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Managing your money

December 11, 2018

How to become a super-saver

Saving money isn’t a super-power, but it does take effort — and a bit of imagination. Three successful savers share their secrets.

Everyone knows that saving money isn’t always easy and, over all, we don’t save enough. According to the 2018 Sun Life Financial Barometer, a national survey of 2,900 adults from 20 to 80, the average Canadian carries $18,660 in non-mortgage debt, while 24% of working Canadians have dipped into their retirement savings to pay off debts, cover health-care costs, or take a vacation.

Yet, there are some super-savers out there. Jackie Silverberg, a 68-year-old retiree, takes three trips a year, but rarely taps the money she’s earmarked for travel. Jason Campbell, 40, has taken three work sabbaticals and has paid off half his mortgage four years into being a homeowner. Erica Berman, 44, and her husband bought their car with cash. They have no mortgage and have amassed considerable retirement savings.

So how have these three people bucked the no-savings trend, and what tips do they have for those who are struggling to save? Here’s their advice.

Have a savings philosophy

Savers often follow an overarching financial philosophy. “To me, paying interest is like flushing money down the toilet,” says Berman, who works as a psychotherapist while her husband Adam is a university professor. That belief led the couple to pay off the mortgage on their $380,000 Toronto home before shelling out for renovations.

The Bermans also don’t feel the need to have dinners out, or take big vacations. “We don’t see acquiring things or doing things as rites of passage or entitlements,” she says. Instead, they want to stockpile ample retirement savings so they won’t be a financial burden on their kids. They also want their two daughters to have money for their education.

Silverberg says her philosophy is “never live beyond my means.” A former business owner and teacher, she says she knows precisely what’s in the bank and what’s coming in from her workplace and government pensions. Budgeting is key, she maintains — it’s what kept her financially above water when she was raising her daughter on her own. Making ends meet was tough when she ran her own business, she says, and tougher still when she went to teachers’ college in her 40s, but now it’s a habit that’s allowed her to spend within her means in retirement.

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Campbell and his wife Celine, who have two children with another on the way, live a frugal life, in part because they love to travel. They both work for the municipal government in Toronto, where they have participated in a program that allows employees to take extended paid leave, typically six months to a year, after drawing a reduced salary for the previous few years. In 2012, they travelled for a year, going to South America and Asia. But even when they were collecting 75% of their salaries, they were still able to save money. “We didn’t go out much at those times, so that when we travelled we could go out and do what we wanted,” he says.

The Campbells travel much less since they’ve become parents, and now focus their savings goals on their mortgage — Campbell says theyʼve paid off half in four years — and avoiding debt.

Watch your spending habits

Super-savers also spend wisely, particularly on food. Berman says she and her family seldom eat out or order in. Everyone takes a packed lunch. On Saturdays, they’ll comb the grocery flyers and zip around to get the best deals. “For us, it’s worth the time investment,” she says. They travel a little, mainly to spend time with family in Florida roughly once a year, and truly enjoy spending evenings in, she says.

Campbell and his wife follow spending rules: Be prepared, avoid “double spending” and never buy out of convenience. For example, they don’t buy coffee at cafés when they have beans and a coffee machine at home — that’s double spending. They use reusable water bottles. They plan ahead so they’re not buying stuff at top prices when in a rush. Campbell recalls how painful it was to watch his brother-in-law buy overpriced snacks at a gas station because he hadnʼt planned in advance for a party.

Silverberg spends little on food when she travels, partly because she finds it wasteful, and partly because she tires of restaurant food. “The novelty wears off after a short time,” she says. She grocery shops as soon as she arrives at a destination, takes snacks when she goes sightseeing, and tries roadside food stalls rather than full restaurants. Good savers also watch their other expenses, including transportation. Berman says her family’s car, which they bought used more than a decade ago with cash, “looks terrible but it drives really well.” Silverberg also prefers used cars and takes public transit over cabs, even when travelling. “It’s a waste of money to take a taxi to the airport,” she says. She also saves by buying vintage clothing.

At the same time, savers spend to get good returns. Berman installed a tankless water heater and new windows at home to take advantage of government rebates available at the time and for the continuing energy savings. Silverberg splurged on a complete home renovation a few years ago — which allows her to rent out her basement. When they travel, the Campbells like to go scuba diving, which is pricey, but they trade that off by staying in cheaper accommodations.

Stash your cash when you have it

Before he and his wife took their trip in 2012, Jason Campbell wanted to be sure they’d have enough while on the road. So every time he received a paycheque, he’d go to the bank and take out a few $100 bills. He says he literally stuffed them under his mattress. Eventually, he had $10,000 saved up. “When we were ready to travel, I deposited them back in our bank account,” he says.

More traditionally, Berman’s husband waits until their bank account has more money in it than they need, and then puts the excess into stocks and high-interest savings accounts. (He also has a workplace pension.)

Silverberg works with an advisor, who has helped her manage the money she squirrelled away during her working years. While she lives off her pensions, her advisor invests her savings in conservative funds. She withdraws it to travel, but often doesn’t need it.

All of these super-savers have kids, and they’re teaching the next generation how to spend less and sock away more. Berman’s daughters have bank accounts, and are expected to save 10% of their allowances. They know the difference between needs and wants, Berman says. “We’re trying to pass on our philosophies about money to them.”

Start saving early and set goals

“All of the good savers I know, which isn’t very many, have goals,” says Mark Arruda, who works in business development and marketing at Sun Life Financial. They’re often plotting to get a car, pay down their mortgage or save for retirement. “They have some kind of plan for getting there,” Arruda says.

Talented savers often start early, knowing that compound returns are their friend. They pay themselves first, by putting a portion of each paycheque into an investment account, then use the rest for bills and discretionary spending. They refuse to run credit card balances and don’t get in the habit of spending beyond their means, he says.

Super-savers also adore “free money,” says Arruda, so they will clip coupons, use reward points and take advantage of things like workplace RRSP-matching programs . And when they’re done with one savings goal, they always have another right behind it. “They always have a plan,” he says, “and they stick to it.”

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