FORTUNE – Should you be saving more money? Read just about any story on retirement and you’ll see answers that point in one direction: Yes.
But could you be saving more? That’s a different question entirely – particularly for middle-income people. U.S. incomes have been stagnant for a good decade and a half. Simultaneously, prices on everything from housing to healthcare to education have continued to the rise. Which is why when the editors at Interest.com, a website that preaches the save-more mantra, took a deep dive into Bureau of Labor Statistics data on the after-tax median incomes of families in the U.S. compared to the median costs of expenses, they held their breath. “We wondered: Are we asking middle income families the impossible? Has the big squeeze become so great that it’s not possible for them to save,”said the site’s managing editor Mike Sante. “Our fear was: It’s not.”
In fact – sigh of relief – they found the opposite. In every major metropolitan area in the country save one (Phoenix is the outlier), Americans have an opportunity to save, often significantly. And yet, they’re not. The median savings rate is zero. “We asked how much are you putting into IRAs, 401(k)s, regular savings accounts,” said Sante. “Half of families said nothing. In many cities, the number was more than half.”
The median family, the analysis shows, has an annual income of $52,283 a month. Based on median living expenses – food, housing, transportation and the like – those families should be able to save $668 a month or a little more than $8,000 a year. In some cities, though, because the disparity between earnings and the cost of living is greater, there’s an even bigger opportunity to stash money away for tomorrow. In Baltimore, for instance, where the median income is $73,800, the researchers calculated you could save more than $24,000 a year. In Washington, DC, where the median income tops $85,000 but the cost of living is higher, nearly $20,000. Even in Cleveland, where the median income is not quite $50,000, a moderate cost of living opens the door to stockpile more than $15,000.
Folks have it tougher in cities where incomes are lower compared to the cost of living. In Boston, for example, the median income at $52,332 is close to the national average, but because the cost of housing, in particular, is so high, the savings opportunity is only about $3,000 a year. In Miami, where the median income is the lowest in the country at $32,745, residents barely break even. And in Phoenix, they’re under water, on average, by about $1,200 a year.
The big outstanding questions: If the opportunity to save is there, why aren’t Americans saving more? Where is their money going?
Not toward a caffeine fix, Sante says. It’s the big expenditures rather than the little ones that typically stand in our way. Take transportation. According to an Interest.com analysis, a median income family can afford to spend roughly $22,000 on a new car or truck when it comes time for them to replace their old one. Instead, they’re spending $32,000. “People think, ‘I can spend $600 on my car payment because the check doesn’t bounce,” he says. “But it doesn’t leave them anything to save. What people are doing is allowing various aspects of their expenditures to take up all of their disposable income before they even think about saving.”
Housing presents a similar scenario. One Interest.com survey found that one in four people said they made a mistake buying their house. Why? Their monthly payment was too big.
What can we do to turn the scenario around? Start by allowing yourself to be big-brothered into saving more. If your employer offers to auto-enroll you in its retirement plan or auto-escalate (i.e. automatically increase) your contributions on an annual basis, just go with the flow. If you’re auto-enrolled at a 3% rate, but not auto-escalated, make a note in your calendar to increase your contributions yourself once every year and every time you get a raise until you’re maxing out.
And if you’re not offered the heavy helping hand? Make the good decision to make automatic contributions to an IRA, Roth IRA, SEP IRA or other retirement account yourself. You only have to pull the trigger once. Your bank can take care of the rest.
And if the money you’re deferring makes you feel as if you’re living too close to the edge of your paycheck? Look at trimming the big things (by, say, keeping your car for a few years after it’s paid off, or moving once the kids are out of the house to a place with lower property taxes) to bring yourself under control. Then sit back and watch – no, revel – as your savings start to grow.
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