How to save money has become an endangered activity in the United States. In September, the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis reported that Americans' personal savings rate was 5.6 percent of disposable income, about half of what it was between 1960 and 1980, before starting its long slide.
Earlier in the year, the Employee Research Institute revealed that more than a third (36 percent) of the nation's workers had put away less than $1,000 in savings and personal retirement investments.
Indeed, after polling MyBankTracker readers about their savings, we learned that about half had saved less than $1,000 in the last year. Worse, 23 percent said they had a negative savings rate in the last 12 months. In other words, they had acquired debt!
After hearing such discouraging data, it would be easy to conclude that many Americans' spending is out of control and they have to do a better job of budget belt-tightening. It's that kind of reasoning that has long fueled the advice of personal finance columnists whose recommendations for cutting spending have included such tips as "stop loading up on lattes, iron your own shirts, start packing a lunch for work, skip your weekly manicure, fire the gardener, and shop at thrift stores."
For their part, readers have responded with their own money-saving tips. For instance, Jason Vitig tweeted, "No cable. Eat at home and no long nights at bars."
The advice is well taken, but we wonder if implementing such common money-saving tips isn't just an exercise in futility, like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Rather, we wanted to know if there was some other, larger economic culprit at play sinking the personal fortunes of Americans. Perhaps, the problem ailing savers in America hasn't been a scarcity of money, but rather a scarcity of time.
Workers struggling to keep up
Although employment has rebounded close to pre-recession levels, the wages of Americans haven't been keeping up with inflation. The United States now employs 2.3 million more low-paid workers than at the start of recession, the New Employment Law Project reported last year. That compares with 1.2 million fewer jobs in the mid-and higher-range industries.
As a result, real median hourly wages have declined across low, middle and high income levels from 2009 through 2013.
To keep up financially -- to keep from being further shortchanged -- Americans are working more than ever. According to the Center for American Progress, in 1960, only 20 percent of mothers worked. Today, 70 percent of American children reside in homes where both parents are working.
In the industrialized world, it's hard to beat America's work ethic. According to the International Labour Organization, "Americans work 137 more hours per year than Japanese workers, 260 more hours per year than British workers, and 499 more hours per year than French workers."
Interestingly, about five percent of the labor force works two jobs, according to a study by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and 24/7 Wall St. Not surprisingly, wages -- or lack of them -- are driving this trend. Tellingly, none of the states with the highest multiple job-holding rates had average weekly wages at or above the national wage in 2012. Also of note, women, who earn on average less than men, are more likely to hold multiple jobs than male counterparts.
If all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, as the saying goes, then what does all work and no pay make the American worker? In a word, "tired." With the worn-out laborer's work-life balance out of whack, he or she is always facing a time deficit -- robbed time that is needed to address the real money issues that go far beyond curing your money shortage by cooking more meals at home or some other superficial money-saving solution.
Squandering time is squandering money
Faced with a money crunch, overworked and time-handicapped Americans would be better off financially if they stop asking, "Can I afford this?" and instead ask, "Can I afford the time that this activity requires?"
As an example, don't ask, "Can I afford my cable bill or what premium channels can I cut to reduce my bill?" A better and more productive question to ask is, "Can I afford the time I spend each night plunking my butt on the sofa to watch cable?"
Similarly, don't think about how much you're going to save clipping coupons at your kitchen table each night. Rather, try to quantify how much time you're investing (or wasting) clipping coupons, when you might be making better use of your time.
In short, lack of time and misuse of precious minutes --not lack of money -- are what could be holding you back financially.
To drive home the point, Americans average about 10 hours researching the purchase of a new car, four hours for computers and two on picking out a TV to buy. Yet, according to a survey by the insurance company, Aflac, 41 percent of employees spent 15 minutes or less researching their benefits during the 2013 open enrollment season, with 24 percent spending five minutes or less.
Converting freed-up time into money
Whatever time you've freed up -- not waiting in line at a brick-and-mortar store to return clothes you purchased online -- is the time you need to spend on slaying the big whales that have been bleeding your budget and impacting your savings.
By going after the minnows (cutting your latte expenditures) and not giving the big fish the proper patience and attention they deserve, you'll just keep treading water or, worse, start drowning in debt. It takes real time to decide how to allocate assets in your 401k and how to figure how much you should be putting into an IRA, an emergency fund, Health Savings Account, Flexible Savings Account or 529 College Savings Plan. You can't wade through these waters, which can potentially offer you dramatic savings, in five minutes.
After taking the appropriate time to really pore over the financial decisions that will have the greatest impact on your life, you might find that it is possible to stop living and lurching from paycheck to paycheck. For example, by investing more time in researching whether to buy a new or used car, you may decide upon further review -- a process that only the luxury of time can provide -- that you don't need that expensive automobile after all.
Take care of your time and the money will take care of itself
Whatever extra time you can create and carve out for yourself -- by replacing wasteful activities with more productive ones -- your bottom line will benefit. Every minute you can win back is one more opportunity to put your savings on a steady course.
Win your time battle and you'll cure your savings woes.