Jeff M says, “I know that I’m supposed to be saving at least 10% of my income, maximizing my RRSP and TFSA contributions, and enrolling in my employer’s matching pension plan. But, my expenses are pared down to the bone. I have no savings and I just can’t afford to start. What do I do?”

I realize there are people whose extremely low income makes it difficult to even pay for life’s necessities, let alone have a savings plan. But, let’s face it, the majority of Canadians would be able to save if they examined and changed their lifestyle and spending habits somewhat.

Starting a Savings Plan

Here’s why starting a savings plan is a lot like going on a diet.

The decision

We’re usually quite satisfied with our current habits – if we weren’t we wouldn’t have them to begin with.

Then there’ll be some tipping point when you start thinking you need to make a change. Maybe you can’t get your favourite jeans over your expanding hips, or you can’t make it up a flight of stairs without pausing half way to catch your breath.

Related: Good habits in fitness and finance

Money wise, you may be making a life change – getting married, having a baby, retirement is closing in on you. Whatever it is, you’re dissatisfied with your current state of your finances.

Set a goal

How bad is it? Why do you want to change? You need to have a clear and precise reason. Be specific and write it down.

Diet wise, maybe you want to want to improve your health; lower your cholesterol, be able to go bike riding with your children, or improve your quality of life. Or, perhaps you want to shed a few pounds to look awesome at the beach or at your high school reunion.

A savings goal could be a longed-for vacation, a down payment on a house, at least a middle-class retirement lifestyle, or even a big screen TV.

How many pounds do you want to lose? How much do you need to save?

Devise a plan and figure out the best strategies for getting there. Outline your steps and then keep careful track of your progress.

Set yourself up for success

Go through your pantry and cupboards and toss all fattening, high-calorie snacks. Go online to discover an eating plan you can live with (no fad diets for you).

Many apps offer support and tips to keep you on track. Re-stock your cupboards and refrigerator with healthy foods. Find some delicious low-cal recipes and plan to prepare healthier meals at home. Start an exercise program.

Scrutinize your budget to see where your money is going. Monitor your spending, then cut out nonessentials.

How many subscriptions do you have that you don’t use? How much are your daily coffee runs, happy hours, last-minute food pickups, or spontaneous purchases costing you a week?

You can scale back your spending and find some money here that can be allocated to your savings without making you feel deprived.

Identify your triggers

Do you eat – or spend for that matter – when you are sad, lonely, upset, or stressed?

Don’t be too hard on yourself if you screw up. Use slipups to see when you’re the most vulnerable and decide how you’ll handle the situation next time.

Often it’s our well-meaning family or friends that seem to sabotage us – “One piece of peanut butter-caramel cheesecake with real whipped cream won’t hurt you,” – “You never come out with us to the casino anymore.”

RelatedI can’t afford it

Announcing your intentions not only makes you accountable, but more importantly, gives you a good excuse. But it can take a bit of courage to say, “No, I can’t eat that – I’m trying to lose a few pounds, or, I’m saving up to buy a motorhome so I can travel across the country next year.”

Don’t let a setback make you give up completely:

  • Your washing machine has washed its last load and you need to dip into your new savings account to buy another, then your car needs a major repair.
  • Your extended family takes you to an all-you-can-eat buffet and you practically cleaned it out.

Just take a breath, and start again.

Reward yourself

It can become discouraging when you have a large goal and it doesn’t seem like you’re making much progress. That’s where incremental goals come in:

  • By working at losing 1-2 lbs. a week I will have lost 10 lbs. by August.
  • I will find a way to have $2,000 saved by the end of summer.

Keep your motivation high and reward yourself when you reach a mini goal. Celebrate every milestone. Build in the occasional indulgence without completely blowing all the good work you’ve been doing – savour that piece of chocolate, or buy whatever you consider a small treat for yourself.

Or, you can choose fun that’s not food or money based.

Final thoughts

There’s nothing wrong with a Spartan(ish) two-week meal plan, or having a massive garage sale to give you an initial boost. However, you should think of this as a lifestyle change, not a temporary project. Think of it as a positive step towards a better future.

Be more mindful of what you’re spending your money on, and what’s going in your mouth. Both should give you pleasure.

Being successful comes down to willpower and common sense.


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