this your new personal rule. You do not spend $5 bills. Ever. Just find a clever place to stash them and don’t look back.

You are going to be amazed how quickly your savings will add up—especially if you receive tips in your job. Once you reach $50, take those ten $5 bills to a bank or credit union and open a real savings account.

Can’t possibly see your way clear to save those Abes? Then start with George—$1 bills! Just do it and watch how fast you’ll be saving the $5s, too. 

If you don’t carry cash opting to swipe your debit card everywhere you go, that doesn’t mean the $5 dollar challenge isn’t for you. You’ll just have to do a little extra work.

Here’s the routine: Each time you make a purchase, think about how you would have received change if you had paid with cash. For example, if your Walmart tab comes out to $41.31 and you would have paid with two $20s and a $10 ($50 total) you’d likely get a $5 bill, three $1 bills, and 69 cents back in change. Before you leave the parking lot, log into your online banking account to transfer $5 to your savings. See how that works?



Coin challenge

If stashing paper currency doesn’t work for you, this could be an alternative or perhaps a tactic in addition to saving $1 and $5 bills. Coins. Yes! Think this couldn’t possibly turn into anything useful? Think again!

In a single year, my husband and I saved more than $1,100 in coins. We were shocked because it was so painless.

It helps that neither one of us can stand to carry around heavy change. We have several “dump stations” in our home and vehicles, too  Try it but make sure you are diligent.

The rule: Do not spend coins, period. Memo to self: Go count the 2020 stash!

Saving and Money

52-week challenge

This is cool. You’ll need a weekly calendar like this to pull off this trick. Look at each week’s placement in a year. Now save the number of dollars during that week that corresponds accordingly

For example, the first week in January you save $1 because it’s Week One of 2021. The second week in January you save $2 and so on. By the end of January, you will have saved $15 ($1 +$2 +$3 + $4 + $5 = $15).

Then, the first week in February you must save $6 because it is Week 6 of 2021. Continue without fail throughout the year and you will have saved nearly $1,400 by New Years’. That’s a good start.

Another way to do this is to flip the plan so that you determine to save $52 in Week 1, $51 in Week 2, and so on until you reach Week 52 when you save $1. This puts the “heavy lifting” on the front end when your enthusiasm and determination are at a fever pitch.

Better yet, in no time provided you stick with it, you will have created a saving habit. You’ll be well on your way to building a respectable emergency fund.


Saving and Money

Call it a bill

This may sound silly but just go with me here. Create a new monthly bill that you are obligated to pay and call it something like “Pay Myself First.” Make it look like an invoice of $5, billed to you.

I don’t care how little money you earn or how poor you believe that you are. Anyone who really wants to start saving has $5 they can devote to the effort. Put this tiny monthly obligation bill at the top—ahead of the rent, food, or phone bill.

Here’s my promise: Your smallest bill will soon become your favorite. Then watch what happens. Your favorite bill will get a raise. You won’t be able to help yourself.

Make payments to yourself

Once you make that last car, credit card, or other payment, celebrate lightly. Then don’t stop! Just keep making the same payment every month—but instead of making them to the finance company or bank, make those payments to yourself—straight into your savings account.

After all, you’re used to not having that money to spend, so don’t change anything. Tricky, no?

Cashback, coupon savings

As you leave the supermarket so proud of yourself for all of your coupon savings, make a note of the exact amount you “saved.” Now really save it by depositing that exact amount into a savings envelope, drawer, or account. As you rack up cash in your Rakuten cashback account, (if you don’t have an account, create it today) see that as true savings. And when you get your Big Fat Check from Rakuten every 90-days, deposit it into your savings account. Do. Not. Cash. It.

Do you have a cashback credit card account that actually earns you cashback because you don’t carry a hefty balance from one month to the next? Don’t leave that money—no matter how little it may be—in your account where it will surely evaporate into thin air. Instead, take the steps necessary to move that cash into your savings account.

Define a goal

While for most of us, having money in a savings account is its own reward, we’re all human. It’s easy to fall off the wagon if we are not being intentional with a clear-cut savings purpose in mind.

The solution is to learn how to stay the course by setting a goal. Make it specific and measurable. Just saying, “I’m going to save money,” is so vague it’s a set-up for failure. But a goal that answers these two questions is the way to go.

  1. Why am I saving?
  2. How will I measure my success?

To that end, I have some suggestions:

First, you need enough money in your savings/emergency fund that you could pay all of your household bills without any paychecks for a full six months! That means every wage earner in the house loses his or her job. Got it? That’s serious and realistic. You want to live with that worst-case scenario covered.

Sure, you may qualify for unemployment checks, but that’s not enough. Sure, you wouldn’t have such big daycare expenses, but still, you would need money coming from somewhere to get through. Things would change for you in drastic ways. Figure it out! If you don’t want to lose your home forcing you to move in with the parents, set the goal. How much money would you need in that scenario? Write it down, lock eyeballs with the truth. Now get busy!


Once your emergency fund is well established, you don’t stop saving. Set another goal. Is it a vacation? Get a glorious representative picture to post where you will see it every day.

Maybe it’s a sewing machine or fishing boat you dream of. Find out the cost. Find a picture that visualizes that goal. Now, “dreamwash” every purchase, every financial decision.

Are the sale shoes great enough to forgo your goal? Is another dine-in, pick-up, drive-thru, or delivery meal worth setting aside your big picture goal?

Let the expectation of that dream vacation wash over the momentary temptation of cute shoes, another pricey meal, or what have you.

Dreamwashing is a fun and effective way to stay on track with your savings goals.

Just do it!

If you’re above the poverty line, but even so are unable to handle any financial emergencies, you’re walking a dangerous tightrope that puts your future in the hands of luck.

More than that, your inability to save money may be tying you to a job you hate because you are painfully aware that if the tiniest little thing goes wrong, you’re in deep trouble.

In your heart, you know that you could not go even one week without a paycheck. That’s a lot of pressure, my dear friend! Break free. Get responsible. Your future self will thank you.


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14 replies
  1. Dionne George says:

    I tried the $5.00 bill savings challenge for the second time, last year. In all honesty the first time around I dipped into the container and took money out. My teenagers always had something that they needed!(lol) Last year, I used a large plastic pretzel container. I cut a hole in the top of the lid, so that I could drop the bills inside. Then I glued the lid to the container. When I cut the top off at the end of the year, I had $900 in $5.00 bills!

    My coworker used a empty 2 liter pop bottle (or soda bottle depending on where you live), and saved $700.00 in dimes! The possibilities are profitable no matter what what you choose!

    Have a Happy New Year!

  2. Mark Shoenfelt says:

    I could easily save money each week, but I am certain that you are unaware of the reality of some peoples’ lives. You say that anyone can save some money every week. How is someone who is having trouble paying the rent supposed to put five dollars into a savings account each week? Your flippant attitude toward people who are struggling detracts from your message. I know that you pulled yourself out of debt that you unwisely incurred. Many people don’t have enough money to unwisely incur debt, they go into debt just trying to survive.

    • Scrooge McDuck says:

      It always amazes me at the comments lashing out at Mary on these type articles. Demonizing her or her message somehow validates the person’s inability to rise above their current circumstances I guess.
      It is indeed possible. I don’t have a high paying job or live in a tiny inexpensive town. I’m not an exception to any rule, I just live below my means. I’ve managed to save even when making next to nothing. You may think you can’t live on what you make but odds are you just can’t live the life you feel entitled to on what you make. I don’t miss out or feel deprived. I just watch spending and get a real satisfaction watching the balance in my checking acct grow monthly. I carefully consider purchases and avoid impulse and convenience purchases. When I get a nice little nest egg going, I transfer it to an online savings acct with better interest. Getting into the habit of making do with less and not spending more when you get pay increases or save $ somewhere else really is the key. I went from no savings to having a several month emergency fund. That continued to grow and when my car died, I was able to buy my next sensible used car for cash (no new monthly payment) without totally depleting my savings. Eventually, I had enough to pay off my meager mortgage (again waiting til I had a cushion beyond that amount). In less than ten years, I’ve gone from no savings to no debt plus more than twice my gross annual salary in the bank. With no debt, I live comfortably on about half of my take home so that’s a lot of financial peace of mind sitting in that account. Now that saving is ingrained behavior , I can even afford the occasional splurge like a weekend trip or nice dinner out with friends.

      • Scrooge McDuck says:

        I had a tip forgot to share. I charge larger bills to a cash back credit card and then pay it off in full every cycle. My current card gives me 1.5% back on all purchases and lets me apply the cash back reward to my balance almost immediately. Years ago I got into trouble putting major car repairs I couldn’t afford on a credit card. I too thought I couldn’t afford to save so that card was my emergency fund. When I didn’t have a choice I found the money to make those payments though. Luckily that one experience taught me to tread lightly with credit cards. I find I’m still averse to putting things on a card even though I can pay it off every month. I’m trying to get in the habit of using it for regular purchases rather than a debit card to take full advantage of the cash back. Small savings add up.

  3. Jeri Held says:

    I have a “piggy” bank on my dresser. I save quarters and dimes. Everyone i get! When the bank gets heavy I roll the coins and replace them with paper currency and start saving the coins over again! It piles up fast!

  4. Joanne says:

    Mary, would you please tell us your favorite online savings websites and their rates? I think you did this in the past. Thank you

    • Lynette says:

      SmartyPig is great!! I’ve had an online account with them for years. I have money transferred from my checking account to my online SmartPig account every month and it adds up quickly.

  5. Belle Mieloch says:

    Mary it is only January 4th and I have already saved $29.00 by checking my receipts. It adds up and I will send check to my saving account at the end of the month. Also will use my credit cards rewards have them credit my bill and then send that same amount to savings. It adds up quickly

  6. Nancy Brakka says:

    Years ago I started “rounding up” in my checking account. First to the nearest $1, then to the nearest $5, recording the difference when I balanced the account every month. When it got to $500 I left it there as an emergency fund and started transferring the extras into savings. Over the years I have progressed to having a fully funded 6 month cushion, pay all my bills in full every month and contribute generously to my favorite charities.

  7. Bronson Beisel says:

    I’ve been saving change, $1 bills and $5 bills for a number of years. The money eventually goes to a “Dollars and Change” savings account, which just keeps getting larger. I’ve kept better track of my $5 bill savings, and in the past two years that I’ve been doing that, I squirreled away $2,000.

    • Mary Hunt says:

      Thanks Bronson for your confirmation that saving money, however small the amount, does add up when we just keep our hands off! Good job.

      • Margaret Sproul says:

        I too saved my $5.00 bills and just bought an apple laptop. It seems to me that $5.00 biils are not as plentiful as they used to be, maybe its just my imagination – or maybe more people are saving them…… enjoy your column and I have learned so much. thank you

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