Saving by Choice, Not by Chance

By Mary Hunt

June 7, 2021 6 min read

A question that I answered in a previous column brought a small avalanche of mail, mostly from readers who were aghast that I would suggest they save such a significant portion of their paychecks for retirement. It was money they insisted they could not afford to save.

I can only imagine that for a person who saves nothing, suggesting they should be saving thousands every year can be shocking or perceived as impossible. Here is one of those messages:

Dear Mary: I am a 34-year-old college grad. My school debt is approximately $46,000. My car loan is $8,500. I have a chronic medical condition that costs me thousands each year.

I was reading an article that you wrote where you told a reader that she needed to save the maximum allowed in her 401(k), which I believe was something like $17,500 a year, plus save an additional 10% of her net income in her emergency fund.

I am barely making it right now, though I work full time as a teacher and make approximately $65,000 a year. I would love to know what you would suggest I do to start being able to save that much. — Heather

Dear Heather: I recall that article. Reader B.H., as she identified herself, is a recently single mother with two college-aged kids, barely surviving because she is putting the financial support of her two adult children ahead of her own financial care. She's in a difficult position.

I recommended that she immediately shift to taking care of her own financial future now that her children are old enough to be on their own. I went on to point out all of the ways she needs to be crash-saving for her retirement because, at this point in her life, she is all she can count on. She must begin to take care of her own financial future.

I responded, "You need to make sure that you are contributing the maximum each year to your employer's 401(k) or 403(b) retirement plan. Once you reach age 50, you can increase that amount by another amount per year as an allowed 'catch-up' provision, and you should."

Of course, she is not required to contribute any amount to her employer's retirement plan, and she can contribute any amount up to the maximum allowed each year. At this point in her life, however, it is important that she push hard to reach the maximum.

You may believe that you cannot save because your debts are high. Or that you just do not make enough money to save anything at all. Wrong. How much you save has little to do with your income. It has to do with the choices you make.

Even with your large student debt and car loan, at $65,000 per year, you have — or should have — some amount of discretionary income. It all comes down to what you choose to do with that money.

You can choose to spend it now, or you can choose to save it. Even if all you can save is 5%, do it. Start now. Then start looking for every way you can stop spending so you have more money to save. Track your spending. Know where every penny goes.

Look at every expense. Eliminate all you can — like cable TV, restaurant meals, drive-thru coffee — then cut back everywhere else. Examine every expense, and ask yourself, "How can I reduce this, even if only a small amount?" (And on that happy day when you make your last car payment, and again when you send in that last payment on that big student debt, start paying those monthly amounts to yourself and your future.)

As a schoolteacher, I assume you have at least a couple of months off in the summer, as well as extended holidays at Christmas and spring break. Instead of seeing those days off as free time to rest and vacation, look at them as golden opportunities to pick up side jobs. One idea that comes to mind would be to freelance as a tutor. It is feasible that if you were diligent to save all of that additional income from side jobs, right there, you would have enough to reach your annual 10% savings goal.

I don't know your situation in detail, but I can promise you this: The sooner you start, the more time your dollars will have to grow. The choice is yours.

For my readers who only wish they'd started when they were 34 years old, I will tell them they cannot change the past but the future is a blank slate.

Start today. Make the tough choices, the difficult decisions. Embrace frugality; adopt simplicity. Be willing to make sacrifices. And never forget: It's only too late if you don't start now.

Mary invites you to visit her at, where this column is archived complete with links and resources for all recommended products and services. Mary invites questions and comments at, "Ask Mary." Tips can be submitted at This column will answer questions of general interest, but letters cannot be answered individually. Mary Hunt is the founder of, a frugal living blog, and the author of the book "Debt-Proof Living."

Photo credit: nattanan23 at Pixabay

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