5 Good Money Habits to Boost Your Retirement Savings

29_F_Social_02_CDNThink back to your most recent savings goal. How long did you have to save in order to reach it? Was it a concert ticket or some new shoes that took a few weeks of budgeting? Was it a big-ticket item like a new computer or a summer vacation that took a year or two of planning in advance? Perhaps you’re currently saving for an even more ambitious goal: a car, a wedding, a down payment on a home? Although savings goals vary from person to person and range in size and scope, it’s likely that your longest-term savings goal will be your retirement.

Saving for retirement poses some unique challenges: How are you supposed to prioritize retirement savings against the long list of more immediate goals? How are you supposed to find the motivation to prepare for something that’s decades away? How can you quantify the amount you will need to save when you have no idea what your future will look like?

The good news is that you can boost your retirement savings by practising the same good money habits that apply to smaller savings goals. Read on to find out which money skills will also level up your retirement savings plan.

1. Eliminate roadblocks. No matter what combination of financial goals you have in the works, this is the top priority. Think of it as creating the right environment for your savings to grow. Savings thrive when they have long stretches of uninterrupted time in which to accumulate and compound, so it’s in your best interest to eliminate any obstacles that threaten those ideal saving conditions. Focus on paying off any high-interest debt—you know, the kind that sucks up money that could otherwise be going toward your goals (credit card debt is an example). Revisit the terms of any loans you’re paying off and do a little research on potential consolidation or refinancing options—you might find a way to pay down your debt more efficiently and free up some extra funds for your savings goals at the same time. Eliminating roadblocks also means having a healthy emergency fund in place, so that your savings progress doesn’t get wiped out by an unexpected job loss (a good starting point is three months’ worth of expenses).

2. Automate savings. So your emergency fund is set up and your debt-management plan is in place—now is a great time to see if there are ways to automate your savings at work and at home. Can your employer automatically deduct your retirement contributions from your paycheque? Can you set up your online banking system to regularly transfer a certain amount to your savings account? Look for ways to make the act of saving easier, more consistent and less time-consuming.

3. Picture your goals. One of the reasons it’s hard to get motivated about saving for retirement is that it’s an abstract concept—especially when pitted against more self-explanatory savings goals like “new car” or “tropical getaway”. Take 10 minutes to ask yourself a few basic questions and to design your ideal retirement: do you see yourself relaxing at the beach, or enjoying a beautiful home and watching your family grow, or pursuing a passion or hobby you couldn’t make time for in your working years? Does your ideal retirement mean indulging yourself, or would you prefer to downsize and keep things simple? Would you want to continue working (part time or in some capacity) throughout your retirement? Do you picture moving into a new space? A new city? A new country? Fleshing out the details of an otherwise ambiguous savings goal allows you to ground the goal in reality and to get excited about it—and it’s easier to contribute to a savings goal you’re actually excited about.

4. Practice living with less. Increasing contributions to your savings goals (usually) means decreasing your monthly spending. This doesn’t necessarily mean adopting a super-frugal lifestyle; however, if that’s what you want to do to get to your goal sooner, go for it! Create some monthly challenges (like a month of packed lunches, or a month of free things to do) to see the impact of spending a little less. Put the money you would have otherwise spent towards your savings goals. If you live with a partner, challenge yourselves to live off of one income, and put the other toward savings. You will soon discover that spending a little less here and there does not require a complete lifestyle overhaul. Understanding the give-and-take of budgeting is a powerful skill, and it’s easier to cut spending when you can put it in the context of achieving a goal. Cancelling a cable package “just because” is not an enticing idea—but what if you knew that cancelling that cable package and investing the money saved would allow you to retire four years sooner? Having the right motivation can make it easier to save.

5. Increase savings along with income. This tip is an extension of living with less. Try to maintain your current lifestyle and expenses even as your salary rises over time. As your income increases, increase the amount you contribute to your savings goals. It’s very easy to slip into a slightly larger lifestyle after a raise. It’s equally easy to treat unexpected income as “extra money”, whether it’s a bonus at work or $20 in a birthday card from Grandma. There’s nothing wrong with rewarding yourself from time to time, but limiting your living expenses—even in times where you don’t have to—will free up more resources for your long-term savings goals. More importantly, you’ll be better prepared should your income levels take a hit. Allow your savings to scale up with your income, but don’t let your expenses scale up along with them!

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The good money habits outlined above will create a routine that motivates you to find a few more dollars to put toward retirement. Even little changes can make a huge impact on a long-term savings goal that has decades to compound and grow. Because time is on your side, there is a lot of value in prioritizing contributions (even small ones) to your savings goals now. Choose a couple of tips to put into practice this month, and notice the impact it has on your budget—and on your financial peace of mind.

Breaking Up with Name Brands

19_F_Social_01_CDNPicture this scenario: you’re steering your shopping cart through the sliding doors of the supermarket, shopping list in hand. As you walk the aisles, there’s a strategy you can use to save an average of 33% on your entire purchase. It doesn’t require any coupon cutting or signing up for rewards cards. And the best part? You still get every single item on your list. The secret? Buying private-label products instead of brand-name products.

What are private-label products?
Commonly referred to as “store brand” or “generics,” private-label products are manufactured by a supplier and offered under another retailer’s brand. Some suppliers exclusively offer store-brand products, while others are brand-name manufacturers who use their facility to also create value-brand products in a non-competitive category (a brand-name ketchup producer may also manufacture a store-brand tomato paste, for example). In some cases, a single supplier may provide products (with different recipes and formulas) for a number of different store brands.

Why are they so much cheaper?
Private labels are able to sell their product for less because their marketing and advertising costs are significantly lower than their brand-name counterparts (when’s the last time you saw a Super Bowl commercial for no-name tortilla chips?) and they’re able to pass those savings along to the customer. Interestingly, even though they’re priced more cheaply, store brands usually provide the supermarket with a higher profit margin than brand names do. So, not only are generics a good deal for you—they’re also a pretty good deal for the store’s bottom line!

What about the difference in quality?
One of the biggest obstacles in switching over to a store brand is a psychological one: getting over the idea that a brand name automatically means top quality. We’ve all had the experience of being disappointed after straying from a brand-name product—but by convincing yourself that all off-brand products are low quality, you’re missing out on some great deals, as well as some great products. In a Consumer Reports taste test, more than 60% of store-brand items were judged as good as or better tasting than the national brand-name items.

In recent years, retailers have been doing their part to make store brands more appealing to shoppers by updating their branding and packaging designs, and by including exciting specialty products in their store-brand lineup. Some grocery stores have managed to build extreme brand loyalty to their store-brand products.

Here are a few strategies to start incorporating more private-label products into your shopping list.

Single ingredient? No-brainer.
When something on your list has a single ingredient, it’s hard to justify paying more for a brand name (salt is salt; bleach is bleach). The same applies to simple pantry items such as flour, sugar and spices. For produce, learn to read the signs for freshness before defaulting to the label. Other kitchen cupboard staples such as nuts, dried fruits and canned foods are also interchangeable for the most part (although it’s always a good idea to check the ingredients list to see if there are any differences in preservatives or additives that might affect your decision).

Play with preference
Take a peek inside your fridge and pantry and take note of the products you consistently buy brand name. Is there a reason why you’ve never strayed from them? Do you have a real preference for the taste, or are you buying them simply because that’s what you grew up with? Substituting the occasional brand-name stock, seasoning or sauce with a store brand can be a great way to save money while exploring new flavour profiles.

Be selective about your brand loyalty
Sure, sometimes a brand-name product will outperform its generic version—but before you automatically reach for the national brand, think about whether that performance is really worth the extra expense. You will find that some items in your shopping cart are completely non-negotiable, whereas others have more relaxed requirements. For example, shelling out for brand-name super-soft tissues with lotion might mean the world to someone who suffers through allergy season, but for the occasional nose-blower, a store-brand box of tissues will do the trick. Be critical and selective about which specific products deserve your brand loyalty.

Trial and error
We tend to be creatures of habit; as a result, it can be difficult to introduce change into our routines. Not every generic product you try will be a winner, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any generic winners out there! Instead of overhauling your entire shopping list all at once, try swapping out one or two products every time you go to the store and see what works for you. Over time, you’ll be able to keep your household running while saving some cash at the same time.

Use Psychology to Build a Budget You’ll Stick With

When you start looking for financial advice (or any kind of advice, for that matter), experts will share their take on what’s “good” and what’s “bad”. In personal finance, there are some classifications that we can all agree on: Debt is bad. Emergency funds are good. Overdrawing your account is bad. Earning interest on your savings is good.

Aside from the obvious examples, the guidelines are a bit murky; plus, the financial advice gurus often contradict each other. One expert will tell you that spending money is “bad” and saving money is “good”. The next will say that saving money is “bad” and investing it is “good”. Another might tell you that there are some “bad” investments and some forms of “good” debt.

If you’re waging an inner battle of good vs. bad every time you whip out your credit card or peek at your monthly bank statement, it’s probably time to give your views on budgeting a shakeup. Start by losing the desire to classify everything as “good” and “bad”. There are good and bad ways to spend money, just as there are good and bad ways to save it. Following that logic, there are good and bad ways to budget.

A good budget is one that, quite simply, works for you. It allows you to meet your needs and plan for your goals, and—most importantly—it motivates you to keep on budgeting. Successful budgeting systems vary wildly in their approach and in the tools you need, but they tend to have the same three actions as building blocks:

  • PRIORITIZE
  • TRACK
  • REWARD

These building blocks not only help you organize your finances, but they also have the ability to boost your motivation (and there’s real science to back that up). Read on to see if your current budgeting system has all three building blocks in place.

  1. PRIORITIZE

What it means: Prioritizing your goals means taking a little personal reflection time and writing a few things down. Prioritizing your goals should not be confused with categorizing your expenses—we’re not talking about combing through your budgeting spreadsheet and pondering whether “fast food” and “takeout” should be combined into a single category. We’re not even talking about what you think you “should” be saving up for. No, we’re talking about your goals. What do you want your life to look like over the next few years? Is it your dream to train for a new career? To have an adventure in a foreign country? To throw an awesome wedding? To start your own business? To raise a family? Allow your goals to be a judgment-free zone—goals and dreams are as diverse as the minds and personalities behind them. In most cases, goals reach beyond the familiar trifecta of “pay off student loans, buy a house, save for retirement”.

Why it works: Prioritizing your goals gets you buzzing about what your money can do for you. There are a couple of motivating factors at work here. Number one: by prioritizing your goals, you are asserting your beliefs and your values. You are also reminding yourself of why you’re willing to adopt a budgeting system in the first place. Studies show that you’re more invested in activities that you see value in—and although budgeting literally deals with values (the dollars-and-cents kind), including your personal values in your budgeting system is what generates determination and stamina. Creating and sticking to a new routine is a pain if you think you have to or you should do it; it’s a lot easier if you’re mindful of why you want to do it. Number two: prioritizing your goals is a great starting point because it reminds you that you’re in charge. You have a say in where your money goes. Social scientists point to autonomy as being a critical element to sustain motivation—and what’s more autonomous than realizing that your budget is a collection of choices you make in order to create the life you want?

Get started: Grab a pencil and paper. Ask yourself what you want. Think about it for 10 minutes. Write the answers down. Realize they are achievable.

  1. TRACK

What it means: Tracking your expenses means being aware of where your money is going as you spend it. This is the part where financial advice experts start to disagree again: some swear by tracking your expenses with good ol’ pencil and paper, others swear by budgeting apps and spreadsheets, and some push more unique approaches like portioning your spending money into envelopes. The good news is that it doesn’t really matter how you go about doing it, but just that you do it. When you track your expenses, a couple of things come to light right away. You start to realize that every transaction, no matter how big or how small, is either contributing to a goal or taking away from it. There’s no such thing as “buying a pumpkin spice latte just because”. You will soon see that the cost of your fancy coffee comes out of somewhere—ideally out of your budgeted spending money, but potentially out of your vacation fund or your groceries or your student loan repayment plan. The second thing you’ll notice is that the longer you’ve been tracking your expenses, the more you’ll see evidence of your progress.

Why it works: Yet another critical element in sustaining motivation is competence, or your ability to do something well. As it turns out, we thrive on being reminded that we’re improving. On the surface level, tracking your expenses helps you to identify your spending patterns and to course-correct when necessary. More importantly, by tracking your spending, you’re also tracking your efforts. You’re creating a record of your progress along with a record of your transactions. Before long, you’ll have tangible evidence of how your actions and your follow-through are contributing to a calmer, happier financial life. You’ll see how capable you are of budgeting. You’ll find it easier (and even exciting) to keep your budgeting winning streak going.

Get started: Try out a new budgeting system today. Browse the App Store or do a quick web search, or pick up a book on the topic. Don’t spend much time evaluating or comparing budgeting approaches. Just pick one and try it out.

  1. REWARD

What it means: Rewarding yourself means encouraging and celebrating your progress as you create healthier financial habits. Don’t be afraid to use some creativity when defining your personal finance milestones and rewards. Milestones can be time-based (e.g., using a budgeting app every day for 30 days), achievement-based (e.g., paying off all credit card debt) or increment-based (e.g., having your emergency fund reach $500, $1,000, $2,000…). Rewards can take on many forms as well; material rewards are the most common, but consider incorporating time- and experience-based rewards into the mix too (for example, you can list “permission to spend an entire day just vegging out” as a reward).

Why it works: Quite simply, rewards feel good. They highlight our achievements and renew our commitment. As kids, we loved earning those gold star stickers, and although that familiar achievement/reward structure practically disappears in later years, it doesn’t mean that rewards are any less effective in adulthood. By assigning rewards to the milestone of any given goal, you’re creating added incentive and boosting your motivation. When you earn, claim and enjoy a reward, your brain gets an extra hit of dopamine, which in turn increases your focus and drive.

Get started: Set a timer for 10 minutes and brainstorm two lists: a list of budgeting milestones and a list of possible rewards. After the 10 minutes are up, assign the rewards to your milestones. They should reward your effort realistically and be super exciting to work toward at the same time. When you reach your milestones, claim your rewards.

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The act of creating a budget contributes to your ability to follow it through. It solidifies your values, it promotes competence and it highlights your achievements as you work through it. Incorporating Prioritize, Track, Reward into your budgeting method of choice will boost your motivation while tackling your personal finance goals at the same time.

Keep or Toss: How Long Should I Hang Onto My Financial Documents?

Every year, it’s nice to do a bit of “financial spring cleaning” and declutter your filing cabinet, your desk drawers, and the various hiding places where miscellaneous scraps of paper tend to accumulate and multiply. Read on to find out what you should be saving, and what’s OK to shred.

Keep forever

If you’re long overdue for some organization in the paperwork department, start here! This category includes all the super-important life stuff that’s usually issued to you only once (and therefore is total pain to replace):

  • Birth and death certificates
  • Social Insurance cards and ID cards (even expired versions)
  • Passports (even expired versions)
  • Marriage licences and divorce decrees
  • Copies of wills, trusts, and powers of attorney
  • Adoption papers
  • Records of paid mortgages
  • Safe-deposit box inventory

 

Your “keep forever” documents should be kept in a secure place. A locking file cabinet in your home is a popular choice, but consider upgrading to a safer alternative, such as a fireproof safe in your home or a safe-deposit box at your credit union or bank. Also consider scanning these documents and having them backed up on the cloud (and password protected, of course) so that you can access them remotely and quickly in an emergency.

Keep for 6 years

This category includes all supporting documents for your income tax return, plus a couple of other odds and ends. This may seem like a long period of time, but it’s not an arbitrary number—6 years after filing a return is how far back the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) can go to audit a tax return.

An audit is an evaluation of your tax return to verify its accuracy and to ensure compliance with tax laws. Many people associate being audited with having committed tax fraud or some other shady financial behaviour but, in fact, a number of taxpayers are audited on a random basis each year. If audited, you are required by law to provide the documentation that supports the claims made in your tax return. In some cases, additional information may be required in order to verify a claim you’ve made—it might just be a matter of providing a cancelled cheque, a receipt or a bank statement. In other instances, the audit may take place on-site (meaning at your residence or workplace) or at a CRA office. Being well-organized is the best way to make the process as quick and painless as possible.

So, what sorts of documents should you hold onto for 6 years?

  • Income tax returns
  • Any forms that support income or a deduction on your tax return (e.g., receipts, cancelled cheques, T4 slips)
  • Records of selling a house or stock (documentation for capital gains tax)
  • Records of paid-out loans
  • Records of sold investments
  • Mortgage documents
  • Medical records (including bills, prescriptions and health insurance information)

Keep for 1 year

This category mostly consists of monthly statements. A good rule of thumb is to keep your monthly statements for the current year, and then shred them once you’ve reconciled them with an annual statement. The exception is any statement needed for tax purposes—those get grouped into the “keep for 6 years” category.

  • Bank statements
  • Pay stubs
  • Quarterly investment statements
  • Cancelled cheques

Keep for 45 days

  • Credit card statements

Shred credit card statements after 45 days, but hang onto those statements that you may need for business, for taxes, as proof of purchase, or for insurance.

Keep for 30 days or less

  • ATM slips
  • Utility and phone bills

ATM slips can be tossed once you’ve checked them against your monthly bank statement. Utility bills and phone bills can be shredded after you’ve paid them, unless they contain tax-deductible expenses.

Keep as long as active

This bonus category is a catch-all for agreements and contracts that are active for varied amounts of time:

  • Warranty information
  • Insurance documents
  • Vehicle titles and loan documents
  • House and mortgage documents
  • Pension records/retirement plans

You’ll want to hang onto the records in this category for at least as long as you own the asset. For major purchases, stapling the original purchase receipt to the user manual or warranty information will keep everything in the same spot, should you need to make a warranty claim. Documents relating to improvements and upgrades on your home or vehicle should also be saved alongside your title and loan papers.

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Sorting through financial documents is a pretty straightforward process once you figure out how long you need to hang onto specific types of documents. Doing a periodic cleanup will save you time and hassle in the long run, and will keep your desk drawers and filing cabinets clutter-free in the meantime!